Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 705
“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 personality every man sets up for himself secretly.” This ideal conception is not presented explicitly in the story. Rather, readers see the captain’s code in action and perhaps assess its consequences but must decide for themselves what the young captain considers his standards and why he must uphold them even in the face of danger and disgrace.
Creating and living by a morality that must be a secret, in this case literally so, is an instance of irony by Conrad and a central paradox of “The Secret Sharer.” The captain’s code requires him to protect a murderer and to risk his own ship and crew. He faces this danger when he steers dangerously close to shore, risking shipwreck. Since the captain cannot tell his crew the true reason for his baffling action, another secret is present in the story. When the captain succeeds, however, he feels a secret bond between himself and his ship.
“The Secret Sharer” hides these mysteries in the mask of a straightforward narrative, and all of its ambiguity and double meanings are presented in a simple fashion. Even the title is multiple: Since only the captain knows about Leggatt, Leggatt’s presence is indeed a secret. On another level, however, the murderer and the young commander also share common secrets—Leggatt’s presence on board the ship and the “ideal conception of one’s personality” that seems to be their joint moral code.
Doubling, in the physical and moral sense, is found throughout “The Secret Sharer.” The young captain and Leggatt are so similar that they seem to be twins, an identification that Conrad clearly intends the reader to take in more than one sense. Both men feel themselves to be outcasts—Leggatt actually so, because of his crime, the captain, psychologically, because of his newness to the ship and its crew. Leggatt can be regarded as the alter ego of the captain, perhaps a reflection of the darker, even criminal, aspects of the captain’s personality. Some readers have argued that Leggatt does not even exist but is only a figment of the young captain’s imagination.
“The Secret Sharer” is one of the most complex and multilayered short stories in literature. Without resorting to technical devices such as using several narrators or switching back and forth in time, Conrad tells a story that presents the reader with a mystery that cannot be resolved even as it cannot be ignored.