The story begins on a nameless ship, anchored at the mouth of the River Meinam in the Gulf of Siam. The narrator, a nameless young captain who has only been in charge of the ship for a fortnight, stands onboard his ship, gazing off the side of the vessel. On the left, the captain sees a cluster of rocky islets and on his right, two clumps of tress mark the river's mouth and puffs of smoke show the path of the tug ship that recently guided the ship down the river. The captain watches, almost regretfully, as the tug ship leaves him alone on his ship in the middle of complete silence, "an immense stillness." While he is alone on board, the captain sees another ship in the distance, something that he is extremely surprised to encounter. The sun sets and the captain descends to his quarters, along with his mates. While eating dinner, he mentions seeing the ship off of the coast. The chief mate begins to speculate on how the boat came to be there, his conclusion being that she was a ship from home lately arrived. The second mate, however, interrupts and says that the ship's name is Sephora and she carries coal. He learned this information from the tugboat skipper, when he came onboard the ship to deliver mail. Throughout the whole conversation, the captain emphasizes to the reader that he was both " a stranger to the ship" and "a stranger to myself."
As the crew begins to leave, the captain directs the chief mate to let all "hands turn in without setting an anchor watch." Instead, because the men were tired and had been working hard, the captain himself would take the anchor watch. While unusual and the men are surprised, they go to bed leaving the captain alone with his thoughts. He is worried because he is on a "ship of which I knew nothing, manned by men of whom I knew very little more." While he is smoking a cigar, in his nightclothes, the captain realizes that a rope ladder is still hanging down one side of the ship. Realizing that it is his fault because he told the men to abandon the watch, the captain tries to reel the ladder in but is met with more resistance than he expected. Looking over the side of the ship, he sees what he thinks is a headless corpse attached to the ladder. Frightened, he looks further and realizes that the body is not dead, nor headless, and the captain yells at him, "What's the matter?" The man answers, "Cramp" and then says, "no need to call anyone except for the captain." The captain answers that the man is in luck, he is the captain of the ship and as the man climbs aboard the ship he introduces himself as Leggatt and the captain leaves to retrieve some clothes for the man.
As the man dresses, the captain observes that he is a young man, probably not more than 25 years old. Leggatt reveals that he was a mate on the Sephora but that he killed a man, although he justifies that the man was very evil. Realizing that the are both Conway boys, Leggatt confesses that his father is a parson and he could never stand trial for what he had done. As he tells his story, the captain is surprised because the man "appealed to him as if our experiences had been as identical as our clothes." Moreover, the captain "knew well enough also that my double was no homicidal ruffian."
Although the captain did not ask for the details of the crime, Leggatt begins to recount his story. On a dark and stormy night, while the men on board were setting a reefed foresail, a crazed Leggatt "felled him like an ox." After a brutal struggle, Leggatt managed to strangle the man to death. Because of the murder, the captain relieved him as his duties of an officer, imprisoned him in his cabin (for over six weeks) and was preparing to take him to trial when the ship landed. Without any statement regarding his story, the captain merely tells the man that he should slip down to his stateroom. After going to the stateroom, the captain calls for his second mate to take over the watch. Entering his stateroom, the captain explains to the reader that his room was in the shape of an L, the door being within the angle and opening into the short part of the letter. Anyone opening the door had no view of the long part of the letter, the majority of the room, a significant advantage given the "recent arrival."
Walking into his room, the captain, speaking extremely quietly, inquires on how the man came to hang on the side ladder of his ship. Leggatt explains that about three weeks ago, he asked to speak to the captain and kindly requested that he leave the door of his cabin unlocked when they could see land, in order that he could make a break swimming for it. The captain, however, refused, a man that was afraid of both the men on the ship and his second mate. The wife of the captain is also onboard the Sephora. The night before, however, the steward left the door open after bringing him his supper. Leaving his room and walking on the deck, Leggatt through off his shoes and dived overboard. Hearing the splash, the rest of the crew came running and tried to search for him in the water but they were unable to find him. Seeing the light of the ship in the distance, he swam desperately for it because the islets (where he originally landed and disposed of his clothes), offered no escape, no water, and no food. On his last leg and about to drown, he was surprised but extremely grateful to find the ladder down because he was not capable of swimming as far as the rudder around the other side of the boat.
