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Leggatt As An Independent Character In Joseph Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer” Essay, Research Paper
Leggatt as an Independent Character in Joseph Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer”
This essay examines Leggatt as an independent person, rather than as a
symbol connected to the captain-narrator, a view shared by many critics.
Leggatt is not a negative influence on the captain per se. From an objective
point of view, it can be seen that Leggatt’s portrayal depends entirely on how
the captain (as narrator) perceives him, and that he deserves to be treated as
the individual being that he is.
Many of Conrad’s critics, most notably Albert J. Guerard , Robert W.
Stallmann , have taken the view that Leggatt, of the novella “The Secret
Sharer,” is either some sort of symbol of the captain’s dark side, a kind of
role model for the captain, or that he is part of the captain. In this essay I
will first examine the captain’s portrayal of Leggatt, then argue that Leggatt
is none of these, rather, he is a complete person in and of himself, and not
simply part of the captain’s personality deficiencies.
At first glance it would seem that Leggatt is either the antagonist or
provides a criminal influence on the captain. By no means are Leggatt’s
decisions and actions exemplary. Murdering mutinous crew members is hardly an
acceptable practice, and avoiding justice, and one’s punishment?all of which
Leggatt do?only worsen the issue. The captain claims that in swimming to the
island Koh-ring, his double had “lowered himself into the water to take his
punishment” (Conrad 193). However, as Cedric Watts argues, this is only true
because Leggatt, by escaping justice, will face an uncertain future marooned on
an island (134). In reality, Leggatt is doing the opposite; he is lowering
himself into the water to escape from the law, for it is unlikely that he would
get off scot-free in court. The captain describes Koh-ring as “a towering black
mass like the very gateway of Erebus,” (Conrad 193) Erebus being the cavern
through which the souls of the dead entered Hades’ world (Watts 134).
Leggatt and the captain discover soon after they first meet that they
are both “Conway boys,” that is, as cadets, they served as crew on the training-
ship the Conway, which is moored in the Mersey at Liverpool (Conrad 146). In
this novel, the Conway serves as “a universal letter of credit” (Burgess 115).
Leggatt and the captain’s bond becomes stronger once they learn that they share
a common training background.
Conway boys are taught the importance of fierce loyalty toward one’s
ship (Batchelor 187). Leggatt demonstrates his loyalty by risking his life in
order to save his ship, the Sephora, from sinking by setting the foresail.
Ironically, the captain’s loyalties lie with Leggatt, rather than his ship, as
he risks his ship and crew to ensure Leggatt’s safe marooning at Koh-ring. The
fact that the captain is so ready to ally himself with Leggatt indicates that
perhaps the captain is not as qualified for his command as he should be.
Further, this observation introduces the captain as untrustworthy; his judgment
must be flawed if his primary allegiance is for Leggatt, rather than the ship
entrusted to his command. This flawed judgment extends to the captain’s
perception of, and subsequent portrayal of Leggatt, as we shall see.
Nevertheless, many critics claim that, although Leggatt may not be a
symbol of the dark side of the captain, he is a criminal influence for the
captain. The basis for the main argument for Leggatt as a criminal influence is
that he brings about situations in which the captain risks his career, crew,
ship, and life. However, Leggatt is not responsible for the captain’s behavior.
During the course of the novella, the captain always retains the power to choose
his actions and to make his own decisions. The dark characterization of Leggatt
comes from the captain’s perspective and portrayal of Leggatt.
The captain is an alienated man. At the very beginning of the novel, he
comments a few times that he is the only stranger on board his ship: “…my
position was that of the only stranger on board….But what I felt most was my
being a stranger to the ship, and if all the truth must be told, I was somewhat
of a stranger to myself” (Conrad 137-138). At this point in the story, the
reader first recognizes that the captain as unsteady in his new command, but as
having good intentions. He keeps anchor watch one night, to the astonishment of
his crew, as a gesture of benevolence (Conrad 139). However, this attempt
toward friendliness serves to alienate the captain even further since his crew
is so taken aback by his actions. The captain needs to show leadership in order
to gain respect from and get to know his crew. However, the captain is so
inexperienced that he does not really have a conception of himself as the
commander of a sailing vessel. He needs someone to confide in, but this
confidante cannot be a crew member since they all know each other, having had
worked with one another for some time. This person must be equally a stranger
to the ship and its crew. That is why, when Leggatt is introduced, the captain
almost immediately treats him as though he were some sort of a surprise guest,
rather than a fugitive.
