Secret Sharer: Theme Analysis
Conrad utilized the experience he garnered from his own life at sea to write such works as Heart of Darkness and “The Secret Sharer,” that deal thematically with a journey. By setting his stories on board a boat and ship, Conrad presents characters traveling not only on a physical journey but on an inner, psychic journey as well. For instance, in what is Conrad’s most famous work, Heart of Darkness, the young narrator Captain Marlow of the Nellie travels up the Congo in search of Mr. Kurtz who works gathering ivory. As Marlow travels up the African river he moves deeper and deeper into what Conrad refers to as “the heart of darkness” and which metaphorically represents the depth of depravity men sink to without the confining elements of civilization are swept aside.
In “The Secret Sharer” we find a similar young captain narrator about to undertake an arduous journey from the Gulf of Siam to England. Insecure and without friends, he experiences a similar inward journey in which he meets his dark double, Leggatt, who is capable of killing a man in anger but is also brave and confident and beyond reproach as a leader. After a while it becomes evident that the secret sharer is none other than the Captain himself -- the “other” side of his psyche, representing a kind of warrior energy that can be used for good or ill. Thanks to his own inner journey to discover this aspect of himself, he comes to realize that he had in his possession the very qualities he believed he lacked. He journeys to the deeper levels of his own psyche to harness the qualities he needs. In this respect, then, “The Secret Sharer” demonstrates the truth that Joseph Campbell pointed out in his seminal work about mythology, The Hero with a Thousand Faces: outer journeys are reflections of inner journeys, and the thrust of the psyche is always towards wholeness, to an integration rather than a fragmentation of all its powers. This is often stimulated by situations of crisis. Thus in “The Secret Sharer,” the Captain must undergo rapid growth as a fully functioning individual if he is to succeed as the commander of his ship.
At the beginning of the story, the Captain is insecure and fearful, “a stranger” afraid to undertake his upcoming journey back to England. However, by the end he has undergone a metamorphosis. He is a strong, confident man in full command of his ship. He has been able to accomplish this transition by rescuing a man called Leggatt, who can be understood as a vivid image conjured up from his unconscious, although he is also a real person, an escaped criminal from the nearby Sephora. Regardless of his real or metaphoric nature, it is Leggatt, the Captain’s secret sharer or double, who enables the Captain to feel less isolated and alienated. So close is the Captain to Leggatt that he feels he is “his second self.” As the chief mate of the Sephora, Leggatt has far more experience and teaches all he knows to the Captain. The important point is that the Captain does not judge or reject Leggatt, unlike the skipper of the Sephora, who sees only a matter of guilt and judgment. In contrast, the Captain befriends Leggatt. He sympathizes with him, and this enables him to undergo the required metamorphosis. The process begins immediately he pulls Leggatt from the water and hears his voice: “The self-possession of that man had somehow induced a corresponding state in myself.”
As time goes on, thanks to Leggatt the Captain becomes ever more confident in his own abilities. He no longer second guesses the orders he gives the crew and realizes that he is now able to part with his double. He tells the crew to move the ship as close as possible to the inhabited island of Koh-ring where Leggatt will have the best chance of survival. On a night similar to the one in which he plucked Leggatt from the sea, the Captain arranges for Leggatt to leave the ship as he maneuvers his ship with newfound confidence. He has undergone a major metamorphosis from nervous and fearful boy to mature, brave and confident man.