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"The Secret Sharer": A New Interpretation.

According to the traditional view, "The Secret Sharer" (1910) portrays the Poe, Dostoyevsky, Stevenson, and Wilde theme of the double--but without the evil side of the main character. In these works, the protagonist shares a split personality with a wicked man, the opposite of himself, who attempts to dominate and destroy him. Conrad's deviation from this pattern explains why the young captain so powerfully identifies with Leggatt, who has escaped from the Sephora, secretly boards his ship and is the mirror image of himself. I would argue that the conflict within the captain originates not from an exclusively literary model but from Conrad's agonizing relationship with his father, who is symbolically portrayed as his secret sharer.

In October 1861 Conrad's father, Apollo Korzeniowski--poet, translator, and failed revolutionary--was arrested by the authorities for trying to over-throw the oppressive Russian government in Poland. Seven months later he was sent into exile in Vologda with his wife and four-year-old son. That grim town, 250 miles northeast of Moscow, had arctic temperatures that fell to thirty degrees below zero in winter. Conrad inevitably shared his parents' grief, poverty, hardship, and sickness. After his mother died of tuberculosis in April 1865, the seven-year-old Conrad was thrown into morbid conjunction with his tormented father, who felt that his arrest and exile were responsible for her death. Apollo hopelessly lamented, "Poor child. [...] he looks at the decrepitude of my sadness and who knows if that sight does not make his young heart wrinkled or his awakening soul grizzled" (Meyers 23). In January 1868 the moribund Apollo was allowed to return to Poland. After he died of tuberculosis in Cracow the following year, the grieving orphan led the funeral procession, which turned into a patriotic demonstration by several thousand people. Cut into Apollo's gravestone were the caustic words: "Victim of Muscovite Tyranny"

This, in essence, was Conrad's tragic childhood. Though Apollo died when Conrad was only eleven years old, they had established an intense, even harrowing, relationship. Their life was characterized by melancholy unhappiness, poignant silence, and gloomy despair, and the father had a profound impact on the son. Apollo's legacy to Conrad was the bitterness of shattered hopes, the trauma of defeat, a volatile temperament, an anguished patriotism, and a deeprooted pessimism.

Somewhat puzzled by his own feelings, the captain in Conrad's story allows, "that man had somehow induced a corresponding [psychological and emotional] state in myself," and felt more at ease with himself and "less torn in two when I was with him" (128, 147). Like his connection with his ship at the end of the ordeal, he experiences with Leggatt the perfect communion of "silent knowledge and mute affection" (163). Through this paternal surrogate, Conrad finally achieves peace with his father.

Like Apollo, Leggatt (his legacy) doesn't look like a criminal and has committed a serious crime for a higher cause. Apollo rebelled against Russian rule while fighting for Polish freedom; Leggatt has killed a sailor who refused to obey a vital order. In doing so, Leggatt saved the ship and crew during a violent storm at sea. (The gale that almost destroys the Sephora provides a striking contrast to the prevailing calm that impedes the progress of the young captain's ship.) Though the captain believes that Leggatt is not really guilty, he offers "a sufficiently fierce story to make an old judge and a respectable jury sit up a bit" (131). Both men were or soon would be unjustly convicted, expelled from their home and forced into exile. Like Apollo, Leggatt has been "driven off the face of the earth [....] clean out of sight into uncharted regions" (154, 156). And like the harsh conditions of Apollo's exile, on the captain's ship "everything was against us in our secret partnership" (147) The captain, who had "an infinitely miserable time" (150) while hiding Leggatt from the crew and preventing Leggatt's discovery until he could sail close to the shore and give Leggatt his freedom, exonerates the symbolic sharer of Conrad's father's crime.

The nocturnal sleeping suits, or pajamas, which form an intimate bond between the captain and Leggatt, represent Conrad's dreams, his hope of realizing his suppressed desires and fulfilling his long-sought wishes. In this domestic drama, an act of transcendent imagination, Conrad rewrites his family's tragic history. The captain, at great peril to himself, helps his symbolic father to escape from the perilous fate that ruined Apollo's life. When the captain exerts his authority, Conrad frees himself from his subservient position as an imprisoned and impotent child and becomes a forceful man in charge of his father's destiny. As the captain rescues, protects, and saves his secret sharer of exile, oppression, and suffering, Conrad dramatically exchanges roles with Apollo, redeems himself, and overcomes his father's emotionally crippling influence, which he would also portray when describing the impact of Heyst's father in Victory.

In this homage to Apollo, Conrad strives to fulfill his destiny and achieve fidelity "to that ideal conception of one's own personality every man sets up for himself secretly" (123). He reaches maturity, becomes worthy to have led his father's funeral procession, and compensates for his failure to remain in Poland and take up Apollo's patriotic cause. He "had been appointed to take charge" (136) and needs to assert himself with his crew and to assume "the novel responsibility of command" (125)--of himself and his father, his sharer and his ship. The story turns his father's imprisonment into a successful escape and explains why the captain, on his first command, recklessly risks his ship, crew, and career for a complete stranger and self-confessed murderer. Finally, he enables Leggatt to reach the Cambodian shore of French Indochina, beyond the rule of English law: "a free man, a proud swimmer striking out for a new destiny" (164) that Apollo had never achieved.


Conrad, Joseph. The Shadow-Line and Two Other Tales. Edited by Morton Dauwen Zabel, Doubleday, 1959.

Meyers, Jeffrey. Joseph Conrad: A Biography. Scribner's, 1991.


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Author:Meyers, Jeffrey
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Dec 22, 2015
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