Commentary by Karen Bernardo
In Joseph Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer,” the protagonist, a sea captain who is never named, aids a stowaway on his ship who is being sought for the murder of a seaman on a neighboring vessel. We only get the story through the captain’s eyes, so we have no real way of knowing what the stowaway, Leggatt, is really like—whether he is really a hardworking, competent seaman or not; whether he was really justified in killing the sailor or not. All we know is that the captain, who from the moment they meet feels a deep kinship with the man he calls his “double”, repeatedly makes excuses for the stowaway’s behavior in his narrative to us, hides the stowaway from the rest of the crew, and toward the end of the story gives the stowaway the hat off his own head, which figures prominently in the story’s climax a few pages later. This hat, in fact, goes far toward explaining not only the relationship of the captain to his strange passenger, but the role of both men in the story as a whole.
One of the story’s most intriguing aspects is this immediate sense of “recognition” which the captain feels for Leggatt, and the tenacious way that it affects his behavior from then on. Conrad does provide some background for this. We learn that the captain has been hired to commandeer this vessel very suddenly, and that his appointment was as much of a shock to him as it was to the men. He had never been on board this ship before; he had never met the seamen or the mates who were to serve beneath him. He is also extremely young; he mentions that the second mate is the only person on board younger than he.
The captain, therefore, clearly feels insecure about his new post. He also feels alien; neither of his mates are individuals he can take to easily, and the rest of the seamen are too far below him on the chain of command. He thinks the first mate—to whom he typically refers by the man’s favorite expression, “Bless my soul, sir! You don’t say so!” —is a blithering idiot; his second mate sneers at him. The attitude of the second mate is undoubtedly encouraged by the awkwardness of the captain himself; he observes midway through despite the fact they have been at sea a fortnight, he hasn’t issued a single order.
When, in the middle of the night, he hauls Leggatt on board, the captain is astonished that despite his long stint in the water, his “voice was calm and resolute,,,, The self-possession of that man had somehow induced a corresponding state in myself.” Leggatt tells his story: during a terrible storm, the captain of his own vessel, the Sephora, was too frightened to set the sail, so Leggatt took over the captain’s responsibilities and did it for him. A minor seaman refused to recognize his authority to take over in that manner, and Leggatt decked him. When the sailor leaped up to fight back, however, Leggatt throttled him to death. Since then Leggatt has been under house arrest for murder, pending trial when they reach port.
Our narrator is deeply moved. It would seem that by rights he should have sided with the frightened sea-captain who was too terrified to risk setting the sail, because up till now that would have been his response to a crisis as well. But instead he champions Leggatt. It is as if he instinctively realizes that Leggatt is precisely the type of man he wishes he could be: a born leader, a decisive man who does not hesitate to take matters into his own hands. He makes the decision then and there to ensure that nothing happens to Leggatt until he can get him to safety.
Notice, however, what has just happened. We know that the young captain is very insecure about making decisions of any kind, yet he has just made a really big one. As the story develops, he will have to risk much in order to keep his vow. Nonetheless, when he is with Leggatt, or acting on behalf of Leggatt, the captain feels calm and in control of himself.
Considering some of the predicaments the captain gets into in his efforts to keep Leggatt’s existence a secret, the fact that he feels in control now—and didn’t before—is rather remarkable. Prior to Leggatt’s arrival, the rest of the ship simply seemed to think that the young captain was ineffectual and wimpy. After Leggatt arrives, they conclude he’s crazy. In one incident, Leggatt is sleeping in the captain’s bunk, enclosed by the bedcurtains, when the steward knocks perfunctorily and comes into the room. Startled lest the steward fling aside the bedcurtains and find Leggatt, the captain shouts “This way! Here I am, steward!” — thereby misdirecting the steward’s attention from the bed to the couch. The steward, however, has no idea why the captain suddenly shouted at him, since he had never supposed him to be anywhere else.
In another incident, he tells the second mate to go down immediately and open the quarter-deck ports. There is no particular reason for these to be opened—at least from the mate’s point of view; we know, of course, that Leggatt will be escaping through the open portholes, but the second mate just thinks the captain is crazy. Nonetheless, rather than accept the man’s impudence, the captain says curtly, “The only reason you need concern yourself about is because I tell you to do so. Have them open wide and fastened properly.” He is at last taking command of his ship and his men.
But the incident in which his new-found leadership mettle as a sea captain comes through most clearly concerns the actual escape of Leggatt. The captain has arranged to veer dangerously close to the land in the middle of the night, in order that Leggatt might climb out the quarter-deck ports, drop down into the water, and swim ashore without being observed. On the surface this seems like a ridiculous thing for the captain to do. To begin with, Leggatt is a championship swimmer, who had to swim at least two miles to get from the Sephora to the vessel where he was picked up. He surely could swim that distance again; it would seem that the captain didn’t have to put his ship, his men, and his own reputation as a captain on the line just to get Leggatt within distance of shore.
On the other hand, maybe he did. At the beginning of the tale, his men think he is a pushover, just some figurehead who has been put in charge of the ship long enough to get them back to port, whereupon they will probably get a real captain. This is even before the subterfuge surrounding the hiding of Leggatt causes the crew to conclude their captain is crazy. At that point one would expect the relationship between captain and crew to deteriorate even further—but it does not.
After Leggatt comes aboard, the captain is forced to assert himself with the men in order to protect his “secret sharer” —and this makes him more like a real captain than he had ever been before. The calm poise of Leggatt, his ingenuity, his decisiveness, breed similar qualities in the captain. The captain also develops some qualities Leggatt didn’t even have—compassion, for example, as when he gives Leggatt his floppy old hat to take on his journey to protect his head from the sun.
This hat also comes into play in the plot in another effective way. As the captain steers the ship into dangerously shallow waters, thus allowing Leggatt an opportunity to slip overboard and make it to shore, he realizes that in the complete darkness he has no directional points to guide him; he cannot even tell which way the ship is gliding in the water. He suddenly looks down and sees Leggatt’s hat, which has fallen off and is now floating along in the current; this shows the captain which way the ship is going, and allows him to swing the stern around to prevent it from running aground. Earlier in the story the floppiness of the hat represented the spinelessness of the captain, which is one reason he gives it away when he is no longer “floppy” —but after the hat has fallen into the water it represents Leggatt himself, because he has served as the directional marker by which the captain charts his course.
As the end of the story shows, the captain had to make that risky flirtation with disaster along the coastline, because it showed the crew his seafaring prowess once and for all. Leggatt’s problems on the Sephora arose because he didn’t have the crew’s respect, and although he felt well within his rights to attack the insolent seaman in a time of crisis, this still did not procure the crew’s respect—in fact, quite the contrary. In the case of the narrator, however, he does not have to seize someone else’s authority and kill to maintain it; he simply has to seize the authority that was his for the taking all the time.
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