The Captain, the narrator and protagonist of the story, a young man who is beginning his first command. The nameless young Captain not only feels like a stranger to his ship but also feels like a stranger to himself. Being the youngest man on board, with the exception of the second mate, he doubts his abilities, and he wonders if on this first voyage he will turn out to be faithful to his own ideal conception of his personality, something that he believes all men secretly set up for themselves. His first real challenge comes with the arrival of the escaped murderer, Leggatt. He believes Leggatt’s story of a justified and accidental killing and makes every effort to conceal him from the rest of the crew, even though this leads his men to suspect his abilities even more than they might have ordinarily. At the end of the story, he ignores the warnings of his chief mate and takes the ship dangerously close to shore to allow Leggatt to escape. Through his concealment of Leggatt, he gains the authority and confidence necessary for command.
Leggatt, the chief mate of the Sephora, who has killed a man aboard his own ship and has swum to the young Captain’s ship to escape being taken back home to face trial. The character of Leggatt is not as clear-cut as those of the other characters in the story. For one thing, the only person who sees him in the story...
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Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
This story shows Conrad’s finest use of the doppelganger, or double, a symbolic figure who serves to show the true character of the protagonist by exhibiting the darker, more unsavory sides of his nature. Thus, Leggatt, who shares the middle-class background, naval training, morals, and assumptions of the young captain, forces the captain to admit that he, too, is a potential murderer and therefore less than the perfect hero that he originally hoped to be. In other words, Leggatt and the captain are alter egos, dark and light sides of the one self. In fact, the impression that the two of them together form a single complete person, both good and evil, is reinforced by the fact that only one of them has a name.
Conrad’s style is also very rich in pictorial description. He masterfully uses setting to suggest the possibilities and meanings of human action: Thus, the water, like the green young captain, at the beginning of the story is remarkably calm. Similarly, the life-threatening gale during which Leggatt commits the murder suggests the psychological and moral turbulence of that episode in his life.
In addition, Conrad’s narration emphasizes the larger moral and social issues that give dimension to what otherwise would be merely a fine tale of adventure and suspense. Accordingly, as the protagonist is assured of Leggatt’s successful escape, he expresses satisfaction that “the secret sharer of my cabin and of my thoughts, as though he...
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Life on the High Seas
Many of Conrad's works, including "The Secret Sharer," were inspired by the author's journeys as a seaman. In 1890 Conrad went to work in the Congo. Before this time, Africa had largely been ignored by Europe, but the end of the 1800s brought a surge of interest in the continent, which experienced great changes as it became the site of rapid colonization. The 1870s sparked intense rivalry among Belgium, Germany, the United States, and older colonial powers, especially Great Britain, to create world empires. The scramble for control of Africa stirred heated debate about relations with the continent's natives. Stimulated by the abolitionist movements of the 1800s, Europeans began to ponder with increasing frequency the differences—if any—between African slaves and themselves. Conrad shared a stance taken by others in Great Britain, namely that Belgium's King Leopold was doing no more than ripping off riches from Africa. By contrast, many Britons felt that they were working for the betterment of the natives in Africa. They believed that they were replacing savage customs with more civilized ways. Real life atrocities in the African Congo greatly influenced Conrad.
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Point of View
The narrator of "The Secret Sharer" is the captain. Typical of Conrad, the story revolves around this character's reflection on past experience in order to understand himself better. Because of the thematic focus of the story, that of a man in search of identity and understanding, the narrator is often seen as unreliable; that is, because of his preoccupations, he is not always perceiving events in a clear and non-judgemental way. The captain remains nameless throughout the story, suggesting that he be viewed as a representation of the rite of passage each person must experience.
Style and Structure
Conrad's style is seemingly simple: the story revolves around only a few events. However, the meaning of the story is complicated and ambiguous. Though the story is ostensibly about a murder, an escaped sailor and the relationship between two men who appear to mirror each other, it becomes clear that the story is actually about one man's search for self. The precise relationship between Leggatt and the captain is never fully defined, perhaps a comment by the author that the search for one's true nature can never be complete. Though it appears that the narrator is relating a simple story in a straightforward fashion, beneath this is the complicated journey toward self-realization. The structure of "The Secret Sharer'' also reflects its thematic focus. The story is apparently the straightforward...
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Conrad's techniques in this tale are straightforward in narration, richly imagistic in language and highly suggestive in symbolism. The narrator focuses on the curious events of his first command by detailing his first days and the impetus for moving the ship for the first time as its captain. In doing so he is at pains, as are all of Conrad's narrators, to fix the physical surroundings of the ship and of the East in highly descriptive phrases that both denote the physical objects and environment and also evoke a feeling for them. The insistent repetition of words such as "alone," "a stranger," "the only stranger on board," "alone on deck," works to parallel the captain's physical separateness with his intellectual and emotional sense of being an alien in the midst of a ship's company that has been together for eighteen months. Indeed the captain is, like the ship, floating at the starting point of a long journey, only his journey is an inward one shared only by the secret sharer of his cabin and his thoughts. The ship's voyage is not only literal but also symbolic and can truly commence safely in both senses once Leggatt has left a symbolic buoy to mark the passage, the hat which the captain had lent him and which is the only means the captain has of measuring the ship's movement.
