Secret Sharer: Essay Q&A
1. There are few characters in “The Secret Sharer” but each plays an important role. Discuss the function of Captain Archbold of the Sephora.
Conrad uses Captain Archbold, the Skipper of the Sephora, to illustrate the type of captain that the young, inexperienced Captain might become in time if he does not learn quickly and mature. We first hear about the Skipper through the eyes of Leggatt, who tells the Captain that the Skipper was afraid of everything: “all his nerve went to pieces in that hellish spell of bad weather we had.” Captain Archbold has been at sea for thirty-seven years, and been a captain for twenty of those years, fifteen with the Sephora. But all those years of experience do not seem to have amounted to much, because in a crisis he is weak. When a furious gale threatens to sink the ship, he is paralyzed by indecision. Leggatt’s account of the incident is a devastating indictment of his captain, who just stood there and “whimpered” about their last hope, “positively whimpered about it and nothing else.” Leggatt adds that to hear his skipper going on like that, so immobilized in a severe crisis, was enough to drive a man out of his mind. But Captain Archbold cannot face up to the truth of this incident. He lies to the Captain when he tells him that he gave the order to repair the foresail during the storm when in fact it was Leggatt who ordered the men to carry out the task.
Captain Archbold knows full well that he is ineffective and thus is deeply concerned about his reputation, and what others think of him. These are the qualities that emerge in the aftermath of Leggatt’s killing of the sailor. The Skipper shook like a leaf when he reprimanded Leggatt, telling him that the law must take its course. Leggatt thinks the Skipper was scared of what the consequences might be for him, as the captain of the ship. Captain Archbold is therefore presented as a fearful man who constantly questions his command. In addition, like the Captain, he still fears his own crew. Leggatt remarks that the Skipper “was afraid of the men.” This is significant because it echoes the Captain’s problems with his impertinent Second Mate. But after the Captain learns his lessons from Leggatt, he behaves very differently from the badly flawed skipper of the Sephora. At Koh-ring, for example, he fearlessly takes on the task of commanding a ship without once doubting himself or worrying about what his crew might think.
2. How does the idea of the Doppelgänger function in ““The Secret Sharer”?
Conrad’s ““The Secret Sharer”” utilizes the idea of the doppelgänger, a well-known motif in myth, folklore and literature. The German word comes from doppel ("double") and gänger (usually translated as "goer"). The doppelgänger is the ghostly and sometimes physical representation of the double of a living person brought about, in some circumstances, by an overstressed unconscious. The doppelgänger is a second self that haunts or complements the first self. The idea has been used by authors as different as Oscar Wilde, in A Picture of Dorian Gray, Sylvia Plath, in The Bell Jar, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, in The Double.
At the beginning, the Captain is presented as a man who lacks knowledge of himself. Not only does he feel that he is a stranger on the ship he commands, he also feels “somewhat of a stranger to myself.” He lacks self-understanding. He does not know how to reach down into the depths of himself for strength and inspiration. Until he can do this, he will remain weak and insecure, a captain in name only. He is really only half of what he could be. Ideally, he would need the help of an experienced friend, a stronger mentor who could help him gather the courage and wherewithal to command a ship successfully. Unfortunately, there is no one on the ship who could play that role for him, but help comes unexpectedly and in the strangest of forms—the naked man whom the Captain pulls out of the black water, the man who is to become the secret sharer of not only his room but also his deepest thoughts. Shortly after rescuing Leggatt, the Captain actually begins to call him his “double,” and consistently refers to this ghostly entity as either his double or his “second self.” Also, the Captain and Leggett bear an uncanny physical resemblance; they grew up in a similar upper-class environment, attended the same school and both acquired their jobs at sea through personal connections. They are simply different aspects of the same self. By admitting his “double” into his conscious awareness, the Captain is able to access a deeper level of his own mind and acquire the resources he needs to fulfill his task successfully. Although Leggatt appears as a figure external to him, the Captain is in fact digging deeper into himself to discover the strong man and leader that is buried within him. In the crisis that he is faced with, he finds a way to become more whole within himself. With the aid of Leggatt, his Doppelgänger, the immature Captain is able to learn how to take control of his ship and of his crew. At the end, when Leggatt is no longer needed, the Captain releases him back into the dark water from which he emerged.
3. What does the final scene at Koh-ring contribute overall to the story?
The final scene, off the island of Koh-ring, is the site of the Captain’s final test in commanding his ship and garnering the respect of his crew. At Koh-ring, the Captain must demonstrate that he has completed Leggatt’s lessons and can for the first time take full control of the ship. He realizes that his future career depends on it; he cannot afford to make a mistake. He quickly shows that he is up to the task, dealing with the men forcefully and confidently, not worrying about the “silent criticism” from his Chief Mate.
