The Secret Sharer
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"The Secret Sharer" is a short story by Polish-British author Joseph Conrad, originally written in 1909 and first published in two parts in the August and September 1910 editions of Harper's Magazine. It was later included in the short story collection Twixt Land and Sea (1912). The story was adapted for a segment of the 1952 film Face to Face, and also for a one-act play in 1969 by C. R. (Chuck) Wobbe. A new film, Secret Sharer, inspired by the story and directed by Peter Fudakowski, was released in the United Kingdom in June 2014.
August 1910 edition of Harper's Magazine
As dusk begins to fall, the unnamed narrator of the story, the new Captain of a British vessel currently anchored at the mouth of the Meinam River in the Gulf of Siam, stands on the deck of his ship before joining his crew for supper. The time is approximately eight o'clock.
At supper, the Captain remarks that he saw the masts of a ship anchored amongst some nearby islands. The Chief Mate explains that the ship to which the Captain is referring is probably another English one, waiting for a favorable tide to sail home. The Second Mate elaborates: the ship is the Sephora, from Liverpool, and is bound home from Cardiff with a cargo of coal, which he had learned from the skipper of a tugboat who had previously come aboard to fetch the Captain's letters.
The Captain makes a magnanimous gesture by offering to take the anchor watch himself until one o'clock, after which time he will get the Second Mate to relieve him. Again alone on deck, the Captain meditatively smokes a cigar and again considers his own "strangeness" to the ship and its command, and his unfamiliarity with the crew. The rest of the crew sleeps soundly.
The Captain notices that the rope side ladder, hung over the side of the ship to accommodate the skipper of the tugboat, has not been brought in. As he begins to pull it, he feels a jerk at the other end and curiously looks over the rail into the sea. He sees a naked man floating in the water and holding the end of the ladder. The man introduces himself as Leggatt. He has been in the water since nine o'clock, which makes the Captain consider his strength and youth. Leggatt climbs up the ladder and the Captain rushes to his cabin to fetch him some clothes. The Captain learns that Leggatt was until recently the chief mate of the Sephora, having been stripped of the title after he accidentally killed a fellow crewman while trying to repair the ship's foresail during a storm. The Captain tells Leggatt that they should retire to his cabin so as not to be discovered by his own Chief Mate. The Captain hides Leggatt in his cabin, returns to the deck, summons the Chief Mate to take over the anchor watch, and then returns to his cabin.
Leggatt continues his story: although the murder was unintentional, he was placed under arrest and kept in his cabin for almost seven weeks. Approximately six weeks into his confinement, Leggatt asked the Skipper to leave his door unlocked that night, while the Sephora sailed through the Sunda Straits, so that he could jump off and swim to the Java coast, but the Skipper refused.
Three weeks later, the Sephora came to its present location, and Leggatt discovered that the ship's steward, wholly by accident, had left the door to his cabin unlocked. Leggatt wandered onto the deck and jumped off into the sea. He swam to a nearby islet while the Sephora's crew lowered a boat to search for him. Leggatt removed his clothes and sank them, determined never to return. He swam to another small island, saw the riding light of the Captain's ship, and swam to it. Eventually, he reached the rope ladder, completely exhausted after swimming over a mile.
The Captain helps Leggatt into his bed, where he falls asleep immediately. The Captain eventually falls asleep himself. The next morning, the steward enters the Captain's cabin to bring him his morning coffee, but does not notice Leggatt because the Captain has drawn the curtains that separate the bed from the rest of the cabin. The Captain becomes paranoid that someone will discover Leggatt and decides that he must show himself on deck. He learns that a ship's boat is coming toward the ship and orders the ladder to be dropped over the side, leaving Leggatt in hiding.
