In the unconscious mind of every mortal there are latent and endless capacities for failure and transgressions. Recognizing and understanding these capacities is our only likelihood for survival and success. “The Secret Sharer” is a story of awareness and principles, a symbolic discovery of inner self. It is a story of one man’s journey of self discovery, “testings of personal strength and integrity, and psychological studies in half-conscious identification. (Guerard 138) Duality reinforces the acceptance of the dual nature within each man, and Conrad successfully uses symbolism and metaphor to represent dual opposites within his characters in this story.
The strangeness of surroundings, at the onset of the novel, tells us something about the narrator’s mental state; he finds the setting in some way “incomprehensible” and “crazy of aspect,” (Conrad 1) and completely lacking in signs of life. The young captain feels not only the disquiet of unfamiliar surroundings, he also feels literally alone – alone against the rest of the ship. Later when alone on deck, he begins to feel more peaceful. Although he remains as isolated as he was in the opening passage, he’s so nervous about the opinions of the crew that being alone is a relief. He begins to look forward to his voyage home. After all, he reflects, he’s a good sailor; “the sea was not likely to keep any special surprises expressly for my discomfiture.” (Conrad 3) The reflection is ironic, since even as he’s thinking, the sea is holding a surprise – a swimmer who will turn his whole life up-side-down. But right now he is rejoicing in the nautical life and in “the great security of the seas is compared with the unrest of the land,” (Conrad 3) a life with “no disquieting problems, invested with an elementary moral beauty” (Conrad 3) of straightforwardness and singleness of purpose.
The captain readily accepts Leggatt because he is, like himself, a stranger aboard the ship, the only other stranger in fact. They have the bond of mutual isolation. The captain has come to regard the crew as his judges, but he doesn’t have to prove himself to Leggatt. So his company is a relief, and immediately a “mysterious communication” (Conrad 5) is established between them, and the captain identifies himself with Leggatt. Looking at Leggatt is like looking in a “somber and immense mirror” (Conrad 5) and seeing himself. This identity becomes increasingly important for the captain, and a pattern of references on “duality” continues unabated throughout the story, for instance, “my double,” (Conrad 5) “the secret sharer of my life.” (Conrad 11) The two men are the same size, both quite young and the captain “was fascinated by” the fact that “anybody would have taken him [Leggatt] for me.” (Conrad 12) Leggatt has the qualities of resoluteness and self confidence and courage – all qualities the captain lacks – and the captain increasingly identifies with ‘his other half’ – Leggatt.
For practical reasons, and to get on with the business of life, the captain has to resolve the situation. It is nearly impossible to continue hiding the secret sharer. He becomes more fascinated, yet more maddened by this feeling of duality. He is notably anxious with harboring Leggatt, but rather than allowing his anxiety to make him even more indecisive, he gathers his resolve and claims “the first particular order I had given on board that ship; and I stayed on deck to see it executed, too.” (Conrad 11). Firm as he is on the outside however, he is quaking on the inside. The sensation of having a second self down in his stateroom “distracted me almost to the point of insanity…. It was very much like being mad.” (Conrad 11) Later although in command, he feels “that mental feeling of being in two places at once … penetrated my soul,” (Conrad 17) He senses that he is not doing his best job because he has left half of himself – his unconscious self – down in his stateroom “A certain order should spring on to [a seaman’s] lips without thinking; a certain sign should get itself made, so to speak, without reflection. But all unconscious alertness had abandoned me. I felt that I was appearing an irresolute commander….” (Conrad 17) Thus in order to succeed and grow, the Captain has to acknowledge his other self and capacities.
Although obviously on his journey to self-discovery and realizing his own strengths and integrity, he still feels the need for his “other self,” (Conrad 19) and when he thinks that Leggatt is about to be discovered, he “could not govern [his] voice and conceal [his] agitation,” (Conrad 18) and is relieved when he is not discovered. “Saved,” he thinks to himself. “But, no! Lost! Gone! He was gone!” (Conrad 19) And when Leggatt mentions that they need to start planning his escape, his first response is to resist, “Maroon you! We are not living in a boy’s adventure tale.” (Conrad 20) Following a logical argument from Leggatt however, the captain feels shame and perceives that his resistance is “a sort of cowardice.” (Conrad 20) The captain is acknowledging his unconscious capacities and the fact that he is going to have to learn to function without his ‘other half’ and depend on his own self-possession and self-control. His reward is their mutual understanding and Leggatt assures him “it’s a great satisfaction to have got somebody to understand.” (Conrad 20)
In accommodating Leggatt’s escape, the captain gathers his resolve and, with more self-possession than ever before, and plays the role of stern commander. He demonstrates his nerve and manages to shock his crew into obedience. He has reached his journey’s end – he has passed all tests he set himself in becoming aware of his own duality – his conscious and unconscious being.
Now, rather than missing his double, the captain is relieved to have him gone. He makes it clear that from here on out his journey will be a smooth one, “the perfect communion of a seaman with his first command.” (Conrad 26) He hardly thinks of his double (he tells us explicitly) during the crisis; at last he feels whole, integrated, and capable in himself. He devotes a few moments to thoughts of Leggatt, “a free man, a proud swimmer striking out for a new destiny.” (Conrad 26) The captain, having made a full commitment to dealing with his other self, and by acting according to his inner voice is now able to resume his life as a more enlightened and self-confident individual. He is now ready to assume full responsibility for his own soul.
Two shipboard crises in the story, one we witness, the other we hear about, provide evidence of opposing world views – and in both cases there’s a man whose courage fails him and a man whose courage pulls the ship through to safety. When the Sephora is beset by a storm, it is captain Archbold, who loses his nerve, cannot act, is unable to give the order to set sail that is the ship’s last hope, and his loss of nerve endangers the whole crew. Fortunately, his chief mate, Leggatt, takes matters into his own hands and sets the sail, and it is through his courageous and determined action that the ship survives the storm.
We get a parallel situation at the end of the story. The young captain keeps a cool head during the tense moments when his ship is so close to shore that it is in danger of running aground. He is frightened himself – so frightened that he has to shut his eyes rather than watch the shore loom closer – but he never lets his men see his fear, and he never lets fear paralyze him as it paralyzed Captain Archbold. In contrast, the devoted chief mate loses control of his emotions and begins to despair aloud, in front of the crew.
Archbold, who possesses a ‘spiritless tenacity’ (Conrad 12) and is lacking in intelligence, sees himself as the able sea captain “I am a well-known shipmaster,” (Conrad 13) “I have been at sea now … for seven-and-thirty years,” (Conrad 13) and is more concerned with himself than his crew. He believes that any success not due to him and is due to God, “God’s own hand did it,” (Conrad 13) he claims. He sees the world as black and white and adheres to the letter of the law, not granting that there are unusual circumstances to the crime. The captain, on the other hand believes in the principle of hierarchy: his word is law and not to be questioned with. Contrary to Archbold, he is extremely intelligent and views his crew with compassion.
It is significant that the protagonist narrator is a nameless captain. In the beginning of the story, the captain is a stranger to the ship, his shipmates and to himself. He must go through a journey of discovery to truly become the captain of his own soul. Conrad has him do this through his encounter with Leggatt, who possesses capacities the young captain lacks but lacks capacities the young captain has. Thus the captain is able to end his journey conscious of the fact that he does have two halves – ‘duality’ that he can work as one.
Albert J. Guerard, cited in Jericho, Jeremy. Bannan’s Book Notes ‘Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer’ Series Editor Michael Spring. Scholastic.Inc. NY. 1984.
Conrad, Joseph, The Secret Sharer. Blacksmith Online. 1999.