The action of Melville’s The Confidence Man: His Masquerade takes place on April Fool’s Day aboard the Fidèle, a steamship heading down the Mississippi River. The novel introduces the reader to a bewildering array of characters, one of whom is a skilled confidence man who appears throughout the book in a variety of disguises.
The theme of The Confidence Man is trust—the limits of belief in society. Melville examines the heart of humankind and finds it as corrupt as Mark Twain did in his later works. Aboard the Fidèle, which is presented as a microcosm of human society, with an incredible diversity of human types, self-interest is the only human motivation. Perhaps more disconcerting is the near impossibility of ascertaining the true character of anyone on board. The protean confidence man is only the prime example of the rule of pretense. The world of The Confidence Man is a world of deception and deceit; each of the confidence man’s swindles demands that the dupe display confidence, and each parallels the Fall of Man. The confidence man toys with his victims until he discovers the weakness that he can use against them.
The confidence man appears in a bewildering series of disguises: a mute wearing cream colors, a crippled African American beggar named Black Guinea, a Man with a Weed, an agent from the Seminole Widow and Orphan Asylum, the president of the Black Rapids Coal Company, an herb doctor who sells Omni-Balsamic Reinvigorator and Samaritan Pain Dissuader, the Happy Bone Setter, an agent for the Philosophical Intelligence Office, the Cosmopolitan (who wears a strange outfit pieced together from the national costumes of several...
(The entire section is 700 words.)