The Secret Sharer (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism) - Essay

Joseph Conrad


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

"The Secret Sharer"

Joseph Conrad

The following entry presents criticism on Conrad's short story "The Secret Sharer" (1912). For information on Conrad's complete career, see TCLC, Volumes 1 and 6. For discussion of Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness, see Volume 13; for criticism on the novel Nostromo, see Volume 25; and for commentary on the novel Lord Jim, see Volume 43.

Considered among Conrad's most significant works, "The Secret Sharer" is widely praised for the richness of its symbols and allusions. In this story of a young ship captain on his first voyage in command, Conrad uses the device known as the double, or doppelganger, to portray the maturation of his central character. The allusive quality of the narrative has led to lively critical debate concerning the specifics of Conrad's intent in the story, yet critics agree that "The Secret Sharer" represents Conrad at his best. Conrad himself agreed with this assessment, writing to his friend Edward Garnett: "the 'Secret Sharer,' between you and me, is it. Eh? … Every word fits and there's not a single uncertain note."

Plot and Major Characters

Based loosely on Conrad's experience in the 1880s, when he was forced by an emergency to assume command of a ship in a Far Eastern port, "The Secret Sharer" concerns a young captain, anxious about his first voyage in command of a ship. During the first night of the voyage, the young captain discovers a man named Leggatt in the water near the ship and, although the man admits to being a fugitive accused of murder, helps him evade capture by bringing him on board and hiding him. A close relationship develops between the two men, and the young captain, convinced that Leggatt's crime was justified, takes him to a secluded island where he will ostensibly be beyond the reach of authorities. Afterward, the young captain commands his ship with a newly discovered sense of confidence.

Major Themes

Critical interpretations of "The Secret Sharer" vary, due largely to uncertainty about Leggatt's function in the story. Critics agree that the basic theme of the story lies in the young captain's need to come to terms with himself in light of the enormous challenges of his new role; they further agree that the young captain's relationship with Leggatt serves as the symbol of that struggle. However, while some have contended that Leggatt represents an ideal to be emulated by the young captain because of his firm actions in the face of great danger, others have argued that he displays cowardice, murderous instincts, and irrationality, and therefore represents that which is evil within the captain and humankind. According to this latter reading, Leggatt serves to show the young captain the dark side of his own nature, which must be confronted and accepted before he can truly take command of his vessel. Recent commentators have suggested that both views can be reasonably inferred from Conrad's narrative, and note that the textual richness that has led to such controversies is one of the elements that makes "The Secret Sharer" a major achievement.

Robert Wooster Stallman (essay date 1948)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Life, Art, and The Secret Sharer, in Forms of Modern Fiction: Fssays Collected in Honor of Joseph Warren Beach, edited by William Van O'Connor, University of Minnesota Press, 1948, pp. 229-42.

[Stallman is an American educator, poet, essayist, and critic. In the following excerpt, he interprets "The Secret Sharer" as an allegory of Conrad's artistic struggle.]

One measures an author's talent by his ability to apprehend "the full potentiality of the material," and to achieve that potentiality it takes great technical talent to recognize and single out from a myriad of memoried scraps the single consequent image, to select and place in their proper niche the character which fits, the incident which fits, the setting which fits—to find and fashion the exact image and the exact word. Conrad, in a letter to a friend, said of "The Secret Sharer": "Every word fits, and there's not a single uncertain note. Luck, my boy! Pure luck!" But was it? To the contrary, the quality of intelligence inherent in "The Secret Sharer" got in there by virtue of intelligence—conscious scheming. It wasn't by pure luck that the bricks in that mosaic of meaning fell into place. For how could it be otherwise with any work that has meaning than that the meaning was executed brick by brick, built into the mosaic by the laboring intellect of the artist?

