The Secret Sharer Essays and Criticism
by Joseph Conrad

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The Theme of Self-Discovery

(Short Stories for Students)

In "The Secret Sharer," Conrad tells the story of two simultaneous journeys: the literal sea journey, and the young captain's journey toward self discovery. That his ship barely gets underway in the final pages of the story is an indication of which of the two journeys Conrad found most interesting. The young captain of the unnamed ship, who has just taken command of the vessel, and who, in his own words, is "somewhat of a stranger" to himself is given the opportunity and incentive to embark on his own journey toward self-knowledge. Conrad uses a double for the captain, to force him to look into his "self" from the outside, and to journey through his own darker side towards a greater understanding of himself. Only after completing this journey will the young captain be capable of leading his skeptical crew on a literal journey.

The opening paragraph of the story suggests that the captain's path to self-knowledge will not be well marked. The adjectives with which the narrator describe his surroundings give clues to his sense of strangeness and dislocation: "mysterious," "half-submerged," "incomprehensible," and "crazy of aspect." The young man feels as though he is without all his familiar landmarks. He then takes his first tentative steps toward commanding his crew by rashly dismissing the night watch and walking the decks alone. Earlier in the evening he has wondered if he "should turn out faithful to that ideal conception of one's own personality every man sets up for himself secretly," indicating that he recognizes that the voyage will test and solidify his sense of self, and revealing an unusual degree of self-consciousness. Of course, the journey he has in mind is the literal sort, and he cannot anticipate what awaits him on the bottom rung of the ship's ladder.

When the captain leans over the side and sees the white shape by the hull, the appearance of the seemingly headless body alongside the ship gives literal form to the captain's self-consciousness. He feels "painfully" that he is a stranger among men, and that his actions might have made him "appear eccentric." That the captain first perceives the body of Leggatt as headless is significant as well; it suggests that immediately their identities are fused by the captain figuratively placing his head on the other's body. Their "mysterious communication" is sealed when the captain notices that "the self-possession of that man had somehow induced a corresponding state" in himself. After Leggatt reveals the reasons for his fugitive status, after he shares his secret, the captain regards the visitor and thinks: "It was, in the night, as though I had been faced by my own reflection in the depths of a sombre and immense mirror."

The remainder of the first part of the story illuminates the ways in which the two young men share traits and experiences in common, how each man reflects himself back to the other. They are both about the same age and have attended the same training school, Conway, which establishes a kind of fraternity between them. Each of them also feels alienated from the crew of his ship. Conrad emphasizes these similarities, perhaps to the point of excess, by stressing the imagery of doubling. They are both dressed in identical clothing; Leggatt wears the captain's spare "sleeping suit," a designation that suggests the unconscious, the sleeping self inside the waking or conscious self. The captain speculates that anyone looking into his cabin "would have been treated to the uncanny sight of a double captain busy talking in whispers with his other self." After several days of secretly sharing his cabin with Leggatt, and of sharing Leggatt's secret, the captain begins to succumb to the pressures: "I was constantly watching myself, my secret self.… It was very much like being mad, only it was worse because one was aware of it." It becomes clear that soon both young men will have to take some action. The sense of urgency intensifies when suspicious old captain...

(The entire section is 4,510 words.)