The Secret Sharer
by Joseph Conrad, 1910
 

Main Characters

Narrator - A new, young captain assigned to a ship that encounters a murderer on the high seas.

Leggatt - The murderer from the Sephora who escapes to the Narrators ship and is harbored by the narrator allowing him to learn much about himself.

Archbold - The captain of the Sephora who comes aboard the narrators ship in search of Leggatt while providing a contrast to the new, inexperienced narrator.

Chief Mate - An old experienced sailor who looks down towards the new captain because of his inexperience.
 

Minor Characters

Second Mate - The only sailor on the ship younger than the caption; yet also looks down at the captain.

Achbold’s Wife - The wife of the captain of the Sephora who lives on the Sephora against common convention.
 

Settings

Captain’s cabin - A small L shaped room which contains a bed, a closet, a desk, a bathroom and little else.

Sephora - the ship which Leggatt came from.

Ship - the ship which the narrator pilots.
 

Plot

 The young narrator recently became the captain of a ship who’s crew had been together for at least 18 months.  He feels insecure about his position and is alienated by the rest of the crew because of his youth and inexperience.  One night, after ordering the rest of the crew to go to sleep, he wanders the deck and notices a man, nearly dead, floating besides his ship holding onto the rope ladder.  The narrator allows the man on board and takes the stranger to his room where he finds out that they are very much alike in many ways.  The stranger’s name is Leggatt and he was the first mate of the Sephora, a ship floating nearby, until he killed a crewman.  He was stripped of his position and held captive on the boat.  One night, he was able to escape and swim to the narrator’s boat.  Because of Leggatt’s precarious position, the narrator keeps silent about him and keeps Leggat in his room.  Later, the older, more experienced captain of the Sephora comes aboard the narrator’s ship in search of Leggatt, but leaves after not finding him.  Later, the narrator orders his ship near an island in order to allow Leggatt to swim away to that island.  The crew is miffed but they sail safely away after the narrator finds the hat which he gave Leggatt in the water serving as a marker of boats direction.
 

Symbols

Floppy hat - This is the gift that the narrator gives to Leggatt in order to protect him from the sun while on the island, but is dropped into the water as Leggatt leaves and serves as a marker to protect the narrator from crashing into the shore making this hat a symbol of mutual protection and the relationship between the narrator and Leggatt.

Darkness - This is the darkness in which Leggat was found serving as a symbol for the soul of the narrator in that he could not see what was in his own soul and did not know how to behave towards his new crew.  After this darkness is lifted, the narrator finds himself and is able to command his ship with confidence.

Main Symbols

 

The Captain's White Floppy Hat: The symbol of the white hat, at the end of the book, is a symbol of good, of the captain's pity and mercy for "his other self." The item also represents the physical parting of the captain and Leggatt, who have throughout the story fused into one (even the grammar eventually refers to Leggatt and the captain as one person, and the name Leggatt is used very infrequently throughout the book). The hat was the pinnacle of this language and the captain's identification with his secret self: when he justifies giving the hat to Leggatt he says "I saw myself wandering barefooted, bareheaded, the sun beating on my dark poll. I snatched off my floppy had and tried hurriedly in the dark to ram it on my other self." That he leaves the hat is significant, because it symbolizes the parting between the two. More significantly, and ironically, however, the hat literally points the way to the Captain's successful maneuvering of his ship to a safe place, an act that insures his acceptance and the salvation of himself, his ship, and all those aboard the ship. The implication, then, could be that by pitying our "dark selves," by accepting and helping them to grow, we help ourselves, forgive ourselves, and enable ourselves to escape their reaches.

Sleeping Suits: These suits, which both the captain and the "secret self" wear, represent the place where the "dark self" and the self communicate. Their color, gray, further emphasizes the gray area where the conscious and the subconscious meet. Furthermore, these symbolic pieces of clothing are important because they clothe the two different men identically. That they are associated with sleeping and the night, adds to the dream-like effect of the captain's encounter with "the secret self." The association with the night also emphasizes the "darker self" or the subconscious that Leggatt represents.

Leggatt: Clearly, the person of Leggatt is central to the story, and extremely symbolic. In one reading of "The Secret Sharer," Leggatt represents a lawless, subrational side of the self which may lie dormant until some moment of moral stress, and then must somehow be encountered. Another similar reading holds that Leggatt represents the subconscious that is buried deep within all. This function is revealed to the reader through many ways. The first point that emphasizes this is Leggatt's utter lack of rationality (contrary to the Captain's descriptions of him as Śintelligent' and Śsane'). In his own element, the fishlike Leggatt loses even the appearance of rationality: "With a gasp I saw revealed to my stare a pair of feet, the long legs, a broad livid back immersed right up to the neck in a greenish cadaverous glow . . . He was complete but for the head. A headless corpse!" If Leggatt symbolically lacks a head, as this description and his name imply, then there is little surprise in his finding the narrator's hat useless when at the end of the story he returns to his native element. Also, the fact that he was a naked swimmer when he was discovered, is of importance, because that symbolizes that he is stripped to his basic substance, in his native element, the water. However, because his color is "pale" and he is immersed in " a greenish cadaverous glow," in Conrad's terms means that he is generally an evil person (the Śpale' and lack of color), however, the light coming from him indicates the possibility of something good evolving from him in the end, that is, the captain's maturation.

