Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Conrad: The Secret Sharer and the Mysterious Floppy Hat

After encouragement from a very good friend (Thanks, Linz!), I am going to proceed to entertain/bore you with my current thoughts on the things I am doing for school.

Right now I am writing a paper on Joseph Conrad's The Secret Sharer, a truly delightful story in the same vein as Heart of Darkness, but not depressing. I am most intrigued by the sometimes obvious, sometimes vague symbolism replete throughout the tale. Today my ideas are centered around the mysterious "floppy white hat" that the Captain takes from his own head, puts on Leggatt (his double)'s head, is left on floating on the top of the water when Leggatt makes his escape, then subsequently is what saves the ship from peril as the Captain uses it as a mark against which he can steer the ship to safety.

What saves the Captain from peril at the end-- this is a great key to the meaning of the tale, I think. The hat is his salvation, gives him a chance to steer his ship to safety, an opportunity to prove himself a capable captain to a crew that doesn't know him, and--most importantly--a chance to erase his own doubts about himself. Because of the hat, he becomes the captain he always had the potential to be.
  • If the hat represents the Captain's "floppy" character, fears, and weakness of mind, it makes sense that he would choose to get rid of it in the end once his character has grown stronger. He no longer needs it to protect his own head/thoughts and has truly outgrown it. But, if this is the case, why would he try to pass it off on Leggatt? What protection would it offer L as his subconscious incarnate? Also, how could his abandoned weakness become a guidemark to save the ship? Is self-discovery able to free him of the need for self preservation (the hat protects his head) and allow him to take risks that reveal his abilities?
  • If the hat represents the Captain and Leggatt's shared "complete" personality (since they shared it), why would the hat ultimately be abandoned as an unnecessary item? And how could the Captain get by without it any longer? Wouldn't an increased awareness of one's entire self only increase the attachment to an item that expressed that relationship with one's self? And if the water is a common psychological symbol for the subconscious, how would the hat-- a symbol of his acceptance of his "shadow side"-- float upon it and become his salvation?
  • If the hat represents the Captain's generosity and improved character, why is it described as floppy (carrying a connotation of weakness)? Perhaps generosity to accept oneself, love oneself, could enable one to have greater courage and confidence (explaining the Captain's triumph in the end). But, how does generosity steer a safe course? And, why is the theme of 'kindness' and 'generosity' suddenly thrown upon the reader at the VERY end of the tale as the means of salvation without ever making it a theme elsewhere in the story? Doesn't seem to fit...
  • Or is it somehow a combination of these? the hat represents the Captain's fears BECAUSE he does not know himself or his abilities. Coming to know and understand Leggatt (his other self) who arose from his subconscious frees the Captain of a need for self preserving fears. Why he would think that his subconscious self needs these protecting fears, I don't know. Haven't figured that one out. but once he has generously demonstrated his acceptance of himself, given away his fears to Leggatt, and L has safely returned to the sea, the Captain has a reminder of the things he learned in the form of the hat floating upon his subconscious. It provides him a mark (memory of self-discovery and discarded fear) against which he can steer the ship-- and himself-- to safety even while taking risks that prove to EVERYONE his qualification as Captain of the vessel.

So... what IS the hat?
His abandoned fear?
His abandoned weakness?
A reminder of his entire personality, both conscious and subconscious?
His generosity to himself?
What do YOU think?


  1. so many thoughts! so many options! and such great vocabulary! good luck...let me know what you decide.

  2. i have no idea yet! but, i just put The Secret Sharer on hold at the library, and hopefully i can go pick it up today! so, thank you for the suggestion. and i'll let you know my theories when i finish :) i really enjoyed our visit the other night. thanks for stopping by - it was great to talk to you.