Study Guide

The Secret Sharer Analysis

  • Tone

    Lonely and Meditative

    The narrator of this book is the new kid on a ship full of men who've known each other a long time (not to mention he's the captain), so it's understandable that his tone would contain its fair share of loneliness. On top of that, the tone also shows us that the captain does a lot of thinking. What else are you going to do out at sea with no friends to talk to? The narrator sets his tone early on, telling us in the story's seventh paragraph:

    All these people [my crew] had been together for eighteen months or so, and my position was that of the only stranger on board. I mention this because it has some bearing on what is to follow. (1.7)

    In other words, he's lonely and he wants us to know it, because it will color our reading of everything that comes after…like why the captain chooses to protect a murderer for no apparent reason.

  • Genre


    In some ways, "The Secret Sharer" looks a lot like conventional realism. But what makes it especially modernist is the way Conrad constantly plays with the line between fact and fiction. For starters, Conrad bases much of this book on personal experience but chooses to turn it into a fiction. On top of that, we're left unsure over whether Leggatt is a real person or a figment of the narrator's imagination. We'd us like to say one way or the other, but the fact that Conrad makes this question impossible to answer shows a level of experimentation that makes the book distinctly modernist.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    "The Secret Sharer"

    When Conrad first published this story, he called it "The Secret-Sharer." It was only later that he removed the hyphen. You can see how this tiny little piece of punctuation would change the meaning of the story, because with the hyphen left in, the story sounds like it's about a person who shares a secret. When you leave the hyphen out, though, it opens up the possibility that Leggatt is himself a "secret" person who shares things with the captain.

    This version without the hyphen definitely serves Conrad's purpose better, because it's clear that Leggatt and the captain share a lot more than just secrets. They share clothes, for example, as well as personal experiences and their deepest emotions. So next time someone smack talks about how hyphens don't matter, just point them in Conrad's direction.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    "I was in time to catch an evanescent glimpse of my white hat left behind to mark the spot where the secret sharer of my cabin and my of 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" (2.205).

    At the end of "The Secret Sharer," Leggatt jumps into the ocean and swims for the nearby island of Koh-ring. But all the captain can see when he looks into the dark water is his own white hat, which he lent to Leggatt. The fact that he never sees Leggatt again adds to the idea that Leggatt was only ever a figment of his imagination. But if this is the case, then this scene also shows that the captain has gotten to a mental place where he doesn't need Leggatt anymore. He no longer doubts himself or feels lonely, but instead commands his ship with confidence. He talks about Leggatt as though he's a free man starting a new life, but the truth is that the captain could just as easily be talking about himself. Man, maybe we should all find an imaginary friend to help us with get over our insecurities…Conrad certainly makes a good case for that in this story.

  • Setting

    Southeast Pacific Ocean

    Conrad's descriptions of the setting in this book all point to one major theme: isolation.

    From the very first paragraph, we realize that the narrator is far from home on a boat full of strangers. We get a keen sense of loneliness when he describes the area they're sailing through:

    To the left a group of barren islets, suggesting ruins of stone walls, towers, and blockhouses, had its foundations set in a blue sea that itself looked solid, so still and stable did it lie below my feet. (1.1)

    Later in the book, the setting goes from being a symbol of isolation to a symbol of danger, as the captain steers his ship dangerously close to a rocky island in order to set Leggatt free:

    The black southern hill of Koh-ring seemed to hand right over the ship like a towering fragment of everlasting night. (2.174)

    Instead of being an unfamiliar and far away place, the setting is now a scary abyss that's threatening to swallow up the narrator and his whole crew. Luckily for him, though, he steers away from it at the last second.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (8) Snow Line

    Reading Conrad is no walk in the park. In this story he grapples with some pretty heavy philosophical and abstract topics, like the destabilizing effects of social isolation, the pressures of societal norms, and the fuzzy line that separates reality and fantasy. Like the Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim, Conrad again takes us on a dense and thought provoking adventure, testing the characters in the story and our reading comprehension. So batten down the hatches and fasten the sails, we're about to go full speed ahead into the depths of this story.

  • Writing Style

    Poetic, Extremely Specific

    Joseph Conrad wrote "The Secret Sharer" at a time when film was on the verge of taking over popular culture. And you can see just how much he tries to recreate the experience of film by helping us picture his setting and characters as clearly as possible. Just check out this opening line:

    On my right there were lines of fishing stakes resembling a mysterious system of half-submerged bamboo fences, incomprehensible in its division of the domain of tropical fishes, and crazy of aspect as if abandoned forever by some nomad tribe of fishermen now gone to the other end of the ocean; for there was no sign of human habitation as far as the eye could reach. (1.1)

    Throughout the book, you'll constantly get references like "On my right" or "three feet in front of me" because Conrad wants to be as clear as possible about how the action of his story is taking place and what imaginary "angle" he wants you to watch it from.

