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Free Barron's Booknotes-The Secret Sharer by Joseph Conrad-Free Summary
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THE STORY - SUMMARY AND NOTES

LEGGATT'S ARRIVAL

As the captain is moving placidly around the deck, he notices that the ship's rope ladder has been left hanging over the side. At first he's annoyed, but then instead of blaming the sailors he blames himself for breaking their routine. Thus we get an idea of his compassion for his crew and his strictness toward himself. Again he regrets seeming eccentric by having taken the anchor watch.

But as he goes to haul the ladder in, he's astonished to see a man clinging to the bottom of it. His first reaction is a "horrid, frost-bound sensation" of pure terror-he sees no head. Once again, he overreacts because of his own nervousness, in his words, "my own troubled incertitude."

The man on the ladder exhibits the very opposite qualities. Although "hesitating" and "slightly anxious" at first (we'll find out in a moment why he has good reason to be), he becomes "calm and resolute" as soon as he finds out he's talking to the ship's captain, and he asks to come on board. His "self-possession" not only impresses the captain-narrator; it also makes him feel calm and resolute himself. And almost everything Leggatt says gives evidence of his "strong soul." (For example, he tells the captain he wasn't sure whether to come aboard or to keep swimming until he sank from exhaustion; and the captain recognizes his sincerity.) So from the very first moments of his meeting with Leggatt, the captain finds qualities in him that he desperately needs but feels that he lacks.

There's another reason the captain so readily accepts him. Leggatt is, like himself, a stranger aboard the ship, the only other stranger, in fact. They have the bond of mutual isolation. The captain has come to regard the crew as his judges, but he doesn't have to prove himself to Leggatt. So his company is a relief, and immediately a "mysterious communication" is established between them.


The captain takes the naked man up on deck, outfits him in one of his own sleeping suits, and hears the story of his crime. Leggatt was the first mate of the Sephora, whose captain was an irresolute, nervous man, not a decisive leader. (In this respect, perhaps he wasn't so different from the captain Leggatt is speaking to.) During a violent storm it had become necessary to set the only sail they had left. It was the ship's last hope, but the captain couldn't work up the courage to give the order and Leggatt had to take over himself. While they were struggling to set the sail, he was faced with the insolent behavior of the crew's worst member: "He wouldn't do his duty and wouldn't let anybody else do theirs." They were in a life-or-death situation, and finally the exasperated Leggatt turned around and struck him. They started to fight, but as they were fighting, a huge wave crashed over the ship. The worst of the storm lasted for ten minutes, and when it cleared somewhat, the crew found Leggatt with his hands on the neck of the insolent sailor, who was dead from strangulation.

From the way Leggatt depicts his crime, we get a picture of him as a man of direct, instinctual action. He takes over the setting of the sail himself, and when the sailor creates trouble, Leggatt "turned round and felled him like an ox." He tells the captain straightforwardly, "I've killed a man," without trying to soften the impact of the crime (though you can sympathize with a first mate who hits a mutinous sailor). "It's clear that I meant business," he says, "because I was holding him by the throat still when they picked us up. He was black in the face.... They had rather a job to separate us, I've been told." These aren't the words of a man
who's trying to make excuses for himself.

The captain takes Leggatt down to his own stateroom, and now a pattern of references on the "double" theme begins. It will continue unabated for the rest of the story-for instance, "my double," "the secret sharer of my life." The two men are the same size, both quite young (Leggatt is even younger than the captain), and they're both graduates of the training ship Conway (where Leggatt, not surprisingly, won a prize for swimming). Even Leggatt's name has a double pair of double letters.

NOTE:

Once their "mysterious communication" has begun, it becomes terrifically important for the captain to continue identifying with Leggatt. But why? One reason, certainly, is that Leggatt has the qualities of resoluteness and self-confidence that he lacks. But Conrad makes so much of the theme of the double that its significance comes to seem deeper than simply that.

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