Short Story Game #1: The Secret Sharer (Part A: Synopsis)
Author: Joseph Conrad
Setting: A ship in the Gulf of Siam (now Thailand)
The story was written in 1909. And the simultaneous existence of steam-powered tugboats and sailing ships makes it seem reasonable to suppose the story is set somewhere around that time.
The narrator/captain: a young Conway man (meaning he’d trained on the merchant navy school ship the HMS Conway, which was active from 1859 to 1953). He is a good writer and very capable of descriptions both detailed and poetic. He is recalling an event early in his career. His first command.
The first mate:Th older, with outlandish whiskers, taken to ferreting out mysteries (example: how that scorpion got into his inkwell; why that large ship loomed still so far from shore). A bustler-about and given to shouting “Bless my soul, sir! You don’t say so!”, a bit of a gossip and busy-body.
The second mate: younger even than the captain; quiet; given to unsailormanly lolling–or at least caught once in such indulgences.
The Steward: I don’t know if he’s a nervous character or just the constant ordering about from the captain makes him skiddish. He’s described once as “innocent”
The rest of the crew: Not developed. A mass of men who do what they are told.
Leggatt:A Conway a couple year’s younger than the ship’s captain. Same basic physical size of the captain (the other’s sleeping suit fits him and the captain often notices that, with the face obscured, they look like the same person). “He had rather regular features; a good mouth; light eyes under somewhat heavy, dark eyebrows; a smooth, square forehead; no growth on his cheeks; a small, brown mustache, and a well-shaped, round chin. … A well-knit young fellow of twenty-five at most.”
Captain Archbold & His Ship: The captain of the Sephora (Archbold may not be his name: the narrator can’t recall exactly)–a coal carrier out of Liverpool, most recently out of Cardiff (Wales), and now 123 days at sea. The ship can only dock during the high spring tides (because otherwise she’ll run aground) and is waiting for them to come into port. The captain has been at sea 37 years, his wife is on board with him. At the time of his appearance in the narrative he’s still shaken up–apparently by the gale that nearly sank the ship and the murder that happened during that gale. “thin red whisker all round his face, and the sort of complexion that goes with hair of that color; also the particular, rather smeary shade of blue in the eyes. He was not exactly a showy figure; his shoulders were high, his stature but middling—one leg slightly more bandy than the other. … A spiritless tenacity was his main characteristic, I judged.”
Plot: A young captain has just taken over a ship. They are awaiting favorable winds to begin the voyage home to Great Britain. Restless, the captain gives the unorthodox command that all hands will retire and he’ll take the first watch. While on watch, he notices that the rope side ladder had not been pulled in. When he attempts to pull it in, he discovers a human form hanging on it. At first he believes he’s found a corpse, presently he discovers a living man a few years younger than himself. This is Leggat, also a Conway man, and the former first mate of the Sephora–the ship anchored far out in the bay which the captain had recently learned about from his own first mate (who’d gained the intelligence from a tugboat captain). Leggat tells the captain his story: a trying gale when all were at wit’s end; an impudent hand talking back; a scuffle between the two; his hands around the scalawag’s neck; the sea spilling over the top of the ship and smashing out his consciousness; and–per the story’s later related to Leggat–his hands still around the now dead man’s neck when they were found smashed up by the forebitt [a post at the ship’s foremast]; also, during that scene, in Leggat’s version, he took command of the situation and had the main sail shortened, which both he and Captain Archbold claimed saved the ship–however, in Archbold’s narration he gave the decisive orders. The captain and crew consider Leggat a murderer and the captain is intent on bringing him to the law (at one point Leggat had asked the captain to leave his door unlocked so he could swim off to some uncivilized island; the captain refuses). Leggat and the very sympathetic narrator (who shows no sign of doubting Leggat’s version–at least not now when he, a much older man, finally finds the time to relate the tale) see the situation more ambiguously. Leggat mentions more than once that he’s a parson’s son, and he claims to be more appalled at the thought that a judge and jury back in England should be given the power to judge his actions–whose circumstances are so completely foreign to them–, than at the noose they’re likely to decide upon.
The bulk of the narration describes the narrator’s difficulties hiding Leggat from his own crew, and then the captain of the Sephora, and then again his own crew. The crew is suspicious almost immediately, and the captain, also almost immediately, identifies so strongly with the man he’s hiding that he half thinks that he’s now been physically doubled and is leading two lives. In the end, he brings the ship dangerously close to shore in order to give his double the best possible chance to make it to shore (to what the captain believes is the Koh-ring island [must be “Koh-Rong”, off the shore of Cambodia, and so still in the Bay of Thailand]). The ship comes dangerously close to running aground, but thanks to the hat that the captain had given his secret friend, and which the friend had let fall into the sea, the captain is able to understand the ship’s relationship to the current well enough to steer her towards safety. Cheers go up from the crew, and all is well: “Walking to the taffrail, I was in time to make out, on the very edge of a darkness thrown by a towering black mass like the very gateway of Erebus—yes, I was in time to catch an evanescent glimpse of my white hat left behind to mark the spot where 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.”
Style: Classical: Straightforward, with Lots of physical description and psychological asides.
About the Short Story Game: The idea is to read classic short stories, outline and analyze them, and then write a story response.
Copyright: Andrew Mackenzie Watson 2017, all rights reserved. Please do not reproduce the content of this website without written consent of the copyright holder.