Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
This story, like many of Joseph Conrad’s tales, subjects a young, untested man to the rigors and responsibilities of leadership. Through a crisis, which tests him to the limit, he learns who he is and what he is capable of doing. Some men, such as Jim in Lord Jim (1900), fail this test, despite great promise and public favor. Others, such as the young captain of “The Secret Sharer,” arouse the suspicion and criticism of others, yet, by taking full responsibility for their actions, they rise to the demands of their office and prove themselves fit adversaries of the sea, which relentlessly waits to claim them.
What distinguishes the young captain from Jim is his ability to recognize and accept the darker possibilities within his own soul, possibilities that he embraces in his admission of kinship with Leggatt. He understands that he, like Leggatt, is capable of murder. Were he in similar circumstances to those Leggatt described, burdened with a good-for-nothing sailor, hampering him from performing the one action that could save the ship in a gale, he, too, might have killed the man.
Recognizing as well that the murderer must be punished, he knows that he would demand, like Leggatt, to find punishment at the hands of his peer or peers—not a land-bound jury of tradesmen but a wellborn sailor like himself, who shares his background, education, and values. Thus, the captain willingly risks his ship and his men, in a questionable...
(The entire section is 368 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of The Secret Sharer Themes. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
The principal theme of the story is the rite of passage, the captain's initiation into his new responsibility of command so that instead of perceiving himself an alien on his ship he can finally achieve the "perfect communion of a seaman with his first command." The captain reaches this communion in part by harboring Leggatt and sharing his first apprehensive hours of command with him and in part by risking the ship among the reefs and shoals to bring Leggatt close enough to the land so that he can strike out for a new destiny. His communion with the ship is mediated by Leggatt, shared by him for a time; and this sharing of danger is a common bond that unites them and that strengthens the captain once Leggatt has departed.
(The entire section is 131 words.)
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 in which to define himself; he must come to terms with his aggressiveness or else risk 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...
(The entire section is 312 words.)