Joseph Conrad, The Secret Sharer and Other Stories

The Secret Sharer and Other StoriesThe Secret Sharer and Other Stories by Joseph Conrad

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This otherwise excellent recent Norton Critical Edition, edited by John G. Peters, is slightly mistitled: the book contains not a multitude of short stories, but four of Conrad’s most famous maritime novellas written across his career. Peters arranges the novellas in this volume not in the order of their composition or publication, but—following a hint in an “Author’s Note” of Conrad’s—by pairing them into two “Calm-pieces” and two “Storm-pieces.” In what follows, I will ignore this editorial license and discuss the texts chronologically, with an emphasis on the earliest, to chart the development of Conrad’s art and attitudes. All quotations below from Conrad’s prefaces and letters or from reviews and criticism of his work come from the supplementary material included in this edition unless otherwise indicated.

Third in this volume but first in chronology is the work generally considered Conrad’s earliest masterpiece, an 1897 novella whose notorious title will go unnamed here and whose American title, The Children of the Sea, is better anyway. We might even say that its harshly epithetic English title captures the work’s unsparing naturalism, while its more mythic and lyrical American title picks up its aestheticism and romanticism. For this novella is divided, riven, contradictory in its own sensibility, as many of its critics have observed.

The somewhat desultory plot is as follows: the eponymous merchant ship Narcissus is about to journey back to England from India when two new crew members board: Donkin, a jeering cockney who justifies his laziness and resentment with an insincere rhetoric of workers’ rights; and the titular James Wait, an aloof West Indian who appears to be terminally ill with tuberculosis. The crew is a lovingly evoked company of eccentrics, many of them lifelong sailors—the “children of the sea” the American title names—and shortly finds itself ensorcelled by Wait’s plight, despite his querulous abuse, and they care for him in his sickness almost obsessively.

When a storm nearly overturns the ship and drowns Wait—a calamity worsened by the captain’s money-minded refusal to cut loose the masts—the crew falls under the spell of Donkin’s radical rhetoric until they come close to mutiny, especially after the captain accuses Wait of malingering. To make matters more mysterious, Wait confesses to Donkin that he is faking his illness—and then he dies from it. With Wait’s death, the crew’s restiveness is quelled. The ship returns to England and the men to a life on land that can’t compare to the vitality, the enlivening mortal and moral stakes, of their sea voyage. 

Such a summary makes the work sound more coherent and less interesting than it is. For one thing, as every Conrad critic has sorrowfully had to explain, the narrative point of view is hopelessly confused. The novella begins conventionally enough with third-person omniscient narration. This gives way early in the book to first-person plural narration, as the narrator speaks from the position of one of the ship’s company—except that he obscures whether he is a crew member or an officer, a crucial fact for assessing his views on mutiny, and he moreover possesses an unexplained ability to tell us what other characters are thinking and to recount scenes at which he could not possibly have been present.

At the end of the novella, the plural narration becomes singular: an “I” voice separates itself from the now-grounded crew and returns to solitude on land. This final change—from the communal “we” of the ship to the lonely “I” of the city—is very moving, especially coupled with the narrator’s elegiac farewell to his shipmates in an era when steamships came to replace commercial sailing (a context emphasized by Maya Jasanoff in her recent popular study, The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World). Our narrator—and our author: Conrad spent 20 years in the merchant marine—witnesses the end of an era. Still, this last twist of the narrative voice hardly resolves the earlier confusion.