After he gives the order to “stand right in,” in other words to move closer to the dark island in order to give Leggatt a chance to escape, the Chief Mate cries out “do you mean, sir, in the dark amongst the lot of all them islands and reefs and shoals?” However, instead of hesitating and second guessing himself, the Captain responds calmly, that they must go inshore to find the land breezes. A little later, when the Second Mate questions why he should carry out an order, the Captain responds “the only reason you need concern yourself about is because I tell you to do so.” This is a very different Captain from the inexperienced, uncomfortable one at the beginning of the story. When he gives another order and the second mate asks incredulously, “Are you going to try that, sir?” the Captain takes no notice of him but calmly gives the order to the helmsman. As they draw closer to the island, the crew is frightened and despairing but the captain never wavers. He has come into his own and for the first time experiences “the perfect communion of a seaman and his first command.” Just as earlier he had reached down into the dark depths of his own nature and found Leggatt and everything Leggatt represents, he can now go confidently into the dark of the unknown island. He has nothing left to fear in life.
4. Some critics suggest that “The Secret Sharer” is really a tale of class struggle. How does class figure into this story?
At the beginning the Captain feels like an outsider, “a stranger” on a ship full of men. With the exception of the Second Mate, he is the youngest on board, and the least experienced. Yet, he has been given command of the ship simply because he knew the right people and thus feels that all the other men resent him. Leggatt, the Secret Sharer of his life, is also, unlike the other men on board, a gentleman with a background very similar to the Captain’s. They are both from upper-class families and were are even “Conway boys,” having attended the same upscale school.
The idea of class as an issue becomes more apparent when Captain Archbold comes on board the Captain’s ship in Part II to investigate the disappearance of his chief mate Leggatt. The Skipper stresses how long he himself has been at sea, for “seven and thirty virtuous years”; he adds that Leggatt was hired for the job as chief mate because he knew the owners of the company. As a member of a privileged class, Leggatt had the right contacts. The Skipper continues on that Leggatt was “very smart” and very “gentlemanly,” unlike him, a “plain” man. In other words, the Skipper is resentful of Leggatt who has an upper-class background while he is from the middle-class. This class issue could have played a role in the Skipper’s determination to charge Leggatt with murder and return him to England for trial.
5. In “The Secret Sharer” Conrad compares Leggatt to Cain. Discuss how this Biblical figure functions in the story.
In Genesis the first parents Adam and Eve have two sons named Cain and Abel. After Abel is favored by God for his sacrifice of a lamb, his brother Cain murders him in a jealous rage. Afterwards, God places a mark upon Cain’s forehead and sends him out into the world as a vagabond with no man ever to befriend him. Cain is doomed to roam the world. In the story, Leggatt is compared to Cain. Given that no one is to befriend Cain, the Captain’s rescue and care of Leggatt constitutes an act of acceptance and forgiveness of an outcast. When Leggatt tells the Captain about what happened on the ship the night he killed a crewman, he mentions that Captain Archbold’s wife wanted to be well rid of Leggatt: “the brand of Cain business don’t you see?” (He means that he is branded like Cain and therefore friendless.) The Skipper wants to return Leggatt to England to stand trial. In other words, Leggatt is no longer welcome among his fellows. Leggatt makes another allusion to the story of Cain and Abel when he explains to the Captain: “that’s all right. I was ready to go off wandering on the face of the Earth—and that was price enough to pay for an Abel of sorts.” Leggatt had been perfectly willing to leave the ship and go wandering; to be ostracized he felt was enough punishment for killing the insolent crewman. However, the Skipper was concerned about his reputation and insisted upon returning Leggatt for trial instead of allowing him to escape; this although Leggatt saved every man on board by repairing the foresail.
When the Captain rescues Leggatt, swimming in the water miles from land, he not only saves his life, but accepts him at once as an equal, a part of himself and protects him. Leggatt, on the other hand, teaches the Captain the necessary traits necessary to effectively command a ship. Both men then expiate their guilt—Leggatt by training the Captain not to make the same mistakes he has made and the Captain by overcoming his insecurity and weakness. At the end, the Captain, now in full command of his ship and crew, no longer needs Leggatt who drops back into the sea where, like Cain, he will continue “to be hidden forever from all friendly faces, to be a fugitive and a vagabond on the earth.” He will always be a viewed like Cain, a pariah.