From The Secret Sharer and Other Stories
The prototypical double story in Western literature is probably “William Wilson” by Edgar Allan Poe. The 1839 Gothic horror story presents a literary template for the doppelgänger, usually associated with mischief or madness (or, in Poe’s case, both). A slightly later tale, Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, also examines the idea of a psychological double or split, in this case within a single individual. Following Poe, Western writers have employed the doppelgänger figure widely and to various effects, from Flannery O‘Connor in Wise Blood to Stephen King in The Outsider.
Joseph Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer,” first published in 1911, contains elements of both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and “William Wilson.” It tells the story of an unnamed captain on an unnamed sailing vessel we initially encounter at anchor in the Gulf of Siam. While on watch one night, the captain rescues a man named Leggatt, who he finds naked in the water clinging to his ship’s ladder. Under questioning, Leggatt unfurls a tale about a murder he committed on a neighbouring ship, the Sephora. The captain undertakes to hide Leggatt from his crew and the captain of the Sephora, who comes looking for the fugitive. He then conspires to take his ship dangerously close to land so that Leggatt, a strong swimmer, might surreptitiously escape to freedom.
A thumbnail sketch of the story’s plot makes it sound like an adventure story, and it does have certain elements of that genre, especially in its final stages. But Conrad is a very different writer from Stevenson, and “The Secret Sharer” is not Dr. Jekyll by way of Treasure Island. In case there were any doubt, the captain reprimands his stowaway at one point, saying, “We are not living in a boy’s adventure tale.“
“The Secret Sharer” is one of Conrad’s seafaring narratives, like “Youth” and Heart of Darkness, modelled on the author’s own experiences as a sailor. The other source of inspiration was likely the 1880 murder of seaman John Francis by First Mate Sidney Smith aboard the Cutty Sark. But Conrad’s focus in his story is less on the details of the plot and more on the psychology of Leggatt and, to a much greater extent, the unnamed captain. “The Secret Sharer” is a psychological tale about courage and responsibility, as well as addressing matters of moral ambiguity regarding Leggatt’s culpability in the murder.
The killing took place, according to Leggatt and filtered through the captain’s first-person narration, during the setting of a reefed foresail, “the only sail we had to keep the ship running” through a bout of particularly rough weather. Leggatt’s victim “was half crazed with funk” and there was “no time for gentlemanly reproof.” It was not, by implication, an unprovoked attack, and Leggatt’s description (or the captain’s recapitulation of it) gives every indication that the other man’s death was an accident. Leggatt’s own concern for the safety of the men on the Sephora is demonstrated by his rigging the reefed foresail under dangerous conditions, though the Sephora’s skipper attributes their survival to “a special mercy” from “God’s own hand.” The skipper was too indecisive to give the order to hoist the sail, an action Leggatt undertook under his own auspices.
Two things are of note here. The skipper’s name – at least as the captain, who is narrating the tale retrospectively, remembers it – is Archbold. In the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of The Secret Sharer and Other Stories, Gail Fraser notes that the historical jurist John F. Archbold was noted for his “definitive work on criminal pleading and evidence,” which aimed “to eliminate ambiguity from the regulation and judgment of human affairs.” The skipper’s refusal to credit Leggatt with saving the lives of the crew on the Sephora or to countenance any extenuating circumstances in the matter of the sailor’s untimely death represents a rigidly moralistic approach to matters of character, including matters of guilt and innocence.
Moreover, Archbold’s reticence in ordering the rigging of the reefed foresail marks him as a man of indecision, as opposed to Leggatt’s man of action. (This is underscored in a blatantly sexist manner by the repeated association of Archbold with his wife, who he has brought on board the Sephora against protocol. His character is understood to be womanish in the face of Leggatt’s manliness.) The skipper’s indecisiveness mirrors the anonymous narrator’s own lack of confidence or resolution in the story’s early stages. An inexperienced young captain appointed to his position only two weeks prior to the events of the story, he is an unknown quantity on board and professes to know “very little of [his] officers,” all of whom have sailed together for more than a year. “[M]y position,” he says, “was that of the only stranger on board.”
But his sense of separation does not end there. Crucially, Conrad has his narrator follow up by noting, “what I felt most was my being a stranger to the ship; and if all the truth must be told, I was somewhat of a stranger to myself.” What he discovers in Leggatt is the physical manifestation of something inside himself – be it courage, the confidence to assume command of the ship, or a sense of male potency previously lacking. The narrator constantly refers to Leggatt as his double, his “secret self,” “second self,“ or “secret double.” After first hauling the naked man onboard ship, the narrator notes, “The self-possession of that man had somehow induced a corresponding state in myself.” He outfits Leggatt in one of his own striped grey sleeping suits and suggests that anybody seeing Leggatt in his quarters “would have taken him for me.” (The captain’s quarters, it should be noted, are described as being laid out in the shape of a capital “L.”)
Of the central tension in “The Secret Sharer,” Charles G. Hoffmann writes, “The narrator’s conflict is essentially a psychological struggle within himself, which is subjectively dramatized in the first part before Leggatt’s appearance. Leggatt, both in his identity as the captain’s ‘double’ and in his own story, is the objective dramatization of the captain’s secret self.” This seems to be the accepted reading of the story: the captain’s duality is manifest in his own psychology and made external in the person of Leggatt. This, however, assumes the reliability of the captain as a narrator. Most commentators feel comfortable taking this on faith, such that when the captain says, “I knew well enough … that my double there was no homicidal ruffian,” we accept this assessment as accurate.
But the duality in the captain that forces the repression of his more assertive impulses until they are allowed release as a result of Leggatt’s intervention, as well as the fact that the first-person narration is presented at a temporal remove from the events described – the skipper’s name may have been Archbold, the captain tells us, “but at this distance of years I hardly am sure” – serve to complicate a reading of the narrative. As an early modernist, Conrad was concerned with the subterranean aspects of the psyche, here manifest in Leggatt, who is stowed away below decks in the captain’s sleeping quarters. There is, at the very least, moral ambiguity in the captain’s decision to hide the fugitive and then assist in his escape from those searching for him. An escape, it should be noted, that puts the captain’s own crew at dire risk.
Very little in Conrad’s fiction is cut and dried, and “The Secret Sharer” (the title amended slightly – but significantly – from Conrad’s original, “The Secret-Sharer”) is no exception. Whether the captain’s actions in the story’s climax offer a respite for a man unjustly accused of murder, or whether they represent a miscarriage of justice, a moment of self-discovery, or an exorcism of his own darker impulses is ultimately open to interpretation. But it is precisely these areas of ambiguity that keep readers returning to the story.
Correction, May 30: An earlier version of this piece misidentified the date of publication for Poe’s story “William Wilson.” It appeared in 1839, not 1893.