What does the captain/narrator in Conrad's "The Secret Sharer" mean when he says this? "They had simply to be equal to their tasks; but I wondered how far I should turn out faithful to that ideal conception of one's own personality every man sets up for himself secretly."

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The themes of confidence and self-doubt within a larger question of identity are central in Joseph Conrad's story. The young captain lacks self-confidence in his leadership abilities and even in his seamanship. His emotional investment in his new role as captain is so strong that it threatens to overwhelm his common sense. The captain's wishes to be a strong leader—not merely to seem like one—are part of his secret. He keeps "secret" within himself this "ideal conception of one's own personality...."

Throughout the story, Conrad builds on this idea of the secret ideal that the captain tries to hold onto "faithfully." He finds it not among any of his crew, an undistinguished lot "simply... equal to their tasks," from whom he distances himself. Rather, this ideal appears in the figure of Leggatt. Seeing him first in the water, thinking him not just dead but headless, the captain quickly perceives him as his "double." As he hears the other's tale, his admiration and dismay grow simultaneously—would he himself ever kill a disobedient man?

Once he decides to release Leggatt, to free himself from that man and his dark secret, his understanding of his role is deepened. He knows that he will be faithful to the best side of the leader personality that he "set up for himself." And in guiding them safely near the shore, he symbolically assumes the heroic savior quality he craved.

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This important quote relates explicitly to the way in which the Captain, who is also the narrator of this brilliant short story, is struggling to define himself and also is desperately eager to prove himself as a Captain and as a leader. Consider the way in which the Captain appears to be overwhelmed by the many duties that come with his role. In the quote you have identified, the Captain draws a comparison between himself and his sailors, who have to be "equal to their tasks" and no more, and himself, and in particular to the "ideal conception" that he has of who he is and the set of expectations he has placed on himself. Of course, the story, and in particular the friendship that the Captain strikes up with Leggatt, who functions as a double of the Captain, explores how the Captain manages to come to terms with his natural aggressiveness and how he manages to cope with the expectations he places on himself and the reality of who he is.

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