Sunday, May 22, 2016

Joseph Conrad, "The Secret Sharer"—Short Story Month 2016—Day 22

            Making the psychological theme of the double plausible is the central problem in Conrad's "The Secret Sharer," for the protagonist's double is not only projected outside him, but also is dramatized in the story as an external self who has been involved in a crime apart from the protagonist and whose crime is at the core of the moral issue facing him.  The story itself is split between the plot, which focuses on the stranger and the captain's efforts to protect and conceal him, and the mind of the captain who obsessively persists on perceiving and describing the stranger Leggatt as his other self, his double.  
            The story also depends on metaphorical details which suggest that Leggatt has been summoned forth from the captain's unconscious as an aspect of the self with which he must deal.  Although it can be said that Leggatt represents some aspect of the captain's personality that he must integrate--instinctive behavior rather than the Hamlet-like uncertainty he experiences on his first command--it is more probable that he is brought on board to make explicit and dramatically concrete the dual workings of the captain's mind which distract him and tear him apart.  This creation of an "as-if" real character to embody what are essentially psychic processes marks the impressionistic extension of the trend that began the short story form during the romantic period.
            The basic issues the story deals with are the following:   what does it mean to be a stranger to yourself?  What does it mean to see yourself in another?  What does "being in command" mean?  What does it mean to be your brother's keeper?  What does the notion of talking to oneself suggest?  Why does having a secret self split the self?  The very fact that the captain refers over and over to Leggatt as his secret sharer suggests Legatt's precarious hold on his position as a real person in the real world.  Note his use of "as if" in "as if our experiences were identical" and  "as if you expected me."
            "The Secret Sharer" can be read in any one of several different ways.  On the one hand, it follows the conventions of an adventure story at sea.  It can also be read as a story of initiation in which the captain must meet the challenge of command and move from insecurity to confidence in his own ability.  It can be discussed as a story of moral conflict in which the captain must make a decision between identifying with the individual or with the rules made by society.  Finally, of course, it can be read as a story of psychological projection in which Leggatt represents some aspect of the captain's own personality that must be dealt with.  There is no real conflict between these various interpretations, for all of them are interrelated; Leggatt is both outside the captain and inside him at the same time.
            A short film adaptation of the story, starring David Soul as the captain, deals competently with the ambiguity of Legatt's status in the world.  On the one hand, Legatt is indeed a real person in the real world in the film.  However, several scenes in the film suggest his duality with the captain.  First of all he rises up out of the sea directly below the captain's face, as if he were Narcissus.  Then he is initially identified with the captain by close-up shots of their hands:  first a shot of the captain's hand at the beginning suggesting his shaky hold on command; then a shot of Legatt's hand gripping the rail as he comes on board; a shot of the hands of both the captain and Legatt clasped together as they say goodbye; finally, another close-up of the captain's hand on the ship's rail at the end, indicating that he now has a firm grip on command and his own sense of identity.

            Since most of the two-shots of the captain and Legatt take place below-decks, the natural overhead light on the tops of their heads as they put their heads together over a map emphasizes their physical similarity.  Moreover, the fact that most of the dialogue between the two men takes place in whispers suggests the notion of a man talking to himself.

Tomorrow: Julio Cortezar's "The Island at Noon"

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