  • The Captain's Hat

    We have to wait a while for this one to make an appearance, but it's well worth the wait. The captain's hat doesn't become a symbol until the final paragraphs of the book. At first, it's a token of concern and respect for Leggatt, since the captain gives the thing to him to ward off the harsh Pacific sun:

    And I watched the hat—the expression of my sudden pity for his mere flesh. It had been meant to save his homeless head from the dangers of the sun. (2.199)

    But after Leggatt dives into the midnight water, the captain sees the hat and uses it as a marker to figure out what way his ship is moving:

    And now—behold—it was saving the ship, by serving me for a mark to help out the ignorance of my strangeness. (2.199)

    So in the end, the hat ends up saving the ship, just like helping Leggatt has saved the captain (at least in an emotional way).

  • The Captain's Cabin

    Most of this story takes place in the captain's cabin because it's the only place on his ship where Leggatt can hide himself. Along with being a handy hiding place, the cabin also symbolizes the captain's separation from the rest of his crew. You can tell how obsessed the captain is with his cabin by how specifically he describes it to us, as in passages like this:

    It must be explained here that my cabin had the form of the capital letter L, the door being within the angle and opening into the short part of the letter. (1.71)

    He's also quick to note that this shape to his room makes part of the room invisible to someone in the doorway:

    "But anyone opening it, unless he stepped right inside, had no view of what I call the long (or vertical) part of the letter" (1.71).

    Hold your breath, because we're about to get deep in here: In this sense, the cabin is like the captain himself—the most important part of it is invisible to his crewmates.

  • The Reef Sail

    The reef sail is the only reason anyone onboard the ship Sephora lives through a vicious ocean storm. Listen to what the skipper has to say about the ordeal:

    I don't mind telling you that I hardly dared give the order. It seemed impossible that we could touch anything without losing it, and then our last hope would have been gone. (2.18)

    In other words, Mr. Skipper is taking credit for saving his crew, though Leggatt is quick to argue the point later:

    I assure you he never gave the order. He may think he did, but he never gave it. (2.68)

    The disagreement over the reef sail helps show how different people can give very different versions of the same story. The skipper and Leggatt also tell different stories about how the murder went down.

  • Narrator Point of View

    First-Person (Central Narrator)

    We can tell right away that the narrator of this story is going to be first-person. But it's not until midway through the plot that we realize how he's specifically telling us his story. At first, he seems like your typical first-person central narrator, meaning that he's telling us a story about himself. But things get interesting when he lets slip the fact that he's telling this story way after it actually happened. He can't even remember everyone's name:

    [He] gave his name (it was something like Archbold—but at this distance of years I hardly am sure. (2.1)

    This "distance" of years comment totally changes how we look at the narrator, because now we can ask serious questions about how much of the story he remembers correctly. By the time the whole thing is said and done, we're even left to wonder whether Leggatt is a real person, or someone the captain has created in his memory. Who knows, the captain might be really old by the time he tells this story, and he could be losing his mind. The fact is: we just don't know.

    • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

      Anticipation Stage and "Fall" Into the Other World

      The narrator opens this book by explaining how he feels lonely and unsure of himself as the new captain of a ship. He doesn't quite know what he's going to do to get the respect of his men. One night, though, he glances over the side of his boat and sees a naked man swimming in the water. The man is a murderous fugitive (named Leggatt) from a nearby boat, but the narrator feels sympathy for him and takes him aboard. It's pretty clear that making this decision is going to change this dude's life. Otherwise, why would he be telling us this story after so much time has gone by?

      Initial Fascination or Dream Stage

      Once he gets Leggatt back to his private room, the narrator is happy to have a secret friend to share all of his deepest thoughts and feelings with. But we know that this friendship can't last for very long, because members of the narrator's crew keep coming close to seeing Leggatt.

      Frustration Stage

      Things get complicated when the skipper and crew of Leggatt's ship come looking for him. They know he has escaped into the ocean and that the narrator's boat is the only place he could have gone if he were to survive. But the narrator is able to convince them that Leggatt isn't on his ship. The skipper and crew leave, but now all of the narrator's men are on guard because they know that a murderer might be around. Leggatt decides that he must abandon the narrator's ship and swim for one of the nearby islands. The narrator is sad, but eventually agrees to help him, because homies always have each other's back.

      Nightmare Stage

      The only way the narrator can help Leggatt is to sail his ship as closely as possible to some nearby islands in the middle of the night. Doing this with no light is super dangerous and puts the whole crew at risk. Everyone thinks the captain is a psycho, but they still obey him.