The novelist writes about imaginary things, happenings, and people; but writing about them, so Conrad contends, the novelist is only writing about himself. The letters Conrad wrote Mme Poradowska, says Morton D. Zabel, "reveal that almost every fundamental problem of his later fiction was sketched or suggested in that correspondence [between 1890 and 1900] and applied there with remorseless intimacy not to fictitious characters but to his own plight and state of mind. They also reveal that during those critical years of his life, when he was making a harassed transition from maritime service to the profession of novelist, he was already groping for the means and courage to translate these experiences into fictional form, to objectify them dramatically, and thus to come into an intellectual realization of their meaning which might save him, as he expresses it, 'from the madness which, after a certain point of life is reached, awaits all those who refuse to master their sensations and bring into coherent form the mysteries of their lives'" [Sewanee Review, Winter, 1945].

Conrad wrote "The Secret Sharer" in order to resolve a certain personal crisis. Writing it served him as a neurotic safety valve. Nevertheless, whatever the crisis motivating him to the act of creation, that personal crisis is by no means identical with the imagined crisis confronting the sea captain in "The Secret Sharer." The one crisis cannot be equated with the other. For the motivating situation of the author has become objectified in a dramatic framework of meaning that is impersonal and universalized. This point has critical significance.…

"The Secret Sharer" is the microcosm of Conrad's imaginative work—in plot, in structure, and in theme. The plot and structure and theme which are basic to the concept of Conrad's fiction are these: (1) The plot of a double conflict, external and internal: the one a conflict between an estranged individual and his hostile universe, the other a clash between an isolated soul and his ethical or esthetic conscience; (2) the structure of an impending crisis, a moment of crisis in which the individual is put to an inescapable test of selfhood and compelled to recognize anew his destiny; (3) the theme of spiritual disunity and moral or esthetic isolation. This is the theme of Lord Jim, The Secret Agent, Under Western Eyes, Chance, Victory, and "The Secret Sharer." Among modern novelists, Morton D. Zabel points out, Conrad and Kafka have achieved the most successful dramatic versions of this theme of isolation and spiritual recognition; "and this for the reason which I believe distinguishes Conrad's contribution to modern fictional method: his imposition of the processes and structures of psychological experience (particularly the experience of recognition) on the form of the plot." Kafka's "Hunger-Artist" and Conrad's "Secret Sharer" allegorize (though not exclusively) the problem of the spiritual disunity of the isolated artist. The psychological and moral meaning of "The Secret Sharer" can hardly be missed, but what is not so obvious—it has eluded all the interpreters—is that circle of esthetic meaning which intersects the psychological and moral circles and almost coincides with them. I mean the allegory of the plight of the artist.

The story, to summarize it in brief, is about a newly appointed sea captain who feels a stranger both to his ship and to himself. It is his first voyage and therefore it is a test. Leggatt, who has committed a murder, escapes from the nearby Sephora and takes refuge under the cover of night on the captain's ship. The captain, sensing at once a "mysterious communication" with the stranger, hides him in his cabin, guesses his guilt, and shares his conscience. Leggatt becomes the subconscious mind of the narrator-captain. The captain cannot attain perfect command of his ship until his alien self is deposited into the sea. And so the captain takes his ship (it is an unnamed ship) close into shore, shaves the land as close as possible ("on my conscience, it had to be thus close—no less"), and, while Leggatt swims for the shore of Koh-ring (it is an...

(The entire section is 2282 words.)

Albert J. Guerard (essay date 1958)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Journey Within," in Conrad the Novelist, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1958, pp. 1-59.

[An American novelist, short story writer, biographer, and critic, Guerard is also the author of two studies of Conrad, Joseph Conrad (1947), and Conrad the Novelist (1958). In the following excerpt from the latter work, he offers his interpretation of "The Secret Sharer."]

"On my right hand there were lines of fishing-stakes resembling a mysterious system of half-submerged bamboo fences, incomprehensible in its division of the domain of tropical fishes …" The strange first paragraph of "The Secret Sharer," with its dream landscape of ill-defined...

