The captain has held his first command for only two weeks. His responsibility is imposing: to sail his ship from Southeast Asia to Europe. Except for the second mate, he is the youngest man on board. Moreover, he does not know his crew members, who have served together for eighteen months.
The chief mate seems to question even the captain’s simplest observations; the second mate, so the captain believes, is often implicitly contemptuous of his new master. In short, the captain is insecure and believes that his crew is repeatedly testing his judgment.
Partly to gain his crew’s support, the captain dismisses his men and assumes the night watch himself. He thus takes on the job of common seaman, with which he feels more at ease. During his solitary patrol of the deck, he discovers a rope ladder carelessly left dangling over the side and at its end a sailor who has escaped from another ship.
Leggatt, nearly drowned in his escape, tells the captain that he had strangled a sailor who refused to obey his orders, and the captain immediately recognizes the similarity of their situations. He gives Leggatt a sleeping suit identical to his own, hides him in his own cabin, and plans his escape to shore, all without the knowledge of his crew.
Conrad describes what Sigmund Freud had called the encounter of the ego and id, the outer and inner self. The insecure captain’s decision to help is an act of courage which fills him with new-found assurance.