Add to the viewpoint conundrum the novella’s unsettled attitude toward James Wait, sometimes represented as a regal and attractive personage and other times depicted in the racist idiom of animality, and you have a baffling work. Conrad’s ideological purpose is superficially clear: he celebrates the working sailors of the merchant marine and laments their steam-age obsolescence. He praises their capacity for loyalty, their hardiness, their good will, and their devotion to meticulous labor:

They were the everlasting children of the mysterious sea. Their successors are the grown-up children of a discontented earth. They are less naughty, but less innocent; less profane, but perhaps also less believing; and if they have learned how to speak they have also learned how to whine. But the others were strong and mute; they were effaced, bowed and enduring, like stone caryatides that hold up in the night the lighted halls of a resplendent and glorious edifice. They are gone now—and it does not matter. The sea and the earth are unfaithful to their children: a truth, a faith, a generation of men goes—and is forgotten, and it does not matter! Except, perhaps, to the few of those who believed the truth, confessed the faith—or loved the men.

Conrad crystallizes this characterization in the scene where the cook makes coffee for the crew after the near-fatal storm, fulfilling his motto, “As long as she swims I will cook!”—even though half the ship’s deck remains underwater.

On the other hand, the conservative Conrad carefully separates his praise for these laborers from working-class politics by making the odious and cynical Donkin the novella’s spokesman for socialism:

He was the man that cannot steer, that cannot splice, that dodges the work on dark nights; that, aloft, holds on frantically with both arms and legs, and swears at the wind, the sleet, the darkness; the man who curses the sea while others work. The man who is the last out and the first in when all hands are called. The man who can’t do most things and won’t do the rest. The pet of philanthropists and self-seeking landlubbers. The sympathetic and deserving creature that knows all about his rights, but knows nothing of courage, of endurance, and of the unexpressed faith, of the unspoken loyalty that knits together a ship’s company. The independent offspring of the ignoble freedom of the slums full of disdain and hate for the austere servitude of the sea.

But why does this message require a confused narrative perspective or the illegible racial inflection introduced by the thoroughly ambiguous character of Wait, whose very name indicates the thematic hiatus his presence provokes?

Of the commentators gathered in the Norton Critical Edition, Jeremy Hawthorn, who in a 1990 study patiently details the contradictions I only sketched above, gives the best answer. He realistically suggests that the author, early in his career, had not yet mastered his chosen literary form at the artistic level, and at the political level was still uncritically captive to prevailing ideologies, such as the internally incoherent Victorian racist prejudice that saw black people as both more and less than human. Conrad’s later works better integrate his own ambivalence, Hawthorn explains, either by holding it up for scrutiny as the utterance of a situated narrator (Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness) or dispersing it throughout the text in the thoughts of several characters rendered in third-person focalized narration (Nostromo, The Secret Agent), even as his politics and his portrayals of non-European characters grow less stereotypical and more nuanced and sympathetic.

Hawthorn’s explanation, while likely true, is certainly mundane compared to Fredric Jameson’s also excerpted Political Unconscious (1981), an intricate theoretical synthesis of Marxism with structuralism that observes—if you are persuaded by the argument—how Conrad half-evades Marxist realities of production by sheer force of style, for “the impressionistic strategy of modernism whose function is to derealize the content and make it available for consumption on some purely aesthetic level.” Critics have long raised this question of a style so descriptive that it paradoxically makes what’s described less clear. For example, one of the novella’s early reviewers, W. L. Courtney, drolly comments:

Mr. Conrad works like an artist—of that we are quite certain when we have finished his book: but we are left with only the vaguest idea of what the story has been all about.

Justifying his impressionistic artistry, Conrad’s preface to this novella, his most famous piece of nonfiction prose, one of modernism’s great manifestoes, identifies the purpose of fiction as an appeal to the reader’s senses that produces fellow-feeling with humanity:

My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see. That—and no more, and it is everything. If I succeed, you shall find there according to your deserts: encouragement, consolation, fear, charm—all you demand—and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask. To snatch in a moment of courage, from the remorseless rush of time, a passing phase of life, is only the beginning of the task. The task approached in tenderness and faith is to hold up unquestioningly, without choice and without fear, the rescued fragment before all eyes in the light of a sincere mood. It is to show its vibration, its colour, its form; and through its movement, its form, and its colour, reveal the substance of its truth—disclose its inspiring secret: the stress and passion within the core of each convincing moment. In a single-minded attempt of that kind, if one be deserving and fortunate, one may perchance attain to such clearness of sincerity that at last the presented vision of regret or pity, of terror or mirth, shall awaken in the hearts of the beholders that feeling of unavoidable solidarity; of the solidarity in mysterious origin, in toil, in joy, in hope, in uncertain fate, which binds men to each other and all mankind to the visible world.

