Shaping the Self

January 24, 2019 by Essay Writer

The potential for self-discovery, complemented by the capacity for transformation, lies latent within each man. When circumstances instigate a strong stimulus for change, man finds a way to actuate his innate potential. In Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Sharer, the overly rational captain finds himself lacking the courage needed for his new “position of the fullest responsibility” (677). He impulsively carries out his desperate “[self-]appointed task of [change]” (677) when catalyzed by Leggatt, a murderer whom he illegally protects. By breaking free of hesitancy and rationality and hurling himself into a dangerously intense trial of his own capabilities, the captain emerges as a matured and balanced individual.The captain is a logical man of restraint and intellect who is thrust into his position of leadership “in consequence of certain events of no particular significance” (677). The resulting responsibilities, however, are of immense magnitude, and he doubts his ability to simultaneously handle the crew, the ship, and himself. Now that the “quiet communion [and comfort of subordination is]… gone for good” (677), the captain faces the undeniable fact that he is not only “a stranger to the ship… [but, more significantly,] a stranger to [himself]” (677). With his self-doubt and hesitancy reinforced by the suspicion and lack of respect from the crew, the captain isolates himself.This physical and psychological isolation forces the captain to “live as an individual rather than as a mere part of a society” (703). Alone with the recognition that he must be “always perfectly self-controlled… [and] more than calm – almost invulnerable” (692) in order to succeed on his “first command” (701), the captain furthermore desires to gain the respect and acceptance of his crew and himself. He desperately reaches inward for his potential to change; in this quest to “turn out faithful to that ideal conception of… [his] own personality [which he] sets up for himself secretly” (677), the captain sees Leggatt as the prime embodiment of the self-assurance and stubborn perseverance he craves and lacks; Leggatt is an unrepentant murderer, the epitome of impulsiveness, recklessness, and self-confidence.However, it is not through direct association with Leggatt that the captain is able to bring out and integrate similar qualities from within himself; it is not through a servile and cowardly imitation of Leggatt but rather through the risky feat of protecting Leggatt that he is able to become an integrated whole. Letting his passion and feeling of kinship for Leggatt override his customary rationality, the captain impulsively commits himself to harboring the murderer. This bold disregard of the moral code of society, supplemented by the prioritization of his own feelings, provides the captain with the opportunity to fully exert himself.Fearing the constant threat of discovery, the captain forces himself to maintain an unflagging vigilance. He combines his original shrewdness and caution with his developing boldness to keep Leggatt hidden. From deceiving the captain of the Sephora to intimidating his steward and asserting himself, the captain stretches his abilities to the very limit. This process is physically trying, and he painfully endures this “infinitely miserable time” (693). Moreover, it is mentally exhausting, for the impending peril of discovery is both “nerve-trying” (691) and “maddening” (693). The consequences of discovery, which include mutiny and possible death for the captain, are all too near and real. He selflessly sacrifices his own stability, peace of mind, and even sanity to protect Leggatt.Indeed, the intensity of both the external and self-imposed pressures almost forces the captain to lose his sanity; he “ha[s] come creeping quietly as near insanity as any man who has not actually gone over the border” (694). So exhausting are these trials that the captain is unconsciously tempted to return to the simple and familiar; paradoxically, the greatest danger is not the threat of discovery, but rather the luring comfort of rationality and certainty. If the captain abandons his reliance upon emotions and disillusions himself prematurely, the intense molding of his psyche will “go irretrievably to pieces” (696). However, he manages to restrain rationality and persevere in his selfless and complete devotion to Leggatt and thus “live up to the best in himself” (703); for, as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “… no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself”.By protecting Leggatt, the captain finally realizes the full extent of his capabilities and gains confidence from this knowledge. His development into an integrated whole is completed when he mentally and physically frees himself from Leggatt by dropping him off near Koh-ring. Ignoring the reluctance of his crew and his own uncertainty, the captain recklessly and unyieldingly orders the ship to be brought dangerously and unnecessarily close to shore. In doing so, he proves to himself that he has successfully integrated impulsiveness and confidence.Afterwards, the captain safely steers the ship away from shore and wins the confidence, trust, and respect of his crew and himself, thus achieving “the perfect communion of a seaman with his first command” (701). With this sense of completion, he no longer needs the presence of his “secret sharer” (701). In fact, the captain needs independence in order to prevent the emergence and integration of any more impulsiveness and reckless boldness which would otherwise overwhelm the delicate balance with his original rationality and logical restraint.Ironically, the captain has reached a state of balanced wholeness and self-knowledge only to become “a total stranger” (700) once again; though he has come to terms with himself as the captain of a ship, fate will continue to present new and different circumstances. Consequently, the accompanying processes of self-discovery and personal change are cyclical, and the captain has completed one cycle only to begin another, thus “striking out for a new destiny” (701).

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