(Short Story Criticism)

“The Secret Sharer” Joseph Conrad

(Born Josef Teodor Konrad Nalecz Korzeniowski) Polish-born English novelist, short story and novella writer, essayist, dramatist, and autobiographer.

The following entry presents criticism of Conrad's short story “The Secret Sharer” from 1992 to 2001. See also, Joseph Conrad Criticism.

Considered among Conrad's most significant works, “The Secret Sharer” was initially published in serial form in 1910 and was later included in the short fiction collection ‘Twixt Land and Sea (1912). In this story of a young ship captain on his first voyage in command, Conrad uses the device known as the double, or doppelgänger, to depict 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.

Plot and Major Characters

Based loosely upon 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 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 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 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 tale. 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 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 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 about the captain and humankind. According to this latter reasoning, 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.

Critical Reception

“The Secret Sharer” is viewed as the work of a consummate literary artist and an entertaining storyteller. Critics applaud Conrad's deft use of the idea of a “double” in “The Secret Sharer” to portray the protagonist's growth toward self-knowledge. His ambiguous portrayal of the relationship between the narrator and Leggatt has inspired extensive critical debate and stems from his goal as a writer to present the complexities of events and individuals without pretense or explanation. Widely praised for the richness of its symbols and allusions, “The Secret Sharer” is one of Conrad's most commonly anthologized pieces of fiction and has generated a myriad of critical interpretations, primarily about the character of Leggatt and his role in the story. It has also been discussed as a coming-of-age tale, a biblical parable, and an examination of the conflict between individual and communal systems of justice. Psychoanalytical interpretations of the tale focus on the doppelgänger motif in the story as a metaphor for different elements of the human psyche, such as the conscious and unconscious mind. Many commentators regard “The Secret Sharer” to be Conrad's best short story and one of his most compelling explorations of morality, friendship, and responsibility.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Tales of Unrest 1898

Typhoon 1902

*Youth: A Narrative, and Two Other Stories 1902

Typhoon, and Other Stories 1903

A Set of Six 1908

‘Twixt Land and Sea 1912

Within the Tides 1915

The Shorter Tales of Joseph Conrad 1924

Tales of Hearsay 1925

The Sisters 1928

The Complete Short Stories of Joseph Conrad 1933

The Collected Edition of the Works of Joseph Conrad. 21 vols. (novels, short stories, essays, and memoirs) 1946-55

Congo Diary, and Other Uncollected Pieces (diary and short stories) 1978

Almayer's Folly (novel) 1895

An Outcast of the Islands (novel) 1896

The Children of the Sea (novel) 1897; also published as The Nigger of the “Narcissus,” 1898

Lord Jim (novel) 1900

The Inheritors [with Ford Madox Ford] (novel) 1901

Romance [with Ford Madox Ford] (novel) 1903

Nostromo (novel) 1904

One Day More (drama) 1904

The Mirror of the Sea (autobiography) 1906

The Secret Agent (novel) 1907

Some Reminiscences (autobiography) 1908; also published as A Personal Record, 1912

Under Western Eyes (novel) 1911

Chance (novel) 1913

Victory (novel) 1915

The Arrow of Gold (novel) 1917

The Shadow-Line (novel) 1917

The Rescue (novel) 1920

Notes on Life and Letters (essays) 1921

Notes on My Books (essays) 1921

The Rover (novel) 1923

The Nature of a Crime [with Ford Madox Ford] (novel) 1924

Suspense (novel) 1925

Last Essays (essays) 1926

Conrad to a Friend: 150 Selected Letters from Joseph Conrad to Richard Curle (letters) 1928; also published as Joseph Conrad to Richard Curle, 1928

The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad. 4 vols. (letters) 1983-1990

*This work contains the novella Heart of Darkness, which was published separately in 1942.

Wayne W. Westbrook (essay date spring 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Westbrook, Wayne W. “Dicken's Secret Sharer, Conrad's Mutual Friend.” Studies in Short Fiction 29, no. 2 (spring 1992): 205-14.

[In the following essay, Westbrook investigates the influence of Charles Dickens's Our Mutual Friend on Conrad's “The Secret Sharer.”]

Joseph Conrad had a lifelong fondness for the works of Charles Dickens. In A Personal Record, Conrad, who claimed to have been a great reader since the age of five, cites Nicholas Nickleby as “My first introduction to English imaginative literature” (71). About Bleak House, he admits to an

intense and unreasoning affection, dating from the days of my childhood, that its very weaknesses are more precious to me than the strength of other men's work. I have read it innumerable times, both in Polish and in English; I have read it only the other day.


As a consequence of this familiarity and esteem, various effects of Dickens are found throughout Conrad's fiction. One such influence is that of Our Mutual Friend on “The Secret Sharer.”

Conrad states in his Author's Note for ‘Twixt Land and Sea, in which “The Secret Sharer” was reprinted,1 that “the basic fact of the tale I had in my possession for a good many years. It was in truth the common possession of the whole fleet of merchant ships trading to India, China, and Australia” (viii). That tale is the Cutty Sark incident, “on which,” Conrad says,

the scheme of “The Secret Sharer” is founded; it came to light and even got into newspapers about the middle eighties, though I had heard of it before, as it were privately, among the officers of the great wool fleet in which my first years in deep water were served.