      Thrilling Escape and Return Stage

      At the last possible second, the narrator commands the crew to pull the ship away from the islands. Once they're sailing safely away, he runs and looks over the back of his ship. All he sees in the dark water is his white hat, which he gave to Leggatt to protect him from the sun. Things are back to normal now that Leggatt's gone, but it's clear the captain will never be the same. He misses Leggatt and ends the book hoping that Leggatt was able to make it to shore and have a good life.

    • Plot Analysis

      Exposition (Initial Situation)

      There's this unnamed guy who's only been captain of a ship for two weeks. He's sailing along the coast of Siam (or present-day Thailand) and feeling lonely because his crew is really tight-knit and he's an outsider. On top of all that, he feels like they're constantly questioning his judgment. He often finds himself doing the same, too.

      One evening while performing the night watch, the captain glances over the side of his boat and hey what do you know, there's a naked dude in the water. The guy introduces himself as Leggatt and says he's on the run after murdering a guy on his ship, which is anchored nearby. The lonely captain feels like this guy can be his bestie, so he pulls him on board and hides him in his private captain's room.

      Rising Action (Conflict, Complication)

      There are a bunch of close calls as nosey and meddling crewmates buzz around the captain's room. As you can probably imagine, it's not very easy to hide a person on an old wooden ship for long. Eventually, the skipper of Leggatt's ship comes looking for him with a goon squad, but the captain-narrator manages to hide Leggatt well enough to convince them that the fugitive must have drowned in the ocean. Still, Leggatt realizes after this incident that he can't stay on the ship much longer. As much as it pains the captain-narrator, Leggatt will have to jump off the boat in the middle of the night and swim for one of the nearby islands to have any hope of starting a new life.

      Climax (Crisis, Turning Point)

      The captain-narrator agrees to steer his ship as close to the nearby islands as possible so Leggatt will have a good chance of reaching the shore. He also gives Leggatt some money and a hat so the South Pacific sun won't burn his head and face. Back on deck, he orders his crew to steer the boat toward the nearby islands in the middle of the night. This move is extremely dangerous, since the men can't see the land and might crash on the rocks at any second. The only thing that saves them in the end is the captain's hat, which the captain spies floating in the ocean. He uses the hat's position to help guide the boat back to safety.

      Falling Action

      Once the boat has successfully pulled away from the island and its dangerous rocks, the captain runs to the back of his ship and looks for Leggatt in the water. But he can't see anything except his hat floating in the ocean. He is hopeful that Leggatt was able to swim to safety and that the dude will have a good life.

      Resolution (Denouement)

      In his final thoughts, the captain-narrator even envies Leggatt for being off the ship and being free. It's clear that the captain feels trapped by loneliness and by the opinions of his crewmembers. His last words suggest that some part of him has left the ship with Leggatt, the part of him that feels free and valuable as a person.

    • Three-Act Plot Analysis

      Act I

      We meet the book's narrator, an unnamed captain who's only been in charge of his own ship for two weeks. His crew is a tight-knit group and he has a difficult time getting accepted into their fold. He also worries that they question his judgment because he's new and inexperienced. Anywho, the captain looks over the side of his ship one night and finds a naked man holding onto one of his boat's rope ladders. He finds out that the guy is a fugitive murderer, but lets him aboard anyway and hides him in his (the captain's) private room. The more they talk, the more sympathy the narrator has for the guy, whose name is Leggatt.

      Act II

      The narrator and Leggatt become close as the days go by. They whisper to one another about all sorts of things, although the narrator isn't always up-front about what these things are. Things get anxious, though, when the skipper and crew from Leggatt's ship come looking for him. The narrator is clever enough to throw them off the trail, and these dudes eventually leave believing that Leggatt drowned in the ocean after escaping their ship. The coast is clear for now, but Leggatt decides that sooner or later, he'll need to leave the narrator's ship. The best plan is for him to swim to one of the nearby islands, since there's no way he can return to Britain with the narrator. There'd be way too many people who might recognize him.

      Act III

      The captain-narrator goes on deck and orders his crew to steer their ship toward some nearby islands in the middle of the night. He plans on giving Leggatt the best chance of swimming for them, but he's also putting his ship and crew in grave danger by sailing so close to land with no light. His crew thinks he's gone bonkers, but they obey anyway. It's a super close call, but the narrator is able to pull the boat away at the last possible second. Once the ship is in the clear, he looks over the back of the boat and sees his hat (which he gave to Leggatt) floating in the ocean. He closes the story with the hopeful thought that Leggatt has made it to shore and will live a free and happy life.

    • Allusions

      Literary and Philosophical References

      • Book of Exodus (reference to Sephora) (1.9)