Oh, Captain, my Captain: Re-Reading Joseph Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer”
On the surface, “The Secret Sharer” would seem to be a straight forward, if not slightly odd, story. A newly appointed, unnamed Captain takes command of a ship, and ends up harboring a fugitive sailor for a while before marooning the fugitive, at his own insistence, on a Thai island. To the cursory reader, the intricacies below the surface may not be seen, but it is with a more discerning eye that is needed to re-read the tale, and find the wealth of intrigue that lies beneath the surface. There are a few attributes that make this story worthwhile to re-read. As a coming of age tale, this doppelgänger mind screw that Conrad puts us through contains a lot of foreshadowing and parallelism.
In the beginning, the main character the captain (which is how I’ll refer to him, or as our captain) is untested in command, but by story’s end we see has come into his own. The captain is, at first faced with command of a ship that he knows little about, with a crew that is familiar with each other, but are as much strangers to him as he is to them. Our captain is aware of his lack of experience and describes himself as “untried as yet by a position of the fullest responsibility” (5). The captain is “untried”, but doesn’t carry an arrogant authority about him. The exact opposite is true, as initially he is unsure of how to assert his authority without feeling like he’s overextended it, such as his lack of rebuke to the sneering second mate. He is self-aware enough that “the fullest responsibility” that he holds at this point isn’t something that he can make light of, because he holds the lives of every man onboard the ship in his hands, a “responsibility” that he must prove that he is worthy of. The ensuing events of the story show a shift in his confidence, when near the end of the story he issues an order to his second mate, and upon being questioned, doesn’t hesitate to rebuke him for doing so. “The only reason you need concern yourself about is because I tell you to do so” (42). Our captain is no longer timid about his lack of practice in this role. “Because I tell you” is something that only someone who can’t conceive anyone having temerity to question them would say. To “tell” someone something in this context is an order, and to not obey would be to invite dire consequences. Our captain now wears his mantle of command comfortably, as if it were tailor made just for him.
The captain encounters a man that he identifies and sympathizes with upon meeting, as does the audience, despite the horrifying story that he imparts. Leggatt spins the story of the fugitive that has escaped from imprisonment on the ship Sephora after his involvement in the death of one of his shipmates during a terrifying storm. The captain empathizes quickly with him, citing many similarities between them, to the point where he almost immediately after coming face to face with Leggat mentally identifies him as “like my double” (11). The captain notes the physical resemblances between them, while Leggatt often when speaking to our captain doesn’t feel the need to finish what he is saying on the understanding that he and our captain are intellectually alike. The use of the term of “double” here would be “composed of two like parts”. There are multiple times in the story that the captain refers to Leggatt as his “double” or his “other self”, his twin in body and consciousness that he fells connected when he is in proximity, such as on the ship. Our captain saw personality traits in Leggatt that he himself lacked in the beginning of the story, but wanted to have, and later managed to emulate those qualities at the end. It is after he has left that the link fades. The term “doppelgänger” is “a ghostly double of a living person, especially one that haunts its fleshly counterpart”. So the question isn’t how much Leggatt resembles our captain, it’s whether he’s there at all.
Who is Leggatt? He is a man that our captain encounters in the beginning of the story that displays similarities to our captain, but also embodies traits that the captain wished he had. Leggatt was first mate of the Sephora before he choked a man to death in his rage over the man’s lack of respect and dereliction of duty. The appearance of the captain and the crew of the Sephora in search of his missing prisoner on our captain’s ship leaves credence to the happenings as told by Leggatt, but Sephora’s captain never names Leggatt as the man he’s looking for. There is also the fact that none of the crew actually sees Leggatt, in our captain’s effort to keep him hidden, even though there are a few close calls. Our captain momentarily questions the existence of his shadow companion after on particular close call when “an irresistible doubt of his bodily existence flitted through my mind” (37). He then wonders if Leggatt “is not visible to other eyes than mine” (38). Our captain, as are we, left to question, Leggatt’s “bodily existence” as the subtleties throughout leave us with ambiguities in either direction. It is surreal to wonder at the mind screw of just how “visible” Leggatt is. Our captain mentions often about having a split consciousness between himself in the performance of his duties and Leggatt’s “bodily existence” hiding in our captain’s quarters. Is Leggatt really there or is the captain experiencing a divided mind capable of a physical manifestation?
In the experiences that we share with the captain, there are hints of some future occurrence. The foreshadowing can be big or small, but all becomes evident when you look closely. The captain mentions seeing a ship and inquires about it in the beginning, and is informed that it is the Sephora, a ship that will come into heavy play in the arrival of Leggatt and his pursuer, the captain of the Sephora and its crew. The name of the ship could have easily been a throwaway line that never popped up again. Instead the events on the Sephora come to be similar occurrences on our captain’s ship. In our captain’s description of his quarters, he mentions that the bathroom has two entrances, one from his room, and one from the saloon, “but that way was never used” (15). He is proven wrong later when Leggatt is almost caught when hiding in the captain’s bathroom, and the steward put the captain’s coat in there after it had gotten wet. For an entrance that “was never used”, it seems like it might be the easiest path to the bathroom for anyone not already in the captain’s quarters, though the likelihood of anyone besides the captain or a guest of his using it is slim.
Our captain makes many comparisons between himself and Leggatt, but the reader is becomes aware of how often parts of Leggatt’s experiences are congruent with our captain’s as the story goes on. Leggatt’s account of his confrontation with someone under his command is mimicked by our captain and his impudent second mate, but with a less fatal conclusion. The captain of the Sephora tells our captain that Leggatt “wasn’t exactly like the sort for the chief mate” (28). This evaluation of Leggatt’s character seems, along with his other rambles, to have been done in hindsight in the aftermath of the storm. Leggatt being the wrong “sort” for command responsibilities is noted by our captain, who is acknowledges the similarities between himself and Leggatt, concludes to himself that by that definition, he himself would be ill fit for a similar position of authority. The captain’s encounter near the end when they must bring the ship near the island that our captain is marooning Leggatt on, under the guise of finding good winds in an area close to the island, is reflected but is a reversal somewhat. The first mate tells our captain, “I knew it’d end in something like this” (47). It is unlikely that the first mate really “knew” or had any true foreknowledge, but it is a lack of faith in our captain’s capabilities, waiting for disaster. The first mate made the judgment of the captain being the wrong sort, just as Leggatt was judged by the captain of the Sephora, if for different reasons.
We come out of this story sometimes with more questions than answers, and some existential thoughts that the captain imparts on us. Whether it is the question of the existence of Leggatt, or humanity as a whole, this seafaring tale leaves a lasting impression, and showcases Conrad’s extensive naval knowledge. We are also able to experience with a young man his nascent command in which we see him develop from an unsure outcast to a confident commander. The surrealistic reality that is shared by the captain with Leggatt makes for the wonder of our own dualistic natures, and our own capabilities of descending into the darkest parts of ourselves. What is anyone capable of , given the right circumstances? Was Leggatt a device of the captain’s own mental creation to counter his own solitude and let him develop into a more self-assured commander? Or was he there in reality to reflect back what our captain could and must not be? The transition to journey’s end is the conclusion for the reader, but it is only the beginning for our captain.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness ; and the Secret Sharer. New York: Signet Classics, 2008. Print.