"The Secret Sharer"
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 ThemesCritical 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.