This descriptive incitement to “solidarity” will work—without recourse to any overt authorial moralizing—through a conscious literary style characterized by deliberately-wrought sentences, carefully-patterned figurative language, and finely-detailed visual imagery. This sometimes has the effect, contrary to Conrad’s intent, of “derealiz[ing] the content” in Jameson’s phrase or obscuring the story in Courtney’s complaint because the language is so extravagant that it draws attention to itself and away from what it describes. With this emphasis on verbal description over narrative or drama, fiction here aspires in literary terms not so much “to the condition of music”—though Conrad does echo in his preface Pater’s famous formula from The Renaissance—but to that of lyric poetry.

Conrad even refers, in the spirit of fin-de-siècle Aestheticism, to “the supreme cry of Art for Art,” albeit reduced in his painstaking and skeptical case to “a whisper, often incomprehensible, but at times and faintly encouraging,” as it will later be in more chastened modernists like Eliot, Kafka, and Beckett. Such later modernists will also abstract away the realist social ascriptions of a supra-/subhuman figure like Wait—source of the novella’s racism—to engender more universal figures of the alienated and indecipherable à la Gregor Samsa or the Unnameable.

Just as Conrad’s “solidarity” is a universal and quietist affect, not the socialist class-consciousness usually associated with that word, so the morality of his style inheres not in a Dickensian ability to inspire social reform but in a minute fidelity to the real, in the tribute style pays to the mystery of things whose emblem is the unchanging and ever-changing sea. “Life,” the narrator calls it when presenting the dying James Wait’s thoughts, in a startling anticipation of Virginia Woolf’s aesthetic vitalism. This passage could be from Mrs. Dalloway (“What she liked was simply life”), and it’s no surprise that Woolf praised Conrad’s early novellas as “surely secure of their place among our classics”:

Life seemed an indestructible thing. It went on in darkness, in sunshine, in sleep; tireless, it hovered affectionately round the imposture of his ready death. It was bright, like the twisted flare of lightning, and more full of surprises than the dark night. It made him safe, and the calm of its overpowering darkness was as precious as its restless and dangerous light.

And if Conrad’s first great work, this now-unnamable 1897 novella, is half-didactic and half-confused, if it lacks the achieved acuteness and deliberate ambiguity of the author’s later works, if it is sometimes too romantic in its portrayal of sailors, its passages of realistic description are reason enough to read it, especially when its mysterious narrator describes the elements through which he voyages:

On the black sky the stars, coming out, gleamed over an inky sea that, speckled with foam, flashed back at them the evanescent and pale light of a dazzling whiteness born from the black turmoil of the waves. Remote in the eternal calm they glittered hard and cold above the uproar of the earth; they surrounded the vanquished and tormented ship on all sides: more pitiless than the eyes of a triumphant mob, and as unapproachable as the hearts of men.

Last in order of appearance but second chronologically in this volume is Typhoon (1902). In this much briefer novella, a storm assails and nearly sinks a British steamship on its way to transport a company of indentured Chinese workers (“coolies,” in the period’s now offensive idiom) back to their homeland.

Our two main characters are the ship’s captain, MacWhirr, and its youthful first mate, Jukes. Before the storm, Jukes expresses frustration and astonishment at MacWhirr’s almost pathological lack of imagination—he literally does not comprehend metaphorical speech, and his disbelief that books have any bearing on reality leads him to neglect the precautions he might have taken against a storm his own professional training should have prepared him for. Given that Conrad, now as consistent third-person narrator, evokes the title typhoon in a descriptive language as figurative and image-freighted as Shakespeare—

An outburst of unchained fury, a vicious rush of the wind absolutely steadied the ship; she rocked only, quick and light like a child’s cradle, for a terrific moment of suspense, while the whole atmosphere, as it seemed, streamed furiously past her, roaring away from the tenebrous earth.


