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Free Barron's Booknotes-The Secret Sharer by Joseph Conrad-Free Summary
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THE STORY - SUMMARY AND NOTES

THE NEXT MORNING

Having put Leggatt to bed, the captain feels too nervous to go to sleep himself. (He's the only character without the peace of mind to sleep. It was on account of his insomnia that he volunteered to take the anchor watch in the first place.) He sits on the couch, exhausted and bothered by a knocking in his head-which turns out to be the steward knocking on his stateroom door the next morning. He's slept after all.

This passage gives us a fine example of Conrad's impressionist method, though in staying true to the captain-narrator's impressions it cheats a little bit. "I was not sleepy; I could not have gone to sleep," the captain reports; and we don't have any reason not to believe him. (He believes himself.) So when in what seems like the next moment he's disturbed by a knocking in his head that turns out to be the steward knocking on the door, and we suddenly realize that several hours have passed, we're as surprised as he is (or was). We feel as if we're experiencing the sensation (of knocking), and then the deduction (it's the steward: several hours have passed) at the same moment he does.

At this point, the comedy of the steward begins; it will continue, increasingly silly and funny and nerve-racking, through much of the story. The steward is just trying to do his job, bring the captain his morning cup of coffee. So when the captain shouts, "This way! I am here, steward," as if he were miles away, the steward is understandably mystified. He doesn't know that Leggatt is concealed behind the bed-curtains or that the captain fears he'll discover him. He doesn't realize he presents a threat. He knows only what his senses tell him-that the man is behaving bizarrely. The captain behaves just as bizarrely when he returns to warn him to close his porthole (the men above are washing decks): "I jumped up from the couch so quickly that he gave a start." And when he tells the steward that the porthole is already closed, that fact must seem even stranger, since it's "as hot as an oven" in the cabin. A vicious circle has begun. The captain is already more paranoid than he should be about the opinions of his crew members. But now, in order to conceal Leggatt, he's about to begin acting in ways that will really make them wonder about his sanity. And as they start to wonder, he feels doubly insecure.


In fact, when he marches up on deck he spies the steward and the first and second mates gossiping together. They part so hastily when they see him coming that he has no doubt it's his behavior they're talking about. (For a change, his paranoia is justified.) But instead of letting his anxiety make him even more indecisive, he gathers his resolve (perhaps Leggatt is already exerting a healthy effect on him) and barks out "the first particular order I had given on board that ship; and I stayed on deck to see it executed, too." He can't let his crew get the upper hand-that could end up in their discovering Leggatt. He has no choice but to pull himself together and act like the decisive commander he should have been in the first place. That way, nobody will have the nerve to question his behavior, even when it seems erratic. His stratagem apparently works. But meanwhile, firm as he is on the outside, he's 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."

NOTE:

The references to madness and to breakdown, which continue throughout the story, are particularly interesting: not very long after he wrote "The Secret Sharer," Conrad was to suffer a nervous breakdown.

Leggatt is sleeping so soundly (again, he's associated with sleep and dreams) that the captain has to "shake him for a solid minute" before he wakes up. Then he moves "as noiseless as a ghost" (again, a hint-but only a hint-that there's something less than physical about the double) into the bathroom while the steward cleans the stateroom. Leggatt is very much a night creature; the captain observes his face "looking very sunken in daylight." After the steward's departure, the captain continues on his course of action to keep himself and Leggatt safe. With Leggatt still in the bathroom, he invites the meddling first mate in for some unimportant small talk; "my object was to give him an opportunity for a good look in my cabin" and thus to allay any suspicions the man might have formed about what's going on in there. (At this point, though, there isn't much reason for him to have formed any.) After that, captain and double remain behind closed doors until the announcement that a ship's boat (the search party from the Sephora) is on its way. Leggatt gives a start (one of his few shows of anxiety), and the captain strides up on deck to meet the boat.

NOTE:

At this point the first chapter ends. As with Heart of Darkness, chapter divisions have less to do with structure than with the fact that the work ran as a serial, in this case in two issues of the American Harper's Magazine, August and September 1910.

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