Overplayed or Underappreciated: The Question of Conrad in the British Canon

Joseph Conrad’s work is an apparent staple of the 20th century British canon. Few literature students manage to weave their way toward a degree without being exposed to his iconic novella Heart of Darkness. While it is undeniably a powerful piece of writing, the analysis of its themes has been so repetitive and overplayed that one begins to wonder if it deserves its place in the canon at all. In contrast, Conrad’s later work—namely the short story titled The Secret Sharer—offers a far more subtle, nuanced approach to similar themes. Although it is presently less popular than Heart of Darkness, The Secret Sharer is far more worthy of analysis and therefore more deserving of a place in the British literary canon.

In order to determine whether a work belongs in a canon in the first place, we must first contemplate what exactly a canon is. In his essay “An Idea and Ideal of a Literary Canon,” Charles Altieri paraphrases Frank Kermode when he says, “. . . canons are essentially strategic constructs by which societies maintain their own interests, since the canon allows control over the texts a culture takes seriously and the methods of interpretation that establish the meaning of ‘serious'” (38). In other words, any given collection of canon literature is a carefully controlled presentation of a culture or subculture’s values; it is a direct reflection of the way a select group perceives itself.

At a glance, this makes The Secret Sharer appear strangely juxtaposed with the rest of the British canon. It was not written by a native Briton—though Conrad was ultimately a naturalized citizen—and therefore it is difficult to argue that it is a direct reflection of British values or ideals. Beyond that, the short story’s themes of questionable morality and the underlying human psyche do not cast British cultural values in a positive light. Which brings us to the question: does The Secret Sharer serve as a representation of British culture? The answer will unequivocally determine whether the story deserves a place in the British canon, and so an analysis of its themes is in order.

At the beginning of The Secret Sharer, we are met with an unnamed speaker who describes in the first lines his surroundings at sea. The major themes in the story are hinted at in the final sentence of the introductory paragraph, when the speaker says: “And then I was left alone with my ship, anchored at the head of the Gulf of Siam” (Conrad 4). In as few words as possible, this tells us what we need to know. The speaker describes it as his ship, revealing to us that he is the captain. He makes mention of being alone, which becomes one of the overarching issues throughout the story. Finally, he gives away his location, which is far more important to the message of the story than it initially appears.

The story is set in the Gulf of Siam, which is known in the present day as the Gulf of Thailand. Interestingly, Thailand is one of the lucky eastern countries to escape colonization. While at the surface themes of colonialism seem to be more present in some of Conrad’s other work, there is a carefully woven undercurrent of colonial and imperialist attitudes throughout The Secret Sharer that ultimately shape the story. The setting is important due to its implications: while Thailand may never have been colonized, the British seafaring presence no doubt hints at their presence in the surrounding countries. The speaker’s ship is representative of one of the many ships in constant transit between these colonized lands and the British homeland.

This brings us to Conrad’s decision to make the speaker a recently-appointed captain. It is quickly revealed to us that the speaker is somewhat insecure, despite his newfound position. This creates the sense that the speaker is both the everyman and in a position of power, suggesting that his actions throughout the story could reflect the actions of anyone (or, at least, any western male) in the same position. In this regard, the characterization hints at western morality on the broader scale, and so we begin to see how it might to fit into the British canon.

Of course, the speaker is not the driving force of the story, although he does help to shape our perception of it. It is the presence of a stranger aboard the ship that sets the events of The Secret Sharer in motion. When the speaker first encounters the stranger, he describes him as follows: “With a gasp I saw revealed to my stare a pair of feet, the long legs, a broad livid back immersed right up to the neck in a greenish cadaverous glow. One hand, awash, clutched the bottom rung of the ladder. He was complete but for the head. A headless corpse” (Conrad 7)! Almost immediately, the speaker realizes the man does have a head, and is very much alive . . . but this initial encounter is key to understanding the perception of the stranger that follows. Leggatt, as we learn he is called, also plays the role of the everyman; his initial perceived headless state represents the ambiguity and fluidity of his identity. He instantly becomes a fill-in-the-blank, upon which the speaker casts his own perception of himself.

