(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...

(The entire section is 700 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 1106 words.)