In the infamous incident aboard the Cutty Sark, which Conrad alludes to as “the fact itself [that] happened on board” (viii), a rebellious member of the crew was murdered by the mate. The ship's captain, Captain Wallace, who later committed suicide, took sides with the mate, even helping him escape from the authorities. For “The Secret Sharer,” Conrad adapted the scheme of the on-shipboard murder of a crewman by Leggatt, the chief mate of the Sephora, and his subsequent escape from the actual voyage of the Cutty Sark. But Conrad's idea for the “double,” or the relationship between Leggatt and the narrator-captain, may have been supplied by Charles Dickens with the George Radfoot–John Harmon relationship aboard ship during the latter's return to England in Our Mutual Friend. In the Radfoot–Harmon cabal Conrad perhaps saw possibilities for a more dramatic story involving psychological and moral issues. Also, John Rokesmith's ordeal throughout Dickens's novel to keep his real identity as John Harmon buried may have suggested to Conrad the captain's nerve-racking ordeal of keeping Leggatt hidden while he was aboard ship. Moreover, Conrad may have realized the principle of the Sephora's captain, as a symbol of duty and social conscience, from the Police Inspector in Our Mutual Friend, who, on the whole, is dull, unimaginative, and suspicious, yet lives by the letter of the law and devotes himself entirely to the standards of duty.

It is possible that Conrad sensed the strongly autobiographical cast of Dickens's Our Mutual Friend. The main character in the novel, John Harmon, has “the sexton-task of piling earth above” himself to conceal his real origin and identity. Harmon has reluctantly returned to England after a long absence under the terms of his father's will, which left him a fortune yet forced him into a marriage with the supposedly mercenary Bella Wilfer. Harmon meets George Radfoot aboard his homeward-bound ship and unwittingly confides in him everything about his situation, including the “distrust engendered by his wretched childhood and the action for evil … of his father and his father's wealth on all within their influence” (1: 402). He even conceives a deception, meant to be harmless, to test Bella Wilfer's heart, and then allows Radfoot to participate in the plot. Radfoot betrays Harmon and tries to kill him for his money, ending up murdered himself by another man who has doublecrossed him. When Radfoot's body is discovered, Harmon finds himself mistakenly “placarded by the police authorities upon the London walls for dead” (1: 402). Seeing that his father's money is doing good for the couple who have acceded to it, he decides one morning to assume a new identify as John Rokesmith and to bury John Harmon “still many fathoms deeper than he had been buried in the night” (1: 403).

The burying of the self, the drama of identity, the introspective motive of Charles Dickens in Our Mutual Friend may have interested Conrad. What must have particularly struck him in the novel, however, is the scene in which John Harmon revisits Limehouse Hole, a stew near the West India Docks, to try piecing together what had happened to him that night he disembarked with Radfoot at London. Harmon begins by recalling how he had felt in coming back to England.

I came back, timid, divided in my mind, afraid of myself and everybody here, knowing of nothing but wretchedness that my father's wealth had ever brought about. Now, stop, and so far think it out, John Harmon. Is that so? That is exactly so.

(1: 389)

Conrad, who is creating a story with a psychological bias, would have been engrossed in Harmon's mental state. “Divided in mind” and “afraid of myself and everybody here” are phrases that could describe the captain's state of mind in “The Secret Sharer” as he takes charge of a ship for the first time and feels uneasy about his new command. Leggatt's unexpected appearance in the water and arrival on board as a fugitive from a nearby ship put his nerves more on edge and intensify his fears and insecurities.

In Our Mutual Friend, George Radfoot had been the third mate aboard the ship on which Harmon returned to England. Radfoot in effect becomes John Harmon's secret sharer. Harmon reflects:

I knew nothing of him. His name first became known to me about a week before we sailed, through my being accosted by one of the ship-agent's clerks as “Mr. Radfoot.” It was one day when I had gone abroad to look to my preparations, and the clerk, coming behind me as I stood on deck, tapped me on the shoulder, and said, “Mr. Radfoot, look here,” referring to some papers that he had in his hand. And my name first became known to Radfoot, through another clerk within a day or two, and while the ship was yet in port, coming up behind him, tapping him on the shoulder and beginning, “I beg your pardon, Mr. Harmon—.” I believe we were alike in bulk and stature but not otherwise, and that we were not strikingly alike, even in those respects, when we were together and could be compared.

(1: 389)

After they had exchanged a sociable word or two concerning these mistakes as a means of “an easy introduction between us,” Harmon recalls that:

he helped me to a cool cabin on deck alongside his own, and his first school had been at Brussels as mine had been, and he had learnt French as I had learnt it, and he had a little history of himself to relate—God only knows how much of it true, and how much of it false—that had its likeness to mine. I had been a seaman too. So we got to be confidential together, and the more easily yet, because he and every one on board had known by general rumor what I was making the voyage to England for. By such degrees and means, he came to the knowledge of my uneasiness of mind. …

(1: 389)

Once ashore in London, Harmon and Radfoot carry out the idea that they had cooked up aboard ship of “getting common sailors' dresses … and throwing ourselves in Bella Wilfer's neighborhood, and trying to put ourselves in her way, and doing whatever chance might favor on the spot, and seeing what came of it” (1: 389-90). They plan to disguise themselves to allow Radfoot to form some judgment of Bella, the woman his father's will would force him to marry. However, in a room near Limehouse Church where Radfoot has guided him, they exchange clothes.

He had carried under his arm a canvas bag, containing a suit of his clothes. I had no change of outer clothes with me, as I was to buy slops. “You are very wet, Mr. Harmon,”—I can hear him saying—“and I am quite dry under this good waterproof coat. Put on these clothes of mine. You may find on trying them that they will answer to your purpose tomorrow, as well as the slops you mean to buy, or better. While you change, I'll hurry the hot coffee.”

(1: 391)

Radfoot has poisoned the coffee, causing John Harmon, in a helpless stupor, to remember,

I saw a figure like myself lying dressed in my clothes on a bed. What might have been, for anything I knew, a silence of days, weeks, months, years, was broken by a violent wrestling of men all over the room. The figure like myself was assailed, and my valise was in its hand.

(1: 391)

Conrad's narrator-captain and Leggatt share the same cabin rather than occupy adjoining ones. Both are Conway boys, but as the captain relates, “being a couple of years older I had left before he joined” (101). Like Harmon and Radfoot's, their common backgrounds as schoolboys and seamen provide trust and...

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W. Eugene Davis (essay date 1995)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Davis, W. Eugene. “The Structures of Justice in ‘The Secret Sharer’.” Conradiana 27, no. 1 (1995): 64-73.