He watched her, battered and solitary, labouring heavily in a wild scene of mountainous black waters lit by the gleams of distant worlds.

—we might expect the novella to be a parable against the literal or unliterary imagination. Yet MacWhirr’s plodding endurance and sense of orderliness both saves the ship and quells the near-riot among the Chinese travelers, whom he sends Jukes to calm.

Conrad distributes his inner division between realistic and romantic sensibility over the text: he exhibits his realism in the character of the captain and his romanticism in the narrator’s lyrical rhetoric. Typhoon reverses the classic novelistic archetype of Don Quixote or Emma Bovary, romantic characters corrected by a realistic narrator or narrative (an archetype Conrad himself deploys in Lord Jim). Here it is the poetic narrator-author who allows himself to be schooled by a prosy protagonist so unliterary he can’t comprehend the metaphors of everyday speech—nor, to be fair, effectively avert danger—yet who by force of character outlasts the storm and saves his men: “Facing it—always facing it—that’s the way to get through,” he movingly tells Jukes in what might be the novella’s motto.

A metaphor that will perturb the contemporary reader, on the other hand, is the novella’s linkage of unruly Chinese laborers raging below-decks and the storm battering the ship from outside. After Jukes settles the workers—by tying them to the deck with “chain and rope”—he feels “that in his mad struggle down there he had overcome the wind somehow.” If Captain MacWhirr and his apprentice Jukes stand for the pragmatic stolidity of civilization, and the narrator for the civilizational surplus of literary culture, then workers and non-Europeans, combined in the figure of the “coolie,” are part of nature, over which both civilization and culture exercise their mastery. We can discard this ugly ideological relic of British imperialism, I think, while conceding that Conrad’s prose is incomparable and that “facing it—that’s the way to get through” remains good advice in a literal or figurative storm.

Next in order of Conrad’s career is this volume’s opening and title piece, The Secret Sharer (1910). The narrator is a young and untried captain who has suddenly been appointed to a ship in the eerily calm Gulf of Siam. Soon, after capriciously assuming the night watch to relieve his officers, to whom he is still a stranger, he spies a swimmer emerge from the water:

The side of the ship made an opaque belt of shadow on the darkling glassy shimmer of the sea. But I saw at once something elongated and pale floating very close to the ladder. Before I could form a guess a faint flash of phosphorescent light, which seemed to issue suddenly from the naked body of a man, flickered in the sleeping water with the elusive, silent play of summer lightning in a night sky. With a gasp I saw revealed to my stare a pair of feet, the long legs, a broad livid back immersed right up to the neck in a greenish cadaverous glow. One hand, awash, clutched the bottom rung of the ladder. He was complete but for the head. […] As he hung by the ladder, like a resting swimmer, the sea lightning played about his limbs at every stir; and he appeared in it ghastly, silvery, fishlike. […] I had somehow the impression that he was on the point of letting go the ladder to swim away beyond my ken—mysterious as he came. But, for the moment, this being appearing as if he had risen from the bottom of the sea…

This nameless narrator allows this man, named Legatt, onto the ship and hears out his tale: he was the mate on another ship, where he intemperately killed an insolent colleague while they were hoisting a sail in a storm. Imprisoned on board for this crime, he escaped and swam his way to the captain’s boat.

