When discussing the concept of “the Self” as a metaphor in “The Secret Sharer,” by Joseph Conrad, one must first look to the source of the work to identify what the author feels is his purpose for writing. Conrad has been quoted saying, “My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel – it is, above all, to make you see. That – and no more, and it is everything” (www.kirjasto.sci.fi/jconrad.htm). Through his unique artistry, methods, and ideas, Conrad achieves his goal by getting the reader to infer the themes of the dual Selves that exist in each person and the extent of responsibility one holds for another in contrast to one’s Self. His artistry and methods work to cast a realistic feeling about the story because of its powerful first person flashback narrated by the protagonist. Furthermore, Conrad’s realistic setting of a ship isolated in the sea with only small empty islets works as a backdrop to set the stage for the lonely protagonist, the captain of the ship who had been assigned the position a mere two weeks ago and remains an unknown enigma to his crew, to develop his own sense of “Self.” Conrad continues to convey his message of “Self” through literary strategies, such as use of symbolism, biblical allusion, style, and tone.
Conrad’s use of first person point of view narration via the captain is essential to showing how the protagonist views himself as an incomplete Self. Early in the story the narrator says, “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” (26). This honest depiction presents the reader with an idea that this will be a coming of age story in which the protagonist will learn more about himself and his environment through the conflicts he faces. It furthermore puts the captain in a vulnerable position, hinting that he will need additional or stronger qualities than he currently has if he hopes to survive the forthcoming ordeal. Later in the story, not long after the captain meets Leggatt, the narrator informs the reader of the interpersonal familiarity he feels for this new stranger. “The shadowy, dark head, like mine, seemed to nod imperceptibly above the ghostly grey of my sleeping-suit. It was, in the night, as though I had been faced by my own reflection in the depths of a somber and immense mirror” (31). A deep connection between the captain and Leggatt seems to exist, indicating that their meeting will have significant ramifications. With such a strong bond seeming to form immediately between these two, the reader can sense the captain’s previous feeling of being a “stranger” shed. Through Conrad’s use of first person point of view, the reader gets a clear picture of the incomplete Self the narrator originally feels give way to a stronger sense of completeness.
The author’s tone during the story evolves from a feeling of inadequacy to a sentiment that oozes of command, illustrating the development of the complete Self. At the beginning of the story, the narrator speaks of his perceived shortcoming for he was, “The youngest man on board (barring the second mate), and untried as yet by a position of the fullest responsibility, I was willing to take the adequacy of the others for granted” (26). This does not speak optimistically for his ability as a leader. His tone, through his explanation, confides to his readers that he is lacking experience and unsure of himself in this endeavor as captain. By the end of the story, however, the author’s tone bears no resemblance to the one stated above. After giving the second mate a command, the narrator comments, “My tone had a borrowed loudness reverberated from the height of the land” (57). The narrator is startled by his newfound ability to command and shout orders. He even indicates that this ability came from beyond himself, as he carefully chose the word “borrowed” in the above interjection. The captain has realized his identity and is now secure with his Self. The change in tone throughout the story parallels the evolution of the author’s perception of Self.
The suspenseful artistry in Conrad’s style of writing serves to amplify the contrasting persona of the captain and his second self. In describing the captain and his surroundings, Conrad paints the picture of a timid man who lacks confidence aboard a ship that harbors mutinous qualities. One night, after making a command, the captain quickly second guessed himself and worried about the consequences of such a decision:
I asked myself whether it was wise ever to interfere with the established routine of duties even from the kindest of motives. My action might have made me appear eccentric. Goodness only knew how that absurdly whiskered mate would “account” for my conduct, and what the whole ship thought of that informality of their captain. I was vexed with myself. (28)
This statement shows the vulnerability of the captain and presents the possibility of a tragic encounter between the captain and the crew. When the captain’s “second self,” Leggatt, is introduced, an extreme opposite figure is cut. Leggatt immediately relays a story of murdering a man aboard the Sepora. “I turned around and felled him like an ox. He up and hit me…but I had him by the throat, and went on shaking him like a rat…It’s clear that I meant business, because I was holding him by the throat still when they picked us up. He was black in the face… It seems they rushed us aft together, gripped as we were, screaming ‘Murder!’…” (32). Leggatt is everything the captain is not. He is daring, confident, and passionate with his actions. Although the two seem to complement each other and quickly form a relationship based on trust, the reader is left wondering, if this man is capable of killing a man, how do I know he won’t repeat his actions? The captain even shows evidence of having such ominous thoughts in the back of his mind. After a near encounter between Leggatt and the steward, the captain reflects, “Everything remained still. Had my second self taken the poor wretch by the throat? I don’t know what I could have done next moment if I had not seen the steward come out of my room, close the door, and then stand quietly by the sideboard” (50). The captain’s acknowledgement of the danger his second self presents adds to the suspense of the story. The reader may be reminded of other doppelgangers, such as Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, where the protagonist’s alter ego tries to take over and kill the protagonist. Conrad’s suspenseful artistry presents the dynamic of possible danger and confrontation between the two Selves.
