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Free Barron's Booknotes-The Secret Sharer by Joseph Conrad-Free Summary
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At last the wind they've been waiting for starts up and the captain takes command of his ship. But he senses that he isn't doing his best job-partly because he's left half of himself down in his stateroom. This missing half might be his unconscious self, or the direct, instinctual side of himself: "A certain order should spring on to [a seaman's] lips without thinking; a certain sign should get itself made, so to speak, without reflection. But all unconscious alertness had abandoned me. I felt that I was appearing an irresolute commander...."

The captain is so lacking in self-possession that when he thinks Leggatt is about to be discovered (to take one example), "I could not govern my voice and conceal my agitation." Leggatt, on the other hand, is "perfectly self-controlled, more than calm-almost invulnerable"; he's "unyielding" and filled with "unalterable purpose." The captain is succumbing to the strain of the situation: "I think I had come creeping quietly as near insanity as any man who has not actually gone over the border." But not Leggatt: "Whoever was being driven distracted, it was not he. He was sane."

The comedy of the steward now gets even broader. The captain has come to hate the sight of him simply because he's in charge of tidying his stateroom. The steward, for his part, is something like a persecuted stooge in a slapstick movie. "It was this maddening course of being shouted at, checked without rhyme or reason, arbitrarily chased out of my cabin, suddenly called into it, sent flying out of his pantry on incomprehensible errands, that accounted for the growing wretchedness of his expression."

One day, for example, as the officers are dining, the captain sees the steward carrying his coat, which has been drying on deck, toward his stateroom. He starts shouting at the man, to alert Leggatt that somebody's approaching so he can slip into the bathroom. The other officers look at him like he's a lunatic. Then he hears the steward opening the bathroom door, and he goes stony from fright. The steward has decided to hang the coat there because it's not quite dry yet. But luckily he just opens the door, reaches in, and hangs it on a hook, so he doesn't see Leggatt squatting in the tub. It's another fortunate accident (and not the last).

The captain's reaction here has two interesting aspects. First, we get another hint-they're never more than hints-that there's something unearthly about Leggatt. When the captain sees him again, "an irresistible doubt of his bodily existence flitted through my mind. Can it be, I asked myself, that he is not visible to other eyes than mine? It was like being haunted." This is a tantalizing suggestion, but it doesn't lead anywhere conclusive, because we know (from Archbold) that Leggatt is real.


Conrad may have been playing homage here to The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, a novelist he admired to the point of considering him his mentor. In that story, it's never clear whether the ghosts are real, or imagined by the woman who sees them. In the case of "The Secret Sharer," the suggestion acts as another hint that Leggatt on some level represents part of the captain's mind, perhaps his unconscious self.

The other noteworthy aspect of the captain's reaction is his attachment to Leggatt. Only at first is he relieved when the steward doesn't discover him: "'Saved,' I thought. 'But, no! Lost! Gone! He was gone!'" He's almost as distressed at having lost his second self as at having him found out. And when Leggatt mentions that they need to start planning his escape, his first response is to resist: "Maroon you! We are not living in a boy's adventure tale." But Leggatt argues, logically, that it's even more dangerous for him to stay on board: on a three-month passage he would certainly be discovered. The captain knows he's right, and with shame he perceives that his resistance was "a sort of cowardice." He's going to have to learn to function without the example of Leggatt's self-possession and self-control.

Their reward is their mutual understanding. "It's a great satisfaction to have got somebody to understand," Leggatt assures him. They set the escape for the next night.

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