The ship's boat is carrying the Skipper of the Sephora, who boards the Captain's ship looking for any sign of Leggatt. The Skipper is distressed over Leggatt's actions and disappearance, explaining that he has been at sea for thirty-seven years and has never seen anything like what happened with Leggatt. The Captain offers the explanation that perhaps the heavy sea — rather than Leggatt — had caused the death of the crewman, but the Skipper tells him that this could not have been the case. He then tells the Captain that he will have to report Leggatt as a suicide.
The Skipper is, however, suspicious of the Captain and remarks that while the mainland is seven miles away, the Captain's ship is only two miles away from the Sephora. Hoping to clear the suspicion, the Captain shows the Skipper the rest of his cabin and stateroom, announcing his intention to do so, so that Leggatt will know to remain absolutely still. As the Skipper descends the ladder to return to his ship, he begins to ask the Captain if he suspects Leggatt to be secretly stowing away on board, but the Captain quickly dismisses him with, "Certainly not."
The Captain and Leggatt have another secret conversation. Leggatt tells the Captain that the Sephora's Skipper lied when he said that he gave the order to repair the foresail. Rather, he whimpered about their "last hope" while Leggatt repaired the foresail without being told to do so. The Captain, wholly convinced of Leggatt's innocence, understands that the weather, on the night Leggatt killed the crewman, "crushed an unworthy mutinous existence."
Leggatt's presence in the Captain's cabin causes the Captain to constantly think of him, and the Chief Mate and the helmsman begin to notice the Captain's odd, stealthy behavior. While the tension grows more unbearable, Leggatt hides mostly in the Captain's bathroom and sleeps with him in his bed. Leggatt eats tins of preserves stored in the Captain's locker and drinks the Captain's morning coffee.
Leggatt asks the Captain to maroon him on a nearby shore, since he does not intend to return to England to be tried and hung. The Captain initially refuses, but then agrees to grant Leggatt his wish.
At midnight, the Captain goes on deck and orders the ship to change its tack and approach the east side of the Gulf. The Chief Mate silently hints at his disapproval and tells the Second Mate that the order shows a lack of judgment. By noon, the Chief Mate wonders when the Captain will order a change of course, but the Captain tells him that they will be sailing as close to the islands as they can to find some "land breezes" to propel them more quickly than they were moving in the middle of the Gulf. The Chief Mate expresses his shock at such a reckless decision.
That night, the Captain tells Leggatt that he will steer the ship near Koh-ring, an island that seems inhabited, maneuvering it to within half a mile of the shore so that Leggatt will not have to swim far to reach land. Leggatt warns him to be careful, lest a mishap cost the Captain his first command. The Captain returns to the deck and orders the Second Mate to open the quarter-deck ports. He then returns to his cabin and tells Leggatt to escape out of the quarter-deck ports while the rest of the crew is occupied. He also tells him to lower himself to the sea with a rope to avoid a splash. Leggatt grabs the Captain's arm as a silent gesture of thanks.
That night, the Captain visits Leggatt for the last time. He gives him three sovereigns, which Leggatt initially refuses but eventually accepts. Neither man says anything when they separate for the last time.
When the Captain returns to the deck, he is startled by the ship's proximity to land, but he knows he must maintain this course to help Leggatt escape. He orders the helmsman to continue their course while the other crewmen stare in disbelief. As they approach Koh-ring and the ship comes dangerously close to running aground, the members of the crew begin vocalizing their concern. The Chief Mate cries that the ship's bottom will be torn off.
Although the Captain remains stern before the crew, he is filled with doubt about their chances of survival. The dark sky, combined with the shadows from the hills of Koh-ring, make navigation very difficult, and the Captain wishes he had some kind of mark in the water by which to gauge his steering. Suddenly, he sees a white object in the water within a yard of the ship's side — he recognizes it as his hat, which he had given to Leggatt and which had fallen off his head when he began his swim to shore. The Captain uses this mark to help him steer the ship, which avoids being grounded and steers clear of any further danger. The Captain now feels in perfect command of the ship and his crew. As his ship sails on, he watches his hat disappear from view and thinks of Leggatt, "striking out for a new destiny."
