Initiation and Self-Definition
The captain in “The Secret Sharer’ undergoes a process of initiation and self-definition. When confronted with the duties and responsibilities of a captain, he is not only overwhelmed but also impressed with all the responsibilities that he has taken on. He is constantly looking for reassurance from his crew that he is doing fine. He learns from Leggatt that in order to be a good leader he has to be more aggressive, more intuitive and more direct. Conrad’s captain is exploring various ways is which to define himself; he must come to terms with his aggressiveness or else risks falling into insanity.
The captain and Leggatt act as mirror images of each other, or as each others doppelgangers, as “the other” is sometimes called in literature. They both have titles that command respect, they both are young, and they both are from the same background. According to Lionel Trilling, “the two young men are virtually the same person”. When these characters first meet, the captain says, “He appealed to me as if our experiences had been as identical as our clothes”. Leggatt can be seen as one side of the captain’s identity—aggressive and dangerous. Conrad uses this mirror-image to explore different sides of the captain’s identity.
The captain and Leggatt have a symbiotic relationship. That is, each is quite different from the other, but they have a mutually beneficial relationship. Leggatt receives from the captain shelter and refuge from those chasing him. The captain even helps him escape. Through Leggatt, the captain gains insight and knowledge. Leggatt acts as the captain’s double, allowing him to explore darker facets of his own identity. For Leggatt, this relationship is more practical; the captain helps him to evade capture. For the captain, the value of the symbiotic relationship is less tangible; it is an opportunity for self-exploration.
Kathleen Wilson (Editor), Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 1, Joseph Conrad, Published by Gale, 1997.