As dusk begins to fall, the unnamed narrator of the story stands on the deck of his ship, currently anchored at the mouth of the Meinam River in the Gulf of Siam. The narrator is the Captain of the ship who leaves the deck to eat supper with his mates. The time is approximately eight o'clock.
At supper, the Captain remarks that he saw the masts of a ship anchored amongst some nearby islands. The Chief Mate explains that the ship to which the Captain is referring is probably another English one, waiting for the right moment to sail home with a favorable tide. The Second Mate elaborates: The ship is the Sephora, from Liverpool, and is bound home from Cardiff with a cargo of coal. (He learned this from the skipper of the tugboat who came aboard to fetch the Captain's letters.)
The Captain makes a magnanimous gesture by offering to take the anchor watch himself until one o'clock, after which time he will get the Second Mate to relieve him. Again alone on deck, the Captain meditatively smokes a cigar and again considers his own "strangeness" to the ship and its command. The rest of the crew sleeps soundly.
The Captain notices that the rope side ladder, hung over the side of the ship to accommodate the skipper of the tugboat, has not been brought in. As he begins to pull it, he feels a jerk at the other end and curious, looks over the rail into the sea. He sees a naked man floating in the water and holding the end of the ladder. The man introduces himself as Leggatt. He has been in the water since nine o'clock, which makes the Captain consider his strength and youth. Leggatt climbs up the ladder and the Captain rushes to his cabin to fetch him some clothes. The Captain learns that Leggatt was the chief mate of the Sephora and that he accidentally killed a fellow crewman. Although Leggatt unintentionally murdered the man, the Skipper stripped Leggatt of his title. The Captain tells Leggatt that they should retire to his cabin so as not to be discovered by the Chief Mate. The Captain hides Leggatt in his cabin, returns to the deck, summons the Chief Mate to take over the anchor watch, and returns to his cabin.
Leggatt continues his story: After killing the man, he was placed under arrest and kept in his cabin for almost seven weeks. Approximately six weeks into his confinement, Leggatt asked to see the Skipper and asked him to leave his door unlocked that night, while the Sephora sailed through the Sunda Straits, so that he could jump off and swim to the Java coast. The Skipper refused.
Three weeks later, the Sephora came to its present location, and Leggatt discovered that the ship's steward — wholly by accident — had left the door to his cabin unlocked. Leggatt wandered onto the deck and jumped off into the sea. He swam to a nearby islet while the Sephora's crew lowered a boat to search for him. Leggatt removed his clothes and sank them, determined never to return. He swam to another small island, saw the riding light of the Captain's ship, and swam to it. Eventually, he reached the rope ladder, completely exhausted after swimming over a mile. The Captain helps Leggatt into his bed, where he falls asleep immediately. The Captain eventually falls asleep himself; the next morning, the steward enters the Captain's cabin to bring him his morning coffee. (He does not notice Leggatt because the Captain drew the curtains that separate the bed from the rest of the cabin.) The Captain becomes more paranoid that someone will discover Leggatt and decides that he must show himself on deck. The Captain learns that a ship's boat is coming toward their ship. He orders the ladder to be dropped over the side and leaves Leggatt to meet who he is sure will be the Skipper of the Sephora, searching for Leggatt.
When the story begins, Conrad implies that the Captain gained his post through connections rather than by steadily rising through the ranks of his fellow sailors. By the end of the story, however, Leggatt helps the Captain become more assured with his command and more respected by his crew.
The Chief Mate's anecdote about finding a scorpion in his inkwell holds symbolic importance. Like the scorpion, found in the most unlikely of places, Leggatt similarly is found clinging to the rope ladder. Leggatt's crime of murder (although accidental) similarly marks him as dangerous, like a scorpion. Finally, Conrad begins employing color symbolism here: The scorpion drowns in an inkwell, rendering it black when discovered by the Chief Mate, while Leggatt's hair is black, thus strengthening the connection between these two outcasts. Black is the color most associated with evil in Western thinking, and one should note that both the scorpion and Leggatt are stained black: The scorpion literally by the ink and Leggatt figuratively by his crime.
The Captain's desire to take the anchor watch himself stems from his feelings of isolation and alienation. Although he feels "painfully" that he is "doing something unusual" in taking on the watch himself, he does so to learn more about the ship and what he calls "the novel responsibility of command." He enjoys watching the sea because of its "singleness of purpose." The sea, unlike his own command, makes sense to him in its "absolute straightforwardness."