This becomes more relevant as Leggatt’s crimes are revealed. The speaker chooses to abuse his newfound power by harboring a fugitive aboard his ship—one who has committed murder, which has long been regarded as one of the more heinous of crimes. The speaker’s ultimate reason for this seems to lie in the similarities to himself he sees in Leggatt. This links back to the undercurrent of colonial themes within Conrad’s work. It is the perfect representation of the implicit bias present in western cultures, by which those who are perceived as “like” are excused even for the most atrocious of actions, while those who are labeled “other” are ostracized and even criminalized for the arbitrary. The speaker acting as a shield for Leggatt because they are “alike” is symbolic of the willful ignorance and justification of western cultures as a whole.

The primary conflict throughout the story revolves around the speaker’s concealment of Leggatt. The question of whether the speaker will reveal Leggatt to his comrades or allow him to escape without answering for his crimes parallels the idea of confronting one’s demons or ignoring them. The speaker shares his feelings on the matter when he says, “I was extremely tired, in a peculiarly intimate way, by the strain of stealthiness, by the effort of whispering and the general secrecy of this excitement” (Conrad 15). Though this seems to suggest the speaker is tired of hiding things and wants to confront the issue, he ultimately opts to aid Leggatt in an escape. The speaker has essentially ignored his demons. He never owns up to his actions in concealing Leggatt, but ironically the sequence of events leads to the speaker gaining his crew’s trust all the same. This suggests one of the great problems with western culture; it is often viewed as more acceptable to “save face” than to own up to admit to doing wrong. Presentation is often valued above virtue, and this is exactly the case for the speaker of The Secret Sharer. Although he aided a murderer in his escape, he is satisfied with himself in the end because he gained the respect of his shipmates.

While there are no defined lines to determine what criteria a canonical work should meet, a strong sense of culture and an openness to analysis are key factors in making a work worth studying. At its core, The Secret Sharer serves as a critique of British culture on both the individual and general level. It highlights the strong influence colonialism and imperialism has on the development of the British identity, even when present only on a subconscious level. While not necessarily depicting British culture in the most positive of lights, it no doubt offers insight into the cultural history. The ambiguity of the story leaves it wide open for a variety of interpretations, making it a perfect candidate for the British canon that it will not wear out its welcome anytime soon.

Works Cited

Altieri, Charles. “An Idea and Ideal of a Literary Canon.” Critical Inquiry, 10.1 (1983): 37-60. Web. 12 Mar 2017.

Conrad, Joseph. The Secret Sharer. Raleigh: Boson Books, 2013. Print.

Disentangling the Twins of Conrad’s Psyche

Disentangling the Twins of Conrad’s Psyche

Joseph Conrad spoke such truth about the inner working of humankind when he said through his character Razumov in Under Western Eyes, “A man’s most open actions have a secret side to them” (pt. 1, ch. 2). This would become a ghostly introduction to his next work The Secret Sharer published a year later. Joyce Carol Oats says in the introduction of the text that “the young captain is the ‘head,’ the consciousness; and the romantic fugitive Leggatt the ‘body,’ the physical being” (13; introd.). Nevertheless, with a more detailed exploration, the characters, in fact, play opposite roles. Conrad has created a wonderfully detailed portrait of the inner self through a doppelganger relationship representing the philosophy of opposition of self: the ego (the captain) and the id (Leggatt). It can be agreed on when Oats does say that Conrad is “a master of the psychological novel” (7; introd.). Conrad shows his own thoughts about the duality of man through a compelling story of a young captain stumbling upon a terrible secret. However, the story goes beyond a simple tale of mystery. It is a commentary on a stranger in a sea of inexperience who must reach out to find the sharer of secrets, an inner self that is complementary to the opposing outer facade.

