“ In order to live with direction and an understanding of what is going on around you, one must understand and know what goes on inside himself.” - William Page
In Joseph Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer”, the Captain of the vessel finds that he does not know himself as well as he thinks. It is not until a castaway, Leggatt, arrives that the captain finally achieves a level of self understanding and completion. Leggatt serves as the Captain’s complimenting double, and his actions and thoughts eventually help the captain learn about himself and create stronger character.
As the story opens, the young captain is standing out on the deck looking at the scenery as the ship pulls away. In the distance he notices a ship and on his right, two clumps of trees marking the river's mouth. He notices the “flat shore joined to the stable sea (83).” The captain can scarcely discern where one element of nature begins and another ends. Similarly, at this point he himself is at a faintly discerning line between immaturity and maturity, between landsmen and seamen. He is an outsider according to the skeptical crew and he is a stranger to his ship and himself.
At this point, the captain’s lack of confidence in himself as a leader, and his fearful awe of the ship dominate his character. This is illustrated as the captain decides to stand guard over the anchor. While this task is often left to lower ranking officers on the ship, he does not allow any one to do the task but himself. The captain remains because of his overwhelming feeling of inadequacy as leader of the ship. He feels a clear distinction between what he must become and what he currently is. However, the captain is soon given help in finding himself and his place on the ship.
While he stands guard, a man appears from the ladder. Leggatt was a persecuted sailor from the nearby ship. He decided to jump in the water and swim to the light he saw (the ship) as opposed to taking the punishment on his ship. As the captain allows him to come aboard, readers notice an almost immediate connection between the two men. Leggatt hops up on board and introduces himself to the captain, “the name’s Leggatt (88).” He presents himself to the captain as man who has nothing to hide. He does not try to conceal anything but shows “his hand”, and this is something the captain immediately ...
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...which way the ship is moving. Suddenly, he sees something white on the black water, his floppy hat. The hat itself is a symbol of good, of the captain's pity and mercy for "his other self." The item also represents the physical parting of the two men, who have throughout the story fused into one. More significantly, and ironically, however, the hat literally points the way to the Captain's successful maneuvering of his ship to a safe place. This is an act that insures his acceptance and the salvation of himself, his ship, and all those aboard the ship. By helping his "dark self," by accepting and helping him to grow, the captain helped himself to grow, and enabled himself to escape his dark sides reaches.
After the captain rids himself of his “secret sharer,” he is a changed man. His feeling of inadequacy has entirely vanished and he takes charge of his ship and crew in full confidence. The full authority and self understanding that his job demands is no longer out of reach, but rather a part of him as a result of Leggatt.
Conrad, Joseph. "The Secret Sharer" ed. Jerome Beaty. The Norton Introduction to Literature 8th ed. New York. W.W. Norton & Co., 2002.
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