College freshmen are much more sophisticated than I was ten years ago when I entered a university. Today my freshmen know everything there is to know about sex, clinical and unclinical, normal and deviational. They’ve been weaned on Miller, Burroughs, Harold Robbins, and Candy.
During the second week of the fall semester, in a newly organized freshman English seminar “realistically” concerned with the search for identity, the selection happened to be Joseph Conrad’s “Secret Sharer.” I was particularly impressed with the erudition of the students. During the second class, almost everyone had something vital to say. Everyone, that is, except for one young man who seemed to be so concerned with taking notes that his pen never stopped scratching at a large yellow pad. At the end of the period I wanted to try to round off the discussion, but something made me ask if anyone had anything else he wanted to say.
“I think you’ve missed the whole point,” a pretty seventeen-year-old co-ed told me. She had bright red hair, and the card on the table in front of her said Miss LePage.
“How?” I asked, glancing at the young man sitting across the table from her. He was still scribbling on his yellow pad of paper. His pen looked as if it would never stop.
“Who? ‘ I asked, looking for a reaction from the class. There was none.
“The Captain at least — Leggatt too. It’s not so clear.”
“How do you know?” I asked her, wondering how she’d come up with such an interpretation. There were four more minutes before the bell would ring.
“The pajamas,” my red-haired co-ed replied, “sharing the pajamas. That’s where the title comes in — that’s what they’re really sharing.”
“Tops or bottoms?” another student asked, perking up a little, looking at me as if I hadn’t heard of homosexuals.
“It doesn’t matter,” Miss LePage replied. “The point is they’re always whispering to each other, sharing pajamas, hiding from the others on the ship.”
I fumbled with my copy of “The Secret Sharer,” nervously wondering how I had overlooked such an obvious interpretation.
“The Captain’s the queer one,” Miss LePage continued. “Leggatt only puts up with it until he can get away from the ship.” There were a couple of snickers from the class. “That’s why he left the Sephora — they were all queer on that ship. Leggatt killed one of the crew who’d made advances toward him. Remember, Leggatt was on his first voyage; his father was a minister.”
“That’s right,” the young man sitting next to Miss LePage agreed. I looked at the boy with the yellow pad. There was an audible noise from his fountain pen whenever Miss LePage wasn’t speaking.
“Don’t you see it, sir?” she asked me, looking at the rest of the class. Several other students nodded their heads.
“Go on,” I said, “I’m listening.”
“Well, there isn’t much else. It’s all fairly obvious — it’s in my paper there — that sitting on the john in the bathroom and all that. Poor Leggatt trying to get away from the Captain. How’d you like to spend all that time sitting on the john?”
“Bit of an inconvenience,” I muttered, feeling sweat break out on my forehead. Everyone in the class was looking at me, waiting to hear what I’d say.
“It’s the Captain,” Miss LePage continued. “Why else do you think the crew hates him? They happen to be fairly normal on his ship. Unfortunately, Leggatt swims to the wrong ship — that’s the irony of it all — where the Captain’s queer. But this time he knows he’ll have to put up with it or he’ll lose his neck. So he waits till he can swim ashore and has to sit in the john all day long so he won’t be discovered. The crew would probably kill him. It’s purely Freudian. No reason to tell the crew that their Captain’s queer — they already know it. Why do you think he was up there on deck alone in the first place? With the ladder over the edge just in case some nice young man happened to be swimming by. How terribly convenient.”
The bell rang. I looked at the boy with the yellow pad. His right hand was covered with black ink, and it had run all over the pad and the table.
“Well, that’s all very interesting, Miss LePage,” I said, getting up from the table. “We’ll continue this next time.” I edged my way around the room, managing to leave before any of the students. I wanted to get back to my office and have another look at Conrad’s story before my afternoon class when I’d be doing the book again. And I wanted to read Miss LePage’s paper; see how far she’d erred.
It was all fairly obvious, all there in concise English prose. Leggatt, the Captain, the pajamas and the whispering, sitting on the john all day long — which was better than what happened at night — proper footnotes, minimum of errors, one comma splice, one misspelled word. All clear except for the end, the last page, which was missing from her paper. It ended, “Thus Leggatt’s search for identity leads him into the depths of human perversions, but the waters of the sea act as a baptismal . . .” and there the sentence was broken.
I was distressed. I wanted to find out how Miss LePage had ended her paper. It was impossible to give her a grade unless I had the last page. She’d completely ignored so many facets of Conrad’s tale — the “floppy hat” for instance — used only those aspects which could be twisted to fit her own demented scholarship. I knew she couldn’t explain the function of the hat, but I had to wait until Monday to find out what else she’d written.
Monday I was early, but Miss LePage was late, and I had to wait until the end of the period, after a discussion of Miller’s Death of aSalesman, before I could speak to her. Did she think Willy Loman was queer? No, but Biff and Happy were obviously sexually incompetent. What had happened to the last page of her paper on “The Secret Sharer”? She’d found it in her typewriter but forgotten to bring it to class. She’d bring it the next time. Could she explain the meaning of the hat floating in the sea at the end of the story?
“Of course, it’s perfectly obvious. Leggatt didn’t want to keep anything that reminded him of the Captain. He’d left it floating in the sea purposely. It was a woman’s hat,” Miss LePage confessed.
“A woman’s hat?”
“Of course, a bonnet, so it would keep the sun from his eyes. A mere fetish. Belonged to the Captain’s aunt. The Captain was a transvestite.”