Conrad establishes the roles of the captain and Leggatt through the story’s epiphany found in the final sentence of the text. “The secret sharer of my cabin and of my thoughts, as though he were my second self, had lowered himself into the water to take his punishment: a free man, a proud swimmer striking out for a new destiny” (Conrad, 62). They are both free men with a new destiny as punishment for breaking the rules and going against the norm established by sailors of the past. And if freedom were punishment for harboring the fugitive, the captain would accept it.

Commenting on the role of the narrator in a story, Norman Friedman maintains that when the author moves to the “I” point of view “as witness he hands his job completely over to another. Albeit the narrator is a creation of the author, the latter is from now on denied any direct voice in the proceedings at all” (150). The credibility of the narration comes from the fact that Conrad doesn’t push his opinion into the story directly. He gives the reader everything through the limited view of the captain, who doesn’t have a name and can be associated directly to Conrad himself. With the author out of the narration and into the character, the captain, a shell, is the one who must see and realize everything to draw closer to Leggatt, his wandering spirit, as a complete character. The logic behind him harboring a murderer is now a metaphor of a complimentary opposite. No one is capable of doing great things alone. Another self must lurk in the shadows to spur them on, someone to share a secret with to survive a hostile world full of strangers. The captain is the ego, which is the outer shell molded by circumstance and can’t fully change; while Leggatt is the id, that inner instinct that runs rampant through consciousness and is susceptible to change, thus bringing a change about to the ego, or the character itself.

An interesting philosophical question is, can a body survive without a soul, or, is there really a soul? Conrad tries to show the significance of this unverifiable question through the secret sharers. First, the captain is a shell of a man, lacking experience and self-confidence, being a total stranger to himself (Conrad, 19). He is missing something in his life, and when the fugitive boards the ship the key element is found. Within the same paragraph that Leggatt boards the ship, the captain is already calling him his “double” (Conrad, 25). An ideal is in the features of the young man that strikes a stark contrast against the other shipmates whom he doesn’t know or even wish to know. At first contact, a distinct line is separating the two characters as individuals but the lines soon fade near the end of the tale as both become one.

To contrast the two, Leggatt is totally free, like the Biblical Cain, “ready enough to go off wandering on the face of the earth” (Conrad, 31). He is skilled and sure in what he does, especially as a swimmer. He takes no nonsense from anyone, seen in the fact that he is willing to kill a man for not doing his duty and jeopardizing the lives of other men, “and that was price enough to pay for an Abel of that sort” (Conrad, 31). Even locked up in the captain’s cabin is an infringement on his freedom for “as usual he stared through the port” (Conrad, 53), as a prisoner would stare out of barred windows. Upon seeing this free soul, the captain wishes freedom also, although a different kind: freedom from the bonds the establishment has imposed upon him. He tells Leggatt that he did not want to be on this trip, and perhaps felt forced upon the command, “I had been appointed to take charge while I least expected anything of the sort” (Conrad, 33). He can see Leggatt is now released and free, and a sense of adventure lingers in the fugitive’s future. The captain fears that to follow the law exactly would only continue to lead a life void of soul, without any redeeming qualities that, perhaps, leads to a life similar to that of the “tenacious beast” (Conrad, 43), the captain of the Sephora: “To the law. His obscure tenacity on that point had in it something incomprehensible and a little awful; something, as it were, mystical, quite apart from his anxiety that he should not be suspected of ‘countenancing any doings of that sort.’ Seven-and-thirty virtuous years at sea, of which over twenty of immaculate command, and the last fifteen in the Sephora, seemed to have laid him under some pitiless obligation” (Conrad, 41).

