Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
“The Secret Sharer” is Conrad’s most famous short story and one that has long puzzled readers and critics. The story’s central character is a young captain, whose name the reader never learns and who has just assumed his first command. The man is nervous, wondering if he will be able to fulfill the obligations of his new position and, more importantly, his own ideals. As he paces the empty deck of his ship during the night, he is startled to discover a naked man swimming by his ship’s side. Once aboard, the swimmer, Leggatt, confesses that he is fleeing from his own ship, the Sephora, because he murdered a fellow sailor. As the young captain and Leggatt talk, it appears that the act was justified because the Sephora was in danger during a violent storm and Leggatt had to strike the man down in order to save the ship. Because the letter of the law makes no provision for this particular situation, however, Leggatt is condemned as a criminal and will be punished, perhaps executed, if captured. That places the young captain in a moral dilemma: Should he hide Leggatt or turn him over to the authorities? Almost without hesitation, the captain puts Leggatt in his own cabin, where the fugitive remains hidden until the captain sails his new ship dangerously close to land, allowing Leggatt the chance to swim for safety and escape.
The young captain upholds his own moral code by pledging and keeping his word to the mysterious murderer Leggatt, even though his code stands in opposition to conventional law and morality. By taking this action, which some might see as willful, even perverse, the young captain demonstrates to himself that he is capable of fulfilling that “ideal conception of one’s...
(The entire section is 705 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
As the story opens, the young protagonist, having suddenly been given his first command of a ship, feels a stranger to the ship, to the crew, and to himself. Untested by the rigors and responsibilities of command, he wonders to himself “how far I should turn out faithful to that ideal conception of one’s own personality every man sets up for himself secretly.” He has not long to learn, for no sooner does he assume his duties as captain than he spies, one night while on watch, a young swimmer hanging onto the ship’s rope ladder. He hauls the swimmer on board, only to learn that the young man is Leggatt, the former first mate of the Sephora, who has escaped after killing a sailor in an angry outburst at the sailor’s ineptitude. His rescuer feels an immediate affinity with Leggatt, so much so that he hides him in his own cabin, at great personal risk. During his infrequent, whispered conversations with Leggatt, he learns that they both come from similar homes, have been graduated from the same naval school, and share the same values and outlook on life. Often the captain feels so great a kinship with his stowaway that he believes that they are doubles or even two halves of the same person.
In the second half of the story, the captain’s complicity in Leggatt’s escape deepens when the captain of the Sephora visits him to question him about the escaped man. In response to these questions, the young captain goes to great lengths...
(The entire section is 439 words.)