Publication Year: 1909
Tags: Classic, Seafaring
An unseasoned sea captain, feeling a virtual stranger to his command and his crew, generously offers his hard-working crew a chance catch up on their sleep, taking the anchor watch of his own ship until after midnight. During that watch, he rescues a naked man who says that he has fled from the hold of a ship anchored nearby, where he has been held for accidentally killing a crewmate. The captain helps the man hide in his stateroom, where the man’s whispered story helps the captain find himself and his destiny.
This work is better called a “short story,” as it was written back in the day when such a thing was defined as something less than 20,000 words in length and called “a work to be read in a single sitting”. These days, when the idea of waiting five minutes for a cup of coffee is an intolerable inconvenience, a short story is defined as less than 2000 words — a point where I, as a writer, am just getting warmed up.
The Secret Sharer is a good introduction to Joseph Conrad. Heart of Darkness, perhaps his most famous work, became yet more popular once moviegoers realized that Apocalypse Now is a re-telling of that tale through the lens of the Vietnam conflict. At only about 16,500 words, The Secret Sharer is less than half the length of the novelette of Heart of Darkness.
On the surface, this is a tale of the sea, and of a green, untried captain who comes face to face with a kind of doppelganger of his own doubts and fears, his own concern with the consequences of sudden and perhaps terrible action. Throughout the tale, the hint lingers that this other person, who whispers a desperate tale in the darkness of the captain’s cabin, may not be real at all. At this level, the work becomes a story of the captain struggling with his own resolve, his own ability to steer and command his ship, much less his own future. Taken only a step further, the ship could be taken as a microcosm of society at large, and how one finds oneself dealing privately with doubt while publicly “putting on the bold face” in order to make his way in the world.
Proud of his work and success with the British Merchant Marines, Jozef Teodor Konrad Naleez Korzeniowski (Joseph Conrad) mastered both seamanship and English, and he isn’t shy about displaying the result of his hard work. There are brief passages where land-lubbers such as myself may lose a tidy image or two, being unfamiliar with the workings of a ship of the late 19th century. These details may make modern readers think that the story “bogs down” (forgive the pun) from time to time. However, the overall sensation of being aboard this relatively small ship, and of the captain’s need to prove himself to his ocean-seasoned crew, will come through quite clearly. Even though we toil in different circumstances, the emotions are easily recognized by anyone trying to make the best of his own life.
It’s a good, solid tale, a quick read, and not quite in the arena of my favorite types of literary work. Before tackling Heart of Darkness, as English majors, fans of Apocalypse Now, and other such riff-raff (myself included) are wont to do, one may begin here. This book provides a short yet representative sampling of Conrad’s style, rhythm, and venue to warm you to the task of reading the longer work. I think you’ll find it, as they say in the travel guides, worth the detour.