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Free Barron's Booknotes-The Secret Sharer by Joseph Conrad-Free Summary
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THE NOVEL

THE PLOT - SHORT SUMMARY (Synopsis)

A young captain in the British merchant marine has just set out on his first command, starting through the Gulf of Siam (Thailand) and heading home. He was hired unexpectedly only two weeks before. So, while his men know one another well, he's the only stranger on board, and he's nervous about the impression he'll make, especially on his first mate, a fussy and not very bright seaman, and his sneering second mate, who's the only man aboard younger than the captain.

The captain volunteers to take the anchor watch, staying on deck late to watch for the wind they need. While alone there, he's astonished to discover a swimmer clinging to the ship's ladder, and he takes him aboard. The man's name is Leggatt, and he's a fugitive from the Sephora, another British ship anchored nearby. Leggatt was the ship's first mate, and during a terrible storm he killed a mutinous sailor. He was being held to await trial on shore. The captain immediately develops a deep sympathy for him, an identification so strong that soon he's calling him "my second self." He agrees to hide him in his stateroom.

The next day a search party arrives from the Sephora, headed by the ship's Captain Archbold. Archbold is neither bold nor intelligent, and according to Leggatt he's such a poor leader that he went to pieces during the storm. The captain protects Leggatt, despite Archbold's suspicions.


Hiding Leggatt proves to be a terrible strain. In order to protect him, the captain has to behave so oddly and give so many peculiar orders that the crew-whose opinions he was so worried about in the first place-begin to think he's crazy. For his part, he becomes so involved in the identity of the secret sharer of his cabin that he finds it difficult to function when he's away from him. One day, after almost being discovered by the steward, Leggatt seems to have disappeared. The captain is more distressed at the prospect of losing his double than of having him found out.

Finally they agree on an escape plan. In carrying it out, the captain demonstrates the bold and resolute action that previously he wasn't sure he was capable of. One night, under the pretense that he's hunting for land breezes, he brings the ship dangerously close to shore. Leggatt escapes, but the crew is terrified. In the darkness the captain can't judge the movement of the ship in relation to the water-until a floppy hat he had given Leggatt comes floating by, showing him that the back of the ship is moving too fast. At the last minute he's able to give the order to change direction, and he saves the ship.

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