Scorpion: One of the important, but subtle, symbols within the first part of the story is the scorpion that the chief mate finds in his cabin. In the story, the mysterious creature causes the mate much speculation as why it chose his particular cabin and drowned itself in his inkwell. As the story progresses, the same questions can be applied to Leggatt, as the scorpion in the mate's cabin and Leggatt in the Captain's cabin are similar - they are dangerous, they come from places that are far removed from the boat, and they hide in cabins. The scorpion, therefore, symbolizes the future intrusion of Leggatt on the ship and within the captain's cabin. The mate's speculation concerning the scorpion, however, can also be applied to Leggatt - it is not that he has chosen specifically the captain, but he is a more universal symbol of the subconscious and "darker self" that plagues everyone, everywhere.

Captain Archbold: Captain Archbold, as discussed in the character summaries, represents the law and the irony between doing what is right and obey the law. His unwillingness to be flexible concerning the extenuating circumstances around the murder that Leggatt commits shows the difference between the law and doing what is right.

Nameless captain and ship: The nameless captain and ship is surprising in this story is surprising, given the fact that they are the central figures on the book. They, therefore, are symbolic of the universality of the tale. The captain is every man and the ship is the journey that every man must make. By leaving these key elements of the story nameless, Conrad emphasizes that each of us has a dark side that we must confront at sometime on life's path.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TESTS AND ANSWERS

TEST

_____ 1. An immediate problem which the narrator-captain perceived was that

A. as a newcomer he is unfamiliar with his officers
B. his ship was barely adequate for the voyage
C. the surliness of the crew was blatant

_____ 2. From his first meeting with Leggatt, the captain

A. identified closely with the intruder
B. vowed to protect him
C. was convinced that he knew the stowaway

_____ 3. Leggatt admitted to having murdered his shipmate

A. in a fit of revenge
B. in a fight during a storm
C. to prevent a mutiny

_____ 4. The secret sharer had been

A. a steward on the Liverpool
B. the first mate on the Sephora
C. the bo's'n on the Mosholu

_____ 5. Stewed chicken, oysters, and sardines were part of

A. the ship's strange cargo
B. the stowaway's diet
C. the captain's dream of his homecoming dinner

_____ 6. The peculiar shape of the captain's cabin

A. made it inevitable that the stranger would be discovered
B. was altered to conceal Leggatt
C. allowed him to hide his passenger from the crew

_____ 7. At one point, the captain wondered whether

A. his passenger was merely a figment of his own imagination
B. his impulsive decision would lead to criminal charges
C. his passenger's presence would invite disaster for the ship

_____ 8. The captain's erratic orders led the crew to believe that

A. he was hiding his wife
B. he was an escaped convict
C. his seamanship was suspect

_____ 9. The captain's hat

A. added to his imposing mien
B. helped to guide the ship to safety
C. shielded the stranger's face from the crew

_____ 10. Conrad ended his story by describing the stranger as

A. "my double, my brother, my mirror image"
B. "the sharer of a sacred mutuality"
C. "a free man, a proud swimmer striking out for a new destiny"

11. Discuss the theme of courage in crisis in "The Secret Sharer."

ANSWERS

  1. A
  2. A
  3. B
  4. B
  5. B
  6. C
  7. A
  8. C
  9. B
  10. C

11. Two shipboard crises occur in the story- one we witness, the other we hear about- and in both cases there's a man whose courage fails him and a man whose courage pulls the ship through to safety. When the Sephora is beset by a storm, its captain, Archbold, loses his nerve and can't act; he's unable to give the order to set the sail that is the ship's last hope, and his loss of nerve endangers the whole crew. Fortunately, his chief mate, Leggatt, takes matters into his own hands and sets the sail, and it's through his courageous and determined action that the ship survives the storm.

We get a parallel situation at the end of the story. The young captain keeps a cool head during the tense moments when his ship is so close to shore that it's in danger of running aground. He's frightened himself- so frightened that he has to shut his eyes rather than watch the shore loom closer- but he never lets his men see his fear, and he never lets fear paralyze him as it paralyzed Captain Archbold. In contrast, the devoted chief mate loses control of his emotions and begins to despair aloud, in front of the crew. His behavior proves that he doesn't have what it takes to be a captain, a leader.

We may surmise that Leggatt provides an inspiration to the initially self-doubting young captain. The captain has the stuff of leadership within him from the start, but his contact with Leggatt nourishes that quality and brings it out.