The Confidence Man

by Herman Melville

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Was there more than one con man in The Confidence Man?

There was probably more than one con man. The novel’s end implies that the peddler who sells the money belt to the old man is conning him and may end up conning “Goodman” as well. Some characters who disappear may have been yet another of the confidence man’s disguises. Even characters who are clearly distinct from him may be considered confidence men because of their efforts to persuade the central character to accept or “buy” their ideas.

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Although Herman Melville makes it impossible to say for certain, it seems likely that there was more than one confidence man on the boat. In particular, at the novel’s end the author draws attention to the peddler who sells a money belt and a lock to the Bible-reading old man. The value of this lock is dubious, and Melville seems to imply that the peddler is trying to con the old man. Although the Confidence Man—then disguised as Goodman—leads the old man off, we cannot know if or how the peddler may intervene.

There are a number of characters who seem to be disguised versions of the Confidence Man and who disappear at various points in the novel. Because passengers debark and embark every time the boat stops, the reader cannot always be sure if a newly presented character has just come on board or represents yet another disguised version of the ever-shifting protagonist.

Furthermore, Melville leaves open the interpretation of the title as potentially applicable to all the characters. The overall lack of confidence is indicated by the Barber’s business motto, “No Trust.” The extent to which all the characters hide some central aspect of themselves makes the reader wonder along with the protagonist about their schemes and motives. Even the apparently idealistic philosopher Winsome has a vested interest in persuading others to the correctness of his intellectual postures.

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