Secret Sharer: Novel Summary
Summary The story’s narrator, a young unnamed captain, stands on the deck of his anchored ship watching the sun go down over the Meinam River in the Gulf of Siam. Stillness engulfs him: “nothing moved, nothing lived, not a canoe on the water, not a bird in the air.” Soon, however, his reverie is disturbed by something behind one of the islands and the sounds made by the men on the ship, and he goes to supper. With the exception of the Second Mate, the Captain is the youngest onboard and he feels insecure in his new position. Having come on board just two weeks earlier—all the other men have been together for a year and a half—he feels like a “stranger.” He wonders whether he can live up to “that ideal conception of one’s own personality every man sets up for himself.”
He finds two officers at supper and tells them that he has just seen the mast of another ship anchored between two islands. The Chief Mate responds that the ship must be another English ship waiting for the correct tide. The young Second Mate informs them that the skipper of a tugboat informed him earlier that the ship is the Sephora, out of Liverpool, with plans to leave for Cardiff in two days with a cargo of coal. The Captain then informs the First Mate that all the crew can go to sleep and that he himself will take a five-hour watch until one o’clock, at which time the Second Mate can take over. The other officers are amazed at his unprecedented behavior.
Once more alone on the deck, the Captain smokes a cigar and feels that if he is “alone” with the ship, he can get to know it and not feel so strange as its Captain. He takes time to admire the ship’s deck and thinks it was “very fine,” as he plots out the upcoming journey in his mind. Soon he goes downstairs to get a cigar and afterwards emerges barefoot on the deck thinking about how glad he is in his choice of career. He feels “the great security of the sea as compared with unrest on the land,” but doubts himself for upsetting the routine of the ship by taking the watch. He feels concerned about what the men will think. At this point the Captain notices a rope ladder that the crew failed to bring in after the skipper of the tugboat left, and he automatically begins to pull the ladder in. However, he is amazed to find that he cannot get it to move and suddenly feels a tug. When he puts his head over the rail he sees what at first appears to be a headless corpse floating on the black water but it turns out to be a naked man holding onto the rope ladder. Surprised, the captain drops his cigar into the water and asks “what’s the matter?” to which the man replies “cramp.” He introduces himself as Leggatt and after he finds out that the man on the deck asking him questions is indeed the captain he begins “gradually to climb the ladder,” at which point the Captain leaves to get him clothes. Checking to make sure his crew is asleep, the Captain returns with an identical sleeping suit for the naked man who, silent and barefoot, follows him across the deck “like his double.”
Leggatt, who is about twenty-five and well-built with a brown mustache, explains that he was the mate of the Sephora, the British ship anchored nearby between the islands. The Captain realizes how very much Leggatt and he look alike: “It was as though I had been faced by my own reflection in the depth of a somber and immense mirror.” Leggatt explains to the Captain that during the storm, in dire need of sleep, he had gotten into an argument with a surly crewman and, unable to contain his temper, began to choke him. At this point, an impending gale hit the boat and consequently the man died. Leggatt was blamed for his death by the captain of the Sephora and locked into his cabin until the ship returned to Britain where he would stand trial for murder. The Captain says he understands how the incident could have happened and that he could picture it precisely. After hiding Leggatt in his stateroom, the Captain wakens the Second Mate to continue the watch and returns to his cabin: “everything was as before in the ship—except that two of her captain’s sleeping suits were simultaneously in use.”
The Captain’s stateroom is shaped in the shape of the letter L, which makes it somewhat easy for Leggatt to remain unseen. Both men stand side by side next to the Captain’s bed, once again like mirror images, as Leggatt continues his tale. Three weeks earlier, he had asked the captain of the Sephora, whom he calls the Skipper, to leave the door to his cabin unlocked so he could escape and avoid prosecution in England. The captain, who was indebted to Leggatt for saving the ship, refused his request. So, when the steward inadvertently left the door to his cabin unlocked that evening, Leggatt jumped overboard and swam toward a nearby islet where he removed his clothes, sank them with a rock and made for another islet, after which he saw the light from the Captain’s ship. Exhausted after swimming over a mile, he reached the ship where he saw the hanging rope ladder. While Leggatt and the Captain converse, they can hear the Second Mate walking above.
By now it is 3:00 a.m. and the Captain gives Leggatt a hand up into his bed and closes the curtains before resting himself on the couch. In the morning, he wakes to a knock of the steward bringing him coffee. He is extremely nervous that the steward will discover Leggatt and bolts the door after him when he goes on deck. He acts with great dignity in front of the crew, but feels nervous throughout breakfast in the saloon with his officers. The Captain’s bathroom separates his stateroom from the saloon and it can be entered by a door from each room. As he eats, the Captain keeps thinking of the man in his stateroom, “sleeping in that bed behind the door which faced me as I sat at the head of the table. It was much like being mad, only it was worse because one was aware of it.”
