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In The Secret Sharer, Conrad presents a conflict between official society and outlaw culture. The official society represented by government officers and those authorized to enforce law has been appearing in the background of several of Conrad's stories preceding The Secret Sharer (1909). In The Secret Sharer, however, the official society and its opposite, the outlaw, take the foreground. Conrad's earlier stories have dealt with outcasts in conflict with orthodox groups. The aforesaid is natural because the government is the ruling authority and the deviant individual or the outcast is the outlaw. However, the unnamed Captain in The Secret Sharer chooses to conceal a murderer from his pursuers and assists him to escape from the legal authorities. Therefore, although he is meant to uphold the law, he goes against it because of the strong bond he feels with Leggatt and his subjective evaluation of whether Leggatt has committed a crime or not.
The young Captain meets Leggatt for the first time during his first night as Captain: He is in a vulnerable situation as a new captain who needs to prove his leadership qualities and feels diffident and uncomfortable with his new duties. Therefore, he is performing the duties of a watchman whom he has sent to bed. He wants to spend the night in solitude and contemplation on the deck of the ship of which he is now the master. The ship is anchored outside a harbor near Java and is ready to sail on the following day. This is when he meets Leggatt who changes his life forever by revealing to him characteristics that he must acquire in order to become an efficient captain.
After the Captain's interaction with Leggatt, he is a changed man. He is confident and his feelings of inadequacy have vanished. The Captain represents the official group, and Leggatt stands for the deviating individual. By protecting him from other members of his group, Conrad here takes Leggatt's sin on his own shoulders and thereby admits not only his own moral complicity but that of society's as well.
The Secret Sharer reveals a journey motif and a deliberate descent into the unconscious mind, according to Albert J. Guerard. It may be seen as a risky descent into the preconscious or the unconscious, a restorative descent into the primitive sources of being. The Secret Sharer represents this kind of a night journey. Leggatt represents the Captain's personality at a repressed and unacknowledged level. It must be kept hidden from the world but discovered by him, if psychic integration is to be achieved. Through his interaction with Leggatt, the Captain is transformed from an irresolute ineffective captain to one who can handle dangerous situations and take command.
One of the minor Themes in The Secret Sharer is that of the necessity for self-knowledge in order to be a fully integrated and productive person. The Captain has the recognizable qualities of Conrad's isolated individuals who are seeking to understand themselves and feel at odds with the world around them. The Captain must demonstrate responsibility when faced with a challenge. He is a stranger to his ship as well as himself. He is insecure and inexperienced, but he is also a realist who rises to the occasion and plays his part in an exemplary manner when the challenge comes. Self-knowledge is as much a key to survival as is artistic creation. Coming to self-knowledge is one of the chief ingredients in this novel. The Captain is courageous enough to act on his problem once he has intuitively formulated its substance.