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Comparing the Orpheus Myth and Conrad's The Secret Sharer

Satisfactory Essays
Parallels in the Orpheus Myth and Conrad's The Secret Sharer

The myth of Orpheus and his descent into the underworld is paralleled in Joseph Conrad's "The Secret Sharer," revealing a common theme, the narrator's self-fulfillment through the conclusion of his symbolic and inward quest. This parallel, which may be called archetypal, serves to increase the reader's sense of identification with Conrad's narrator, and it lends an otherworldly tone to the work as a whole. Likewise, these echoes of Orphic material lead the reader through three stages. These are a modern and secular rendition of the descent into the unknown, followed by a symbolic rebirth or rejoining of the fractured portions of the complete self, and finally the parting with the previous 'self' that ostensibly existed in the initial state.

The reader finds an initial parallel between the myth and story through Conrad's 'sea,' as compared to Orpheus' 'underworld,' along with the surface of the quest motif. The ship in "The Secret Share" is described as "at the starting point of a long journey" (Conrad 273), and as being "very still in an immense stillness.... [where] nothing moved, [and] nothing lived" (273). I read the stillness of the sea and the absence of life is an allusion to the stillness of death, which is the realm Orpheus takes his journey to, before turning homeward. Moreover, the stars are described in this opening scene, but do not reappear in the story until after the departure of 'the secret sharer'; the narrator's Euridice or hidden self (this hidden self aspect closely reflects the 'double' nature of the 'sharer' as well). Between these two appearances of the stars, which could only visible in an 'overworld,' the ship and its crew as consumed by "the tide of darkness" (273) that encompasses the vessel, much as Orpheus leaves behind the stars when he descends into the realm of death in Hades.

On a symbolic level, both the Orpheus myth and "The Secret Sharer" use the journey as a rite of passage, or a rebirth into a greater state of self-knowledge. Orpheus comes to know the reality of death and the limitations of his powers, while Conrad's narrator makes a transition from "being a stranger to the ship..., untried as yet by a position of the fullest responsibility" (273) such that "the comfort of quiet communion... was gone for good" (273), to "the perfect communion of a sea with his first command" (113; italics mine).
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