(The entire section is 3020 words.)

Osborn Andreas (essay date 1959)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Secret Sharer," in Joseph Conrad: A Study in Non-conformity, Philosophical Library, 1959, pp. 135-38.

[In the following essay Andreas discusses Conrad's treatment of the individual versus society in "The Secret Sharer.'

Official society, represented by government officers and those in authority charged with law-enforcement, [had] been appearing at least in the background of several Conrad stories immediately preceding "The Secret Sharer". In this story, however, official society and its opposite, the outlaw, take the foreground. Conrad's earlier stories dealt with outcasts in conflict with orthodox groups, but a progression has occurred from Almayer...

(The entire section is 1298 words.)

Louis H. Leiter (essay date 1960)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Echo Structures: Conrad's The Secret Sharer," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 5, No. 4, January, 1960, pp. 159-75.

[Leiter is an American educator and critic. In the following essay, he illustrates how repetition of images and actions and parallels to biblical stories affect meaning in...

(The entire section is 8314 words.)

Jocelyn Baines (essay date 1960)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Achievement without Success, III," in Joseph Conrad: A Critical Biography, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1960, pp. 346-78.

[Baines was an English editor and critic. In the following excerpt from his Joseph Conrad: A Critical Biography, which has been acclaimed as the definitive study of Conrad, he argues that the text of "The Secret Sharer" does not support the often-proposed interpretation of Leggatt as a symbol for the narrator's unconscious desires.]

Conrad wrote 'The Secret Sharer' some time during the end of November and early December [1909]—exceptionally quick for him. It is undoubtedly one of his best short stories, but certain critics, notably...

(The entire section is 1863 words.)

Robert A. Day (essay date 1963)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Rebirth of Leggatt," in Literature and Psychology, Vol. XIII, No. 3, 1963, pp. 74-81.

[Day is an American educator, editor, and critic. In the following essay, he maintains that "The Secret Sharer" contains a double narrative that depicts both the maturation of the narrator and the rebirth of Leggatt.]

Whenever possible, we like to see a work of art from a single point of view, as a harmonious whole. Anything extraneous to the desired pattern leaves us uneasy. Thus the mysterious figure of Leggatt has been a stumbling block for critics of Conrad's "The Secret Sharer." For example, [in an introduction to Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer, 1960]...

(The entire section is 4092 words.)

Porter Williams, Jr. (essay date 1964)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Matter of Conscience in Conrad's The Secret Sharer," in PMLA, Vol. LXXIX, No. 5, December, 1964, pp. 626-30.

[In the following essay, Williams interprets "The Secret Sharer" as an exploration of the narrator's capacity for immoral behavior and his rescue from the consequences of that behavior.]

In spite of the critical attention that it has received, Conrad's "The Secret Sharer" continues to present mysteries that usually affect our understanding of the story's climax in which Leggatt, the murderer and fugitive, is given his chance to escape while the ship hovers on the edge of disaster. Clearly enough, in its broadest aspects, the story is framed by a...

(The entire section is 4128 words.)

J. D. O'Hara (essay date 1965)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Unlearned Lessons in The Secret Sharer," in College English, Vol. 26, No. 6, March, 1965, pp. 444-50.

[In the following essay, O'Hara asserts that the narrator of "The Secret Sharer fails to absorb the lessons of Leggatt's experience.]

There are only three major hindrances to navigation in "The Secret Sharer"—the narrator, Leggatt, and Captain Archbold of the Sephora—but scarcely a critic has avoided coming to grief on one of them. Leggatt was once the major hazard. Albert J. Guerard has now warned most readers, however, by pointing out that "it is entirely wrong to suppose … that Conrad unequivocally approves the captain's decision...

(The entire section is 4176 words.)

J. L. Simmons (essay date 1965)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Dual Morality in Conrad's The Secret Sharer," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. II, No. 3, Spring, 1965, pp. 209-20.