The captain hides Leggatt in his personal quarters, and they spend as
much time as possible whispering together about Leggatt’s crime, the situation
on board the ship, and any other pressing information that must be discussed.
The captain sneaks in food for Leggatt, and visits him at every opportunity.
The captain expends so much energy in caring for his guest that he further
alienates himself from the crew and the ship. He avoids the steward, and sends
him on inane errands in order to get him away from his quarters lest he discover
Leggatt. The crew thus perceives the captain as strange and unpredictable.
Further, the captain endangers his career, and ultimately, his ship and his crew,
in order to ensure Leggatt’s safe marooning. Watt points out “Indeed, one of
the most enigmatic features of the tale is that the narrator never seems to
appreciate the moral enormity of his own readiness to help a felon elude
What makes things worse for the captain is that his desire to sate his
loneliness transcends his judgment. While he is hiding Leggatt, he puts himself
under an enormous amount of stress. He tells the reader how unbearable it is to
be separated from his double. The captain needs to have Leggatt in his quarters
to make him feel less alienated from others, but at the same time, he cannot
deal with the strain of hiding a fugitive. This causes him to falter, and
consequently, makes him appear as though Leggatt’s criminal side is influencing
the captain for the worse.
Further, according to Graver, the captain uses phrases like “double,”
“other self,” and “secret sharer” to identify himself with Leggatt nearly forty
times during the course of the novella (152). This tremendous repetition is
even more amazing when it is considered that, beyond their superficial
similarities?they are both Conway boys, wearing the same pajamas?the two men are
not very much alike at all. In fact, the captain never bothers to explore any
deeper connections between the two. This adds support to the assertion that the
captain feels a need for a confidante; he draws on non-existent superficial
similarities in order to draw himself closer to Leggatt.
Leggatt is not an evil man, nor does he exert a criminal influence on
the captain. On the other hand, Leggatt is a role model for the captain in some
ways. He brings out a kind of inner strength in the captain on at least two
occasions. When they first meet, the captain says to the reader, “[Leggatt's]
voice was calm and resolute. A good voice. The self-possession of that man had
somehow induced a corresponding state in myself” (Conrad 144). This soothing
effect is what allows the two men to continue to develop their close bond. The
captain makes use of this effect later, when Captain Archbold is aboard. The
captain almost toys with him, pretending he is hard of hearing. He asks
Archbold to speak up; this way, Leggatt, hidden a few feet away, can listen to
the conversation. The captain then happily leads Captain Archbold on a vain
search of his ship. At other times, the captain is so fearful of Leggatt’s
being discovered that he nearly passes out from sheer terror. One such incident
occurs when the steward hangs the captain’s coat to dry in his bathroom, where
Leggatt is hiding. “My nerves were so shaken that I could not govern my voice
and conceal my agitation…I expected to hear a yell of surprise and terror, and
made a movement, but had not the strength to get on my legs…My head swam…”
(Conrad 176-177). If anything, this is more like the reaction one would expect
from a young inexperienced captain on his maiden voyage, upon seeing a stranger
hanging from his ship’s ladder, rather than the captain’s calm, hushed
whispering. Leggatt inspires the calm, collected mood in the captain, a tool he
will need to gain confidence in his captaincy, as he does at the end of the
Further arguments supporting Leggatt as a benevolent character can be
found in examining one of Conrad’s sources for his novella. Conrad based “The
Secret Sharer,” on the events of another ship, the Cutty Sark, a famous tea
clipper. In 1880, the chief mate of the Cutty Sark, Sydney Smith (Batchelor
names John Anderson 188), killed a disobedient and lazy crew member, John
Francis, by hitting him on the head with a capstan bar, after Francis refused to
carry out some particular order of Smith’s (Karl 203). The skipper of the
Cutty Sark helped Smith to escape, but later committed suicide. Smith was
eventually arrested in London and convicted of manslaughter.
