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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 226

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...

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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

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1106

On an April morning in St. Louis, a deaf-mute boards the steamer Fidèle (faith). Many passengers gather around a placard advertising a reward for the capture of a mysterious impostor, and some take this opportunity to purchase money belts or biographies of famous criminals. The deaf-mute approaches the placard, writes platitudes about charity on a slate, and displays them to the crowd. Meanwhile, a barber opens his shop and hangs a sign that reads “No Trust.” Rebuffed, the mute walks to the forecastle and falls asleep at the foot of a ladder.

After the ship leaves dock, a group of passengers amuse themselves by tossing pennies (or, more cruelly, buttons) to a lame black man who catches them in his mouth. He identifies himself as Der Black Guinea, but he is confronted by a man with a wooden leg who accuses him of being a sham. An Episcopalian minister intercedes and, when the beggar describes several people on the ship who will vouch for him, goes to find them. The wooden-legged man renews his attack, but a Methodist minister rebukes him until he withdraws. Although the Methodist apparently triumphs, he immediately demonstrates similar suspicion. Further complications are averted when a kind merchant offers the beggar alms, in the process accidentally dropping a business card, which the beggar surreptitiously covers with his stump.

Roberts, the merchant, is soon accosted by a man with a weed in his hat who identifies himself as John Ringman and claims to be an old acquaintance. When Roberts protests he has no recollection of their meeting, Ringman presses him to admit he had a fever at about that time that might have erased his memory. Ringman relates a story of profound personal misfortune, until the merchant offers him a banknote and then a larger one. In return, Ringman tells Roberts that the president of the Black Rapids Coal Company, which represents a rare investment opportunity, is on board.

Ringman next encounters a college sophomore reading Tacitus. In impassioned rhetoric, he urges the student to toss the volume overboard before he loses confidence in his fellows. Nonplussed, the young man departs.

The Episcopalian minister’s search for someone who knows Der Black Guinea concludes when he encounters a man in a gray coat and white tie, exactly as the beggar described. The unnamed man bears witness to Der Black Guinea’s authenticity. The wooden-legged man reappears and amusedly ridicules human credulity. Wanting to distance himself from this cynicism, the minister gives the stranger money for the beggar. The stranger then extracts an additional contribution for the Seminole Widow and Orphan Asylum.

This unnamed man manages to compel a donation for this charity from another gentleman, then a further contribution to support an ambitious plan to unite all of the world’s charities under one organization. The man concludes his operations by obtaining a donation for the asylum from a woman reading the Bible. Quoting the New Testament, he then departs.

The sophomore is approached by John Truman, the president and transfer agent of the Black Rapids Coal Company. Truman claims to be searching for Ringman in order to give him money and to have just spoken with the man in the gray coat. The sophomore invests an undisclosed amount in the company. The hapless Roberts follows suit, and in the process informs Truman of the existence of an old miser onboard. The miser, sickly and confused, invests one hundred dollars. He immediately regrets his decision but is too weak to pursue Truman.

Not all of the financial transactions aboard the Fidèle involve large sums. After Truman’s departure, an herb-doctor moves about the ship selling his wares, alternately called Omni-Balsamic Reinvigorator and Samaritan Pain Dissuader. Several passengers, including the miser, make purchases for two or three dollars. Only a Missourian, professing universal distrust of people and nature, resists.

Pitch, the Missourian, tells of a succession of untrustworthy boys he employed on his farm. Shortly after the herb-doctor’s departure, however, a representative of the Philosophical Intelligence Office, an employment agency, persuades him to try another, sight unseen. Pitch gives the stranger a small fee and passage money. He later has second thoughts but is interrupted by a man describing himself as a cosmopolitan who argues against a solitary life. Despite the cosmopolitan’s protests, Pitch welcomes him as a fellow misanthrope, which compels him to leave.

Francis Goodman, the cosmopolitan, next meets a talkative passenger calling himself Charlie Noble. Noble relates a long tale about an Indian-hater named Colonel John Moredock. Finding that they share a low opinion of misanthropy, Noble and Goodman strike up an immediate friendship over wine, though Noble seems determined to drink less than his companion. All goes well until Goodman claims to need money and asserts that Noble will lend him fifty dollars. Noble erupts, and Goodman insists he was joking. Goodman tells a story about a young merchant, Charlemont, who without warning turned away from his friends. Noble claims fatigue and leaves.

Mark Winsome, a mystic philosopher who overhears the previous conversation, introduces himself to Goodman. Using obscure references to ancient Egypt and Greece, Winsome warns that Noble is out to cheat him. Goodman thanks the mystic but insists that he sees no reason to lack confidence in Noble’s nature. Winsome introduces Goodman to his disciple, Egbert, and departs.

Egbert proves to be as practical as his mentor has been abstruse. Apparently interested in understanding Winsome’s philosophy, Goodman asks Egbert to act out a scenario involving a man in need who begs a loan of a friend. The two men do so at great length, with Goodman requesting the loan and Egbert justifying his refusal. To support his argument, Egbert tells of China Aster, who came to ruin and death through a friendly loan. Defeated, the cosmopolitan withdraws.

Goodman goes to the ship’s barbershop with its “No Trust” sign displayed. After great effort, he convinces the barber to give him a shave on credit and continue the policy for the rest of the voyage for other passengers. He signs an agreement to compensate the barber for any losses. After Goodman leaves, however, the barber rehangs his sign and tears up the agreement.

Goodman retires to the cabin, where he encounters a well-to-do old man reading the Bible by lamplight. The two men agree on the importance of having confidence in one’s fellow. Afterward, the old man brings a traveler’s lock and money belt from a young peddler. Goodman refuses to purchase anything. Extinguishing the light, he leads the man, holding his money belt and a life preserver, into the darkness.

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