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THE STORY - SUMMARY AND NOTES
Conrad divided "The Secret Sharer" into two chapters. To make discussion easier, the chapters can be subdivided as follows:
• CHAPTER I
1. The New Command.
• CHAPTER II
1. Captain Archbold of the Sephora.
Be sure to note that these subdivisions aren't Conrad's. They are used here in order to make the story easier to analyze and discuss.
THE NEW COMMAND
"The Secret Sharer" opens with a description of the Gulf of Siam from the deck of a ship-a description that serves two purposes. The exotic locale (Gulf of Siam Meinam River, Paknam pagoda) would have appealed to the landlocked magazine audience for whom "The Secret Sharer" was specifically written (Conrad meant the story to have popular appeal). But the strangeness of the surroundings also tells us something about the narrator's mental state; he finds the setting in some way "incomprehensible" and "crazy of aspect," and completely lacking (for the moment) in signs of life. The narrator is a young captain in the British merchant marine, and this is his first command; he feels not only the disquiet of unfamiliar surroundings, he also feels literally alone-alone against the rest of the ship. He was appointed unexpectedly only two weeks before, and he doesn't know either the men or the ship. But the men all know each other and the ship quite well. So this first description reflects the uneasiness of an isolated outsider. Just before the sun goes down, he spots the masts of a neighboring ship and realizes he isn't entirely alone. He doesn't know it yet, but this ship will set the plot in motion and make his first command more harrowing than he ever feared.
At dinner we're introduced to the two chief officers below the captain. The first mate is an older man, bearded and fussy and not unduly intelligent. (Later the narrator will call him an "imbecile.") He's always saying witless things like "Bless my soul! You don't say so!" and trying to account to himself for the most trivial incidents, such as how a scorpion got into his inkwell. (He'll soon be trying to account to himself for something less trivial, the captain's seeming craziness.) The young captain obviously thinks he's a stupid bore, but he also wants his respect and his approval because he's new.
The second mate is the only person aboard who's younger than the captain. He's a rather sour young man with a tendency to sneer, a quality highly inappropriate to a subordinate officer, and one that the captain immediately disapproves of. The second mate informs them that the ship the captain spotted is another English ship, named the Sephora.
Throughout the meal, the captain-narrator stresses the alienation he felt as a stranger on board. Obviously he has very little self-confidence. After dinner, as a gesture of good will to the weary crew, he tells the first mate that he'll take over the anchor watch himself, that is, he'll stay awake on deck, watching for the wind they need to start their journey. It's an unusual offer because the watch usually goes to those lower in the ship's hierarchy. The young captain immediately regrets his offer, which he'd made to win the approval of the sailors. As we'll see, the captain is morbidly alert to the reactions of his crew; and soon enough he'll be giving them reason to wonder if he isn't really crazy.
Once everyone is asleep and he's alone on deck, he begins to feel more peaceful. True, he's isolated as he was in the opening passage, but he's so nervous about the opinions of the crew that being alone is a relief. He begins to look forward to the 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." The reflection is ironic, since even as he's thinking, the sea is holding a surprise-a swimmer who will turn his whole life upsidedown. But right now he's rejoicing in the nautical life and in "the great security of the sea as compared with the unrest of the land," a life with "no disquieting problems, invested with an elementary moral beauty" of straightforwardness and singleness of purpose. Again, the observation is heavily ironic, for the young captain is about to face a situation far less straightforward, and far more insecure, than anything he's faced on land.
As with Heart of Darkness, "The Secret Sharer" has an autobiographical element. In 1888 (more than twenty years before he wrote the story), Conrad took over command of the Otago, sailing out of the Meinam River into the Gulf of Siam-precisely where the ship in "The Secret Sharer" is sailing. He, too, was a new captain on his first command aboard a ship that already had a crew. He must have been nervous and insecure; such feelings plagued Conrad throughout his life. As in the story, the journey through the gulf was made especially difficult because there was so little wind.
The first mate is also based, at least in part, on the first mate
of the Otago, who was suspicious of the young Polish captain (partly because
he had hoped for the command himself). Conrad later recalled: "His
eternally watchful demeanour, his jerky, nervous talk, even his, as it
were, determined silences, seemed to imply-and, I believe, did imply-that
to his mind the ship was never safe in my hands.... On our