Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


Fidèle. Mississippi river steamboat on which the entire novel is set. The Fidèle’s main cabin is a large, opulently appointed room in which passengers spend their time drinking and gambling. Melville seems to use the frivolity of these pastimes as both a commentary upon superficial pleasures and upon the intoxicating, risky nature of financial speculation. At times the unnamed Confidence Man, though considered a criminal, seems to differ from the other passengers only in his superior skill at dissembling and risk-taking. In his guise as Mr. Truman, he meets a merchant in the main cabin and sells him shares in the “Black Rapids Coal Company.”

The merchant tells the story of a young man who leaves his jealous, possibly demented wife, only to be sued by her and eventually ruined. This is one of several stories told in the course of the novel, usually by the Confidence Man’s intended victims; the stories revolve around trust, morality, and money, major themes of the novel. Elsewhere in the text, in one of many literary allusions, Melville compares the passengers of the Fidèle to the pilgrims in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (1387-1400); their story-telling is an obvious connection to Chaucer’s masterwork, but unlike Chaucer’s pilgrims, Melville’s steamboat passengers do not even pretend to share a sacred destination but are driven solely by self-interest and greed.

Emigrants’ quarters

Emigrants’ quarters. Dark, confined area of the steamboat in which the poorest passengers sleep. There the Confidence Man talks a miser out of a hundred dollars, engaging him in a theologically tinged, mostly one-sided dialogue about trust, a subject...

(The entire section is 719 words.)