Leggatt's entrance into the story marks him as an almost supernatural force, sent by some higher power to assist the Captain in his struggle to gain the respect of his men and himself. His naked form and his rising from the sea heighten the suggestion that Leggatt has been "created" for the Captain. Again note Conrad's use of symbolism: Water has been widely used as a symbol of the subconscious mind, and nudity is an obvious symbol of feeling metaphorically "exposed" in front of others. Thus, Leggatt symbolically rises out of the Captain's subconscious, because he feels that he is "exposing" his weaknesses as a new commander. Note that when Leggatt first encounters the Captain, he asks, "I suppose your captain's turned in?" Leggatt assumes that the Captain is an ordinary seaman — perfectly understandable under the circumstances, but also a clear indication that there is nothing stately or "captain-like" about the Captain. Also note that the Captain first obliquely denies his position, saying that he is "sure" the captain isn't turned in, before he states, "I am the captain." Again, note that while he is technically the Captain, he lacks the qualities that suggest the substance of a captain, such as fortitude, presence, and strength. Conrad's story is, in part, about the Captain's acquisition of these qualities through the help of Leggatt.
Conrad begins stressing the idea that Leggatt is — in certain important ways — the Captain's double. His use of what is commonly called the doppelganger theme serves to highlight the qualities that the Captain lacks by showing them embodied in his double. Leggatt's being dressed in one of the Captain's sleeping suits and hiding in his cabin suggests their relationship in physical terms; but Conrad suggests their bond in many other ways as well: Both men are young, both hold (or, in Leggatt's case, held) posts of importance that they acquired through their "connections," both are "Conway boys," both are isolated from their respective crews, both save a ship during a dangerous event, and both eventually strike out for "new destinies." Each man offers something to his double: The Captain offers Leggatt a place to hide and his eventual means of escape, while Leggatt forces the Captain, through his assistance in helping him at Koh-ring, a chance to prove his seamanship in the eyes of the crew.
The fact that the Captain so readily believes Leggatt's story about his murder of the sailor may mark him as gullible or even foolish in the eyes of some. However, the Captain — although working with a crew — feels isolated from them, and welcomes Leggatt's presence in much the same way that Leggatt welcomes his. Leggatt is, at first, someone the Captain can speak to, and he offers to help him almost as a means of continuing their "secret" relationship. The doppelganger theme usually involves a man meeting what the Captain calls his "other self." In this light, Leggatt is (figuratively) a "part" of the Captain that he doesn't know he possesses. At the story's end, Leggatt has effectively opened the Captain's eyes to the qualities he thought he lacked at the beginning of his command. Thus, the Captain immediately offers to hide Leggatt because, in a symbolic sense, Leggatt is the Captain — or at least the part of him that has been, until now, unexpressed. The Captain's future meeting with the Skipper of the Sephora at the start of Part 2 is one of the first tests of this newly developing part of himself.
Gulf of Siam "Siam" is the old name of Thailand; the Gulf of Siam is the arm of the South China Sea, between the Malay and Indochinese peninsulas.
Cuddy the cook's galley on a small ship.
Cardiff seaport in Southeast Wales, on the Bristol Channel; capital of Wales and county seat of South Glamorgan.
Malay Archipelago large group of islands between Southeast Asia and Australia, including Indonesia, the Philippines, and sometimes New Guinea.
beyond my ken beyond my range of knowledge.
Binnacle the upright, cylindrical stand holding a ship's compass, usually located near the helm.
Conway boy sailor who trained on the British battleship Conway.
Norfolk county of East England, on the North Sea.
Ratlines any of the small, relatively thin pieces of tarred rope that join the shrouds of a ship and serve as the steps of a ladder for climbing the rigging. "Shrouds" are sets of ropes or wires stretched from a ship's side to a masthead to offset lateral strain on the mast.
Mizzen the mast that is third from the bow of a ship with three or more masts. (The "bow" is the front part of a ship.)
gimbals a pair of rings pivoted on axes at right angles to each other so that one is free to swing within the other; a ship's compass, pelorus, and so on, will remain horizontal at all times when suspended in gimbals.
Java Head the westernmost point of Java, a large island of Indonesia, southeast of Sumatra.
Halter hangman's noose.
Cain in the Bible, the oldest son of Adam and Eve; he killed his brother Abel.
Bullock a young bull.
Square the yards by lifts and braces nautical command meaning, "Sail directly before the wind." "Yards" are slender rods or spars, tapering toward the ends and fastened at right angles across a mast to support a sail; "braces" are ropes passed through blocks at the ends of yards, used to swing the yard about from the deck.