“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.
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.
“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.