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.