Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Reading Schedule for Summer 2007

CHAUCER: The Canterbury Tales

June 4 - The Prologue

June 11 - The Knight’s Tale (Part One)

June 18 - The Knight’s Tale (Part Two)

June 25 - The Knight’s Tale (Part Three)

July 2 - The Knight’s Tale (Part Four)

July 9 - The Miller’s Tale

July 16 - The Reeve’s Tale

July 23 - The Prioress’s Tale

July 30 - The Nun’s Priest’s Tale

August 6 - The Pardoner’s Tale

August 13 - The Wife of Bath’s Prologue

August 20 - The Wife of Bath’s Tale

August 27 - The Franklin’s Tale


We will use the following edition:

Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (Selected): An Interlinear Translation

Published by Barron’s Educational Series, Inc. (1970)

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Conrad's Biblical Tale

In Conrad's story, The Secret Sharer, comparing Leggatt to Cain is appropriate, for like Cain, Leggatt has killed his "brother," a fellow ship mate on the Sephora. And like Cain, Leggatt is forced to wander the earth as an outcast of his society. But one should recall that Cain was not simply punished by God, he was also placed under God's divine protection...

"whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold. And the Lord set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him."

Why is this? Why should God, who is the ultimate judge of all creation, extend his protection to Cain, who murdered his own brother? In this respect, the Captain who gives sanctuary to Leggatt, has done nothing more than extend God's protection to another human being, just as churches have done throughout the ages (hence, the original meaning of "sanctuary"). So, we find two opposing forces at work in Conrad's story: the justice of man, represented by Captain Archbold, and the justice of God, which in this case is represented by a young captain whose name is unknown to us (cf. "Yahweh" literally, he who is without name).

Although his name is unknown, we know something of his character. He is not afraid to shelter a stranger, though at some risk to himself. He undertakes a bold, dangerous passage near an island which his crew believes will lead to their death. Yet, in this crisis he does not waver but shows a firm command of his ship, unlike Captain Archbold who was apparently unable to save his own ship from disaster.

Then again, unlike the story from Genesis, the man killed by Leggatt was not Abel. Instead, he ...

"... was one of those creatures that are just simmering all the time
with a silly sort of wickedness. Miserable devils that have no business
to live at all. He wouldn't do his duty and wouldn't let anybody else do

So, what is our duty? At sea, when caught in a storm, a sailor's first duty is to survive, and toward that end the captain must decide how to achieve that purpose. But Captain Archbold (like Captain Queeg in the Caine Mutiny) could not handle the crisis, so it was up to Leggatt to act. We learn that one of the crew endangered the survival of the Sephora, and at that dire moment, Leggatt reacted violently and killed the man. We recall that Cain's anger at his brother was motivated by jealousy, yet Leggatt's anger was brought on by a struggle to save his own ship from capsizing. With these extenuating circumstances in mind, perhaps a maritime trial would result in a lenient verdict for Leggatt. But perhaps not. In any case, he doesn't wait around to see.

The only trial that occurs happens in the mind and soul of the captain who shelters Leggatt. Conrad's story concerns the moral consequences of this action. The captain sees Leggatt as a kind of alter ego of himself. Not to say that Leggatt is an evil twin of what he, the captain, might have become. For he sees Leggatt as a man falsely accused...

"He appealed to me as if our experiences had been as identical as
our clothes. And I knew well enough the pestiferous danger of such a
character where there are no means of legal repression. And I knew well
enough also that my double there was no homicidal ruffian."

Justice at sea is different from the kind that normally prevails on land. A vessel at sea is a miniature society alone to itself, with its own rules and traditions. The captain is invested with godlike power over life and death. His word is law. For the crew, he is the only judge and jury that matters. While for the captain, the crew's loyalty to him rests on their belief in his competence and on the authority he displays in the performance of his duties. For a young, untested captain, a maiden voyage is often the initiation which determines how his maritime career will unfold. Either he proves his worth as the captain of his ship, or he does not. If he fails, no crew will ever entrust him again with either their lives or their fortune.

In Conrad's story, the young captain is a stranger to his crew. His appointment to the ship happened suddenly, with no opportunity to prove himself to the men who must serve under him. Then Leggatt appears out of the night, clinging to the ladder of his ship. Once he is aboard, the captain must decide quickly whether to hide Leggatt from the crew, or return him to the Sephora to face his accusers. He is not sure what to do. Either Leggatt is lying, in which case the captain is protecting a murderer (and risking his career); or he is innocent of murder, and sending him back may well result in an unfair punishment. Sometimes truth is difficult to apprehend. In the end, the captain decides to trust his own judgment regarding Leggatt's innocence. Was he right to do so?

