The Captain, the narrator and protagonist of the story, a young man who is beginning his first command. The nameless young Captain not only feels like a stranger to his ship but also feels like a stranger to himself. Being the youngest man on board, with the exception of the second mate, he doubts his abilities, and he wonders if on this first voyage he will turn out to be faithful to his own ideal conception of his personality, something that he believes all men secretly set up for themselves. His first real challenge comes with the arrival of the escaped murderer, Leggatt. He believes Leggatt’s story of a justified and accidental killing and makes every effort to conceal him from the rest of the crew, even though this leads his men to suspect his abilities even more than they might have ordinarily. At the end of the story, he ignores the warnings of his chief mate and takes the ship dangerously close to shore to allow Leggatt to escape. Through his concealment of Leggatt, he gains the authority and confidence necessary for command.
Leggatt, the chief mate of the Sephora, who has killed a man aboard his own ship and has swum to the young Captain’s ship to escape being taken back home to face trial. The character of Leggatt is not as clear-cut as those of the other characters in the story. For one thing, the only person who sees him in the story...
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Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
This story shows Conrad’s finest use of the doppelganger, or double, a symbolic figure who serves to show the true character of the protagonist by exhibiting the darker, more unsavory sides of his nature. Thus, Leggatt, who shares the middle-class background, naval training, morals, and assumptions of the young captain, forces the captain to admit that he, too, is a potential murderer and therefore less than the perfect hero that he originally hoped to be. In other words, Leggatt and the captain are alter egos, dark and light sides of the one self. In fact, the impression that the two of them together form a single complete person, both good and evil, is reinforced by the fact that only one of them has a name.
Conrad’s style is also very rich in pictorial description. He masterfully uses setting to suggest the possibilities and meanings of human action: Thus, the water, like the green young captain, at the beginning of the story is remarkably calm. Similarly, the life-threatening gale during which Leggatt commits the murder suggests the psychological and moral turbulence of that episode in his life.
In addition, Conrad’s narration emphasizes the larger moral and social issues that give dimension to what otherwise would be merely a fine tale of adventure and suspense. Accordingly, as the protagonist is assured of Leggatt’s successful escape, he expresses satisfaction that “the secret sharer of my cabin and of my thoughts, as though he were my second self, had lowered himself into the water to take his punishment: a free man, a proud swimmer striking out for a new destiny.”
Finally, Conrad suggests to the reader the magnitude and the justice of the young captain’s decision by having him narrate this tale of his youth at a much later period of his life. Thus, his story gains distance and dimension.