[In the following essay, Davis explores the theme of justice in “The Secret Sharer” in terms of the realities of nineteenth-century British maritime law.]

The relationships of the three major characters in “The Secret Sharer”—the young captain and narrator, the fugitive Leggatt and his ineffectual nemesis, Captain Archbold—have received much critical attention. Yet tantalizing questions still arise as one attempts to account for the behavior and the attitudes of these characters toward each other. Why does the young captain immediately...

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Mark Ellis Thomas (essay date 1995)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Thomas, Mark Ellis. “Doubling and Difference in Conrad: ‘The Secret Sharer,’ Lord Jim, and The Shadow Line.Conradiana 27, no. 3 (1995): 222-34.

[In the following essay, Thomas examines the motif of the double in Conrad's “The Secret Sharer,” Lord Jim, and The Shadow Line.]

One way Joseph Conrad rebelled against the (apparently unruffled) realism of the nineteenth century and contributed to the developing modernist aesthetic was to revaluate the doubling device of Gothic romance, lately adopted into the realm of novelistic conventions, especially in the popular novels of sensation. In revamping Gothic character doubling, Conrad...

(The entire section is 5925 words.)

Gene D. Philips (essay date 1995)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Philips, Gene D. “The Lower Depths: Film Versions of Conrad's Short Fiction.” In Conrad and Cinema: The Art of Adaptation, pp. 81-95. New York: Peter Lang, 1995.

[In the following essay, Philips compares Conrad's “The Secret Sharer” with two film adaptations of the story.]


Conrad recalls in the “Author's Note” to “The Secret Sharer” in the Collected Edition, where it appears in the volume entitled ‘Twixt Land and Sea Tales [‘Twixt Land and Sea], that the central episode in the story was derived from an actual happening.

When Conrad came to write...

(The entire section is 5746 words.)

James Devers (essay date 1996)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Devers, James. “More on Symbols in Conrad's ‘The Secret Sharer’.” Conradiana 28, no. 1 (1996): 66-76.

[In the following essay, Devers provides an interpretation of key symbols in “The Secret Sharer.”]

Despite the many critical articles written on “The Secret Sharer,” I believe I can shed more light on certain important symbols mentioned at various points in the story. The symbols I will treat are 1) Leggatt's name, 2) the masculine symbols of cigar and whiskers, 3) the scorpion in the inkwell, 4) the “sham delicacies”, 5) the captain-narrator's problem with hearing, 6) the liquor referred to in the interview with Archbold, 7) the white,...

(The entire section is 5041 words.)

Cesare Casarino (essay date summer 1997)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Casarino, Cesare. “The Sublime of the Closet; Or, Joseph Conrad's Secret Sharing.” Boundary 2 24, no. 2 (summer 1997): 199-243.

[In the following essay, Casarino regards the closet as a crucial locus of same-sex desire and investigates the possibility of a homosexual relationship between Leggatt and the narrator of “The Secret Sharer.”]

To a nameless traveler on the Djakarta-Yogyakarta Express on a winter night, 1983: it was with you that I first shared the transport of enclosure.

They shut me up in Prose—
As when a little Girl
They put me in the Closet—
Because they liked me...

(The entire section is 21947 words.)

Warren French (essay date 1997)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: French, Warren. “‘The Secret Sharer’: Film Confronts Story in Face to Face.” In Conrad on Film, edited by Gene M. Moore, pp. 93-103. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, French compares Conrad's “The Secret Sharer” with the film adaptation included in the two-part movie Face to Face.]

In 1952, RKO Radio Pictures produced a commercial cinematic adaptation of “The Secret Sharer” that has often escaped attention because it was presented alongside James Agee's adaptation of Stephen Crane's short story “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky” in a feature-length film with the collective title Face to Face....

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Ted Billy (essay date 1997)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Billy, Ted. “First Command.” In A Wilderness of Words: Closure and Disclosure in Conrad's Short Fiction, pp. 19-27. Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Billy discusses “The Secret Sharer” as a coming-of-age or rite-of-passage story and surveys several of Conrad's stories that feature young, male ship captains.]

The cost of living is disillusionment.

—Conrad and Ford, The Inheritors

Although Conrad is popularly recognized as the Polish expatriate who became an English sea captain before turning to fiction, he actually spent only a little...

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Norma Miller (essay date spring 1998)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Miller, Norma. “All is Vanity under the Sun: Conrad's Floppy Hat as Biblical Allusion.” Conradiana 30, no. 1 (spring 1998): 64-7.

[In the following essay, Miller maintains that the image of the floppy hat at the end of “The Secret Sharer” is linked to certain biblical allusions from the Book of Ecclesiastes.]

In re-reading “The Secret Sharer” by Joseph Conrad in preparation for a teaching assignment, the final conditions surrounding the floppy hat, namely its return appearance to guide the narrator's ship to safety, dredged up a homily from my childhood. In its vulgar voice (no doubt in confusion with the callous harangue attributed to Marie...

(The entire section is 1895 words.)

Daphna Erdinast-Vulcan (essay date 1999)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Erdinast-Vulcan, Daphna. “The Seductions of the Aesthetic.” In The Strange Short Fiction of Joseph Conrad: Writing, Culture, and Subjectivity, pp. 30-50. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Erdinast-Vulcan asserts that the captain-narrator of “The Secret Sharer” expresses a conflict between an aesthetic and an ethical mode of being.]

The statement, ‘I'm a man’ … at most can mean no more than, ‘I'm like he whom I recognize to be a man, and so recognize myself as being such.’ In the last resort, these various formulas are to be understood only in reference to the truth of ‘I is an other’, an...

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Carl Schaffer (essay date 1999)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Schaffer, Carl. “Conrad's Leggatt and the Jewish Golem: Where Parallel Lines Meet.” In Joseph Conrad: East European, Polish and Worldwide, edited by Wieslaw Krajka, pp. 201-13. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Schaffer contends that the character of Leggatt in “The Secret Sharer” is a figure drawn from the Jewish legend of the Golem.]