It all depends on whose testimony you believe...Captain Archbold or Leggatt. At the end of Conrad's story, the young captain demonstrates his authority and his courage by sailing his ship into harm's way, allowing Leggatt to escape. He succeeds in bringing his ship through unscathed. But even a man of ability needs a little luck. And Leggatt the murderer, if that is what he is, becomes the means by which the captain, who was indeed a "stranger to himself" comes into full awareness of his power to command his ship, and the moral burden which that duty entails.

We recall that God allows Cain to go forth into the world after murdering Abel, though his reasons for doing so are mysterious. Perhaps God puts a mark on Cain to remind us that the power of life and death belongs to God alone. Cain becomes a nomadic witness, reminding us of who really is in charge of things. But since Leggatt carries no mark (the captain's hat was discarded as Leggatt jumped overboard), he can't really witness to anything but his own survival. On the other hand, perhaps Cain (Leggatt) goes forth as a testament to God's unlimited power of grace, and the possibility for redemption that lives within us all. Thus, the secret of our own guilt or innocence can only be shared with a stranger, and Conrad's story, like its protagonist's real identity, remains shrouded behind a veil of cosmic uncertainty.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

CONRAD: The Secret Sharer

In The Secret Sharer we never learn the name of the character telling the story. For convenience let’s just call him Conrad. Conrad’s story is about a young sailor in command of his first ship. Since this was his first command he felt a little awkward. This is normal and to be expected. But Conrad didn’t just feel awkward – he felt like a stranger on his own ship. Not only that, he says “if all the truth must be told, I was somewhat of a stranger to myself.” Here we have a man who is outwardly in command of the whole ship but inwardly is unsure of himself and who he is.

On this voyage we’ll find out what he’s made of. In that sense this is a coming of age story. Conrad says “I wondered how far I should turn out faithful to that ideal conception of one’s own personality every man sets up for himself secretly.” Many a man considers himself brave until circumstances prove him to be a coward at heart. And life at sea quickly shows a man his true character. Sailors often share young Conrad’s enthusiasm for the nautical life: “I rejoiced in the great security of the sea as compared with the unrest of the land, in my choice of that untempted life presenting no disquieting problems, invested with an elementary moral beauty by the absolute straightforwardness of its appeal and by the singleness of its purpose.”

But it doesn’t take long to find out that there isn’t great security at sea and neither is one spared the “disquieting problems” everyone encounters while living ashore. Quite the opposite. During his first night on watch Conrad discovers a strange man hanging on to the ship’s ladder. Come to find out the man is a fugitive from another ship. His name is Leggatt and he openly admits he killed a shipmate. As Leggatt puts it “He was one of those creatures that are just simmering all the time with a silly sort of wickedness. Miserable devils that have no business to live at all.” So Leggatt killed him. Suddenly Conrad is faced with a life-changing question: should I give refuge to a murderer or turn him back over to the captain of his own ship? The decision he makes will determine not only Leggatt’s future but also Conrad’s own fate.

The story’s title gives away the decision made by Conrad to hide Leggatt in the captain’s cabin. But it may also signify something far deeper: sharing the guilt of murder. Leggatt doesn’t want to escape his punishment. He confides that he’ll willingly bear “The ‘brand of Cain’…I was ready enough to go off wandering on the face of the earth – and that was price enough to pay for an Abel of that sort.” In other words Leggatt has killed a man and is prepared to wander the earth like another Cain. Conrad hasn’t killed a man but he has harbored a murderer. In this sense they both share in the guilt of the crime. No one else knows what has happened, hence the name “The Secret Sharer.”

Make no mistake – this is not an easy punishment to bear. Leggatt admits as much when he says “There’s nothing of a boy’s tale in this. But there’s nothing else for it. I want no more.” He’s destined to wander parts of the earth where he will remain a stranger forever. A white man set loose on an island in the Far East. Conrad, on the other hand, has a different destiny: to wander the seas. Conrad muses: “I was a total stranger to the ship. I did not know her…How was she to be handled?” He had become a man, but at what cost? For the rest of his days he would himself be a stranger to the earth and a wanderer too, sharing the mark of Cain as he travels the seas. And the sea can be stark and relentless, changing the whole course of life - just like old Bible stories.

-- RDP