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 series of actions, in order to offer Leggatt the punishment of exile rather than of hanging. The captain has earned the right to make this difficult decision through full acceptance of responsibility for it: He thus claims for himself the unique privileges as well as the great burdens of command.
The tale celebrates the coming of age of a young man at his first command. It also tacitly posits an aristocratic code of behavior for the young captain, which repudiates the apparent democratic brotherhood of all naval officers. The tale maintains that the greatest commanders must be judged by different standards than those used for other officers, that such leaders are entitled to take greater risks because they are able to make finer choices.