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The unnamed Captain of the unnamed ship is the protagonist of the story. Appointed as captain only two weeks previously, he feels like a stranger to the men on board, to the vessel herself and to himself. His weakness lies in his self-doubt. He is not sure that he will be faithful to the ideal conception of his own personality, which every man sets up for himself secretly.
The "unheard-of-Caprice" within the Captain is his real antagonist. He has not yet faced any great challenges that will test his leadership. Leggatt's appearance is the catalyst for change in the Captain's life. He appears as his "double" in every respect yet represents a darker side of character that everyone must face in order to have a secure sense of self. Leggatt is real and yet not real. Their time together is ephemeral yet long-lasting. The effect he has on the Captain is enough to make him tell this tale as well as effect change in his life. He emerges as a more confident and capable after he becomes free from Leggatt.
The climax is reached when Leggatt finally manages to slip away into the sea with the help of the Captain. It is the culmination of all the efforts the Captain has made to save Leggatt that result in his biggest challenge: how to save the ship while letting Leggatt go free. This dangerous situation is necessary for the Captain's growth into a mature and reliable captain.
Having secured the escape of Leggatt and saved the ship from destruction, the Captain finally becomes master of his ship and himself; he is a "free man". Leggatt too enters the water as "a free man, a proud swimmer striking out for a new destiny." The story thus ends in resolution, although the reader is kept in suspense throughout about the outcome.