The Confidence Man

by Herman Melville

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade is an 1857 satirical novel written by American novelist and poet Herman Melville. It is the author's ninth and final novel, and it explores themes such as morality, religion, socio-economic status, absurdity, human nature, poverty, identity, isolation, and the darkness of American society.

No man is a stranger. You accost anybody. Warm and confiding, you wait not for measured advances. And though, indeed, mine, in this instance, have met with no very hilarious encouragement, yet the principle of a true citizen of the world is still to return good for ill. . . .

If reason be judge, no writer has produced such inconsistent characters as nature herself has. It must call for no small sagacity in a reader unerringly to discriminate in a novel between the inconsistencies of conception and those of life as elsewhere. Experience is the only guide here; but as no one man can be coextensive with what is, it may be unwise in every case to rest upon it.

Set on April fool’s Day, The Confidence Man tells the story of several con men who are sailing down the Mississippi river, from St. Louis towards New Orleans, on a riverboat called the Fidèle. The men are scamming the people by convincing them to pay for various things, like stock in failing companies, fake medicine for numerous diseases, or funding for non-existent charity organizations. The novel is, essentially, an allegory of the hypocritical and exploitative American society.

Why, the most monstrous of all hypocrites are these bears: hypocrites by inversion; hypocrites in the simulation of things dark instead of bright; souls that thrive, less upon depression, than the fiction of depression; professors of the wicked art of manufacturing depressions; spurious Jeremiahs; sham Heraclituses, who, the lugubrious day done, return, like sham Lazaruses among the beggars, to make merry over the gains got by their pretended sore heads—scoundrelly bears!

The word confidence is present in every chapter, as Melville wishes to point out the irony of the plot: the con men believe that trust and faith are some of the most important notions of society.

"For, comparatively inexperienced as you are, my dear young friend, did you never observe how little, very little, confidence, there is? I mean between man and man—more particularly between stranger and stranger. In a sad world it is the saddest fact. Confidence! I have sometimes almost thought that confidence is fled; that confidence is the New Astrea—emigrated—vanished—gone." Then softly sliding nearer, with the softest air, quivering down and looking up, "could you now, my dear young sir, under such circumstances, by way of experiment, simply have confidence in me?"

The novel also explores themes of the supernatural, as it contains several descriptions of the traditional, biblical version of the devil and other mythological and supernatural beings and forces.

In the middle of the gentleman's cabin burned a solar lamp, swung from the ceiling, and whose shade of ground glass was all round fancifully variegated, in transparency, with the image of a horned altar, from which flames rose, alternate with the figure of a robed man, his head encircled by a halo. The light of this lamp, after dazzlingly striking on marble, snow-white and round—the slab of a centre-table beneath—on all sides went rippling off with ever-diminishing distinctness, till, like circles from a stone dropped in water, the rays died dimly away in the furthest nook of the place.

The novel received praise for its deeply philosophical and thought-provoking narrative; however, it also gained a bit of criticism for its difficult-to-follow rhetoric. Basically, The Confidence Man is Melville’s...

(This entire section contains 777 words.)

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original and very analytical critique of the ruthless society which has a devastating effect on the fragile human psyche and condition.

"Quite an Original": A phrase, we fancy, rather oftener used by the young, or the unlearned, or the untraveled, than by the old, or the well-read, or the man who has made the grand tour. Certainly, the sense of originality exists at its highest in an infant, and probably at its lowest in him who has completed the circle of the sciences. . . .

As for original characters in fiction, a grateful reader will, on meeting with one, keep the anniversary of that day. True, we sometimes hear of an author who, at one creation, produces some two or three score such characters; it may be possible. But they can hardly be original in the sense that Hamlet is, or Don Quixote, or Milton's Satan. That is to say, they are not, in a thorough sense, original at all. They are novel, or singular, or striking, or captivating, or all four at once.