“The Secret Sharer,” one of Polish-born Joseph Conrad’s more widely read sea stories, is a psychological tale narrated by a young ship captain who finds himself harboring a fugitive from another ship. As the story opens, the narrator has just taken command of his first ship, which is anchored in the Gulf of Siam. The captain reveals the extent of his insecurity at the beginning of this long voyage, comparing himself to the ship itself: “we seemed to be measuring our fitness for a long and arduous enterprise, the appointed task of both our existences to be carried out.” Recognizing that this journey will be the opportunity he needs to test himself, he assumes an uneasy command of a considerably older and more experienced crew.
Much to the astonishment of his crew, the captain decides to take a five-hour watch himself the first night while they remain at anchor waiting for enough wind to begin sailing. Although another ship, the Sephora is anchored not far away, the captain revels in the solitude and peacefulness of walking the decks alone.
Soon, however, his mood is shattered by a startling discovery. Pausing to pull up a ladder he believes someone carelessly left over the side, he is astonished to see “something elongated and pale floating very close to the ladder.” The shape turns out to be “the naked body of a man,” clutching the bottom rung of the ladder with one hand. The two men begin a whispered conversation, which establishes the “mysterious communication” between them that drives the remainder of the plot.
The mysterious swimming man introduces himself as Leggatt and explains that he has escaped from the Sephora because he has been imprisoned awaiting trial for killing a man. Later, Leggatt further explains that the man he killed had refused to follow orders in the midst of an awful storm and that his actions may have saved the ship and the rest of the crew. Because the young captain believes the fugitive’s story, and because he sees so much of himself in Leggatt, he decides to hide him in his quarters.
The two men are bound together by the secret they share, and the captain becomes an accomplice to Leggatt’s crime because he must deceive his own crew in order to hide the fugitive. The relationship becomes more complicated when the old captain from the Sephora boards the ship to search for and inquire about the missing man. Though he escapes detection, Leggatt now knows that he will not be treated justly if he surrenders, declaring, “It would never do for me to come to life again.” And so the two sharers of the secret devise a plan to allow Leggatt to escape to land, though he is doomed to a life of wandering.
The untested young captain commands his crew to sail dangerously close to land in order to allow Leggatt to slip out undetected. He is fully aware that he is risking not just his career but also the safety of his ship and crew. Telling his crew he is looking for “land wind,” he takes the ship so close that “the great black mass [is] brooding over [the] very mastheads.” Finally he gives the order to turn away, but he is so unfamiliar with the feel of the ship that he cannot tell in the dark if he is successful. At last he sees a marker drifting astern and he knows that he has successfully avoided losing his ship. He also knows that Leggatt has slipped away undetected; the marker is the captain’s own white hat that he thrust upon Leggatt before he left him.
Kathleen Wilson (Editor), Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 1, Joseph Conrad, Published by Gale, 1997.