Conrad's novella “The Secret Sharer” has been widely recognized as an allegory of a descent into the self, a remarkable story so resonant that Albert Guerard places it “among the first—one is tempted to say only—symbolist masterpieces in English fiction” (Guerard, 14-15)....

(The entire section is 4791 words.)

Michael Platt (essay date 2000)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Platt, Michael. “Natural Right, Conventional Right, and Setting Things Aright: Joseph Conrad's ‘The Secret Sharer’.” In The Moral of the Story: Literature and Public Ethics, edited by Henry T. Edmondson III, pp. 177-92. Lanhan, Md.: Lexington Books, 2000.

[In the following essay, Platt analyzes ethical issues in “The Secret Sharer,” contending that the narrator eventually satisfies the “conflicting claims of natural right and conventional right” and in the process “learns much about himself, about justice, and about statesmanship.”]

It is only the young who are confronted by such clear issues.


(The entire section is 9702 words.)

J. H. Stape (essay date spring 2001)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Stape, J. H. “Topography in ‘The Secret Sharer’.” The Conradian 26, no. 1 (spring 2001): 1-16.

[In the following essay, Stape elucidates the symbolic significance of Conrad's topographical descriptions in “The Secret Sharer” in terms of existential isolation and the inner “topography” of the human psyche.]

Despite the detailed attention paid to the sources of “The Secret Sharer” and to Conrad's experience of the Far East,1 the story's topography has garnered little critical interest. The almost exclusively shipboard setting certainly accounts partly for this, the land playing a role only at the opening and conclusion. At both moments, however, Conrad's graphic descriptions have a signal symbolic resonance. In the first instance, the crossing of the bar—the juncture when the ship sloughs off her final links with the land to reach the freedom of the open sea—betokens a transitional moment: the captain and crew achieve their identities and hierarchical significance by entering into their functions as seamen. The conclusion, on the other hand, may signal a loss of innocence for the narrator and the achievement of a dubiously gained “freedom” on land for Leggatt, won at the cost of the captain's endangering the lives of himself and his crew.

As commentators on “The Secret Sharer” and Conrad's biographers have long recognized, Conrad's experience in navigating the Gulf of Siam in early 1888 forms a principal source for the story's setting. The events aboard the Cutty Sark, which form its main plot source, however, occurred in the Strait of Anjer off Java in 1880,2 and in drawing upon these and upon his own memories Conrad typically conflated and reshaped materials from disparate events and sources for his fictional purposes. Although his use of the Cutty Sark background has been adequately commented upon, particularly by Sherry, Conrad's use of his recollections of the Gulf of Siam for the story he composed in 1908 have received little attention. Contemporary sources show that his reminiscences were, as it turns out, remarkably accurate and detailed. To recognize this exactitude arguably helps enrich the reader's understanding of the story and throws further light on Conrad's use and transformation of real-life details in his fiction.

The opening paragraph, which at first glance has an impressionistic character, is a precise presentation of observed reality. Moving from a generalized “tropical” waters location of its first sentence, it concludes by revealing the action's exact geographic position at the head of the Gulf of Siam. While it classically sets the time (late afternoon) and place and introduces the main player of the action, the paragraph establishes a number of motifs, including quotidian economic activities and an antithesis between land and sea. It also focuses on varied evidences of culture, including defensive precautions and a belief system, while, for symbolic purposes, it emphasizes a sense of solitude and desolation:

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, and crazy of aspect as if abandoned for ever by some nomad tribe of fishermen now gone to the other end of the ocean; for there was no sign of human habitation as far as the eye could reach. To the left a group of barren islets, suggesting ruins of stone walls, towers, and blockhouses, had its foundations set in a blue sea that itself looked solid, so still and stable did it lie below my feet; even the track of light from the westering sun shone smoothly, without that animated glitter which tells of an imperceptible ripple. And when I turned my head to take a parting glance at the tug which had just left us anchored outside the bar, I saw the straight line of the flat shore joined to the stable sea, edge to edge, with a perfect and unmarked closeness, in one levelled floor half brown, half blue under the enormous dome of the sky. Corresponding in their insignificance to the islets of the sea, two small clumps of trees, one on each side of the only fault in the impeccable joint, marked the mouth of the river Meinam we had just left on the first preparatory stage of our homeward journey; and, far back on the inland level, a larger and loftier mass, the grove surrounding the great Paknam pagoda, was the only thing on which the eye could rest from the vain task of exploring the monotonous sweep of the horizon. Here and there gleams as of a few scattered pieces of silver marked the windings of the great river; and on the nearest of them, just within the bar, the tug steaming right into the land became lost to my sight, hull and funnel and masts, as though the impassive earth had swallowed her up without an effort, without a tremor. My eye followed the light cloud of her smoke, now here, now there, above the plain, according to the devious curves of the stream, but always fainter and farther away, till I lost it at last behind the mitre-shaped hill of the great pagoda. And then I was left alone with my ship, anchored at the head of the Gulf of Siam.

(‘Twixt Land and Sea, 91-92)

The symbolic function of these realistic details can only be briefly outlined here, but it is appropriate to observe how Conrad's selective focus on concrete objects—the absence of human habitation, stakes, barren islets, and ruined military installations—produces a sense of existential isolation and establishes the story's “inner” setting in the captain's psyche. They also reveal character, hinting at a tendency to solipsism that is later fully expressed in the captain's narrative. The adjectives “mysterious,” “incomprehensible,” and “crazy,” seemingly inappropriate to describe the objective world, likewise function as pointers to a cast of mind, just as the motif of doubleness is first introduced by the “two clumps of trees.” Even the fishing-traps casually mentioned in the first sentence serve, in retrospect, as a cautionary symbol of ruse and entrapment that casts doubt on the narrator's reliability and interpretive skills. The words “devious curves” to describe the course of the river are similarly suggestive. By the story's conclusion the decoding of its meanings and the “navigation” of its narrative traps are tasks increasingly fraught with hazard for the reader.