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When the story begins, Conrad implies that the Captain gained his post through connections rather than by steadily rising through the ranks of his fellow sailors. By the end of the story, however, Leggatt helps the Captain become more assured with his command and more respected by his crew.
The Chief Mate's anecdote about finding a scorpion in his inkwell holds symbolic importance. Like the scorpion, found in the most unlikely of places, Leggatt similarly is found clinging to the rope ladder. Leggatt's crime of murder (although accidental) similarly marks him as dangerous, like a scorpion. Finally, Conrad begins employing color symbolism here: the scorpion drowns in an inkwell, rendering it black when discovered by the Chief Mate, while Leggatt's hair is black, thus strengthening the connection between these two outcasts. Black is the color most associated with evil in Western thinking, and one should note that both the scorpion and Leggatt are stained black: the scorpion literally by the ink, and Leggatt figuratively by his crime.
The Captain's desire to take the anchor watch himself stems from his feelings of isolation and alienation. Although he feels "painfully" that he is "doing something unusual" in taking on the watch himself, he does so to learn more about the ship and what he calls "the novel responsibility of command." He enjoys watching the sea because of its "singleness of purpose." The sea, unlike his own command, makes sense to him in its "absolute straightforwardness."
Leggatt's entrance into the story marks him as an almost supernatural force, sent by some higher power to assist the Captain in his struggle to gain the respect of his men and himself. His naked form and his rising from the sea suggest that Leggatt has been "created" for the Captain. Again note Conrad's use of symbolism: water has been widely used as a symbol of the subconscious mind, and nudity is an obvious symbol of feeling metaphorically "exposed" in front of others. Thus, Leggatt symbolically rises out of the Captain's subconscious, because he feels that he is "exposing" his weaknesses as a new commander. Note that when Leggatt first encounters the Captain, he asks, "I suppose your captain's turned in?" Leggatt assumes that the Captain is an ordinary seaman — perfectly understandable under the circumstances, but also a clear indication that there is nothing stately or "captain-like" about the Captain. Also note that the Captain first obliquely denies his position, saying that he is "sure" the captain is not turned in, before he states, "I am the captain." Again, note that while he is technically the Captain, he lacks the qualities that suggest the substance of a captain, such as fortitude, presence, and strength. Conrad's story is, in part, about the Captain's acquisition of these qualities with help from Leggatt.
Conrad begins stressing the idea that Leggatt is, in certain important ways, the Captain's double. His use of what is commonly called the doppelganger theme serves to highlight the qualities that the Captain lacks by showing them embodied in his double. Leggatt's being dressed in one of the Captain's sleeping suits and hiding in his cabin suggests their relationship in physical terms, but Conrad suggests their bond in many other ways as well: both men are young, both hold (or, in Leggatt's case, held) posts of importance that they acquired through their "connections", both are "Conway boys", both are isolated from their respective crews, both save a ship during a dangerous event, and both eventually strike out for "new destinies." Each man offers something to his double: the Captain offers Leggatt a place to hide and his eventual means of escape, while Leggatt forces the Captain, through his assistance in helping him at Koh-ring, a chance to prove his seamanship in the eyes of the crew.
The fact that the Captain so readily believes Leggatt's story about his murder of the sailor may mark him as gullible or even foolish in the eyes of some. However, the Captain — although working with a crew — feels isolated from them, and welcomes Leggatt's presence in much the same way that Leggatt welcomes his. Leggatt is, at first, someone the Captain can speak to, and he offers to help him almost as a means of continuing their "secret" relationship. The doppelganger theme usually involves a man meeting what the Captain calls his "other self." In this light, Leggatt is (figuratively) a "part" of the Captain that he doesn't know he possesses. At the story's end, Leggatt has effectively opened the Captain's eyes to the qualities he thought he lacked at the beginning of his command. Thus, the Captain immediately offers to hide Leggatt because, in a symbolic sense, Leggatt is the Captain — or at least the part of him that has been, until now, unexpressed.