The captain knows what he does not want to be, but has yet not realized what he can be. He is still not whole. He is far too nervous, and if he were alone in his secret, he would have collapsed under all the pressure put on him by his crewmates and the Sephora captain. If Leggatt is anything, he is the confidence, courage, and strength for the shockingly inexperienced captain. “The ringing of the supper bell made me start. He [Leggatt] didn’t though; he only released his grip,” (Conrad, 56). And because he was not totally alone in commanding the ship, he could perform what would have been impossible for him to do previously, nor would he have had the opportunity to show his strength as a captain. The opposition of self is what brings out this quality in the captain.

The captain is very calculating in his thoughts; he seems to think too much about what will happen, and a sort of cowardice arises from it. However, Leggatt throws his cares to the wind, swimming out until he finds safety or drowns. He will do what has dignity for himself. The clear distinction between the two sharers starts to come together at the end of the novella; the soul merges with the body; the id and ego come together to form a complete and full character in the captain.

At first, the captain sees Leggatt just as a paragon, a similarity that “wasn’t a bit like [him], really” (Conrad, 29), but near the end of the story, the captain starts to think Leggatt as himself, literally. He will risk his own position and even his and the crewmates lives for the safety of the other self. His chief and first mate both appear terrified over his decision to move the ship off course close to the land. Still, he is determined, and for the first time, he actually becomes like Leggatt, striking out into uncharted waters until he finds safety or drowns. He will now do what has dignity for himself. His words echo the risk of his actions. “I realized suddenly that all my future, the only future for which I was fit, would perhaps go irretrievably to pieces in any mishap to my first command” (Conrad, 55). Nonetheless, he continues never deviating from his course. He would have been doomed too, the water unreadable in the dark, except the sign left by Leggatt. The hat given on a whim to protect Leggatt from the sun, as if it would be his own head, becomes a symbol of the psyche, the marker to regulate the captain’s response to the environment. With that final token, he could read the water and save the ship. He survives the fires of the forge and becomes complete. Though Leggatt has left and found his freedom, the captain too has regained his own.

Everything has come full circle. The feeling at the end repeats the beginning. That is, the loneliness the captain feels, being but a shell of a man, echoes at the end when he fears the barrenness and loneliness of the isles of the Koh-ring where “not a gleam to be seen, not a sound to be heard” (Conrad, 58), for his friend, that being his soul, to complete the character. They have merged into one.

Taking the psychological approach to the text, the plausibility for the captain to accept this fugitive becomes more than, as Oats says, “superficial and far too heavily underscored” (12; introd.). These two characters don’t lack any superficiality; they are just reacting to the circumstances in which they have been placed. Characters, fictional or factual, must come to terms with themselves, no matter how vile the past, and prove to hold up under pressure, to become a better person in the end. Hope for improvement, even under the worst of conditions, is what creates talent, as Conrad himself proved through surviving the horrors of his voyages to emerge as a talented writer sharing the secrets of his inner self.

Works Cited

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer. Introd. Joyce Carol Oats. New York: Signet Classic, 1997.

—. Under Western Eyes. Ed. Jeremy Hawthorn. Oxford, Eng.:Oxford University Press, 1996.

Friedman, Norman. Form and Meaning of Fiction. [U.S.A.?]: n.p., n.d. 134-166.

Oats, Joyce Carol. “Introduction”. Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer. By Joseph Conrad. New York: Signet Classic, 1997. 1-14.