To the greater part of Conrad's contemporary audience, the name Siam would probably have vaguely conjured the distant and exotic kingdom bordering the far reaches of India. For most of his readership the river, its life, and the pagoda, would likely have been mere suggestions of exotic local colour lacking particular denotative character.3 To travellers to the Kingdom of Siam, as Thailand was known until her name was changed in 1939, these would, on the contrary, have been familiar and even quite well known since the principal access to Bangkok was via the Chao Phraya (or Phya) River, or in the styling of Conrad's day the Menam or Meinam. (Both spellings were current in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.) Following the contemporary usage of foreign residents in, and travellers to, Bangkok in so referring to “The River,” Conrad's text gives the impression that a proper name is being used deliberately for the major waterway that empties into the Gulf of Siam.4 In Thai, however, menam simply means “river” and was (and is) applied generally and not only to the major river that makes its way through northern Thailand from its source in Yunnan, gives Bangkok its raison d'être, and sinuously empties into the sea about thirty miles below Bangkok proper (see Illustration 1).5

The evidence of fishing activities in the river that perplexes the narrator at the opening of the short story were based on direct observation. One foreign visitor describes these with some vividness: “We make use of the floodtide to cross the bar, the half-muddy, half-sandy mass of which, during the low tide, shows, as far as the eye can see, a bamboo forest stuck into the soil, to which the Siamese and Annamite [i.e., Vietnamese] fishermen fix their huge conical nets” (Fournereau 1894; 1998, 7). A guide to Bangkok published in 1894, six years after Conrad's arrival in the Siamese capital, also testifies to the well-established presence of fishing in the area in describing navigation of the river. In commenting on the bar it notes that “The inner part of the bar commences at about one third of a mile southward of the fishing stakes” (Bangkok Times 1894; 1996, 74). Its directions for entering the river similarly mention these prominent features of the landscape:

Entering Bangkok river, West point should be brought to bear N. 1/2 E., and steered for on that bearing until the lighthouse bears N. N. E., 1/2 E., when a N. by E. 1/2 E. course will lead between the sets of fishing stakes (3 sets of each side pointing to the south-west) and about a third of the mile westward; then steer N. E. 1/2 N. until …

Mr. J. Phillips, H. S. H. Vigilant, remarks that after passing the fishing-stakes the bottom becomes very hard on approaching the eastern bank, and very soft on nearing the western bank; this is the principal guide to the pilots.

(Bangkok Times 1894; 1996, 75)

The China Sea Directory likewise twice draws attention to the presence of groups of fishing-stakes in describing the approach to Bangkok (Admiralty 1899, 2: 369).

The defensive fortifications in a state of disrepair—“ruins of stone walls, towers, and blockhouses”—likewise have a basis in fact. The removal of the Siamese capital to Bangkok after the destruction of Ayutthaya in the late-eighteenth century required the construction of defences for the new capital against potential attacks from sea. In 1819, King Rama II ordered various defensive measures, leading to the erection of gun batteries on both banks of the Chao Phraya near Paknam. By the late nineteenth century, the forts and related buildings had fallen into such disrepair that King Rama V, concerned with the defence of the estuary, ordered the building of Paknam Fort or Phra Chulachomklao Fortress, which was completed in 1893 at the entrance to the Bight of Bangkok. The fleeting visual impression of the narrator of “The Secret Sharer” of decayed military structures has its origins, then, in direct observation and thus establishes Conrad's reportorial impulse.

Conrad's “great Paknam pagoda,” a landmark at the gateway to Siam and both the first and last sight a visitor had of the kingdom (see Illustrations 2-4), variously figures in late nineteenth-century travel literature.6 An earlier visitor to the country, the controversial Anna Leonowens, governess to the children of King Mongkut (Rama IV),7 lushly described her first sight of it in 1862, joining to it impressions from a later, closer inspection:

On the other [island], which I first took for a floating shrine of white marble, is perhaps the most unique and graceful object of architecture in Siam; shining like a jewel on the broad bosom of the river, a temple all of purest white, its lofty spire, fantastic and gilded, flashing back the glory of the sun, and duplicated in shifting, quivering shadows in the limpid waters below … Visiting this island some years later, I found that this temple, like all other pyramidal structures in this part of the world, consists of solid masonry of brick and mortar. The bricks made here are remarkable, being fully eight inches long and nearly four broad, and of fine grain—altogether not unlike the “tavellae” bricks of the Egyptians and ancient Romans. There are cornices on all sides, with steps to ascend to the top, where a long inscription proclaims the name, rank, and virtues of the founder, with dates of the commencement of the island and the shrine. The whole of the space, extending to the low stone breakwater that surrounds the island, is paved with the same kind of brick, and encloses, in addition to P'hra-Cha-dei (“The Lord's Delight”), a smaller temple with a brass image of the sitting Buddha.

(Leonowens 1870, 3-4)

Leonowens' romantic, overwritten description of Phra Chedi Klang Nam (The Pagoda in the Middle of the River) well serves her purpose in introducing her readers to the Far East.

Le comte de Beauvoir, arriving in Siam via sea in January 1867 on an extended tour of the Far East, recounted his impressions of the site with more restraint but in a way that nonetheless suggests the picturesque elements of the pagoda and its riverine setting. Stopping at Paknam for the required customs inspection before proceeding to Bangkok, he described the temple complex on the opposite bank in the following terms:

Pendant les démêlés de l'autorité avec notre capitaine, nous admirons une pagode sortant du milieu du fleuve comme une île resplendissante. C'est un assemblage de maçonnerie toute blanche, une grande cloche de deux cents pieds de haut, surmontée d'une aiguille droite et d'une famille de petites cloches semblable éparpillées sur l'eau.