[In the following essay, Simmons argues that the character of Leggatt represents an ideal of morality in the context of maritime discipline.]

(The entire section is 5237 words.)

Edward W. Said (essay date 1966)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Craft of the Present," in Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1966, pp. 120-36.

[Said is a prominent American educator and critic who has written widely on modern critical theories. In the following excerpt, he analyzes autobiographical elements in "The Secret Sharer."]

The much-discussed "The Secret Sharer" (completed in 1909) most skillfully dramatizes Conrad's concerns at this time. It is important to say at once that I am not considering the story as a Jungian fable. "The Secret Sharer" seems more interesting to me as a study in the actualized structure of doubleness—thus I treat it as an...

(The entire section is 2195 words.)

Leonard Gilley (essay date 1967)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Conrad's The Secret Sharer," in The Midwest Quarterly, Vol. VIII, No. 3, Spring, 1967, pp. 319-30.

[In the following essay, Gilley maintains that the action of "The Secret Sharer" is implausible.]

Joseph Conrad wrote "The Secret Sharer" in November of 1909. It is a story about a bond between the narrator and the fugitive Leggatt; at the same time, it is the story of the narrator's response to his first command; and finally and more briefly the story of Leggatt's saving the Sephora and strangling a man.

In this tale the narrator is in a unique, though illusory, position of freedom. Whether it was a happy accident of his seafaring...

(The entire section is 3562 words.)

Daniel Curley (essay date 1967)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Writer and His Use of Material: The Case of The Secret Sharer," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. XIII, No. 1, Spring, 1967, pp. 179-94.

[Curley was an American educator, novelist, playwright, short story writer, and critic. In the following essay, he examines Conrad's use of historical and autobiographical materials in "The Secret Sharer."]

Several years ago I became involved in a controversy over the nature of a character in Joseph Conrad's story "The Secret Sharer." The question was this: Is Leggatt, the escaping murderer, a good man or a bad man? Symbolically, as everyone agrees, Leggatt stands for the captain's other self, but is that other self...

(The entire section is 7904 words.)

Lawrence Graver (essay date 1969)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Stories During the Years of the Great Novels," in Conrad's Short Fiction, University of California Press, 1969, pp. 123-71.

[Graver is an American educator, biographer, and critic. In the following excerpt, he asserts that the psychological aspects of "The Secret Sharer" are widely overemphasized and the story's greatest significance is its emphasis on moral conflict.]

In 1903-1904, while working on Nostromo, Conrad had gone two years without writing a short story, and only a request from the Strand magazine brought him back to the form. In 1909 a similar situation developed.

Except for the revision of his first story, "The...

(The entire section is 3564 words.)

P. L. Brown (essay date 1972)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Secret Sharer and the Existential Hero," in Conradiana, Vol. III, No. 3, 1971-72, pp. 22-30.

[In the following essay, Brown illustrates how Leggatt exemplifies the ideals of existentialism.]

Discussions of Conrad's "The Secret Sharer" have emphasized that the narrator's sympathy for his double, Leggatt, represents a rapprochement with his own irrational self. Prominent symbols in the story—the sea and such objects as islet, fence, and boat half submerged in the sea—clearly represent the unconscious. Leggatt himself, emerging from the sea to wear the narrator's sleeping suit and hide in his cabin, is hardly flesh and blood at all but the...

(The entire section is 4029 words.)

Paul Bidwell (essay date 1972)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Leggatt and the Promised Land: A New Reading of The Secret Sharer," in Conradiana, Vol. III, No. 2, 1971-72, pp. 26-34.

[In the following essay, Bidwell discusses parallels to the biblical story of Moses in "The Secret Sharer."]

Of all Conrad's stories none word-for-word has generated more comment and confusion than "The Secret Sharer." Although readers have differed about many aspects of the tale it is particularly a fair judgment of Leggatt, the fugitive "killer" from the Sephora, which has proved most contentious. That a correct understanding of Leggatt is crucial to one's conception of the sea captain who narrates the tale has never been...

