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Free Barron's Booknotes-The Secret Sharer by Joseph Conrad-Free Summary
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The captain of the Sephora turns out to be a thoroughly unimpressive man. His stature is "middling," he looks around "vaguely," he's "spiritless" and "unintelligent" and "densely distressed," and we're told that he looked "muddled" and that he "mumbled" in a "reluctant and doleful" way. He makes such a dull impression that our captain-narrator pays him the final insult: he's not even sure Archbold was his name. Of course, he's biased against him from the start. He continues his course of wily action, now pretending to be deaf so that the mumbling Archbold has to raise his voice-and so that Leggatt can overhear everything.

Conrad plays the scene for both tension and comedy. Archbold's plain manners and plodding stupidity make an easy target for the clever and well-educated young captain. For example, the narrator is telling us about Archbold's description of Leggatt's strangled victim: "And as I gazed at him certainly not prepared for anything original on his part, he advanced his head close to mine and thrust his tongue out at me so suddenly that I couldn't help starting back." Such ludicrous moments are even funnier against the background of nerve-racking tension.

Having taken the law into his own hands in protecting Leggatt, our captain sneers at Archbold's stubborn adherence to the letter of the law. When he mentions the setting of the sail (Leggatt claimed he saved the ship by setting their last sail during the storm), Archbold replies piously, "God's own hand in it"- he's readier to ascribe their success to Providence than to a murderer. But something he says rings true with Leggatt's version of the story: "I don't mind telling you that I hardly dared give the order. It seemed impossible that we could touch anything without losing it, and then our last hope would have been gone." (Later Leggatt will insist that Archbold really did fail to give the order, no matter how he remembers it now.) And our captain observes that Archbold is still terrified by the memory of the gale. It was precisely this terror which so disgusted Leggatt.

According to Archbold, he disliked Leggatt from the start. "He looked very smart, very gentlemanly, and all that. But do you know-I never liked him, somehow. I am a plain man." In response, the young captain smiles "urbanely," when urbanity is exactly what Archbold is criticizing. Still identifying with his double, he's as offended as if Archbold were condemning him. And in one sense he is: the plain seafarer attacking the manners of an aristocrat could be pointing a finger at either one of them-or at Conrad, the Polish aristocrat who sailed with common sailors. They must have resented his polite manners as deeply as he disdained their rough ones. And in fact the stratagem the young captain chooses for making Archbold uncomfortable is politeness, which the unsophisticated Archbold views as "a strange and unnatural phenomenon."

Little by little, Archbold grows suspicious, but he's intimidated by the icy politeness of his host. He begins to ask leading questions, but the captain refuses to acknowledge his hints. When Archbold begins eying the various doors-Leggatt might be behind any one of them-the captain pretends to think he's interested in the ship. Then he gets even ("I had been too frightened not to feel vengeful") by leading him on a tedious and irrelevant tour. He speaks loudly in order to give Leggatt plenty of warning as they're coming to his own stateroom, and it works: "My intelligent double had vanished." (In the captain's eyes, Leggatt is the only other "intelligent" character. Archbold is specifically "unintelligent"; the first mate is "that imbecile.")

The first mate corners him after Archbold has left. Is he getting more suspicious? The captain manages to put him off, but he knows that the Sephora's men have told his crew about Leggatt's escape.

Exhausted from his deception, the captain drifts toward despair. He and Leggatt can hardly even whisper together. "The Sunday quietness of the ship was against us; the stillness of the air and water around her was against us; the elements, the men were against us-everything was against us in our secret partnership; time itself-for this could not go on forever." Here we get the first hint that they're going to have to plan Leggatt's escape from the ship. And we feel again the threat that makes the two men feel closer than ever.

In the same bleak mood, the captain reflects: "And as to the chapter of accidents which counts for so much in the book of success, I could only hope that it was closed. For what favorable accident could be expected?" Once again, his hopelessness is unflattering in a man whose position calls for him to be resolute. When Leggatt jumped over the rail of the Sephora, he didn't expect another ship to be anchored nearby, and he certainly didn't expect its ladder to be hanging over the side. Lucky accidents have gotten him where he is. And a lucky accident will come to the aid of the captain, though in this mood he wouldn't believe it.

From the captain's talk with Archbold, it's apparent that Leggatt's version of events was essentially true. Still, the captain is even more eager to excuse Leggatt's crime than Leggatt is to excuse himself. (He wants to escape, but he isn't protesting his innocence.) The captain places the blame on impersonal forces: "It was all very simple. The same strung-up force which had given twenty-four men a chance, at least, for their lives, had, in a sort of recoil, crushed an unworthy mutinous existence." That's a comforting way of putting it, because it leaves out the damning detail of Leggatt's hands locked around his victim's neck.

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