[During the authorities' troubles with our captain, we admired a pagoda emerging from the middle of the river like a resplendent island. It is an all- white masonry structure, with a spire two hundred feet high, surmounted by an upright needle and a whole group of similar small tower tops scattered upon the water.]

(Beauvoir 1870, 252)

The accounts of Florence Caddy, who arrived in Siam in the Duke of Sutherland's party in February 1888, and of H. Warrington Smyth, a British subject serving as Secretary to the Government of Siam's Department of Mines and Geology from 1891 to 1896, are closer in time to Conrad's own experience of seeing the pagoda in January 1888. Caddy's description is typical of first-person travel writing of the period introducing an exotic world to the home audience. After detailing the arrival of her party in the Gulf of Siam and preparations to cross the bar, Caddy continues:

We were to move on at daybreak, and all of us meant to be up at five so as to see the fine temples [sic] at Paknam, in the entrance to the river. …

The birds sing in the early morning as if they knew it was St. Valentine's Day, and we sail through pleasing scenery of tree-fringed shores, with a spiry white pagoda on an islet, winding round this fanciful building with the deep curves of the stream. It is charming to glide over these lovely sheets of water, the broad ribbon of the Menam fringed with areca palms.

(Caddy 1889, 89-90)

Smyth's extensive descriptions of the country include the following account of his arrival at Paknam:

As the ship turns into the river the long low-lying village of Paknam comes into sight. It is a village of some little importance, with a population of about six thousand, consisting mostly of fishermen …

Across the river lies the low mud island of the Inner Fort, armed with some fine breechloading guns of large calibre … Just to the north of it stands the little Wat, or monastery, known as the Prachadi Klangnam, “The Pagoda in the River,” one of the prettiest and most characteristic things of the kind in the country, highly typical of the land we are entering, where as in Burma, the pagoda and the monastery form such a large part in the life of the people.

(Smyth 1898, I: 5, 7)

Likewise close in time to Conrad's experience was that of Lucien Fournereau, an architect and inspector of art education and museums for the French Ministry of Public Instruction and Arts, whose travels in 1891-92 during his first mission to Indochina yielded a vivid recollection of the Siamese capital. As befits his architectural training, he describes the pagoda as follows:

After having ascended the waters of the Menam for a certain time and having passed the first bend, one soon observes the fortified island of Paknam and the silhouette of the first pagoda. … Built to honour the Lord Buddha, it consists of two principal edifices: the temple or Bôt and the great Phra Chedi; besides, several salas are destined to welcome pilgrims. This pyramid, setting itself off against a background of greenery and reflected at its foot in the mirror of the calm waters is truly grand and gripping in appearance.

(Fournereau 1894; 1998, 8-9)

The pagoda remained a prominent feature on the landscape for some time. Charles Buls, former burgomaster of Brussels and a close friend of Conrad's “aunt” Marguerite Poradowska, visiting Siam in early 1900, briefly notes passing by the site in his Croquis siamois: “The fort of Paknam appears on the left, followed by an island where the sharp point of a white temple stands tall: it's the Phra Chedi Klang Nam” (1901; 1994, 2). A 1904 guidebook to Bangkok and Siam draws attention to it in these terms: “The Paknam wat, or temple … is truly a striking erection of its kind. Although by no means the largest or finest of the temples within the Bangkok monthon, or district, its situation renders it most picturesque” (Antonio 1904; 1997, 11).

A German architect in the service of the Siamese government responsible for designing various royal edifices, Karl Döhring, whose onsite observations date to 1906-13, neglects the temple's picturesque qualities to offer a useful summary of its architectural features and symbolic significance:

The whole temple is built on an island in the middle of the Menam River. On the left side stands a sala nam8 at the landing, exactly at the temple's main axis. The bot follows this, as does the famous phra chedi, which was erected to mark Siam's sea border. It symbolically represents the Buddha in the Phra Haam Samut (Pacifying the Ocean) posture. Bell towers have been erected on both sides of the sala nam. A cloth adorns the bell9 of the phra chedi. Annual celebrations take place near this temple with pilgrim processing in boats, circling round the temple in the direction of the sun. Boat races are also organized during the festivities.

(Döhring 1916; 2000, 326)

The actual structure, now named Phra Samutchedi, still stands, although it is no longer “famous,” to evoke Döhring's word, and its picturesque character has diminished: its spire is no longer gilded, and silting up of the Chao Phraya has joined the mud island on which the pagoda once stood to the river's west bank. (Paknam, on the eastern bank, has likewise virtually disappeared as a separate entity.10) Envisaged by King Rama II as a means of publicly proclaiming his kingdom's adherence to Buddhism, actual construction began only after his death, commencing in 1827 by order of King Rama III. The Sri Lankan-style pagoda rose to a height of 20 metres upon its completion the following year. By direction of King Rama IV, it was radically altered in the late 1850s, nearly doubling in height to attain an imposing 38 metres and undergoing some alterations in shape.11 At this time too, relics of the Buddha were immured in the pagoda, as per custom. It was this structure, a concrete reminder of aspirations for the spiritual world, that so impressed Anna Leonowens and other Europeans on arriving in the Siamese capital by boat.

The highly detailed and precise topography of the opening of “The Secret Sharer” is not repeated at its close, which nonetheless depends upon knowledge of an exact location among a shadowy group of islands. The ship is on “the east side of the Gulf of Siam” (127) near the “Cambodje shore” (131),12 a vague enough indication that mostly gives the general setting. The island of “Koh-ring” is specifically mentioned, but in an area peppered with islets of no particular size or significance, it has thus far eluded identification and even been thought to be a fictional place-name (Berthoud 1984, 154). It seems possible, however, that Conrad misconstrued the name or that nearly twenty years after navigating these waters had forgotten its spelling.13 He may, moreover, have compressed his description of the coastline for artistic effect, the exact location being nothing more than local color for the general reader and the groups of islands, “Unknown to trade, to travel, almost to geography” (133), serving to underscore the sense of isolation and secrecy.

