As Eudora Welty once said, "The first thing we see about a story is its mystery. And in the best stories, we return at the last to see mystery again. Every good story has mystery--not the puzzle kind, but the mystery of allurement. As we understand the story better, it is likely that the mystery does not necessarily decrease; rather it simply grows more beautiful" (164). The implication of this awareness of “mystery” is that the short story often seems to focus on a moment out of time, or on time as mythically perceived, the way Ernest Cassirer and Mircea Eliade have described it.
More so than in the novel, the short story most often deals with phenomena for which there is no clearly discernible logical, sociological, or psychological cause. As Welty says, the "first thing we notice about our story is that we can't really see the solid outlines of it--it seems bathed in something of its own. It is wrapped in an atmosphere. This is what makes it shine, perhaps, as well as what initial obscures its plain, real shape" (163). To Conrad’s Marlowe, sitting Buddha-like on the deck telling the story of Kurtz in “Heart of Darkness,” the "meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of those misty halos that, sometimes, are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine."
Joseph Conrad confronts the problem of manifesting the secret, hidden life in the external world explicitly in his two most famous short works. In "The Heart of Darkness" he creates a world like that of "Young Goodman Brown," in which landscape symbolically represents the ultimate reaches of psychic reality; moreover he develops a plot structure very much like Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" and Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener," in which a realistic narrator confronts a metaphoric extremist
In "The Secret Sharer," Conrad seeks a method to reveal the secret conflict of his protagonist by having the young captain project that conflict outside of himself. Just as Hamlet creates a play within a play to externalize his conflict so that he can cope with it, the captain in Conrad's story creates the character of Leggatt to provide him with the means by which he can deal with his own insecurity and establish his own identity. Conrad pushes to metaphoric extremes the common psychological phenomenon of inner conflict creating a split in the self so that it seems as if there are two separate voices engaged in a dialogue.
Leggatt, whose name suggests he is a representative or emissary, is the objectified side of the captain's Hamlet-like, preoccupied, subjective self. The story thus is torn between the plot, which focuses on the efforts of the captain to protect and conceal the mysterious stranger, and the mind of the captain, which obsessively persists in perceiving and describing the stranger as his other self, his double. Although some critics have suggested that the constant repetition of the similarity between the captain and Leggatt is tedious and the weakest part of the work, the repetition is a purposeful Conrad tactic of overdetermination to suggest both that Leggatt is a romance-like symbolic projection of the captain's psyche and at the same time a real character with his own objective existence to whom the captain reacts in an obsessive way.
The story begins with the central motif of the captain's lack of identity. He says he is not only a stranger on the ship but also a stranger to himself, and he wonders if he will "turn out faithful to that ideal conception of one's own personality every man sets up for himself secretly." And indeed, many metaphorical details in the story suggest Leggatt has been summoned forth from the captain's unconscious as an aspect of the self with which he must deal.
For example, Leggatt is first seen as a silvery, fish-like naked body emerging from the sea to whom the captain responds in a matter-of-fact way, as if he were expecting him. The image of the captain looking straight down into a face upturned exactly under his own is clearly an allusion to the myth of Narcissus. However, instead of the captain falling into his reflection, as in a number of German romantic tales, the reflection comes out of the mirror-like sea and takes on a problematical independent existence. After Leggatt puts on one of the captain's sleeping suits, the captain says, it was "as though I had been faced by my own reflection in the depths of a somber and immense mirror."
In Conrad's story the mysterious mythic emissary from the unconscious is presented as an objective existence in the world, not as a dreamlike or allegorical projection. Although we know that others have seen Leggatt as an objective presence before the story begins, no one but the captain sees him during the actual events of the story. The anecdote of the scorpion in the inkwell is the mise en abyme in "The Secret Sharer" in which we see the entire story reflected in miniature. Leggatt comes out of the inky water of the sea, which represents both the unconscious of the captain/Conrad and the inkwell source of all stories, the Ocean of Story. At the end of "The Secret Sharer," Leggatt's movement back into the sea, representing the captain's reintegration of the split in his self, is his movement back into the inkwell. Leggatt, the oneiric creation of both the captain and the artist, says "I am off the face of the earth now. As I came at night so shall I go."
Making manifest that which is hidden is the primarily structural force of "The Secret Sharer." This objectification of inner reality marks the beginning of the “modern” mythical method of fictional narration, as Thomas Mann defines it in his famous essay, "Freud and the Future." Mann explicitly calls for a modern fiction that mixes the psychological and the mythical, for he affirms as truth the Schopenhauer‑Freud perception that life itself is a "mingling of the individual elements and the formal stock‑in‑trade; a mingling in which the individual, as it were, only lifts his head above the formal and impersonal elements." Much of the "extra‑personal," Mann insists, "much unconscious identification, much that is conventional and schematic, is none the less decisive for the experience not only of the artist but of the human being in genera. (421)."
Our interest in fictional characters, Mann implies, is, regardless of the events in which they are enmeshed, always centrally located in the process by which they try to find their identity, the means by which they attempt to answer the age‑old Oedipal question: Who am I? In such a process the two forces of the subjective and the schematic are decisive. As Robert Langbaum has described it, when you realize that introspection leads to nothing but endless reflection, you see that the only way to find out who you are is to don a mask and step into a story. "The point is," says Langbaum, "at that level of experience where events fall into a pattern. . . they are an objectification of your deepest will, since they make you do things other than you consciously intend; so that in responding like a marionette to the necessities of the story, you actually find out what you really want and who you really are" (175).
This creation of an "as-if" real character to embody psychic processes marks the impressionistic extension of the romantic trend that began the short story form earlier in the nineteenth century.
Much of the reason for this sense of an elusive and mysterious “secret” life of the characters of short stories derives from its origins in the folk tale and later the romance form. Whereas the focus of the novel is often on multiple inner consciousnesses, the focus of the short story is more often on an obsessed inner consciousness. Characters in short fiction seem somewhat like allegorical figures because of their obsessive focus on some single task: Goodman Brown's journey into the forest, Old Phoenix's trip to get the healing medicine, Bartleby's preference not to, Nick Adam's fishing trip at Big, Two-Hearted River. The hidden story of emotion and secret life, communicated by atmosphere, tone, and mood is always about something more unspeakable, more mysterious, than the story generated by the reader’s focus on characters and on what happens next.
The genius of the short story form is that whereas short stories often could indeed be the seedbeds of novels, they do not communicate as novels do. And if we try to read them as if they were novels, they will never haunt us with their sense of that mysterious secret life within all of us.