Conrad’s unusual style very much lends itself to this sort of mysterious tale where we aren’t sure if we inhabit a world of ghosts or our own. At times I kept thinking to myself Poe would have recognized this story since so much of the tension is happening in the captain’s mind.
Unlike a lot of Conrad, however, The Secret Sharer is not trying to be obtuse in how it handles its theme – identity in this case (though that’s always Conrad’s theme). Nostromo, Heart of Darkness, and especially Lord Jim are dense, almost opaque works that behave like a fitted sheet too small for the bed; you can get three corners figured out, but never a fourth and around and around you go. And while Conrad never lets slip if Leggatt is physical or phantom, that concern is not front and center to the plot because he is more interested in how our unnamed captain deals with this mystery man.
In a way it’s sort of a clunky plot device, but Conrad handles it well enough and makes Leggatt illusive enough so that he doesn’t need to try and explain him too much. He is, for the most part, exactly like our narrator (even in appearance), but represents an alter personality. Where Leggatt would easily kill a man for not doing his duty, our narrator is more of a rules and regulations man – a man of little experience.
There’s a wonderful image near the beginning where a scorpion gets into a bottle of ink and drowns. This fascinating image could mean that all the written rules and regulations will mean nothing when a person truly needs to act, or it could mean laws and papers only get in the way of how men should (and must) behave. There can always be deception in the act of writing, but actions speak louder than words, even those written down. In fact the other captain, Captain Archbold, admits he’ll claim Leggatt committed suicide to avoid any nasty consequences and perhaps ruin his own career over it.
The other ideas of coming of age, of a young man learning to take command and setting aside his own doubts is clear enough here, however, we should realize that our captain is unnamed and that he must become like someone else, Leggatt. Our captain was, in many ways, not good enough to lead, he was chosen over other candidates more qualified (probably) and so he must assume a role, he must not remain himself if he wants to succeed. There is no hint that the strength lay within him the whole time, he had to assume a new identity.
This is an unsettling thought because what Conrad seems to be saying is that in order to succeed we cannot rely on our true nature, we have to become something else. The mate, for example, is always described as having this interesting beard, almost like a lions mane, but isn’t he also hiding behind a persona? Isn’t he also frightened as they sail so close to the island? Couldn’t he have struck our captain, taken command, and steered the ship to safety himself? But he didn’t and he betrayed to us his true nature.
So as usual Conrad is not so simple as we first think, far more is going on here and what we assume to be one thing is actually something else.