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MonkeyNotes-The Secret Sharer by Joseph Conrad
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SYMBOLISM and IMAGERY

Light and darkness have symbolic use throughout the history of literature, but the simple mention of them in a work does not constitute the creation of a symbol. They must have a meaning that cannot be separated from the context in which they are found. Conrad achieves the creation of his symbols by very careful use. He uses light and dark images at crucial moments in the action of his novels.

As in Conrad's other literary work, in The Secret Sharer, the major symbols are light and darkness. As symbols, they cannot be defined with precision. Light usually represents awareness, both intellectual and spiritual, and also divinity. Darkness represents the opposite. It represents the unclear, the subconscious, and the unknown. In the introductory paragraphs, there is an emphasis on vision. The Captain's inability to see clearly indicates that he is in the realm symbolized by light, but he must first enter deeper into the darkness before he emerges into the light. How that symbolic voyage comes about is what The Secret Sharer is about on a symbolic level.

Before the arrival of the stranger on board, a scorpion is discovered in the first mate's cabin and becomes an endless source of wonder for the first mate of how he got there. The scorpion is a premonition of what is to come when Leggatt arrives and the possible reaction he would have if discovered by the crew.


Conrad uses not only the symbols of light and darkness, but also those of land and sea and of sound and silence. Wandering about the deck in his "sleep clothes" (or dream clothes) the Captain comes to a strange conclusion. He thinks that the sea, unlike land, does not challenge man with moral problems. He takes false comfort in the light of the fore deck. The Captain is apparently unable to recognize his "disquieting problems." A few moments later he is disturbed to think that he has acted against his principles and also against his own interests. He cannot understand the reasons for doing so. At first glimpse, Leggatt looks like a man without a head (intellect) and a fish (a lower animal) in the "silent, darkened tropical sea." Clearly, Leggatt is some sort of being come from the realm of darkness. The sea is a traditional symbol for the unconscious, primordial life. Conrad's use of sound and silence as an indications of awareness and absence of awareness is noteworthy.

Towards the end of the novel, as the ship heads towards danger, the Captain forgets the secret sharer. He only remembers that he is a stranger to his ship. He does not know how to handle her in the hour of crisis. He needs to know whether she is moving ahead or slipping backward through the water. At last he sees on the surface of the water, the hat which he had given to Leggatt. This acts as a marker, which enables him to give the proper order.

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