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Free Barron's Booknotes-The Secret Sharer by Joseph Conrad-Free Summary
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Leggatt goes on with the story of his imprisonment and escape. For the trembling captain of the Sephora he has nothing but disdain: "Devil only knows what the skipper wasn't afraid of (all his nerve went to pieces altogether in that hellish spell of bad weather we had)." (We'll meet the skipper of the Sephora in the next chapter, so we'll be able to judge whether this description is likely.) He felt essentially innocent-under the circumstances, but not in the eyes of the law. The captain wouldn't agree to let him escape, but he seized the opportunity when it presented itself, and swam that very evening from the Sephora to the young captain's ship. He's certain that a search party from the Sephora will show up tomorrow.

As Leggatt talks, the captain-narrator again expresses his self-doubt and his admiration for Leggatt when he imagines Leggatt planning out an escape: "a stubborn if not steadfast operation; something of which I should have been perfectly incapable." Though Leggatt isn't expecting the circumstances that allow him to escape (the steward accidentally leaves his door unlocked after delivering dinner), once he has the idea he's in the water without a second thought, swimming as hard as he can even though he doesn't know where. Only later does he spot the captain's ship. The ladder hanging overboard is just a lucky accident (and it won't be the last one in the story).

We also see that Leggatt is a man with a capacity for violence, a man who certainly could commit a murder. He twice says that he didn't want to make an imperfect escape because if the crew had come after him, "somebody would have got killed for certain"; he admits he would have fought off anybody who laid a hand on him, "like a wild beast." But the captain pays little attention to this side of his character. He's immediately convinced (almost before hearing the story) that Leggatt acted justifiably, if not legally, and he's willing to endanger his own position in order to protect him.

Just as the captain's attraction to Leggatt is understandable, so is Leggatt's to the captain: he's provided him with an almost miraculous escape. But it's more than that. Leggatt says that his imprisonment aboard the Sephora was "a confounded lonely time"; and when the captain had spotted him in the water, he says, rather than being frightened, "I-I liked it." Leggatt is even more isolated from his shipmates than the captain feels from his own. Though one is an outlaw and the other a stranger, both feel threatened by their own communities; they feel an immediate kinship.

It's quite late by now, and Leggatt is exhausted. The captain puts him to bed and he falls asleep at once.


Leggatt's tale is based on an actual event, though not one that Conrad was involved in; he knew of it through hearsay and newspaper accounts (it was widely reported). In 1880, the chief mate of the Cutty Sark got into an argument with one of the seamen, who threatened the mate with a heavy bar. The mate wrested the bar from the seaman and knocked him unconscious with it; three days later the seaman died. The mate escaped (with the help of the skipper), but he was eventually captured, tried, and sentenced to seven years for manslaughter.

Leggatt, of course, is a flesh-and-blood character in the story; but there are indications that Conrad regarded him as a representative, in some sense, of part of the narrator's consciousness. (He considered naming the story "The Secret Self," "The Second Self," or "The Other Self.") For example, Leggatt shows up at night, he appears to rise from the depths of the sea, and he wears the captain's sleeping suit-all symbols associated with dreams and the unconscious. And it's abundantly clear, from the more than 50 references that link the two of them, that Conrad was fascinated (he seems almost obsessed) with the theme. But what, then, does Leggatt represent? There have been almost as many answers to that question as there have been readers of the story. Some readers think that Leggatt represents the captain's better side, his ideal self; others are sure that he stands for the criminally impulsive side of himself that the captain has to master. And some readers think that as a symbol Leggatt has been overinterpreted; they argue that the story should be enjoyed as a fine adventure but not much beyond that. Ultimately, you'll have to decide for yourself what Leggatt is supposed to mean (or what he means to you). Conrad constructed a tantalizing puzzle, but he neglected to give us the key.

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