The narrator of Joseph Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer” is an older seaman recalling his youth. What a 21st Century reader will perhaps find most striking about this 1909 tale is how credulous the narrator is, without the author giving any hint that we are to disbelieve this credulous narrator. The thrust and beauty of the story relies upon the worthiness of Leggat; otherwise the ending loses its thrust and beauty: “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.” I suppose, the whole story could be reinterpreted much more sinisterly: Leggat, in this alternative reading, is actually guilty of an unforgivable crime that justice, decency, and the stability of the common weal demand we humans try before a judge a jury; and the captain’s close identification with Leggat blinds him from doing the right thing and turning him in–or at the very least, the captain’s willingness to put the ship and his shipmates at risk in order to bring his double a little closer to shore, is the act of a crazed and ultimately morally wrong mind. It is hard to believe Conrad meant the story to be anything like that. But how to tell? What makes me so sure Conrad wanted the readers to accept the narrator’s understanding of his actions as justified and his friend’s escape a good worth risking everything for?
The only fully sympathetic characters are the narrator and his double. Everyone else is portrayed as having some serious deficiency. The first mate is a gossipy, busy-bodying old coot–harmless enough, but not able to detach himself from his catch-phrase “Bless my soul, sir! You don’t say so!” and self-import (solver of mysteries with a knowing finger on his nose) to be fully self-aware. The very young second mate is taciturn, given to slouching, without any apparent spark of courage, fortitude, insight. The steward a simpleton, easily flustered. Upon introducing Captain (perhaps) Archbold, the narrator immediately declares: “A spiritless tenacity was his main characteristic, I judged.” And nothing in the rest of the story makes that reading seem incorrect. The man seems overwhelmed by the trauma of the events, unable to see the ambiguities within the murder-or-accident that the narrator so easily grasps, and seems obsessed with the idea of bringing this young man to justice–a young man he himself admits he never liked. And what reason does he give for not liking this young man? The young man is gentlemanly, but he is a plain man. What are we readers to do? Revolt against the well-educated and thoughtful narrator whose inner voice is so vivid? Who wants to turn down the narrator and take up the surrounding oafs whose inner lives are not part of the story? I don’t want to. Would I if I thought myself a simple man beleaguered by flashy gentlemen that know how all the science of my trade and how to act in public and have even read books and had thoughts, but that for all that–perhaps because of all that?–don’t really know how to work with real people like myself and my shipmates? Something like that must be (so-called) Archbold’s prejudice. But if we accept his view of things, then how ugly and gross the narrator and his friend and “a free man, a proud swimmer striking out for a new destiny” become; but none of those things seem ugly and gross. Both the narrator and his double seem sane (note the narrator’s humble and self-aware initial trepidation at his sudden captainhood) and decent enough and the murder really could be interpreted as an accident within a fair fight. Conrad does not give us a good reason to throw the narrator over and side with Captain Archbold and his hand-wringing, more-legalistic-than-good morality. And he even allows this early-story confirmation of the beauty of the straight-forward: “And suddenly I rejoiced in the great security of the sea as compared with the unrest of the land, in my choice of that untempted life presenting no disquieting problems, invested with an elementary moral beauty by the absolute straightforwardness of its appeal and by the singleness of its purpose.” Again, that could be taken as evidence that the captain is himself just as unable to grasp the opposite side of the ambiguity (the one that Captain Archbold had dogmatically clung to, just as our captain dogmatically clings to Leggat’s version), but the general flow and the clear-eyed sanity of the narration work against such an interpretation, as does the beauty of the statement, whereby we know that we are hearing a sound man and that the author loves him and his thoughts.
Nowadays you couldn’t write this story like this. People wouldn’t accept it. They’d have to wag their fingers and exult in their own ability to catch nuances that the author seemed to plow right over like a solid ship moves over the slight turbulences of calm water. They wouldn’t allow Conrad to get away with what he seems to have gotten away with: an adventure tale, clear good guys, no particular villains except the general uninspired gossipy nonsense of the dead mass of humanity, and an unambiguously happy ending. At the very least, we have to protest the danger the narrator put his shipmates in! And for what? To make it a little easier on another version of himself? For what is the secret sharer to him but a perfect picture of what a man like himself could become with just slightly changed outward circumstances.
Well, we may fuss at the edges, but the story rolls on, and it’s a pretty good one.
Look at this though: “I wonder they didn’t fling me overboard after getting the carcass of their precious shipmate out of my fingers.” And there we see a kind of gentleman’s contempt for the lower class, which the narrator does not question, but did Conrad see a little twist of indecency within it? These are manly, heroic men, they charge forward while the incompetents misconstrue and mangle whatever they’re entrusted with. Maybe we nowadayers are right to read this story with a touch more ambivalence than it was probably originally invested with, but our morality and insight is also more limited than we know; where that not the case, we would be wise and live well.
Some themes: old vs young / impulsive vigor vs calculating caution; madness caused by secrecy and its forced separation from the shared narrative; understanding a stranger because they are essentially like you while not understanding more familiar people because they are essentially different [editor’s note: my dogma does not permit me to accept the accuracy of this idea–at least not when taken to the extremes of us vs them compassionlessness]; a captain and his ship, with the latter ideally a seamless extension of the former;
About the Short Story Game: The idea is to read classic short stories, outline and analyze them, and then write a story response.
Author & Editor: What Ever
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