Study Guide

The Secret Sharer Themes

  • Isolation

    The narrator of "The Secret Sharer" —the Captain—pretty much opens the story with a cry for help. He makes it very clear that he's lonely onboard his new ship, where all of the crew already know one another really well and he's a newbie trying to earn their respect. It doesn't help that he's really young and inexperienced for a captain, and he doesn't know how he got the job to begin with. It's this brutal sense of loneliness and isolation that has led many readers to think that the fugitive Leggatt is a product of the captain's imagination. But we'll leave final judgment on that one to you, dear Shmooper.

    Questions About Isolation

    1. Check out the opening paragraphs of this story. What is the first hint you can find that suggests the captain is lonely?
    2. Do you think the captain has a good reason to feel isolated, or is he too self-conscious when it comes to what his crew thinks of him?
    3. How does Leggatt's sense of isolation compare to the captain's? Is it more or less justified in your eyes? Why?
    4. How do you think the captain of this story will fare emotionally once Leggatt is out of his life? Will he go back to the same old loneliness, or will things with his crew be different?

    Chew on This

    In "The Secret Sharer," Conrad shows us that isolation is usually just in our heads.

    In "The Secret Sharer," we learn that being a good leader is always a lonely job.

  • Man and the Natural World

    There's a reason Joseph Conrad sets "The Secret Sharer" so far away from the narrator's home in England. He wants us to identify with the feeling of being completely detached from human civilization so we can learn more about the basic human themes he's trying to explore. For example, the captain's relationship with Leggatt would be very different if it unfolded in the streets of London instead of the South Pacific Ocean. By setting the story in an unfamiliar place, Conrad can make all his readers feel a little lost at sea, both literally and symbolically, as we follow the narrator's struggles with loneliness, madness, and self-doubt.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. Where exactly is this story taking place? Using the information provided, try pointing it out on a map.
    2. What danger does the natural world pose to the captain and his crew at the end of the book? How do they escape it?
    3. Have a look at the opening sentence of The Secret Sharer. How does the description of nature set up the themes Conrad will explore in the rest of the story?

    Chew on This

    In "The Secret Sharer," Conrad's description of the natural world shows that without each other, humans are truly alone in the universe.

    "The Secret Sharer" teaches us that humans are asking for trouble whenever they mess with nature.

  • Madness

    Feeling totally isolated from your crew and spending months on the open ocean is enough to make any person lose touch with reality. You might even say that the central question of "The Secret Sharer" is something like: Is the captain/narrator crazy; did this story actually happen?

    The captain tells us early on that he hasn't been sleeping much because of stress. And there's something fishy about the fact that no one on his ship ever sees his friend Leggatt except him. But then again, what about the crewmembers of the Sephora , who come looking for Leggatt? It's enough to tie your mind in knots, but at least won't drive us crazy…right ?

    Questions About Madness

    1. Do you think Leggatt is a real, flesh-and-blood person? Why?
    2. Why does the captain's chief mate tap his forehead whenever the captain's back is turned? What does this gesture mean?
    3. What do you think of the captain-narrator's final decision to steer his ship into danger for the sake of giving Leggatt his best chance for swimming to safety? Do you support it or is it crazy?
    4. Do you think Leggatt can make a plea for temporary insanity if he's put on trial for murder? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    In "The Secret Sharer," we find that madness is one of those things that are impossible to determine. After all, mad people don't usually know they're mad.

    "The Secret Sharer"shows us that loneliness is definitely a form of madness, since it causes all of the symptoms of insanity.

  • Friendship

    It's tough having no friends, especially when you're travelling halfway around the world on a ship full of men who probably resent you. It's almost enough to make you create an imaginary friend…but maybe we're getting ahead of ourselves here. We're not going to say one way or the other if Leggatt is real. But in terms of what he does for the narrator of "The Secret Sharer," he might as well be. Leggatt gives the captain a reason to live, and by the end of the book, the captain seems like a totally new man. Imaginary or not, Leggatt helps teach us that friendship isn't just important—it's as necessary as food and water.

    Questions About Friendship

    1. Is it fair to call the captain and Leggatt "friends"? What kind of friendship do they have?
    2. What's the captain's initial reaction to Leggatt saying he needs to leave the ship? Use evidence from the text to support your answer.
    3. Why does the captain feel like he has no friends on his ship? Do you think he could make some if he tried harder?

    Chew on This

    In "The Secret Sharer," Conrad shows us that friendship doesn't matter as long as you have a good sense of who you are.

    In "The Secret Sharer," we learn that it's impossible to have an identity without being part of a community of friends.

  • Appearances

    Check out any Conrad book, and you'll find a lot of emphasis on people's appearances. There could be several reasons for this. For starters, Conrad might have felt that you could tell a lot about a person from their looks. Also, the spread of this crazy new technology called photography —you may have heard of it—might have inspired Conrad to be more and more descriptive when creating a character in the eyes of his readers. In any case, people's appearances figure strongly in this story and often tell us a lot about how our narrator's feeling at the moment he's describing them.

    Questions About Appearances

    1. Do you think the narrator's descriptions of people's appearances tell us more about those people or the narrator himself? Why?
    2. How does the narrator describe Leggatt's appearance? What does it tell us about the narrator's state of mind?
    3. How do you think the captain appears to his crew? Do we ever get any solid proof that they don't like him? Where?

    Chew on This

    In "The Secret Sharer," we find that judging people by their appearances can be a dangerous mistake.

    In "The Secret Sharer," Conrad shows us that appearances almost always show us the true side of a person's character.