Narration and Perspective in The Secret Sharer

Joseph Conrad’s story The Secret Sharer is a first-person account written in two parts from the perspective of an untried sea captain. The separation of the two segments almost perfectly coincides with a distinction in the narrative voice. In the first part of The Secret Sharer the captain is displaced, unassuming and uncalculating. At this point narrative descriptions help to establish situation as they more resemble unattached observations. It is upon the discovery of Leggatt that narration begins to evolve. Due to an unexplained, instantaneous rapport, the captain unquestioningly receives Leggatt’s story and puts him into hiding. At this point paranoia begins and the narrator’s mind admittedly begins to lose structure: “The dual working of my mind distracted me almost to the point of insanity,” admits the captain (Conrad 96). The narrator’s thought process is more clearly illustrated upon the arrival of the captain of the Sephora in the second part of the story. Narration switches from being generally situational to more personal and inward; for instance, the captain observes that “My lack of excitement, of curiosity, of surprise, of any sort of pronounced interest, began to arouse his distrust” (99). Of course there is no explanation as to how the captain knows distrust is being provoked; there is no depiction of Archbold’s expressions or actions. Readers must, at this point, either trust the intuition of the narrator or presume his fears to be unfounded. In the same paragraph, Conrad effectively communicates the multiple levels of seemingly erratic conscious reasoning that we all possess: “And yet how else could I have received him? Not heartily! That was impossible for psychological reasons…Surlily? Yes, but surliness might have provoked a point-blank question” (100). The captain is cognizant of actions and counter-actions, he becomes especially conniving: “From its novelty to him and from its nature, punctilious courtesy was the manner best calculated to restrain the man” (100). Here the captain shows his grasp of reasoning has not left him, yet his improbable fears are still present: “If he had only known how afraid I was of his putting my feeling of identity with the other to the test!”(100). These unwarranted fears plant seeds of doubt in the reader’s mind as to the mental welfare and subsequently the reliability of the narrator. When Archbold speaks next he says, “I reckon I had no more than a two-mile pull to your ship. Not a bit more” (100). This is an obvious indication of suspicion, but the narrator quickly deflects a more direct line of questioning (as to whether Leggett might have had the ability to swim that distance) by saying, “And quite enough, too, in this awful heat” (100). One might suspect self-preservation as the motive to this redirect but the author goes on to state, “Necessity is the mother of invention, but fear too, is not barren of ingenious suggestion. And I was afraid he would ask me point-blank for new of my other self” (100). The captain concedes to fear being an instigator to his deception but maintains a fear of being asked outright. He explains that “for psychological (not moral) reasons” (100) he cannot convey a direct lie. Readers can only speculate what psychological reasons prevent his lying as opposed to deceiving or preventing a situation in which he would have to be untruthful. He does indicate to a moral lapse, but whether this is in regard to his personal stowaway or some previous event is not known. As to what if anything incites suspicion in Archbold’s mind can only be approximated. Perhaps it could be attributed to “ready-made suspicions” or perhaps it was the “queer” actions or poor deceptive capabilities of the captain.Every thought, action, or word from the narrator was, during this encounter, strategic. “My only object was to keep off his inquiries,” (100) he states. Any small step towards laying suspicion directly on the captain is quickly supplanted out of fear.In this particular passage, Conrad successfully portrays the various planes of reasoning that a lone man in personal distress encounters. His effectiveness can be attributed to his method. Through his use of the narrator portraying the actual author of the story and a consequent lack of perspective, Conrad entices the reader to think vicariously from the narrator’s perspective and speculate as to what is missing. This passage articulates a very human process of paranoid thinking with which anyone can identify. It explains the captain’s mindset but raises many other questions that have no hope of being answered. In so doing, it gives a truly realistic dimension to the character of the captain and his story, making The Secret Sharer a valuable contribution to American literature. 

