The Secret Sharer
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"The Secret Sharer" is a short story by Polish-British author Joseph Conrad, originally written in 1909 and first published in two parts in Harper's Magazine in 1910. It was later included in the short story collection Twixt Land and Sea (1912). The story was adapted for a segment of the 1952 film Face to Face, and also for a one-act play in 1969 by C. R. (Chuck) Wobbe. The play was published in 1969 by the Dramatic Publishing Company. A new film, Secret Sharer, inspired by the story and directed by Peter Fudakowski, was released in the United Kingdom in June 2014.
"The Secret Sharer" takes place on a sailing ship in the Gulf of Siam (now the Gulf of Thailand), at the start of a voyage with cargo for Britain. The date is probably in the 1880s, when Conrad was at sea himself. In common with many of Conrad's stories, it is narrated in the first person. The narrator is the ship's young captain, whose name is never given. He is unfamiliar with both his ship and his crew, having joined the ship only a fortnight earlier, and unsure of his ability to exert his authority over the officers and crew who have been together for some time. He makes the point several times that he is the "stranger" on board.
After being towed downriver (presumably from Bangkok) by a steam tug, the ship is left at anchor near a group of small barren islands a few miles off shore, waiting for wind to begin its voyage. An incoming ship is anchored similarly a couple of miles away, awaiting a tug to go upriver.
That night, the captain, being restless, unusually takes the watch. As the only man on deck in the small hours of the morning, he sees that a man has swum up to the ship's side. Curiously, the captain initially sees the body as a headless corpse, which seems to hint at something much more foreboding. On second look, however, the body is full and the face speaks. The naked swimmer is hesitant to talk or come on board, but seems pleased to discover he is speaking to the captain. Once on board, the man introduces himself as Leggatt and he and the captain find a natural rapport, almost as if Leggatt were the captain's other self, especially as the captain has now fetched some of his own clothes for Leggatt to wear.
Still on deck, Leggatt explains that he was the First Mate of the other ship, but was placed under arrest after being accused of murdering a crew member. The victim was a disobedient bully. During a storm which nearly sank their ship on their voyage here, Leggatt was physically wrestling with the man to make him to pull a rope when a freak wave threw them both against a bulwark and the man was killed. Leggatt, a "stranger" on the other ship just as the captain is on his, would certainly face the gallows on landing. However, he escaped his locked cabin and swam between islands to reach the narrator's ship.
Though the captain could, and by all the rules should, arrest Leggatt, he instead leads him to concealment in his cabin. The captain has no plan yet, and hiding Leggatt seems impossibly difficult, given that his cabin is regularly serviced by his steward, the problem of food, a captain's movements being conspicuous to all, and the long voyage ahead. In the morning the captain of Leggatt's ship arrives by boat to enquire if the escapee has been sighted. Our captain, not a natural liar, manages to bluff through, but is left terrified as to what his own officers make of his strained behaviour.
With rising wind the ship gets underway, and there starts a routine of the captain helping Leggatt evade the dutiful visits of the steward to the captain's cabin. Leggatt comes close to discovery several times, almost like a stage farce. All the while, the captain is tormented by any small sign that any of his crew suspect (or even might have discovered) the secret. The captain and Leggatt evolve a plan: Leggatt, being a good swimmer, will drop into the sea and swim ashore further down the Gulf of Siam while the ship is sailed as close in to land as possible. This is done, although the risky manoeuver under the captain's direct command nearly puts the ship onto the rocks, testing his seamanship and horrifying the crew. Leggatt escapes unnoticed and the captain leads the ship away.
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The story has a theme seen in some other Conrad stories (Lord Jim, Nostromo) of the hero facing a decision and drifting into the one which is "wrong" by normal social standards, a lapse from the rules he is expected to follow. The decision by the captain to conceal Leggatt is the hinge point of this story. While the reader is likely to believe that Leggatt does not deserve to be convicted of murder, there is no doubt that the captain, as the representative of the law on his ship, is breaking all the rules in concealing Leggatt. For the sake of a man whom he had known for only 15 minutes, and after hearing only this man's version of events, the captain takes an enormous risk of ruining his own career and reputation.
Yet there is no clear point at which the decision is made. Although our narrator is speaking his thoughts, fears and doubts, he never says "I decided to conceal Leggatt". When they move from the deck to the cabin, it seems at first only to get Leggatt dry and to hear his story more fully, but the situation somehow drifts into one of concealment. This happens when they instinctively lower their voices on hearing the footsteps of the second mate (who has now taken over the watch) on the deck overhead. "I, too, spoke under my breath," the captain says, and from that point the conspiracy is in place.
Despite the captain's fears, it is clear that no one else on the ship has any suspicion of the secret even to the end. It is even possible to see Leggatt as entirely a figment of the captain's imagination, a doppelgänger, or a ghost – perhaps Leggatt actually drowned and sank after reaching our ship's side. At the end of the story, when Leggatt drops into the sea from a stern porthole, we do not even know if he survives the long swim to the Indo-China shore, to start a new life.
"The Secret Sharer" was written in just two weeks, while Conrad was also writing Under Western Eyes. He wrote the short story as a break from the much larger novel, which was emotionally difficult for him. There are similarities between the two stories, with the Captain and Leggatt becoming Razumov and Haldin, respectively. The story originally appeared in two parts in Harper's Magazine in August (Part I:349-359) and September (Part II:530-541) 1910, under the title "The Secret-Sharer. An episode from the sea". Conrad revised the title to make it more ambiguous, making Leggatt secretly share with the captain, rather than merely sharing a secret.
The story contains elements of real events. In 1880, the chief mate of the British clipper ship Cutty Sark killed another crew member for insolence during a storm and was later arrested in London for his murder. Conrad also drew on his own time as captain of the Otago, when his first mate did not trust him and got a particular scare when Conrad maneuvered the ship dangerously close to rocks in the Gulf of Siam.
- Sometimes called a novella (it is about 16,500 words long).
- Lisa Deiuri (2015-08-01). "Il compagno segreto di Joseph Conrad su Harper's Magazine". The Secret Sharer. http://compagnosegreto.blogspot.com/. Retrieved 2016-12-08.
- "Joseph Conrad -- The Secret-Sharer". Harper's Magazine. [Archive search]. Retrieved 2016-12-08.
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- The Secret Sharer at Project Gutenberg
- The Secret Sharer public domain audiobook at LibriVox
- Secret Sharer movie praised by seafarers' charity Apostleship of the Sea
Official site for Secret Sharer, released in the UK on 27 June 2014: