Joseph Conrad is one of the greats of the late romantic period. After learning English at the age of twenty, he went on to become one of the most reknowned English (language, not the nation) writers of all time. Most of his famous writing is semi-autobiographical, drawing from his experiences in the Merchant Marine, e.g. Heart of Darkness (probably his best-known work). The Secret Sharer (originally published in 1911), a classic novelette based largely on freudian introspective, is often dwarfed by Heart of Darkness, and misses the credit it deserves.

Some spoilers follow; you have been warned.


The story written in two parts, and is largely centered around an unnamed captain of a clipper ship anchored in the Gulf of Siam. He is young and inexperienced, and his crew finds him to be quite eccentric at times. Having been on the ship for only a fortnight when the story opens, he decides one evening to take the night watch, hoping to gain some points with his new crew.

Clad in his sleeping suit and smoking a cigar, our captain is wandering the deck when he notices that a rope ladder has been left deployed over the side of the ship. Looking overboard he notices a "headless corpse," and is rather shocked when the body demands to speak with the captain of the ship. The captain identifies himself as such, and helps the man to board the ship.

After giving the man (whose name, he reveals, is Leggat) one of his sleeping suits, the captain notices how strikingly similar they look (symbolic meaning explained down below, in the Analysis section). The captain begins to interrogate the newcomer, and it is revealed that he was the first mate on another ship, the Sephora, docked on the other side of the island. It seems that during a storm he and another crew member were charged with raising a sail so that they could escape, and when the other man panicked, Leggat finished raising the job and then strangled him to death. He was discovered after the ship was out of the storm with his hands still around the man's neck, whose face had turned black. He was imprisoned in his ship's brig, and escaped two weeks later after convincing a friend to leave his cell unlocked.

Our captain, feeling a strange connection to this fugitive, decides to help him. He manages to hide him in his quarters for four days, even when Captain Archbold of the Sephora comes on board in search of his former first mate. On the fourth day the ship raises anchor, and much to his crew's chagrin, the captain orders them to sail dangerously close to an island, hoping to bring them close enough to ensure Leggat's escape. Late at night the captain gives Leggat half of the gold sovereigns that he had saved to buy fresh food at port, and his hat. Leggat jumps overboard, and swims for land. When the captain arrives on the quarterdeck once more he is shocked to see his floppy hat floating in the water, and is able to use it as a marker to sail the ship to safety.


The most prevalent theme in the story is that of the three freudian personalities. Leggat represents the Id, acting without much rational thought. The captain is shown as the Ego, a mediator to Leggat's rash actions, who by hiding him shields him away from the outside world. Captain Archbold is presented as the Superego, the morally-driven portion of the trio, specifically when he says that justice is more important that his loyalty to his first mate, Leggat.

This relationship carries over into symbolism in the novelette. When the captain sees the "headless corpse" in the water which turns out to be Leggat, it can be interpreted figuratively to represent the Ego's "action without thought." At the end of the novel the captain's gifts are also important. The money (half of what the captain had) represents a relationship between the two men, showing them as two parts of a whole. The hat represents the captain putting a head on the headless corpse, as it were, just as the Ego gives rational thought to the Id.

There is some debate among scholars (partially due to Conrad's use of deliberate ambiguity throughout his work) as to whether Leggat actually exists. He is seen by nobody except the captain for the duration of the novel, and while Archbold does come looking for him, it is entirely possible that the "headless corpse" (hate to keep bringing it up, but it's important) was actually just a body in the water, and that the captain created Leggat as a mental image of his repressed Id. He is, in fact, the inspiration for the character Tyler Durden in the movie Fight Club.


I hope that by writing this I have given you some insight into the depth of Conrad's other works. He is often wrongly discounted as one of literature's "one-hit wonders," and I think that this must stop. As anyone who has read his work knows, he left his mark on all modern literature, and my understanding of Freud just hasn't been the same since reading the Secret Sharer.

Sources: (Gutenberg Project Text)

Joseph Conrad’s 1910 novella The Secret Sharer tells the story of a young sea captain who aids Leggatt, the mate of the Sephora who is on the lam after killing a sailor. This novella offers a tighter and much faster-paced narrative than Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and I found it to be a better “read” despite Heart of Darkness many fine qualities. Much of the quality of the narrative’s pacing comes from Conrad’s ability to maintain tension throughout the story.

The urgent necessity of silence is a recurring thread in the narrative, since the captain decides to hide Leggatt in his quarters and the stowaway must be utterly quiet to avoid detection by the crew. The captain and Leggat can only speak in whispers; they never know what each others’ voices truly sound like.

Conrad emphasizes this throughout by expertly conveying menace in otherwise quiet scenes. For instance, “The tide of darkness flowed on swiftly; and with tropical suddenness a swarm of stars came out above the shadowy earth” is packed with foreboding imagery. The line gives the nighttime a fast, flooding quality: something an unwary sailor might drown in. And the stars don’t merely wheel into the sky but swarm suddenly; later in that same page, Conrad further describes the stars as staring, judgmental. All of this highlights the menace hidden in what should be a pleasant solitude aboard the deck on a starry night. Furthermore, it artfully foreshadows Leggatt’s appearance and the risks he brings and anxieties he amplifies in the young captain.

Later, Conrad imbues an otherwise ordinary breakfast scene with extraordinary tension as the narrator can feel himself losing his mind over the stress of the situation:

I presided with such frigid dignity that the two mates were only too glad to escape from the cabin as soon as decency permitted; and all the time the dual working of my mind distracted me almost to the point of insanity. I was constantly watching myself, my secret self, as dependent on my actions as my own personality, sleeping in that bed, behind that door which faced me as I sat at the head of the table. It was very much like being mad, only it was worse because one was aware of it.

“Frigid dignity” is a great description for the cold front the narrator is putting up to his men, and the repetition of “I” in those words and throughout the paragraph underscores the narrator’s will and sense of isolation. The menace of silence rises to a climax later, right before Leggatt decides he must leave the ship and swim for a nearby island; the repetition in these lines almost has the effect of listening to the ticking of a clock: “The Sunday quietness of the ship was against us; the stillness of air and water around her was against us; the elements, the men were against us—everything was against us ….”

Conrad does a brilliant job of maintaining suspense throughout scenes in which not a whole lot actually physically happens. Furthermore, the text is a great example of layered prose that performs multiple functions within the narrative in just a single line. The “tide of darkness” line doesn’t merely describe the night’s sky: it also conveys the narrator’s mindset (and in doing so builds his characterization) and foreshadows plot conflicts yet to come. I’m going to keep this book on hand to recommend to student writers who have been working on novels and are having trouble understanding the demands of shorter forms.

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