Research Paper “The Secret Sharer”
The story “The Secret Sharer” by Joseph Conrad is a novella that many consider a work of critical and cultural significance. Throughout this story, Conrad depicts the adventure and struggle that a young ship captain faces when confronted with the complexities of leadership, his duty as a captain to follow the law, and his identification and compassion for Leggatt who has confessed to killing a man.
As a result the theme revolves around the idea of initiation and self-definition, from the start the captain is confronted with the duties and responsibilities of a captain, he is not only overwhelmed but also impressed with all the responsibilities that he has taken on. Through these experiences, the captain emerges more confident in his abilities to lead his crew. Prior to writing the “The Secret Sharer” Conrad wrote a number of elaborate narratives, which dealt with the moral and psychological problems of leadership.
Among these include, “Heart of Darkness” and “The Secret Agent” in these narratives a steady theme written by Conrad focuses on the struggles of leadership through difficult decision-making. In the “The Secret Sharer” Conrad shifts his focus to the narrator’s successful integration of professional function and personal needs. In “The Secret Sharer” the narrator is a young sea captain who has just been given his first command, the young captain feels unsure of his role and authority on the ship, so he decides to take the first watch of the night.
On the watch, he comes across what he thinks is a dead naked man entangled in the side rope ladder. He soon discovers that the man is not dead, his name is Leggatt who shares with the captain that he wanted for killing a man on the Sephora. Leggatt shares with the captain that he saved his vessel by killing the man; therefore, his actions are justified. He does not see himself answerable to the law of his actions because it was for the “right reasons”. Leggatt states to the narrator, “My fathers a parson in Norfolk. Do you see me before a judge and jury on that charge?
For myself, I cannot see the necessity” (Conrad 14) The captain believes his story and by doing so provides Leggatt with a sympathetic ear and acceptable motive. It seems as though the captain is more than eager to believe Leggatt even though he has only been provided one side of the story. Richardson demonstrates this in the following statement… “if you were to meet a largely naked stranger outside a bus depot who admits he just killed a man most people would not be so quick to offer the man excuses, clothing, and a hiding place. ” (Richardson 308).
As the two continue their conversations, the captain learns much about Leggatt and believes they have many things in common; this sharing creates a bond that keeps the captain from disclosing the presence of Leggatt on the ship. Leggatt symbolizes an uncontrollable side of one’s self, which may be overlooked until a caused moment of ethical stress. Conrad depicts this symbol to be revealed to the audience throughout many ways in the story. When making the decision to hide Leggatt on his ship the captain not only risked his ship, but also the safety of his crew and first command.
Unannounced, Captain Archibald of the Sephora boards the narrator’s ship in search of Leggatt. From this experience, the narrator is confronted with both the demands and struggles of leadership through his lack of disclosure of Leggatt’s whereabouts to Captain Archibald. Helping Leggatt escape plays a large role in the development of the captain as an authority figure. The captain intentionally sails abnormally close to a neighboring island to give Leggatt a chance to jump ship and swim to safety. The crew could have perceived the captain’s actions as endangering the ship and them.
Even though the crew does not know the reasons for the captain’s actions they must obey him and trust his judgment. The captain lends Leggatt his white floppy hat before he jumps, which symbolizes a sense of goodness or mercy towards the captains “other self”. The hat also represents the actual parting of the captain and Leggatt, who throughout their meeting have grown together. The hat even furthermore symbolizes the captain’s identification with his secret self. When the captain defends giving the hat to Leggatt he states, “I saw myself wandering barefooted, bareheaded, the sun beating on my dark poll.
I snatched off my floppy hat and tried hurriedly in the dark to ram it on my other self. ” (Conrad 33) After the captain gives Leggatt his hat it proves to be very significant because it even more symbolizes the parting of the two. However, fatefully the hat falls off of Leggatt’s head and almost exactly points the way to the Captain’s successful steering of his ship to safety. Throughout the story, Conrad never reveals the name of the captain along with his ship. These both are central figures in the story, which seems surprising why Conrad did not give their names.
