“The Secret Sharer” by Joseph Conrad is a story of deep mysterious thought. The main character is a young captain who becomes aware that he does not yet know his ship, or his crew, or, indeed, himself. His character is one of complicated emotion and deep inner struggle. It’s emphasis on the “double” (or alter ego) portrays the bond between an innocent person and one who is technically a criminal and reveals how easily the fates of each are interchangeable. Conrad has a unique style on which his specific diction and somewhat advanced vocabulary, coupled with complex sentence structure and plot development, hold the potential to confuse and frustrate the average reader. Conrad attempts to engage their minds and create original thought. In depth description is also very characteristic of Conrad’s style and is found throughout “The Secret Sharer.” Because of his stylistic writing, some readers may find themselves lost in his description and loose the story line in the process. It is, however, these ornate descriptions that Conrad uses to present his underlying meaning of his story. His character development is also somewhat established through this. There is a recurring theme to “The Secret Sharer.” Alienation and repression of inner urges are the dominating themes. One can almost believe the young captain is so filled with uncertainty of himself that he manufactures a self-analytical double to help him find his way.
From the beginning of the story Conrad begins to use symbolism. The first four paragraphs that set the place and time also include the first usage of symbolism. In the first paragraph Conrad describes the setting of the story and in doing so subtly lets it be known that the captain is feeling alone and different from the rest of his crew. For example, “?. For there was no sign of human habitation as far as the eye could reach.” “To the left a group of barren islets?had its foundations set in a blue sea that itself looked solid, so still and stable did it lie below my feet.” In these words Conrad could be saying how the captain feels that the sea is his only solid foundation in life, his stronghold and the one thing that is stable in his life. Through the description of the vast sea and open air Conrad portrays a man who feels alienated and insignificant. Repetition of the use of the word alone and metaphors of things and situations that cause loneliness are used throughout the entire introduction.
The secret sharer of the captain’s boat is an escaped murderer by the name of “Legatt.” Legatt is physically and psychologically identical to the captain. Whether or not Legatt is real is something that will be debated by scholars for years to come. Did the captain simply create this other self to rid him of his loneliness? Was Legatt a way for him to express his inner urges to sin and rebel against society? If so then how do we explain the skipper of the ship “Sephora” looking for him? These are all legitimate questions that really only Conrad would know the answers to. They do, however, give us a basis for further discussion of symbolism in this story.
One way to explore the symbolism of the story is through the sleeping suit that Conrad repeatedly refers to. When Conrad brings Legatt into the story he uses words that imply a fantasy or mystical world. For example, “the darkling glassy shimmer of the sea”, “a faint flash of phosphorescent light? flickered in the sleeping water with the elusive, silent play of summer lightning in a night sky.”, “his face, a dimly pale oval in the shadow of the ship’s side.” and “he appeared ghastly, silvery, fishlike.” All of these passages strongly suggest the presence of a fairy tale like atmosphere. The illusions to light, shimmers of the water, and the references to Legatt being a “shadow of the ship’s side” and “ghastly” imply that Legatt could very well be a figment of the captains imagination. He could have been developed in the captain’s subconscious as a real person who ended up succeeding in providing companionship and living out the other “self” inside the captain. Legatt is exactly like the captain in all respects except for the fact that he is also the part of him that the captain has always repressed and hidden even from himself. He is the part that we all hide deep inside us. The part of us that wants to go against the grain and do the things that, deep down, we only dream of doing. Legatt fulfills this fantasy for the captain by giving him the opportunity to be secretive and do something that society would not approve of (hiding a convict.)
Another major development of character and symbolism is portrayed through Conrad’s use of the captain’s floppy hat. The floppy hat represents many things but has one main theme behind the use of it. The floppy hat is seen through the story as one of the few constants in the captain’s life. It is his shield from a merciless sun and therefore an object of protection and security for the captain. It is the marker for steadiness and normality. The captain’s kindness in giving his floppy hat to Legatt was an effort to help him and shield this part of himself that was leaving his ship. The hat, as a marker and shield for the captain, in actuality becomes a marker and shield for his ship. It not only saves the ship but it also saves the captain from himself. It allows him to let go of the unnecessary part of himself that is rebellious, this being portrayed of course through Legatt. This part of himself would cause, and almost did cause, his life and career as a captain to be “shipwrecked.” The floppy hat, as the symbol of protection and the truth of reality, came through in the end to save the captain not just from a physical shipwreck in his vessel but from a shipwreck with life and the establishment of his worth as a reputable captain.
Legatt became an opportunity for the captain to find himself. He needed to discover his own self worth and to let go of his longing for life beyond the sea. The recurring themes of loneliness and self-improvement or self-discovery are themes that everyone can relate to. We all have secret desires to be someone else or to do things that are not socially acceptable. But, we must all overcome as the captain did and make the right decision so that our honor and morality will not dissipate in generations to come. Conrad is a master at portraying the true feelings that we all have. His style of writing is deep and his characters represent the dark, pessimistic part of each and every one of us. Loneliness and repressed feelings are a part of life that will be with all of us until the end of time. We can only hope that we can understand them and deal with them the best we know how. Once and a while it takes something as small as a short fiction story to remind us of how we really feel and to show us the truth about ourselves. Conrad’s eloquent words in “The Secret Sharer” is a perfect example of doing this with all the finesse and grace of a true artist.