Conrad: The Secret Sharer
(1) Preliminary Notes
First, don't be put off by the rather intricate grammar of the first paragraph. The rest of the story is not written in that way. We'll discuss why he uses such complicated sentence patterns. Perhaps it's something to do with the narrator's loneliness. Anyway, the main point at the opening, besides this complicated 'scene setting' is stated right at the end of this first paragraph when he says "And then I was left alone with my ship, anchored at the head of the Gulf of Siam."
Before we meet, would you, if you can:
· Read Part 1 of the story
· Find out something about Conrad’s life
· Think about
o What makes the Captain uncertain of himself
o Why he identifies so closely with Leggatt
o Why he helps him without really thinking about it
o Think of any other stories The Secret Sharer reminds you of in any way
o How this might be called a ‘psychological’ story. And if you can find out what a 'doppleganger' is.
Secret Sharer: Thoughts about Part One
The new captain is young and inexperienced and has suddenly been placed with a well tried crew who all knew each other, and in the middle of a voyage. He is also younger than all the officers but one. He’s a stranger, then. He is confident in his sailing skills, but no in his ability to deal with men. He feels they are laughing at him when he’s not there. He’s just a little too ‘nice’. And to them he’s untested, so naturally, he thinks, they’ll be wondering if he knows his onions.
He’s something of a solitary too, as can be seen by the way he stands alone on deck and looks at every detail of the dim land, the temple, the trees, the line of the shore, and so on.
Then suddenly he behaves very unconventionally by offering to do the night shift until five in the morning – something captains don’t normally do. This decision can only increase the crew’s speculations about him. It may look like trying to curry favour perhaps, or perhaps it allows him to be alone with ‘his’ ship for the night and settle himself with her, as a sort of partner.
His decision is decisive in, by chance, allowing Leggatt to get secretly on board, and then be hidden in the Captain’s room. His sudden meeting with Leggatt provides him with a ‘secret friend’, perhaps comfort as it’s someone who is not a crew member. It’s this coincidence followed by hiding and secrecy that make some reader’s think that Leggatt is imaginary. The Captains solitude and anxiety produce him, as it were. His name could be connected with the word ‘legate’ which means a kind of deputy.
No reason is given why the Captain decides to help Leggatt and break the law by hiding an accused, now wanted, man. He manages to place Leggatt in parts of his quarters where he will not be seen by visitors coming for orders, or to clean, or the captain of Leggatt’s ship.
The Captain continually sees Leggatt as a second self, a double, a doppelganger even. This is emphasised by the sameness of their nightwear. And yet Leggatt is a different kind of person from the Captain. He is, it seems, quick tempered, impatient, and violent, qualities which lead to his unintended murder of a crewman. Quite the opposite of the Captain who is uncertain, indeed timid. So in what sense does he think of Leggatt as his double? In short, what does Leggatt, mean to him?
Already we have got the idea that the Captain is dealing, not just with a mysterious stranger, but with his own lack of self-confidence as a commander of a ship. The story shows him coming of age as an adult, acknowledging the inner fears, which rise up from the sea depths of his unconscious and must be confronted and overcome. We talk of ‘facing’ and also of ‘getting rid’ of our fears. As the Captain, in Part Two will face and get rid of Leggatt. But his relationship with Leggatt is more complex than dealing with inner weakness, because the Captain, although he will eventually ‘get rid’ of Leggatt, is also very much drawn to him as a fellow-stranger, as it were.