The Secret Sharer
"The Secret Sharer", by Joseph Conrad, is considered to be one of Conrad's more personal works of fiction. The story utilizes events and characters that Conrad encountered during his seafaring days. The basis of the entire tale, can be said to mirror the real events of the famous clipper ship, the Cutty Sark. Conrad's dark narrative, brilliantly twists the plot to shift sympathy from the story's victim to the perpetrator.
The tale begins with a young captain taking command of his first ship. His inexperience and naivete make him wonder how he might handle the conception of full authority, to his crew, but more so to himself and the inner thoughts and beliefs he has. When he discovers a stowaway that happens to be the former first mate from the ship Sephora, who has escaped after killing a fellow sailor, the young captain finds his ideal imaginings tested.
The captain begins to feel a secret bond with the stowaway, named Leggatt, and even hides him in his own cabin. The captain, feeling like a stranger to his crew, since he only joined them two weeks prior, connects with Leggatt, and refers to him in the book at least eighteen times as "my double". He even goes as far as calling Leggatt the following:
- "my other self"
- "my second self"
- "my secret self"
- "my secret sharer"
The captain is described as an interesting man, but the character of Leggatt reveals a dark side, almost the dark half of the insecure young captain. The two men are depicted by Conrad, to even resemble each other to the degree of almost physical duplicity. The captain's insecurities seem so great, in the face of the darkness of Leggatt, that his personality almost disintegrates, as he feels himself being torn in two with the secret of Leggatt being on board.
"The Secret Sharer" can be read on several different levels. A straightforward reading of the story reveals a sea adventure story where one man risks his own safety and the safety of his crew to help Leggatt escape capture. It can also be read on a more symbolic and thematic level. This reading will focus on the multiple times that the narrator equates Leggatt with himself and might reveal the idea that the narrator is the conscious rational self whereas Leggatt represents the more unconscious, irrational self that is more prone towards violence. Additionally, one critic has written that the story deals with the subject of passion. At the story's outset, the captain is alone and failing as a captain. The narrator's encounter with Leggatt shows him the problems that unbridled passion can cause and, having learned this lesson, he becomes a more effective captain because of his relationship with Leggatt. A closer reading of the story would focus on the actual reliability of the narrator. There are several hints within the story's narrative that indicate the captain is not being honest with the reader in detailing some of the actual events and this unreliability demonstrates that there is more to the captain than would be revealed by a cursory reading of the story. The idea that the reader needs to closely interpret the story is hinted at by the narrator's description of the first mate and how he interprets and tries to understand everything he encounters, even a random scorpion found on the ship.