Common Themes in The Secret Sharer, Heart of Darkness, and The Shadow Line
Joseph Conrad's stories The Secret Sharer, Heart of Darkness, and The Shadow Line share a number of themes. All three stories deal with a process of maturing that involves the loss of youthful illusions, a process usually precipitated by an actual "trial" that challenges the protagonist's professional skills as well as his assumptions about his identity and sanity. In successfully dealing with the crisis, the protagonist reconstructs his identity and develops moral ideas rooted in acknowledgement of his own and others' human weaknesses and thus of men's necessary interdependence.
Each story is related from the point-of-view of one narrator: Marlow in Heart of Darkness and an unnamed captain in his first command in both The Secret Sharer and The Shadow Line. All exhibit a naive or idealized view of the world. Marlow chooses to go to the Congo because, since a boy, that part of Africa had always "charmed him." When the narrator of The Shadow Line unexpectedly wins the command of a ship as a replacement for a newly deceased captain, he looks forward to going "out to sea. The sea-which was pure, safe and friendly" (96). Likewise, the narrator of The Secret Sharer prematurely delights in "the great security of the sea" (23).
All three narrators are also solitary figures. The two new captains are isolated by virtue of their position; they cannot become intimate with their men without the risk of losing their respect, and Marlow is culturally isolated in the African jungle.
Each narrator encounters an actual physical trial. The new captain in The Shadow Line finds, when at sea and with a crew afflicted by tropical fevers, that the "mad" former captain has disposed of the store of life-saving quinine. The situation is aggravated by the fact that they are unable to find a wind to propel them, languishing for days on a stagnant sea. As Marlow makes his way up the "River," he is delayed, suffers losses, and finds the experience of the jungle more overwhelming than he anticipated. In contrast, the captain's trial in The Secret Sharerseems to be only that of becoming comfortable with his new command, thus an internal trial, but he then "takes on" the trial of hiding Leggatt, introducing the distressing possibility of discovery.
Yet it is the psychological crisis that each narrator goes through in response to his difficulties that Conrad is most concerned with and he...