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 justice" (134).
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 novella.
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 358)
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 Nicolson, 1959.
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 Books, 1981.
Graver, Lawrence. Conrad's Short Fiction. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969.
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, 1993.