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The Moral Dilemma of "The Secret Sharer":
The Secret Sharer is an examination of the moral dilemma of the hero. This short story offers only three central figures, the Captain, Leggatt and Captain Archbold, who are represent different moral perspectives.
The Secret Sharer tells, in essence, a story in which the hero makes a moral compromise that brings his affairs to a satisfactory conclusion. The Captain is confronted with a murderer who pleads extenuating circumstances. He is then faced with a question of whether to hand him over to law or to assist him in his escape. The Captain decides to eschew his duties as Captain and protect him at all costs.
The Captain is a newcomer to his ship and crew. This means that he must establish his command on a firm basis, an undertaking that is severely threatened by sheltering Leggatt. The Captain is a lonely and solitary figure without contacts. He is therefore obliged to make his own way and is placed in a position in which he seeks to maintain his independence. In this case, it is the authority of unhindered command at the sea. In a world of strangers, he is likely to take sides against them. Therefore, he identifies with Leggatt because they are both on the outside.
Leggatt is also presented as being a hero. He offers a standard that the hero should emulate. He is an exemplary officer who has, in a crisis, enforced discipline and saved his ship. Such men, however, pay a price for their excellence. Leggatt himself is an inadvertent killer. The Captain is able to both accept the value of Leggatt's action and at the same time purge its associated guilt.
The Secret Sharer transposes conflict to the world of a ship at sea. The conflict is between discipline and the individual desires and feelings of the crew. Leggatt's arrival places the Captain in the crux of this dilemma. He can betray the fugitive and hand him over to the lawfully constituted officer Captain Archbold, who comes to claim him, or he can risk the breakdown of discipline on his own ship when the crew discover that their commander is himself accessory to a serious disciplinary infraction. The Captain, however, stands between Archbold and his crew.
To give up Leggatt would be the obvious and right thing to do. However, the Captain recognizes as paramount the bond between him and his dependent. He has no thought of surrendering Leggatt to authorities. None the less, it is not "right" for him simply to accept and identify with Leggatt but to steer a way through it to a satisfactory and guiltless independence. The Captain cannot accept as permanent and final his identification with Leggatt. To do so would be to condone lack of discipline. He will run the perpetual risk of breakdown of his command. The Captain must steer a middle way, asserting his individuality against both Archbold and his own crew. In this novel, Archbold represents law and authority. He fails to measure up to the higher standards of seamanship represented by Leggatt. The crew is strongly inclined to be critical of their new Captain's unorthodox methods. They are themselves given to insubordination, particularly the first and second mates.
To complete his course without compromise, the Captain must avoid both extremes. He must neither surrender Leggatt to Archbold, nor allow him to remain as a threat to his own authority. There are therefore two movements of the same tale. In the first, the fugitive is taken on board by the Captain and carefully concealed from Archbold. In the second, the disruptive influence of Leggatt causes the Captain to act in a manner which brings him ridicule among the crew. This also has a psychological effect upon him adverse to the exercise of his new command.
This is accomplished when, with exaggerated risk, the Captain takes his ship dangerously close to land so that Leggatt may swim to safety. The risk is psychologically and logically necessary. The Captain, having accepted the responsibility for Leggatt, must honor it without renouncing or going back on what he has done. He cannot abandon him. He must do everything within his reach to ensure his safety. He has his reward, the sign of success, when the floating hat left behind by the escaped swimmer becomes the "saving mark." It enables the Captain to bring his ship out of danger. The hat, he says, "was saving the ship, by serving me for a mark to help out the ignorance of my strangeness."
In The Secret Sharer, the hero is not Leggatt as he is a paradoxical man, at once excellent and tainted. It is the Captain confronted by the paradoxical Leggatt who must make the right decisions.