Thomas Vargish describes Conrad’s reasoning for this, “as the obvious putative reason for this is of course the security of his reputation, even though he tells the story from a distance of years. The effect of the namelessness, however, is to enlarge the specific history into a kind of parable, a parable of youth and of the acquisition of authority, which the narrator possesses in its preliminary manifestations as the story opens. He has power: he is captain. And he has knowledge: he understands the passage from the Gulf of Siam to Britain” (Vargish 4). It must be said, too, that I knew very little of my officers…. Neither did I know much of the hands forward. All these people had been together for eighteen months or so, and my position was that of the only stranger on board…. But what I felt most was my being a stranger to the ship, and if all the truth must be told, I was somewhat of a stranger to myself. ” (Conrad 123) Once the captain comes to the realization of the duality of the conflict and the magnitude of danger that he has taken upon himself, he states, “He was not a bit like me, really” (Conrad 17).
This realization is important in the growth of the captain’s character, not only as a leader but also as a man understanding more about himself. “But it is not the responsibility of a double to provide a simple mirror image of the protagonist, either physically or psychologically. Doubles abound in modernist literature from Dostoevsky through Faulkner, and they function chiefly to stress certain propensities of the protagonist, where he might be weak or in what moral or mental direction he might be pointed. (Vargish 6) This course of self-understanding lies at the core of the story; Conrad presents it as discovering an alternate nature, or reaching an inner idea of individuality from the conventional publicly acknowledged philosophy. “The shadowy dark head, like mine, seemed to nod imperceptibly above the ghostly gray of my sleeping suit. It was in the night as though I had been faced with my own reflection in the depths of a somber and immense mirror. ” (Conrad 89). Through this conflict, the captain learns to be stable in his relation to his crew.
Faced with his decision to protect Leggatt, he is forced from this experience to show no weakness towards his crew and gain the self-assurance he so much respected in Leggatt. His constant conservancy of this other self teaches him to lead without hesitation because hesitation would prove to be fatal for his secret self. Although “The Secret Sharer” took place during the 1890s the complexities of leadership and decision-making has remained relevant in today’s modern world. Contemporary reading audiences, especially those in leadership positions can still relate to this novella because it recounts the struggles leaders face today.
Present day leaders frequently face the dilemma of adhering to supervisory rules or laws versus showing compassion and empathy to those they lead. Recognizing this conflict is an important step in how great leaders navigate intense challenges for personal growth and organizational success. Empathy is a self-sacrificing impulse of the captain, but his role has many obligations, which in the end could have decided his fate or enlightened him through his own “secret self”.
- Conrad, Joseph. “The Secret Sharer. ” New York: Penguin Group, 1997. Vargish, Thomas. “Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer”: A Private Ethics of Leadership. War, Literature & the Arts: An International Journal of the Human;2010, Vol. 22 Issue 1, P107. N. p. , Nov. 2010. Web. 2 Dec. 2012. <http://www. wlajournal. com/22_1-2/images/vargish. pdf>.
- Dilworth, Thomas. “Conrad’s The Secret Sharer. ” LINCCWeb SFX Services. N. p. , n. d. Web. 02 Dec. 2012. <http://resolver. linccweb. org/FLCC1100? frbrVersion=2>. Richardson, Brian. “LINCCWeb SFX Services. “
- CONSTRUING CONRAD’S ‘THE SECRET SHARER’: SUPPRESSED NARRATIVES, SUBALTERN RECEPTION, AND THE ACT OF INTERPRETATION. N. p. , n. d. Web. 02 Dec. 2012. <http://resolver. linccweb. rg/FLCC1100? frbrVersion=2>. Perel, Zivah. “Transforming the Hero: Joseph Conrad’s Reconfiguring of Masculine Identity in “The Secret Sharer”. “
- LINCCWeb SFX Services. Conradiana; Spring/Summer2004, Vol. 36 Issue 1/2, P111-129, 19p, n. d. Web. 02 Dec. 2012. <http://resolver. linccweb. org/FLCC1100? frbrVersion=3>. “Glencoe Literature: Literature Library – Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer.
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