Warning the captain that he thinks the Sephora's captain will come to the ship and look for him, the captain puts Leggatt into his own bed. Drifting into his own thoughts, focusing on his double, the captain falls asleep and before he realizes it, the steward is knocking on his door bringing him his morning coffee. The captain acts strangely, but the steward leaves without searching the cabin. The captain proceeds to go above deck and orders the men to "Square the yards by lifts and braces before the hands go to breakfast," his first real order while he has been aboard the ship. After presiding over breakfast very harshly, the captain returned to his room and wakes up his "secret self" and instructs him to vanish into the bathroom. While he is in the bathroom, the captain instructs the steward to clean his room while he is having his bath. The steward follows the orders and cleans the room while the captain bathes and Leggatt stands straight up, still in the bathroom. After the steward leaves, the captain lets the second mate get a good look at the cabin and then closes the door. He sits and his desk, "his secret self" in front of him, hidden from the door, but they do not speak, as it is not safe during the daytime and the captain "could not have stood the excitement of that queer sense of whispering to myself." At the conclusion of the chapter, a voice yells, "there's a ship's boat coming our way, sir." The captain yells "All right. Get the ladder over" and, hesitating, went on deck without saying a word to Leggatt.
A major theme that Conrad explores in the Secret Sharer is the relationship between the land and sea, elements that he also compares other places in his writing. On one hand, Conrad rejoices in the great beauty, serenity, and immensity of the sea, compared with the squalor, anxiety, and unrest of the land. Yet, from the land come the energies, some of them evil, which give meaning to the climate of the sea. Geographical duality ultimately gives shape to the duality of the self.
In this train of thought, "The Secret Sharer" begins with a beautiful view of the sea and shore, and than progresses to other dualities, psychological and political, that the captain must both experience and comprehend. In the first paragraph of the story, the captain looks at the flat shore joined to the stable sea." It is significant that in the opening images the captain can scarcely discern where one element begins and the other ends. He himself is at a faintly discerned dividing line between immaturity and maturity; between landsman and seaman. A duality also exists aboard ship, for our new captain, not yet at ease about his ship, or about himself, prepares for his first cruise under the watchful eyes of a skeptical crew. His officers were all accustomed to the ship and to each other; they knew their roles. The captain was a stranger to the ship and a stranger to himself.
"The Secret Sharer" is also a story concerning the obstacles to be overcome in the process of maturation, or in becoming "good enough" to those around here. For the captain, his inadequacies concern his lack of confidence in his own capabilities, a fear of inadequacy, and a fear of ultimate failure. Even before we meet his double, a motif that obviously addresses these inadequacies, Conrad lays the scene, again emphasized by the important physical description that begins the book. The captain sees, "two small clumps of tress, one on each side of the only fault in the impeccable joint, marked the mouth of the River Meinam we had just leftand, far back on the inland level, a larger and loftier mass, the grove surrounding the great Paknam pagoda, was the only thing on which the eye could rest form the vain task of exploring the monotonous sweep of the horizon" The insignificant twin clumps of tress observed by the captain suggest the dyadic aspects of the captain's personality, which Conrad develops fully in the double motif. The captain's youthful lack of confidence in himself and his abilities, and his fearsome awe of his ship are presented explicitly and implicitly. The most obvious manifestation of his insecurity is his decision to stand the anchor watch himself, a task not usually assumed by a chief mate, to say nothing of a captain. It is of this feeling of inadequacy, this split between what he knew he should become and what he feared he was, that the captain must rid himself. Having progressed beyond this initial immature state, he would have attained the higher ground of self-knowledge, symbolized by the "larger and loftier mass, the grove surrounding the great Paknam pagoda," standing on higher ground than that on which the "two insignificant clumps of trees stand," one on each side of the only fault in the "impeccable joint" of land and sea.
One of the important, but subtle, symbols within this chapter is the scorpion that the chief mate finds in his cabin. In the story, the mysterious creature causes the mate much speculation as why it chose his particular cabin and drowned itself in his inkwell. As the story progresses, the same questions can be applied to Leggatt, as the scorpion in the mate's cabin and Leggatt in the Captain's cabin have one similar aspect in common - they are extremely dangerous.
The dramatic progression in the book, however, begins when Leggatt first comes aboard, a progression which moves from the menace of invaded privacy in the captain's cabin, to the menace of discovery of this dual self by the ship, then to the stress of possible discovery by another captain, and finally, the menace of the unknown self as the captain exercises his newly won command.
