Places: The Confidence Man

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1857

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Satire

Time of work: Mid-nineteenth century

Places Discussed<i>Fidèle</i>

FidèleConfidence Man, The. 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 to which he returns often in his many encounters with the boat’s passengers. Melville compares the emigrants’ quarters to purgatory and to Hell; some modern critics see the Confidence Man as a satanic figure, and his ease in these infernal surroundings may lend credence to this interpretation. The shabbiness of the emigrants’ quarters contrasts with the gentlemen’s cabin, where the novel’s final scene takes place.


Settee. Long wooden bench on the steamboat’s main deck. Although located in the open, it affords a semi-private place to talk. The longest continuous scene in the novel takes place here, as the Confidence Man, in his final guise as the foppish Frank Goodman, talks with, in turn, a passenger in a violet vest, a character named Mark Winsome (a stand-in for Ralph Waldo Emerson), and a character named Egbert (a stand-in for Henry David Thoreau). The man in the vest tells the Confidence Man about Colonel John Moredock, who devoted his life to hating Indians; they discuss whether Moredock’s pure hatred is a kind of virtue. With Winsome and Egbert the Confidence Man debates some of the tenets of Transcendentalism, concluding that Emersonian “self-reliance” is little more than tight-fisted economic and emotional self-interest. Of all his encounters on the boat, the Confidence Man comes closest to meeting his match in the loquacious and obstinate Egbert.

Barber shop

Barber shop. Salon located in an arcade on the steamboat’s main deck. After his disputations with Winsome and Egbert, the Confidence Man goes to the barber shop for a shave as he prepares to retire for the night. He tricks the barber into giving him a shave on credit despite the latter’s prominently displayed sign, mentioned here and in the book’s opening scene: “NO TRUST.” In Melville’s time barber shops were associated with cosmetic artifices such as fake moustaches, toupees, and the dyeing of hair; thus the Confidence Man’s duping of the barber, who makes his living fooling people, conveys particular irony.

Gentlemen’s cabin

Gentlemen’s cabin. Sleeping compartment containing berths and a table, lit by a single lamp on whose glass shade is emblazoned the altar of Moses as described in Exodus. Here the Confidence Man encounters an elderly man reading the Bible. They talk about the Apocrypha, raising the question of whether it is possible to have confidence in even the word of God. A young peddler enters and persuades the old man to buy a money belt. The novel ends with the Confidence Man extinguishing the symbolic lamp and leading the old man to what the reader assumes will be a swindling, if not an outright robbery.

BibliographyLeyda, Jay. The Melville Log. 2 vols. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1951. A collection of documents important to the life and career of Melville, including excerpts from letters, reviews of his work, and passages from Melville’s novels that allude to biographical data.Lindberg, Gary. The Confidence-Man in American Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982. A discussion of Melville’s novel frames this investigation of the confidence man in American literature and history. Includes discussions of Huckleberry Finn, P. T. Barnum, Walt Whitman, and Thomas Jefferson among others.Melville, Herman. The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade. Edited by Bruce Franklin. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1967. Franklin’s edition of this novel contains substantial footnotes to the main text, giving the reader reliable critical elucidations of the text’s complex symbolic structure and historical and mythic allusions.Melville, Herman. Journals. Edited by Howard C. Horsford and Lynn Horth. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1989. Includes entries and passages written soon after Melville finished The Confidence Man.Rogin, Michael Paul. Subversive Genealogy: The Politics and Art of Herman Melville. Berke-ley: University of California Press, 1979. Incisive psychological and Marxist reading of Melville’s life and work, arguing that Melville was one of the leading thinkers of his age. The reading of Melville’s family’s place in the historical context of the 1840’s is unparalleled. Includes an excellent discussion of The Confidence Man.
Categories: Places