Shaping the Self

The potential for self-discovery, complemented by the capacity for transformation, lies latent within each man. When circumstances instigate a strong stimulus for change, man finds a way to actuate his innate potential. In Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Sharer, the overly rational captain finds himself lacking the courage needed for his new “position of the fullest responsibility” (677). He impulsively carries out his desperate “[self-]appointed task of [change]” (677) when catalyzed by Leggatt, a murderer whom he illegally protects. By breaking free of hesitancy and rationality and hurling himself into a dangerously intense trial of his own capabilities, the captain emerges as a matured and balanced individual.The captain is a logical man of restraint and intellect who is thrust into his position of leadership “in consequence of certain events of no particular significance” (677). The resulting responsibilities, however, are of immense magnitude, and he doubts his ability to simultaneously handle the crew, the ship, and himself. Now that the “quiet communion [and comfort of subordination is]… gone for good” (677), the captain faces the undeniable fact that he is not only “a stranger to the ship… [but, more significantly,] a stranger to [himself]” (677). With his self-doubt and hesitancy reinforced by the suspicion and lack of respect from the crew, the captain isolates himself.This physical and psychological isolation forces the captain to “live as an individual rather than as a mere part of a society” (703). Alone with the recognition that he must be “always perfectly self-controlled… [and] more than calm – almost invulnerable” (692) in order to succeed on his “first command” (701), the captain furthermore desires to gain the respect and acceptance of his crew and himself. He desperately reaches inward for his potential to change; in this quest to “turn out faithful to that ideal conception of… [his] own personality [which he] sets up for himself secretly” (677), the captain sees Leggatt as the prime embodiment of the self-assurance and stubborn perseverance he craves and lacks; Leggatt is an unrepentant murderer, the epitome of impulsiveness, recklessness, and self-confidence.However, it is not through direct association with Leggatt that the captain is able to bring out and integrate similar qualities from within himself; it is not through a servile and cowardly imitation of Leggatt but rather through the risky feat of protecting Leggatt that he is able to become an integrated whole. Letting his passion and feeling of kinship for Leggatt override his customary rationality, the captain impulsively commits himself to harboring the murderer. This bold disregard of the moral code of society, supplemented by the prioritization of his own feelings, provides the captain with the opportunity to fully exert himself.Fearing the constant threat of discovery, the captain forces himself to maintain an unflagging vigilance. He combines his original shrewdness and caution with his developing boldness to keep Leggatt hidden. From deceiving the captain of the Sephora to intimidating his steward and asserting himself, the captain stretches his abilities to the very limit. This process is physically trying, and he painfully endures this “infinitely miserable time” (693). Moreover, it is mentally exhausting, for the impending peril of discovery is both “nerve-trying” (691) and “maddening” (693). The consequences of discovery, which include mutiny and possible death for the captain, are all too near and real. He selflessly sacrifices his own stability, peace of mind, and even sanity to protect Leggatt.Indeed, the intensity of both the external and self-imposed pressures almost forces the captain to lose his sanity; he “ha[s] come creeping quietly as near insanity as any man who has not actually gone over the border” (694). So exhausting are these trials that the captain is unconsciously tempted to return to the simple and familiar; paradoxically, the greatest danger is not the threat of discovery, but rather the luring comfort of rationality and certainty. If the captain abandons his reliance upon emotions and disillusions himself prematurely, the intense molding of his psyche will “go irretrievably to pieces” (696). However, he manages to restrain rationality and persevere in his selfless and complete devotion to Leggatt and thus “live up to the best in himself” (703); for, as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “… no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself”.By protecting Leggatt, the captain finally realizes the full extent of his capabilities and gains confidence from this knowledge. His development into an integrated whole is completed when he mentally and physically frees himself from Leggatt by dropping him off near Koh-ring. Ignoring the reluctance of his crew and his own uncertainty, the captain recklessly and unyieldingly orders the ship to be brought dangerously and unnecessarily close to shore. In doing so, he proves to himself that he has successfully integrated impulsiveness and confidence.Afterwards, the captain safely steers the ship away from shore and wins the confidence, trust, and respect of his crew and himself, thus achieving “the perfect communion of a seaman with his first command” (701). With this sense of completion, he no longer needs the presence of his “secret sharer” (701). In fact, the captain needs independence in order to prevent the emergence and integration of any more impulsiveness and reckless boldness which would otherwise overwhelm the delicate balance with his original rationality and logical restraint.Ironically, the captain has reached a state of balanced wholeness and self-knowledge only to become “a total stranger” (700) once again; though he has come to terms with himself as the captain of a ship, fate will continue to present new and different circumstances. Consequently, the accompanying processes of self-discovery and personal change are cyclical, and the captain has completed one cycle only to begin another, thus “striking out for a new destiny” (701).