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Free Barron's Booknotes-The Secret Sharer by Joseph Conrad-Free Summary
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THE CHARACTERS

THE CAPTAIN-NARRATOR

The young captain who tells the story is the embodiment of self-doubt. His lack of resoluteness is a serious shortcoming in a ship's commanding officer, and he's aware of it. This may be the reason he grows so quickly attached to Leggatt: Leggatt knows his own mind and is utterly resolute. But in deciding to hide Leggatt, the captain puts himself in a situation that almost drives him over the edge into insanity.

Because he's young and unsure of himself and on his first command and a stranger to the ship, the captain is overly concerned about the opinions of his crew members-he worries so much about what they'll think of him that he almost freezes up. But at the same time he believes firmly in the principle of hierarchy: his word is law, and not to be questioned. When he starts giving senseless and, ultimately, dangerous commands in order to protect Leggatt, he puts his crew to a difficult test: how obedient should you be to a captain who seems determined to sink the ship? The special irony here is that after wanting his crew's good opinion so much, the steps he takes to protect Leggatt make him look like he's going out of his way to lose it.

But though he's not completely admirable, he's a sympathetic figure-partly because the story is told from his point of view. He's far more intelligent than the rest of the crew or Captain Archbold, and as a result he's contemptuous of them in a way that's amusing to read about but would be less amusing if you were a crew member. (Probably we can catch a glimpse here of Conrad the Polish aristocrat surrounded by the boorish sailors of the British merchant marine.)


Nevertheless, in tough situations the captain handles himself, and his ship, like an expert. And he knows how to handle other sailors, too, for example, the rough-mannered Captain Archbold (whom he unnerves with politeness) and the insolent second mate (whom he sharply rebukes). In the final scene, he shows terrific competence by maneuvering his ship out of danger (even though he got it into danger in the first place). It seems clear at the end of the story that he'll make a fine and capable captain.

LEGGATT

Unlike the captain, Leggatt is a fully self-possessed young man. He knows his own mind and he knows how to take bold and courageous action-as he does during the storm on the Sephora, when he takes matters into his own hands and sets the sail that saves the ship. And he's straightforward about himself: he doesn't try to excuse or soften the impact of his crime (the murder of a mutinous sailor) when he tells the captain about it. (The captain does the excusing for him.) But he has a clear conscience and he's eager to escape. He accepts the captain's help without questioning it or feeling guilty about the nightmare he puts the captain through as a result. He doesn't suffer, as the captain does, from looking at things too deeply.

If anything, Leggatt is too impulsive. We can admire the directness with which, during an emergency, he knocked down an insolent sailor who was endangering the lives of the crew. But strangling the man to death is a different matter. Since we see Leggatt only through the captain's eyes, though, it's difficult to get a clear picture of him. We may get a sense that the captain is willing to excuse too much in him, but we can also sympathize with the isolation of this hero-criminal from the rest of his crew, and be moved when he tells the captain how much his understanding has meant to him.

Leggatt's personality is convincingly drawn. But what does Leggatt mean? The more than fifty references to doubling, the notion that Leggatt is somehow a part of the captain-narrator's self, have tantalized readers ever since the story was first published. Some readers think that Leggatt is the captain's moral conscience; others, that he represents the unconscious impulses below the surface of the captain's mind. Some argue that he symbolizes the criminal side of the captain, the vicious impulses he has to master and dominate; others insist that he stands for the captain's ideal image of himself. And some exasperated readers have decided that all this symbolism is no more than an intellectual tease.

According to them, you should enjoy "The Secret Sharer" as the fine adventure it is, and not worry yourself with digging for hidden meanings. You'll have to decide for yourself what you think Leggatt stands for-or if he stands for anything. Whatever meaning Conrad had in mind, he didn't provide us with enough evidence to produce a firm and final interpretation.

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