Back in his stateroom, the Captain finds Leggatt and orders him into the bathroom before calling the steward to clean up his room. He bathes while Leggatt stands hidden in the bathroom, “the secret sharer of my life drawn bolt upright in that little space.” Afterwards, he calls for the First Mate while Leggatt remains hidden in the bathroom, so as to dispel the idea that he might possibly have someone hidden in his stateroom. Then he has Leggatt return to the stateroom while the steward cleans the bathroom which he has entered from the saloon: “such was [his] scheme for keeping his second self invisible.” In time, the Captain hears a knock on his door announcing that a ship’s boat is approaching their ship, and he goes on deck.
Analysis In the preface to his 1897 The Nigger and the Narcissus, Joseph Conrad wrote to his readers, “my task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see.” In this tale, “The Secret Sharer”, the author attempts to not only tell an intriguing story of adventure on the seas, but to enable his readers to “see” into the deepest inner workings of the human mind. He traces the relationship between an immature young Captain on his first command and his dark double Leggatt, an escaped prisoner who has killed a man in a fit of fury.
At the beginning of the story, the Captain suggests that “the ship was not likely to keep any surprises.” Conrad here uses a proleptic (anticipatory) device to prophetically suggest that something surprising will indeed occur. And sure enough, when the forlorn Captain looks out at the lonely stretch of dark water, the reader is prepared and not at all surprised at the arrival of Leggatt who is pulled by the Captain out of the water by a rope, which in a manner mimics a birth. Water traditionally symbolizes the unconscious mind, and thus, the insecure young man has metaphorically pulled Leggatt from his own unconscious. The reader should pause here to consider whether Leggatt indeed is “real” at all or whether the immature.
Captain—isolated, insecure, a “stranger” put to the test by his crew to perform on his first command—has indeed invented a double. In other words, has his mind “split” and an alter ego (Leggatt has a great deal of experience as a mariner) emerged to help him? In short, Conrad’s story is about how a young, immature Captain of a ship acquires the confidence and fortitude to be a true leader through the help of Leggatt, his dark double.
The Captain has gained his position not through years of service and toil like the rest of his crew but simply through his upper-class personal connections. Simply, the Captain is a gentleman. He is painfully aware of this and believes he can feel resentment from his middle and lower class crew, all of whom have had far more work experience. Without any friendly faces on board, he feels isolated, a “stranger,” as he puts it and decides to take the late-night anchor watch to make himself more familiar with the ship and “the novel responsibility of command.” It is during this watch that he first encounters Leggatt whom he soon and often afterwards refers to as his “double.”
“The Secret Sharer” can best be understood through a familiarity with Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s (1875-1961) form of psychoanalysis which is called Jungian analysis and deals with "Light" and "Shadow" or the archetypal figures of Ego and Shadow. Ego or consciousness is delicate, Jung maintains, and has to be protected, while the Shadow or the dark side is primitive, chaotic and powerful. When one is mentally healthy the Ego is able to balance conscious and unconscious effectively but when the Ego becomes weak or severely stressed then dangerous chaotic unconscious images can emerge. The example of the staid, respected Dr. Jekyll and the out-of-control Mr. Hyde, who comes out only at night, are often used to illustrate the classic good guy/bad guy split we all share as humans. (“Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” is a story by Robert Louis Stevenson.) The dark, shadowy Mr. Hyde only emerges and becomes dangerous when the Ego, or in this case Dr. Jekyll, is placed under a great deal of stress.
When we first encounter the Captain, he is deeply stressed at the idea that he might not live up not only to the expectations of his crew, all of whom have far more experience than he does, but also to the expectations he has placed upon himself: “I wondered how far I should turn out faithful to that ideal conception of one’s own personality every man sets up for himself secretly.” With the exception of the Second Mate, he is the youngest man onboard and feels like a “stranger.” It is in this dark state of mind that the nervous and lonely Captain first encounters Leggatt, the man who is to be the secret sharer of his stateroom, and also the secret sharer of his thoughts, in a setting quite suggestive of the unconscious, “the mysterious shades of the night,” when all on board are asleep. From the beginning, Leggatt seems ghostlike, floating white in the black water (the element most strongly associated with the unconscious) “appearing as if he had risen from the bottom of the sea,” or in light of Jung, from the deepest levels of the Captain’s unconscious mind. Leggatt asks for the Captain because the Captain as yet does not possess the aura or confident demeanor of a ship’s commander. It is at this point that the author begins to acknowledge Leggatt as the Captain’s “other self,” his double, or what in literature is commonly referred to as the doppelganger: “he had concealed his damp body in a sleeping suit of the same gray- striped pattern as the one I was wearing and followed me like my double.” In addition, besides looking startlingly alike physically, the Captain and Leggatt share similar past lives: both are gentlemen, both got their jobs from personal connections, both attended the same school and both feel cut off from their crews.
At first, the Captain helps Leggatt by providing a place for him to hide. Symbolically, what is at play here, however, is the idea that Leggatt has been let loose but must be kept under wraps because Leggatt and the Captain are one and the same. However, it is Leggatt, as we shall see, who helps the Captain live up to his own ideal of what a good captain should be and to gain the respect of his crew.