Characterization in the story is spare but profoundly suggestive. Leggatt remains a cipher, of course, befitting his status as the captain’s other self; we do not get a clear look at him, knowing only that physically, as the captain relates, “he was not a bit like me.” The only other detail of his life is his twice repeated statement that his father is a parson. Of the captain we also know very little: he is young, he has served on a naval training vessel, this is his first command. The minor characters are brilliantly sketched: the first mate with his homely expressions and bristly red beard, the sneering and diffident second mate, the jittery, suspicious steward, and the teetotaler captain of the Sephora.
Motivation is the chief problem area here, insofar as the captain is concerned. He does not hesitate to believe Leggatt’s story and puts himself in considerable jeopardy in hiding him and aiding him to escape. The only answer for his actions must lie in the alienation he shares with Leggatt. Just as Leggatt’s crew has turned against him, the captain feels similarly at odds with his own men.
Conrad’s plot unfolds in a deliberate manner, with a pace appropriate to the becalmed cargo ship that is its setting. Considerable suspense is generated throughout but especially at the climax of the story as the captain brings the ship perilously close to disaster in order to allow Leggatt to escape. During the exposition, the captain has already explained his internal conflict, his newness to the ship and his uncertainties about his first command; the complication occurs when he discovers Leggatt clinging to the ship’s ladder. The rising action of the story mainly concerns the series of close calls that narrowly avoid disclosing Leggatt’s presence to the crew. The visit of the captain of the Sephora adds further suspense that builds to the climactic hour of Leggatt’s escape. The fortunate accident of the captain’s hat, which Leggatt has lost while swimming away, allows the captain to change the ship’s tack in the nick of time. As far as Leggatt is concerned, the incident’s final outcome remains unknown, for he vanishes with only the captain’s best wishes for his success. The captain, however, is telling the story in the past tense at the remove of many years, indicating that his own career in command eventually proved successful.