A likely real-life candidate for the island he calls Koh-ring may, however, be Koh Ryn (also spelled Koh Rin) of the Koh Si-Chang group off the coast of the town of Pattaya, today a popular beach resort for Thai and foreign tourists alike. Fournereau, describing what because of his inability to speak English with Chinese crew-members was a dull journey to Siam, alerts us to this possibility in the following account:

This feat [fluency in English] makes navigation of the Gulf of Siam singularly monotonous and sad for a traveler who does not speak this language. … Thus it is for him a quite deep and intimate feeling of happiness to see the mountains of ancient Cambodia rise up in the purple of the distance, and then the groups of islands: Koh Kwang Noi, Koh Luem, Koh Kram and Koh Ryn, which announce the proximity of the continent.

(Fournereau 1894; 1998, 5)

The mention of “ancient Cambodia” and Koh Ryn, in close proximity, encourages the identification of this island with Conrad's. The 1894 Directory for Bangkok and Siam identifies Koh Luem and Koh Kam (Fournereau's Koh Kram) as belonging to the Koh Si-Chang Group (1894; 1998, 71). The group includes another island called Kangku as well as “three other islets.” According to this source, Koh Si-Chang has a peak at its north end rising to 697 feet, and Koh Kangku, a third of a mile off, has “a sharp peak 125 high” (71). The “towering black mass” (143) mentioned at the story's close apparently, then, also had a real-life source, even if the real-life Koh Rin (see Illustration 5) is itself not particularly imposing. The British Admiralty's China Sea Directory offers detailed descriptions of these islands, describing Koh Rin as 360 feet in height and with several rocks about it “all above water: the highest are White rocks 50 feet, and Tree rock 51 feet, each with a little of brushwood on them” (Admiralty 1899, 2:363). The chart that Conrad used to navigate these waters has been preserved, but no markings appear on it, and the survey of the Gulf of Siam, done in 1856 and 1857 by the H.M.S. Saracen (Admiralty n.d.), did not include the names of its myriad small islands although the Koh Si-Chang group itself is indicated, as is Koh Rin.14

Conrad's topography at this point largely serves a symbolic purpose. By this time, the narrative impulse towards myth has submerged the story's realistic protocols. Leggatt is assimilated with Cain, and the ship in the Gulf of Siam is imaged as at the gates of the classical underworld: “on the very edge of a darkness thrown by a towering black mass like the very gateway of Erebus” (143). The shift from the opening's sense of liberation from the hold of the land to the looming “darkness” tends to undermine the triumphalism in the captain's self-proclaimed sense of mastery over his craft. The story's close echoes, then, its opening images of entanglement and freedom (although these occur in a context of decay and desolation) and recalls the man-made mountain of the pagoda. The return of these images, in a different guise, suggests that the sense of progress and liberation may, indeed, be illusory, the captain—the reader's only reference point in this first-person narrative—being deluded about both. His positive tone in his description of Leggatt's guilty freedom is made hollow by the brooding gloom, and his narrative unreliability stands revealed.


  1. See Sherry 1966, 253-69, and Shidara 1998.

  2. For a detailed account of the actual events, see Lubbock 1924, 180-98.

  3. The name Paknam may have recalled to Conrad's readers versed in diplomacy or interested in international relations the “Paknam Incident,” an armed confrontation between French and Siamese ships over territorial rights that occurred in mid-July 1893. See Tips for an extended discussion of the incident and its background.

  4. The locution “River Meinam” or “Menam River” is in the strict sense a barbarism, translating as “River River.”

  5. Mention of the river's “innumerable bends” in The Shadow-Line (47) is, as the accompanying map shows, simple poetic licence or an exaggeration for symbolic effect.

  6. A pagoda is not as Berthoud, following popular usage, states in his explanatory notes to The Shadow-Line, “A Buddhist temple” (151) but an edifice within a temple's precincts, these normally comprising a number of structures. The principal ritual site, with images of the Buddha, is the assembly hall. A pagoda is primarily a symbolic structure the origins of which lie in the Hindu stupa. Like the stupa, it recollects Mount Meru, the centre point of Hindu/Buddhist cosmology, and like other holy mountains (Sinai or Calvary, for instance), it represents the intersection between the human and upper worlds. When arranged on a square substructure, it also evokes the mandala. In Thailand, pagodas are always reliquaries, containing either primary or secondary relics of the Buddha; they are, in some sense, stylized representations of him (or where there are numerous pagodas, the Buddha and his disciples).

  7. Leonowens (1834-1915) is better known under her fictionalized guise as the title-character of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein's musical comedy The King and I (1956).

  8. A building constructed so as to give entry onto water. It is shown in the Illustrations.

  9. The pagoda, or phra chedi, comprises three parts: the substructure, bell, and spire.

  10. The name Paknam means “river mouth.” Now officially Samut Prakarn (or Prakan), the city is the capital of Samut Prakarn Province. Touching the borders of Metropolitan Bangkok, it is effectively merged with the capital although it remains separate from it for administrative purposes. For an illustrated account of the contemporary town, including photographs of the “Paknam pagoda,” see Montgomery and Warren 1994, 20-35.

  11. This account relies upon information, presumably derived from sources in Thai, from the website maintained by Thai Students On-Line 2000.

  12. The DCE spelling is an error for Cambodge.

  13. Roman-script transcription systems for various Asian languages are sometimes approximate, there being no equivalent English sounds, and spellings and pronunciation even in the original are at times variable and unstable. (To give but a single example of the vagaries of the transcription system currently in use for Thai: the name of the present king, rendered in roman script as Bhumiphol is pronounced Bumipon.) The fluidity of the linguistic situation complicated the accurate recording of place-names during nineteenth-century surveys. To complicate matters further, some localities have two interchangeably used names (e.g., Khorat and Nakorn Ratchisima), while Roman script spellings for others vary (e.g., Ayutthaya, Ayuthia, Ayudhya).

