Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Construing Conrad's "The Secret Sharer": Suppressed Narratives, Subaltern Reception, and the Act of Interpretation

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Construing Conrad's "The Secret Sharer": Suppressed Narratives, Subaltern Reception, and the Act of Interpretation

Article excerpt

"The Secret Sharer" may well appear to be profoundly multivalent, even to the point of self-contradiction. It is at the same time both a writerly text that invites a wide variety of incompatible interpretations and, curiously, a readerly text that is quite explicitly about accuracy in interpretion as it repeatedly stages, thematizes, and evaluates interpretive acts. The critical literature, however, has generally tended to exemplify, the first of these statements rather than explore implications of the latter. The paradox in this treatment of the text, I will go on to argue, is that the larger hermeneutical principles it ultimately affirms are ones that cast doubt on the validity of many of the interpretive stances it seems to have solicited. The widely recognized multiplicity of different readings this text seems to indulge is itself threatened by a profound skepticism that the work invites us to consider. (1) The metadrama of the fortunes of reading also has larger implications for reflections on the precise genre of this odd tale, its position in modern literary history, and its status as evidence in more general interpretations of Conrad's life and oeuvre.

We may begin with a look at some of the various acts and tropes of reading, interpretation, and understanding that are present in the text. (2) The first character that the narrator introduces us to is the first mate, a man who is characterized by his fascination with interpretation: "His dominant trait was to take all things into earnest consideration ... As he used to say, he `liked to account to himself for practically everything that came in his way" (p. 94). (3) This depiction comes in the middle of, and is occasioned by, an interpretive situation: the captain, having just spotted the mastheads of another ship, announces its presence (surprising the reader as much as the characters), and the mates set to work trying to explain the ship's unexpected presence. The chief mate's hypothesis, that the vessel drew too much water to cross the sandbar except at the "top of the spring tides," is immediately corroborated by the second mate-whose accurate but unexpected knowledge is itself in need of additional explanation ("The tugboat skipper told me when he came on board for your letters, sir" [p. 94]).

Wondering whether his peremptory dismissal of his officers from the deck would be construed not as generosity but rather eccentricity ("Goodness only knew how that absurdly whiskered mate would `account' for my conduct" [p. 97]), the captain himself walks into a mystery. The side ladder is down; furthermore, it can't be pulled up. The captain is astounded and, just like "that imbecile mate," tries "to account for it." At the bottom of the ladder of course is yet another enigma in the person of Leggatt; in the rest of this essay, I suggest that the narrative of his life is both more ambiguous and more amenable to distinctively modernist interpretive strategies than has generally been accepted.

The simultaneous importance and unreliability of the imagination has been a staple of Conrad criticism since Guerard, as has a sensitivity to the limited perspectives of first-person narrators; nevertheless, the vast majority of interpreters have in varying degrees been seduced by the rhetoric of this captain-narrator. (4) To get to the other, obscured narratives in the work (and to the class-inflected sensibilities of those that try to utter them), it is necessary first to move beyond the captain's "point of view"-and I use this term in both its psychological and narratological senses. We must instead revisit two earlier and rather neglected critics of The Secret Sharer, Robert D. Wyatt and Michael Murphy, whose arguments have not been cited, appreciated, or developed as fully as they deserve to be. (5)

Murphy argues that the captain "is in some important respects an unreliable narrator" (p. 193); he does not claim the narrator "is lying, but simply that he is not telling the whole story" (p. …

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