Are there any gender themes in The Confidence Man?

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belarafon | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Herman Melville has been critiqued for his somewhat vague position on gender relations, with many of his works being entirely male-oriented. In his last book, The Confidence Man, there are no actual female characters at all, save a few unnamed women who fall prey to the various cons in play on the steamboat.

However, there is an interesting story told in the course of the novel that gives some insight. The story concerns a Native American woman, taken as a wife, and described as:

Goneril was young, in person lithe and straight, too straight, indeed, for a woman, a complexion naturally rosy, and which would have been charmingly so, but for a certain hardness and bakedness, like that of the glazed colors on stone-ware. Her hair was of a deep, rich chestnut, but worn in close, short curls all round her head. Her Indian figure was not without its impairing effect on her bust, while her mouth would have been pretty but for a trace of moustache.
(Melville, The Confidence Man,

Not exactly flattering. The story concerns her bewildering behavior, which drives her milquetoast husband into insularity and paranoia; eventually, he seeks to have her committed as deranged, but since no one will testify in his favor, he loses the court case and becomes an outcast.

The implication is rather nasty; although Goneril has a loving husband, she persists (either in truth or in his mind) in paying undue attention to other men, and causes him to lose his reputation and child. She is constantly derided as "taciturn," with " large, metallic eyes," and as "some kind of toad" (Melville), so that the effect is at once both racist and sexist. However, given that the story is told in an entirely objective manner, with no judgement given on either party, there isn't much to say other than these were the common prejudices of the time. In fact, it could be said that although presented in negative terms, Goneril is an example of a strong, effective women, who argues her own case and wins against an abusive, male-dominated society. With few obvious cues, gender-issues must be inferred rather than implicit.


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