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Last Reviewed 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 Frank (which suggests that he is the "confidence man" of the title).

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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...

(The entire section contains 1332 words.)

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