The captain is mesmerized by the young man’s resemblance to him (“It was, in the night, as though I had been faced by my own reflection in the depths of a somber and immense mirror”) and the similarities of their background; he refers to Legatt in the narrative as “my double” and “the secret sharer of my life” and hides him in his own cabin as a stowaway. Much of the novella’s sometimes comic/nightmarish suspense comes from the captain’s fear that his officers, already suspicious of their novice skipper, will discover his harboring of this fugitive. Eventually, the captain helps Legatt to escape by ordering the ship, in the face of his officers’ rightful anxiety, to sail dangerously near land—ostensibly to catch “land winds” to power the sailing vessel out of the becalmed waters, but really to allow Legatt to swim away. In the strange and stirring finale (early reviewers wrote of their “elation” and “spiritual exaltation”):

[T]he secret sharer of my cabin and of my 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.

This short novel more closely resembles “Bartleby, the Scrivener” or “A Hunger Artist” than it does the more naturalistic earlier works by Conrad discussed above: like Melville’s and Kafka’s narratives, it is both symbolic and mysterious in what it might symbolize—an allegory without a traditionally-given higher meaning, a metaphor that is all vehicle and no tenor.

This opacity has had made it a happy hunting ground for critics, as the materials gathered in the Norton indicate, from Albert J. Guerard’s psychoanalytic reading of 1950, in which Legatt is “the embodiment of more instinctive, more primitive, less rational self,” to Cesare Casarino’s 2002 observation, informed by queer theory, that “Legatt can afford openly to express affection for and be physically intimate with another man only because he has amply proven himself to be a man.”

As with Melville and Kafka, though, I think the mystery as such—the presence of the inexplicable and uncanny, the shimmer of the unglossable numinous across the quotidian, even in theoretically secular times, later popularized as “magical realism”—is the novella’s chief merit, more aesthetically fascinating, and more historically telling, for being irresolvable than any ingenious resolution could be.

Finally (albeit second in the volume), we come to The Shadow-Line (1917), a short novel often hailed as a late masterpiece amid a general decline in the author’s oeuvre. Conrad’s Turn of the Screw—he even ventures the same metaphor that titles his friend’s most famous ghost story when his narrator writes of “a renewed moment of intolerable suspense; something like an additional turn of the racking screw”—The Shadow-Line was interpreted by early readers as a ghost story.

The narrator looks back on his first command of a sailing ship in the late 19th century. He has capriciously given up his job as first mate on a ship, when another command finds him in an Eastern port where he’s waiting to return to England. The novella’s opening is famously slow, unsettling in its very slowness, as the narrator eventually receives his new opportunity by a circuitous route several times menaced by the unscrupulous manager of a sailors’ home and his most dissolute guest. Another of his neighbors in the hostel, though, Captain Giles, knows what our narrator needs and eventually extends him the information he requires to claim his command.

On board his new ship, the captain learns that his predecessor died in apparent insanity; when the ship finds itself stranded in windless seas, the first mate believes the captain is haunting the ship, vengefully halting them in the place of his sea burial. (This impassible site is one meaning of the work’s title; another is the line dividing youth from maturity, innocence from experience.) Moreover, fever strikes the ship’s crew, felling all but the captain and a cook named Ransome, who labors with tranquil diligence despite a heart defect that might kill him at any time.

Much of the novella is devoted to the creation of atmosphere, Conrad’s superb evocation of the madness that stubbornly calm winds and still seas can inflict on a sailor, the existential insight into humanity’s essential isolation in a meaningless and mysterious cosmos such a predicament provokes:

For a long, long time I faced an empty world, steeped in an infinity of silence, through which the sunshine poured and flowed for some mysterious purpose. […] [A]s I emerge on deck the ordered arrangement of the stars meets my eye, unclouded, infinitely wearisome. There they are: stars, sun, sea, light, darkness, space, great waters; the formidable Work of the Seven Days, into which mankind seems to have blundered unbidden. Or else decoyed.

As in later existentialist writers like Camus, however, Conrad dismisses the supernatural as aid or explanation and again insists on individual and collective human effort—on “facing it”—to survive and push back the darkness. Captain Giles pronounces the moral when the narrator encounters him again at the end of the novella:

“You will learn soon how not to be faint-hearted. A man has got to learn everything—and that’s what so many of them youngsters don’t understand.”