Conrad suggests that Leggatt "shares" his better qualities with the Captain; he also uses the Skipper of the Sephora to contrast the kind of captain that the Captain will become at the end of the story. The Sephora's Skipper represents one possible outcome of the Captain's fate, as does Leggatt. The Skipper is a man who hides behind his command, fearful of any damage to his reputation and fearful of his own crew. (The presence of his wife on board may be a hint that the Skipper is more "wimpy" than he should be when commanding the Sephora.) Recall Leggatt's story in Part 1: although the Skipper knew that Leggatt saved the ship by repairing the foresail, he would not allow this to mitigate Leggatt's punishment because "He was afraid of the men, and also of that old second mate of his." Like the Captain, the Skipper was faced with a second mate who questioned his command — but unlike the Captain during the episode at Koh-ring, he is too afraid of looking foolish in front of others to give any order that may seem questionable. The Skipper also lies to the Captain about the foresail, saying he ordered its repair, when in fact Leggatt was responsible for doing the job and saving the Sephora. Fearful of giving any credit to Leggatt, the Skipper lies to mask his own lack of foresight, seamanship, and conviction. He also tells the Captain that he "never liked" Leggatt — but according to Leggatt, the Skipper was unable to meet his eyes when visiting him in his cabin, suggesting the guilt felt by the Skipper over arresting Leggatt for a technical, yet accidental, crime. The kind of command practiced by the Skipper is exactly what Leggatt helps the Captain avoid.
Part 2 also marks the Captain's growing bravery, which is contrasted with the Skipper's cowardice. When speaking to the Skipper, the Captain tells him he is hard of hearing so that the Skipper will speak loud enough for Leggatt to hear him; and he deftly handles the Skipper's attempts at prying information about Leggatt out of him. Note that as the Captain continues risking his command for Leggatt, their relationship takes a physical toll on him: he stealthily paces the decks, startles the steward, and must force himself to adopt the "unconscious alertness" required of all able seamen. While Leggatt teaches the Captain what makes a good commander, the lessons are exhausting and trying. As the Captain says, this period is "an infinitely miserable time."
Leggatt himself becomes even more unreal in the second half of the story. During the scene where the steward almost discovers Leggatt in the Captain's bathroom, the Captain wonders if Leggatt is "not visible to other eyes" than his own. He forms an "irresistible doubt" of Leggatt's bodily existence and even compares keeping the secret to being haunted. Even Leggatt is aware of his ghost-like status when he tells the Captain, "It would never do for me to come to life again." Unlike the keeper of a haunted house, however, the Captain is haunted by his other self, manifested in the presence of a man who, the Captain comes to realize, embodies the part of him that needs to be revealed if he is to mature as a commander and not become a doddering coward, such as the Skipper of the Sephora.
This crucial distinction is made clear to the Captain when Leggatt tells him that he must maroon him. At first, the Captain resists, stating that they "are not living a boy's adventure story" and that such a plan is absurd. Leggatt, ever the teacher, tells the Captain that he thought he had "understood thoroughly," which makes the Captain consider the shaping of his own personality.
- Sometimes called a novella (it is about 16,500 words long).
- Lisa Deiuri (1 August 2015). "Il compagno segreto di Joseph Conrad su Harper's Magazine". The Secret Sharer. http://compagnosegreto.blogspot.com/. Retrieved 8 December 2016.
- "Joseph Conrad -- The Secret-Sharer". Harper's Magazine. [Archive search]. Retrieved 8 December 2016.
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- The Secret Sharer at Project Gutenberg
- The Secret Sharer public domain audiobook at LibriVox
- Secret Sharer movie praised by seafarers' charity Apostleship of the Sea
Official site for Secret Sharer, released in the UK on 27 June 2014: