Wholesomeness in “The Secret Sharer” by Joseph Conrad

Perhaps I’m too biased to properly write about this short story: male dominant sea stories are my least favorite (My peers get a good laugh when I say that I love Moby Dick up until they get onto the water) . But I did it; I read it. It is a psychological adventure tale, simple enough to understand. It definitely had moments of suspense and certain pages had me hold my breath in fear for its characters. Overall, I’d not recommend it as a challenging read.

This story is about a young man Leggatt, who committed a murder upon the ship Sephora, a previous ship to which he felt he did not belong anyway; he was an outsider. Naked and cramped, he floated by the ladder, clinging for his life, and asked for the captain. The captain had already been engaged in conversation with him, and identified himself.  Thereon, the Captain (nameless, featureless, and narrating in first person) calls Leggett his other self.

The first half of the tale characterizes the Captain as unsteady and unsure, queer and stoic. The mates don’t trust him; he is an outsider; he is a fresh new commander, placed under a fortnight, while the crew had been together some eighteen weeks. Nevertheless, his discomforted was quieted by the resolve in his authority (he never once questioned his own authority of the ship–something to learn by). The second part of the first half is meeting Leggatt, half-dead upon the ladder. The Captain sees someone young, strong, decisive, and brave, someone more potent and daresay, carnal. It is easy to see that Leggatt is the Captain’s psyche, his other, unconscious self. At night they whisper to each other.

The second half of the novella is Leggatt’s escape. Ultimately, he needs to be set free again: he can’t continue to live in the dark, in whispers, feeding on tinned food, and just barely escaping discovery (this is where the parts of the novella are well executed; the suspense had engaged me). Leggatt decides to swim off but the Captain refuses; the swimmer insists; the Captain makes a secondary plan to drop him off at the nearest inhabitable island (which perplexes the crew and in fear or insolence, question the Captain’s wits; they are unaware of Legatt’s existence).

The takeaway for me (in an otherwise uninteresting, predictable tale) is this:  we should not lose sight of our confidence, though it may appear naked, in the middle of the night, hidden and misunderstood, and rejected from a previous setting. Leggatt and the Captain both felt like strangers to their environments, alone and without a sense of belonging, but together they were whole. It is impossible to live in the shadows and ultimately, confidence has to be set free. In that freedom, the self is restored. (So in a sense, there is the security of having confidence but also having confidence when you let go). Conrad uses distinct imagery in his allusion to “Erebus”, the passage to Styx. It is through this passage that the Captain is reborn. We may go through a passage of darkness, into the death, but only to rise again from ashes, restored and renewed.

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