The text is weird and uncanny—the narrator uses both words to describe his trouble—but Conrad was irked at those who read this almost straightforwardly autobiographical novella as a ghost story. In response he wrote an “Author’s Note” that expresses contempt for the supernatural, that insists he intended only a psychological study of the subjective effects of a weeks-long stay in windless seas on a captain and sailors, and that conveys such fine aristocratic disgust for superstition that Christopher Hitchens included it in his anthology The Portable Atheist:

But I could never have attempted such a thing, because all my moral and intellectual being is penetrated by an invincible conviction that whatever falls under the dominion of our senses must be in nature and, however exceptional, cannot differ in its essence from all the other effects of the visible and tangible world of which we are a self-conscious part. The world of the living contains enough marvels and mysteries as it is; marvels and mysteries acting upon our emotions and intelligence in ways so inexplicable that it would almost justify the conception of life as an enchanted state. No, I am too firm in my consciousness of the marvellous to be ever fascinated by the mere supernatural, which (take it any way you like) is but a manufactured article, the fabrication of minds insensitive to the intimate delicacies of our relation to the dead and to the living, in their countless multitudes; a desecration of our tenderest memories; an outrage on our dignity.

Which returns us to Fredric Jameson, who has recently contributed a small essay on an obscure Polish film adaptation of The Shadow-Line in the London Review of Books. Returning to Conrad’s odd politics—his sentimental advocacy of labor from management’s point of view; his refusal of Polish nationalism in the name of allegiance to the supra-national British Empire; his doubling of work as content (the described work of sailing) and form (the enacted labor of writing)—Jameson concludes,

To call all this “Toryism” is a gross oversimplication of a complicated existential situation, which obscures the political as well as the historical meaning of Conrad’s texts.

I agree. I think in Conrad we find—Chinua Achebe’s famous, celebrated, but also regrettably demagogic and willfully oversimplified critique notwithstanding—the progenitor not only of the modern novel, but even of the postmodern and postcolonial novel. Consider the clear line of literary-historical influence, for instance, that runs from Conrad through Faulkner to García Márquez and then to Rushdie and Morrison—and this is without mentioning his haunting omnipresence in the work of Edward Said.

In an essay collected in the Norton Critical Edition, Peter Lancelot Mallios argues against Jameson’s universalist Marxism in The Political Unconscious that Conrad, scion of the defeated Polish nobles, wrote on behalf of the conquered per se:

Jameson minimizes as personal…the very kind of “nonsynchronous overlap” that in postpartition Poland and the postbellum South—and, as [Edward] Said extends the analogy in the important essay “On Lost Causes,” the more recent experience of many Palestinians, Vietnamese, Cubans, South Africans, Angolans, Armenians, American Indians, Tasmanians, Gypsies, and Jews—was a primary cultural mode…

Judging from his recent essay, Jameson appears to have come around to this argument. And if we bristle at finding the Confederacy grouped with the Vietnamese and the Palestinians, we might recall that Karl Marx praised Abraham Lincoln and the British in India for the same reason: from his point of view, both broke the settled order of regressively hierarchical societies, whether in the American South or the Global South. True, these northerly forces introduced new forms of hierarchy, but modern, rational, and centralized ones communism would be able easily to appropriate for the people. (This is why honest Marxists today, if any remain, celebrate corporate monopolization.)

In contrast to Marx and his ferociously progressivist descendants of all parties, Conrad speaks on behalf of those left behind, for good reasons and bad, in a world that prefers machines to men; he speaks for those battered by the storms and abandoned in the calms of an incomprehensible oceanic cosmos whose only possible justification or redemption is its weathering under the hand of an assiduous, if only human, artificer. In one of those historical ironies that perplexes mere reason, this backward art, this aesthetic conservatism, returns triumphant to the world stage in literature as the very essence and vanguard of the modern.