It is important to note that the captain does not consciously decide to conceal the fugitive - there is no debate in the action that will cause him considerable grief on the ship. As soon as he sees the stranger, he reflects later: "A mysterious communication was established already between us twoin the fact of that silent, darkened tropical sea." Leggatt speaks of him as talking to him quietly - "as if you had expected me." The closeness of this mysterious communication is emphasized from the very beginning of their relationship, first beginning with their clothes.
Another interesting aspect of the narrative regards the fact that the reader, nor the captain, is not concerned with the precise nature of Leggatt's offense, for there is no indication that the captain feels any shadow of guilt specifically because the man he is hiding is a murderer. Leggatt is an embodiment of his original feeling of being a stranger' to himself, of that fear that there are parts of himself which he has not yet brought into the light of day and that these aspects of his personality may interfere with that ideal conception of one's own personality every man sets up for himself secretly.' What disturbs him is that there is a secret sharer at all; for he brings to light his own suspected insecurity.
Moreover, it is important that the man who helps a fugitive from the law is himself an officer of the law, having just been appointed captain of a ship, his first command. The story, therefore, also becomes one of the consequences and duties of class and authority. Why does the captain conceal the criminal? Perhaps because the captain realizes that the crime that Leggatt committed was a crime that in similar circumstances he himself might have committed. The murderer and the captain had held identical jobs as mates on separate ships until a few weeks previous to Leggatt's criminal act and the captain's promotion to his first command. The captain realizes that instead of becoming a member of the ruling class on the high seas he easily might, like Leggatt, have deviated into the class of the hunted outlaw. He therefore identifies himself with the murderer rather than with the judges who would condemn Leggatt should he be brought before them in a court of law.
There is, however, in Leggatt, a feeling of guilt, the knowledge that he has transgressed against the code of society. He can speak of the man he has killed as one of the miserable devil that have no business to live at all,' but he is prepared to accept the brand of Cain" business.' I was ready enough,' he says, to go off wandering on the face of the earth."
After the mysterious stranger comes on deck, it is significant that the captain fetches a suit of his pajamas for the naked swimmer. Dressed, the two are doubles in appearance. They are identical in height and weight, and have the same dark hair - they are even both Conway boys. The one difference, however, is that Leggett has killed a man aboard his ship, the Sephora. He, therefore, is a fugitive, but a resolute fugitive because he claims justice in his action. He tells the story of a storm, of a command insolently disobeyed, and his righteous rage that resulted in the death of the malcreant but in the saving of the ship. As the young skipper listens to Leggatt, he is convinced of the absolute rightness of that action and knows that he would like to have done the same. The fugitive seems his double in life crises as well; only he has already met his trial, has acted in those matters that decide whether a man shall "turn out faithful to that ideal conception of one's own personality every man sets up for himself secretly." Indeed, the idea of the double is firmly implanted within the narrative itself - Leggatt is described as his double' or his other self' more than twenty times in the course of the story.
Leggatt swum for the light, but even before he reached his destination he resolved to swim until he sank rather than be downed by his bigoted and hostile superior officers aboard the Sephora. There he was, like his double, a young officer newly aboard, hated because he had come in over men who considered themselves in line for the promotion; a stranger to the ship and to her officers - but not to himself. The last quality is the thing that he will eventually convey to his secret sharer.
The remainder of the first part of the story established the social and political tension of concealing the double self from the ship's personnel. The routine of the steward must be charted; the captain's cabin becomes a place of stealth and deception as the skipper hides his alter ego. Orders for the command of the ship must be given, yet all the time, "the dual working of my mind distracted me almost to the point of insanity. I was constantly watching myself, my secret self, as dependent on my actions as my own personality."
In the first chapter, it is also important to note that in this story there are very few details or characters that are not essential to the allegory that Joseph Conrad is attempting to paint. The analysis of this chapter can be so long because every sentence is geared towards the major point of the story, something that is far from this author's previous works.
One of the key literary elements of this story is also the universal quality of the message that Joseph Conrad attempts to deliver. Having the ship, the captain, and everyone aboard that ship remain nameless emphasizes the universality and applicability of the story. The captain can represent every man, and the ship, every man's journey through life.