(The entire section is 3556 words.)

Mary-Low Schenck (essay date 1973)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Seamanship in Conrad's The Secret Sharer, in Criticism, Vol. XV, No. 1, Winter, 1973, pp. 1-15.

[In the following essay, Schenck examines "The Secret Sharer" as the story of the narrator's development as a ship's captain, asserting that earlier criticism of the story lacks sufficient analysis of the story's "physical details" and "surface action. 'I

Since its first appearance in 1910, "The Secret Sharer" has elicited critical reading focused primarily upon psychological or symbolic aspects of the story. On the other hand, a number of critics have perceived that the surface as well as the symbolic aspects are worthy of examination. Nevertheless,...

(The entire section is 5692 words.)

C. B. Cox (essay date 1974)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Mirrors in The Secret Sharer and The Shadow Line," in Joseph Conrad: The Modern Imagination, J. M. Dent and Sons Ltd, 1974, pp. 137-58.

[Cox is an English educator, editor, and critic. In the following excerpt, he suggests that critical debate over "The Secret Sharer" is due in part to the fact that the story raises questions about the narrator but does not seek to provide answers.]

Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me,
Searching my reaches for what she really is.
Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon,
I see her back, and reflect it faithfully.
She rewards me with tears and an...

(The entire section is 5698 words.)

Dinshaw M. Burjorjee (essay date 1975)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Comic Elements in Conrad's The Secret Sharer," in Conradiana, Vol. VII, No. 1, 1975, pp. 51-61.

[In the following essay, Burjorjee demonstrates the presence of comic elements in "The Secret Sharer."

Ere Babylon was dust,
The Magus Zoroaster, my dead child,
Met his own image walking in the garden.
That apparition, sole of men, he saw.
For know there are two worlds of life and death:
One that which thou beholdest; but the other
Is underneath the grave, where do inhabit
The shadows of all forms that think and live
Till death unite them and they part no...

(The entire section is 4678 words.)

Steve Ressler (essay date 1988)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Secret Sharer: Affirmation of Action," in Joseph Conrad: Consciousness and Integrity, New York University Press, 1988, pp. 80-97.

[In the following excerpt, Ressler offers his interpretation of "The Secret Sharer," noting that the exploration of individual morality is Conrad's major concern in the story.]

In late November, early December 1909, Conrad put aside the unfinished Under Western Eyes, which he had been working on for the past two years, and began "The Secret Sharer," completing it in less than a month. He then resumed Under Western Eyes and brought it to an end; the typescript is dated "End. 22 Jan. 1910." Even more...

(The entire section is 6990 words.)

Ricardo J. Quinones (essay date 1991)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'The Secret Sharer,'" in The Changes of Cain: Violence and the Lost Brother in Cain and Abel Literature, Princeton University Press, 1991, pp. 109-21.

[Quinones is an American educator and critic. In the following excerpt, he examines Conrad's treatment of the Cain and Abel story in "The Secret Sharer," asserting that Conrad "expand[s] the psychic and moral dimensions of the story."]

What Gessner's Der Tod Abels was to the second half of the eighteenth century (and beyond), Byron's Cain was to the nineteenth century: each was a work of some originality, signaling a change in sensibility that in turn helped to spawn generations of...

(The entire section is 6229 words.)

Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Teets, Bruce, and Gerber, Helmut E. Joseph Conrad: An Annotated Bibliography of Writings about Him. Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1971, 671 p.

Comprehensive primary and secondary bibliographies of Conrad's works.


Conrad, John. Joseph Conrad: Times Remembered. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981, 218 p.

Reminiscences by Conrad's youngest son.

Karl, Frederick R. Joseph Conrad: The Three Lives, A Biography. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1979, 1008 p.

Detailed critical biography. Includes information regarding...

(The entire section is 1206 words.)