The Confidence Man Summary
by Herman Melville

Start Your Free Trial

Download The Confidence Man Study Guide

Subscribe Now

The Confidence Man Summary

Herman Melville's last novel, The Confidence Man, takes place on April Fools Day. The setting is a steamboat named Fidèle ("faith") floating down the river in Mississippi, picking up passengers en route from St. Louis to New Orleans in the period before the Civil War. The main character is Frank (which suggests that he is the "confidence man" of the title).

At the novel's outset, a disabled man who can't talk begs for charity, but some people suspect he is faking his injury and have no sympathy.

Another character is a man in a suit collecting money for widows and orphans, and he is given money by a widow, ironically. A holistic medicine man also appears, extorting money from gullible people. One burly man, Pitch, calls him out, but Pitch is later conned by someone else. Pitch meets a man named Frank (who might be the devil incarnate). Frank is very persuasive and convinces the barber on board to give him a shave on credit—a decision he will soon regret.

By the end of the novel, Frank and an old man are seen aboard the ship, talking and equating faith in one's fellow man to faith in God. The scene is interrupted by a man selling locks and money belts, which the old man buys, but he wonders whether even his money is fake.

Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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 nations), and Frank Goodman.

The novel also presents a number of recognizable regional types, particularly the rough-and-ready westerner and the sly Yankee peddler, and frequently sets one region’s representative against another. Melville provides scant clues for the reader to determine the identity of these characters, thus placing the reader in a position similar to that of the confidence man’s victims, who are sometimes accosted by more than one of his manifestations.

There is very little action in the novel, which consists almost entirely of the confidence man’s discussions with his victims. Thus, the narrative consists of the dialectical working of ideas. The passengers with whom he interacts are themselves shown to be engaged in a variety of confidence games; at least, they are frequently shown to be self-interested people who rarely reveal their true thoughts or intentions. As in any confidence game, the novel’s protagonist is able to play on the selfish motives or inflated egos of his victims.

For the most part, the confidence man is successful, but his monetary gain is...

(The entire section is 2,032 words.)