Conrad uses psychological principals created by Sigmund Freud to create an allegory within his story. In Daniel R. Schwarz’s psychoanalytic criticism “‘The Secret Sharer’ as an Act of Memory,” he writes, “Leggatt is a man of unrestrained id and underdeveloped superego. The captain is his opposite: a hyperconscious modern man who fastidiously thinks of the consequences of every action to the point where he cannot do anything” (102). Therefore, the captain is an allegory for the superego, while Leggatt represents what the captain lacks, the id. However, I disagree with the last part of Schwarz statement that says the captain ‘cannot do anything.’ The captain, being able to rise in rank to the status of “captain,” shows he is a man of some capability. His drawback, though, tends to be a lack of confidence and self-assuredness, which resides in the subconscious part of the mind known as the id. A definite change, however, can be seen in the captain’s psyche by the time Leggatt departs. “I hadn’t let go the mate’s arm and went on shaking it. ‘Ready about, do you hear? You go forward’ – shake – ‘and stop there’ – shake – ‘and hold your noise’ – shake – ‘and see these head-sheets properly overhauled’ -shake, shake – shake -” (58). The captain is now in full control. His id has fully developed and his ability to lead the ship is affirmed. The captain’s second self has influenced him to the point where he is a stable balance of id and superego. Conrad’s characterizations are symbolic of Freudian terms, such as id and superego, and thus portray two incomplete characters, who when combined form to make a complete Self.
Through the biblical allusion of Cain and Abel, Conrad raises the question of how far one’s responsibility stretches to your second self. The idea of a second self may seem confusing, but what needs to be understood is that in creating Leggatt, Conrad has created an extension of the captain, a person the captain sees as a part of himself rather than a separate entity. When Leggatt tells the captain it is time for them to part ways and confront his destiny, he uses a Cain and Abel reference. “What does the Bible say? ‘Driven off the face of the earth.’ Very well. I am off the face of the earth now. As I came at night so I shall go” (52). Leggatt is comparing himself with Abel, who was ‘driven off the face of the earth’ for killing his brother. Leggatt feels he has received the same treatment from Captain Archbold of the Seporia. The captain becomes the antithesis of Cain, when he feels the need to continue to protect Leggatt. The captain would certainly answer affirmatively to the question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” In “Echo Structures: Conrad’s ‘The Secret Sharer,'” Louis H. Leiter maintains a different view on the extent of responsibility the captain feels toward Leggatt. “The Cain-Abel archetype circumscribes the narrator-Leggatt relationship as well, the longest pattern of action and most important relationship of the novel, for the narrator, in a role comparable to that of Cain, figuratively kills his Abel-Leggatt when he consigns him to the sea” (168-169). I reject this view because I don’t see it as the captain “consigning” Leggatt to the sea; rather, it was Leggatt who decided it was time to leave the ship. The captain tried to convince him to stay, but after realizing this may be Leggatt’s best hope for a new start, constructed a brilliant plan to get him off and even gave him some money upon parting. Furthermore, I don’t equate Leggatt’s plunge into the sea as a figurative death for Leggatt at the hands of the captain, more so a second chance at life. Through biblical allusion, Conrad shows the connectedness of the two selves by subtly contrasting the responsibility the captain had for Leggatt with the lack of responsibility Cane had for his brother Abel.
Conrad sets out to enable his audience to take in his message of “The Secret Sharer” with all its senses. He succeeds in this by vividly portraying his themes of Self and responsibility through his suspenseful artistry and his various methods of first person point of view, use of symbols, tone, and biblical allusion. The end product is a short story that follows the evolution of a sea captain coming to terms with his identity and exploring the definition of his own Self.
“Books and Writers.” Pegasos 2000: www.kirjasto.sci.fi/jconrad.htm
Conrad, Joseph. The Secret Sharer. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1997.
Leiter, Loius H. “Echo Structures: Conrad’s ‘The Secret Sharer.'” Twentieth Century Literature
5.4. (1960): 168-169).
Schwarz, Daniel R. “‘The Secret Sharer’ as an Act of Memory.” The Secret Sharer. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1997.