  14. Conrad's copy of this chart is preserved in The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. It bears the following attestation: “‘This Chart formerly belonged to Joseph Conrad and was used by him when at sea’ —Jessie Conrad.”

I am grateful to the following for various kinds of assistance: Dr. Andrea White and the Tokyo/Kyoto Conrad Group for stimulating the enquiries pursued here; Diethard Ande, Publisher, White Lotus Press, Bangkok, for providing access to research materials; Theodore W. Mayer for information on Buddhist architecture; Isabel Kelly and Tony Lloyd for facilitating my visit to Phra Samutchedi; Ananta Mainalia for technical help; Yasuko Shidara, Toyo Bunko Library, Tokyo, and Chatwut Wangwon, Maejo University, Chiang Mai, for archival assistance; and Hans van Marle, Ronald F. Movrich, and Owen Knowles for useful suggestions.

Works Cited

The Admiralty. The China Sea Directory, containing Directions for the Navigation of The China Sea, between Singapore and Hong Kong. 4th ed. London: J. D. Potter for the Hydrographic Office of the Admiralty, 1899.

———. China Sea. Gulf of Siam: Sheet II: Koh-Ta-Kut to Cape Liant, Surveyed by Mr. John Richards, Master, R.N. H.M.S. Saracen 1856 & 57. London: Hydrographic Office of the Admiralty, n.d.

Antonio, J. The 1904 Travellers' Guide to Bangkok and Siam. Reprint, Bangkok: White Lotus Press, 1997.

Bangkok Times. The 1894 Directory for Bangkok and Siam. Reprint, Bangkok: White Lotus Press, 1996.

Beauvoir, Le comte de. Java, Siam, Canton: Voyage autour du Monde. Paris: Plon, 1870.

Berthoud, Jacques. “Explanatory Notes.” The Shadow-Line. Edited by Jacques Berthoud. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986. 146-56.

Buls, Charles. Siamese Sketches. Translation of Croquis siamois (1901) by Walter E. J. Tips. Bangkok: White Lotus Press, 1994.

Caddy, Florence. To Siam and Malaya in the Duke of Sutherland's Yacht “Sans Peur.” London: Hurst & Blackett, 1889.

Döhring, Karl. Buddhist Temples of Thailand: An Architectonic Introduction. Translation of Buddhistische Tempelanlagen in Siam (1916) by Walter E. J. Tips. Bangkok: White Lotus Press, 2000.

Fournereau, Lucien. Bangkok in 1892. Translated by Walter E. J. Tips. Bangkok: White Lotus Press, 1998. Originally published in: Le Tour du Monde 68 (July 1894): 1-64.

Leonowens, Anna Harriette. The English Governess at the Siamese Court; Being Recollections of Six Years in the Royal Palace at Bangkok. London: Trübner, 1870.

Lubbock, Basil. The Log of the “Cutty Sark.” Glasgow: Brown, 1924.

Montgomery, Jock and William Warren. Menam Chao Phraya: River of Life and Legend. Bangkok: Post Books, 1994.

Sherry, Norman. Conrad's Eastern World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966.

Shidara, Yasuko. “Conrad and Bangkok: Another Excursion to his ‘Eastern World’.” In Journeys, Myths and the Age of Travel: Joseph Conrad's Era, edited by Karin Hansson, 76-96. Ronneby: University of Karlskrona, 1998.

Smyth, H. Warrington. Five Years in Siam: From 1891 to 1896. 2 vols. London: Murray, 1898.

Thai Students On-Line from Sriwittayapaknam School. “History of Samut Prakarn” [online].

———. “Phra Samut Chedi” [online].

———. “Temples in Samut Prakarn Province” [online].

Tips, Walter E. J. Siam's Struggle for Survival: The Gunboat Incident at Paknam and the Franco-Siamese Treaty of 1893. Bangkok: White Lotus Press, 1996.

Brian Richardson (essay date fall 2001)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Richardson, Brian. “Construing Conrad's ‘The Secret Sharer’: Suppressed Narratives, Subaltern Reception, and the Art of Interpretation.” Studies in the Novel 33, no. 3 (fall 2001): 306-21.

[In the following essay, Richardson argues that the narrator of “The Secret Sharer” is an unreliable narrator, and that the narrative may be read as a “skeptical parody” of the Romantic literary theme of the doppelganger.]

“The Secret Sharer” may well appear to be profoundly multivalent, even to the point of self-contradiction. It is at the same time both a writerly text that invites a wide variety of incompatible interpretations and, curiously, a readerly...

(The entire section is 7628 words.)

Daniel R. Schwarz (essay date 2001)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Schwarz, Daniel R. “Rereading ‘The Secret Sharer’.” In Rereading Conrad, pp. 134-65. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2001.

[In the following essay, Schwartz provides an overview of the critical reception of Conrad's “The Secret Sharer” as well as a psychoanalytic interpretation of the story.]


In December 1909 Conrad interrupted his work on Under Western Eyes to write “The Secret Sharer.” Commenting on Conrad's original plan to call the story either “The Second Self” or “The Other Self,” Frederick R. Karl wrote, “His psychological need to share his situation with those...

(The entire section is 14232 words.)

Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Hansford, James. “Closing, Enclosure and Passage in ‘The Secret Sharer’.” The Conradian 15, no. 1 (June 1990): 30-55.

Examines the motif of enclosed spaces in Conrad's “The Secret Sharer.”

Hawkins, Hunt, and Brian W. Shaffer, eds. Approaches to Teaching Conrad's “Heart of Darkness” and “The Secret Sharer.” New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2002, 195 p.

Collection of essays on pedagogical approaches to Conrad's “The Secret Sharer” and Heart of Darkness.

Jones, Michael P. “Heroism in ‘The Secret Sharer’.” In Readings on Joseph...

(The entire section is 410 words.)