Conrad purposefully lessened the severity of Leggatt’s crime compared to
Smith’s by making the situation much more stressful than that of the Cutty Sark.
Leggatt’s ship, the Sephora, was in such violent waters as Captain Archbold had
not seen in his seventy-three years of sailing. The Sephora’s sinking was
thought to be imminent, and the crew was in panic. In the midst of this chaos,
Leggatt managed to set the reefed foresail, which saved the ship and its crew.
However, in setting the foresail, a mate helping Leggatt refused to follow
orders, and Leggatt, exasperated by the storm and by facing death, “felled him
like an ox” (Conrad147). The mate got up, wanting to fight, but Leggatt
grabbed a hold of his neck and did not let go until he was dead, while the storm
tossed the pair around the deck of the ship.
Later, while Captain Archbold is on the captain’s ship, he concedes that
it was the foresail that prevented the Sephora’s sinking. He claims that the
sea was so violent that, although he knew the foresail should be set, he was too
afraid to give the order. Archbold goes on to reason that it must have been
divine intervention which saved his ship, and retreats to a blind, unthinking
reliance on God. After Archbold disembarks, the captain returns to his quarters
and asks Leggatt if he had heard that conversation. Leggatt replies:
The man told you he hardly dared to give the order…I
assure you he never gave the order. He stood there with
me on the deck of the poop after the main topsail blew
away, and whimpered about our last hope–[it] was enough
to drive any fellow out of his mind. It worked me up into a
sort of desperation. I just took it in my own hands…It
wasn’t a heavy sea–it was a sea gone mad! (Conrad 171-172)
Although the consideration of all of the external pressures surrounding
Leggatt’s crime do not make his behavior acceptable, it does make it more
understandable. The reader gets the feeling that, given the right circumstances,
the same thing could happen to anybody under pressure…especially the captain.
Graver agrees that “Conrad recast the Cutty Sark source material to make Leggatt
seem more agreeable; if he had wished to create a character in some ways
disreputable, he need not have made any changes at all” (150).
Leggatt is not a psychopath who wanders about strangling people. The
captain says, “And I knew well enough also that my double was no homicidal
ruffian” (Conrad 147). In all other respects he seems to be a strong,
intelligent, well-mannered sailor. Conrad himself was “simply knocked over”
when he read a review calling Leggatt “a murderous ruffian.” (qtd. in Baines
Leggatt is neither evil nor good, but somewhere in between, as most
people are. He is not a symbol for some aspect of the captain, but a whole
person whose existence does not depend on the captain’s. The contrary view,
that Leggatt is somehow a part of the captain, a doppelganger or some such
double, stems from the captain’s flawed and biased portrayal of him. Nor is
Leggatt necessarily a good influence, as can be seen by examining the historical
basis for the story. He is merely a person, independent and as free as he can
be while fleeing from the law.
Baines, Jocelyn. Joseph Conrad: A Critical Biography. London: Weidenfeld and
Batchelor, John. The Life of Joseph Conrad: A Critical Biography. Oxford:
Blackwell Publishers, 1994.
Burgess, Chester Francis. The Fellowship of the Craft: Conrad on Ships and
Seamen and the Sea. New York: National University Publications, 1976.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer. New York: Bantam
Graver, Lawrence. Conrad’s Short Fiction. Berkeley: University of California
Karl, Frederick Robert. Joseph Conrad: The Three Lives. New York: Farrar,
Straus, and Giroux, 1979.
Watts, Cedric. A Preface to Conrad. 2nd ed. New York: Longman Publishing,
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