Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Secret Sharer by Joseph Conrad

Since being assigned this story in my teens, I’ve read it several more times and it always leaves a feeling of puzzlement. To be honest, I understand it less each time I read it. Conrad is best known for his novel Heart of Darkness , another psychological study of people in a morally murky situation. This is one of his many short stories.
The Secret Sharer is set in the days of sail in the Gulf of Siam. The narrator is the captain of a ship, having taken her over two weeks ago, so both the crew and the ship itself are strangers to him. Late one night, as he is on watch, he finds a man floating at the bottom of the ship’s ladder. When he brings the man, whose name is Leggatt, on board, he learns that Leggatt was chief mate on another ship and killed a man during a gale, in a fit of temper because the man wasn’t working fast enough. After 7 weeks under arrest in his cabin, Leggatt escaped when the door was accidentally left unlocked and he slipped overboard. He got lost in the dark and began swimming towards the lights of the narrator’s ship, though he tried to stay hidden, because he didn’t know what sort of reception he’d get. But the captain is sympathetic, at first struck by the uncanny resemblance Leggatt has to him in looks, they could almost be twins. They also attended the same boarding school, though Leggatt a few years after the captain. All of this convinces the captain to hide him in his cabin. This nerve wracking predicament goes on for a few days until the fugitive decides to swim to one of the islands as the ship passes by at night and thereby escape. Though reluctant, the captain risks the ship as well as his personal and professional reputation to sail as close as possible to land, to allow Leggatt the best chance to reach shore. The story ends with a hat floating in the dark water, the only sign of Leggatt’s journey.
We don’t know if he makes it to shore, since it’s seven miles away, though Leggatt had been a competitive swimmer at school, so he probably made it unless he bumped into a crocodile. Is the island inhabited? If so, does he stay at a village or continue on to somewhere else? Those are the practical questions, there are a still host of emotional ones, about the captain and why he formed such an intense bond with this stranger. Was it merely because they looked alike, did the captain see Leggatt as a fragment of himself, his dark side? Or was it the captain’s isolation that made him respond so? There was no backstory, so we have no idea how the narrator came to this ship or what else went on in his life before, or indeed afterwards. At one point, the narrator wonders if the fugitive is real or imagined, but we are assured he is definitely there, hiding in the cabin, having whispered conversations with the captain. As I said, I keep returning to this story, each time coming away with more questions, the meaning of it continually eluding me. Am I a glutton for punishment, or just appreciative of a masterful story?

Originally published in Harper’s Magazine 1910 44 pp. Available in traditional and ebook formats, including freely online at Project Gutenberg.

10 comments on “The Secret Sharer by Joseph Conrad

  1. annebrooke
    October 22, 2012

    This sounds amazing, Jackie – I do love Conrad, and Heart of Darkness is one of my favourite books. I haven’t come across this one so will have to add to my list – thank you!

    Anne
    xxx

  2. Kate
    October 22, 2012

    Conrad bears a lot of rereading. When you plunge in again, try rereading it in its original context, using this digitised resource: http://www.conradfirst.net/view/serialisation?id=119. All of Conrad’s works in their original periodicals, page by page views, plus all the ads and all the other material, just as Conrad would have seen it himself. Brought to you by Conrad First, engineered by my great friend Stephen Donovan of Uppsala university.

  3. Melrose
    October 22, 2012

    Thank you for this review, Jackie. That sounds a fascinating, but unsettling, read. There seems no real beginning or end, just an interlude in the middle, and no real solution to what went on. So many questions unanswered, and, as you say, more on rereading, too.

  4. Clarissa Aykroyd
    October 22, 2012

    “I keep returning to this story, each time coming away with more questions, the meaning of it continually eluding me.” This sounds like my approach to and feelings about Conrad generally! I have been reading him since I was 13 or 14 and I have always found him difficult and mystifying, but worthwhile. Intriguing and thought-provoking. And of course he is one of the great English prose stylist – having only learned English in his twenties! I have not read him very much in recent years and I would like to get back to him, whether it’s books I haven’t read or re-reading old favourites (and I did read a lot of them.)

    What I mainly remember about The Secret Sharer was being immensely moved when the captain watches the swimmer go. “The secret sharer of my cabin and of my thoughts, as though he were my second self, had lowered himself into the water to take his punishment: a free man, a proud swimmer striking out for a new destiny.”

  5. Melrose
    October 22, 2012

    That is a very haunting section Clarissa has chosen, I can imagine how the words moved her. It sounds very poetic – so much interplay between the sounds of words, and phrases, and words within phrases. Is this how Conrad’s books read throughout, or does he use this depth of sound sparingly to heighten the moment?

  6. Clarissa Aykroyd
    October 23, 2012

    His writing is extremely dense, which requires great concentration but it’s incredibly unique and evocative. I found this interesting quote from T E Lawrence (of Arabia) on his work: “He’s absolutely the most haunting thing in prose that ever was: I wish I knew how every paragraph he writes (…they are all paragraphs: he seldom writes a single sentence…) goes on sounding in waves, like the note of a tenor bell, after it stops. It’s not built in the rhythm of ordinary prose, but on something existing only in his head, and as he can never say what it is he wants to say, all his things end in a kind of hunger, a suggestion of something he can’t say or do or think. So his books always look bigger than they are.”

  7. Debbie Robson
    October 23, 2012

    Wow, I’m going to have to read it now!

  8. Jackie
    October 23, 2012

    I was hoping Clarissa would return to answer Melrose’s question!

  9. Melrose
    October 23, 2012

    Thank you, Clarissa, for explaining so well about how Conrad wrote. His books always, the ones I’ve seen anyway, look very slim, but it sounds like they do pack a lot in. From the example you gave, I would tend to agree with TE Lawrence, who put it into words far more eloquent than mine. I’m not sure that anyone could have put it better than he did. Thank you, Jackie, for this review of someone I have heard of, but never read. I think I might need to now.

  10. Hilary
    November 1, 2012

    Wow – what an interesting premise for a story! I have never tackled Conrad, and this sounds so intriguing that I am very tempted to make it my first attempt to read his work. Thank you for introducing me to this work, Jackie, and thanks to the commenters for their fascinating insights!

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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