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While at work on his third political novel, Under Western Eyes (1911), Conrad returned imaginatively to his seafaring days in the East and his first command as Captain of the Otego to create his most powerful short story, "The Secret Sharer"; this and his earlier masterpiece, "The Lagoon" (1898) are his most widely read short stories. The social concerns in the story — the punishment for taking a life, the righting of a social imbalance arising there from, and the preservation of order in the orderly world of merchant mariners — take second place to the personal concerns of the captain-narrator and of Leggatt, the secret sharer of his thoughts and his life. The social concerns that, in other contexts, might have received major attention are entirely overshadowed by the Captain's moral initiation. It is as if his quest after verisimilitude in depicting life in Tsarist Russia and the lives of emigres in Geneva in Under Western Eyes occupied his thoughts so intensely that he sought respite from it by returning to his own past and depicting an awakening. In one sense then, this story may be seen as a gloss on Under Western Eyes, a gloss in which humanity triumphs over social concerns and leads to freedom instead of disaster.
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Compare and Contrast
1900s: Writers such as Conrad and Henry James write stylized stones emphasizing introspective and highly self-conscious, albeit often unreliable, narrators.
1990s: This tradition is continued today in such writers as V. S. Naipaul, who is often compared to Conrad. Naipaul is considered a psychological and social realist.
1900s: The late 1800s sees the rise of the science of psychology, and Sigmund Freud popularizes the concept of the unconscious and the practice of psychoanalysis. Human behavior is thought to stem from unconscious thoughts and conflicts.
1990s: Psychology is an established discipline, although Freud's theories are largely considered unscientific. Modern theories seek to explain human behavior in terms of organic and physical causes.
1900s: Life on the high seas is dangerous but highly romanticized as an opportunity for adventure to working-class men.
1990s: The mystique of a sea-faring life has largely disappeared with the advent of affordable air travel and luxury cruises that are available to many.
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Topics for Further Study
- Research Conrad's concept of the dark side of man and how he uses this theme in various works. How is the concept of a dark side of human nature treated in other disciplines, for example, in psychology or philosophy?
- Discuss how Leggatt and the captain are related. Is Leggatt a double for the captain? What does the captain learn from Leggatt? Does Leggatt learn anything from the captain?
- Compare the relationship between Leggatt and the captain in "The Secret Sharer" to the relationship between Kurtz and Marlow in Conrad's novella, Heart of Darkness.
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The tale has a host of literary precedents, many of them in Conrad's own fiction, the most proximate being Under Western Eyes. The motif of the double, the doppelganger, is a staple of Romantic literature of the nineteenth century in such widely disparate works as Herman Melville's Moby Dick (1851), Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), and Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886).
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Lord Jim (1900), the foremost artistic work of Conrad's early phase was published in the last year of the nineteenth century and heralded his best work of the twentieth century. Lord Jim introduced Marlow, Conrad's famous narrator and alter-ego, introduced his own experimentation with chronology and narrative and his symmetrical plotting of a tale that, like its chief symbol, the ring, comes full circle. His first novels, Almayer's Folly (1895) and An Outcast of the Islands (1896), noteworthy in themselves, share a tradition of exoticism, and helped form the novelist's later successes as an observer of men under stress, aliens in a luxurious but decaying environment, and seekers after their own destruction.
The Nigger of the "Narcissus" (1897), the first of Conrad's novels of shipboard life, depicts a crew facing moral problems of conduct — a problem of survival in a precisely described storm at sea, a problem of interpreting the evil in Donkin and the genuine disguised claims of James Wait. Singleton's sense of duty and unimaginative sense of facts prefigures such later characters as Captain MacWhirr in "Typhoon" (1903) and the obtuse Captain Mitchell of Nostromo (1904).
In his last period, dating from his publication of "The Secret Sharer" and Chance (1913), Conrad published Victory (1915) and The Shadow-Line (1917), which were popular novels. Victory is a Dickensian...
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- "The Secret Sharer" was adapted for film and produced by Encyclopaedia Brittanica Educational Corp. in 1973.
- The movie Face to Face is an adaptation of two short stories, "The Secret Sharer" and Stephen Crane's "The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky." The movie was released in 1952 and stars James Mason, Gene Lockhart, Michael Pate, Albert Sharpe, Sean McClory and Alec Harford.
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What Do I Read Next?
- Heart of Darkness (1902), a tale of a man sent into the Belgian Congo to track the elusive and maniacal Mr. Kurtz, is considered Conrad's best work, and one of the twentieth century's most important novellas.
- The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838), Edgar Allan Poe's novella of a rite of passage for a young man and his love of the sea.
- "William Wilson," also by Edgar Allan Poe is a story about a man's double. A man is persecuted throughout his life by a man with the same name, who may or may not be real.
- "The Double" by Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky is another story concerning a man's double.
- The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798), Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem about an ancient sea-farer and his experiences with the supernatural.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Trilling, Lionel. The Experience of Literature. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1967.
Baines, Jocelyn. Joseph Conrad: A Critical Biography. McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1960. Barnes provides a comprehensive overview of all of Conrad's writings.
Dowden, Wilfred S. Joseph Conrad: The Imaged Style. Vanderbilt University Press, 1970. Dowden explores how Conrad's style differs in each of his major works.
Gillon, Adam. Joseph Conrad: Rite of Passage. Twayne Publishers, 1982, pp. 153-159. Includes guides to each of Conrad's major works.
Graver, Lawrence. Conrad's Short Fiction. University of California Press, 1969. Graver examines all of Conrad's short fiction and claims that "The Secret Sharer" is a "widely acclaimed … psychological masterpiece and the subject of more fanciful interpretations than any of Conrad's other stories."
Lothe, Jakob. "'The Secret Sharer': Economical Personal Narrative." In Conrad's Narrative Method. Clarendon Press, 1989, pp. 57-71. Contains a useful introduction to Conrad's life and work as well as a carefully argued chapter on "The Secret Sharer."
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