Study Guide

The Confidence-Man

By Herman Melville

The Confidence-Man Introduction

What does a medieval book from Switzerland filled with pictures of torture, suffering, and trifling hot messes getting their sin on have to do with the last—sometimes considered worst, sometimes best—work of Herman Melville?

It's called the ship of fools, folks.

What's that, you ask?

Well, in 1494, Sebastian Brant, a devout theologian with a grim sense of humor, put together a collection of stories of 112 sins and their dire consequences. His text, called Ship of Fools, pretty much put—as you can imagine—a bunch of fools on a boat and had them stand in for sinful, sinful humanity. The basic idea was that humanity is a boatload of lemmings taking a straight shot to H-E-L-L-O.

Now, a lot happened on planet Earth between 1494 and 1857, when Melville published The Confidence-Man, but no matter: Melville is all about updating this old story to the nineteenth century and using it to question the very foundation of his society's faith.

The ship of fools in Melville's book is called the Fidèle, which means "faithful" in French, but pretty much everyone on the ship is faithless. That should clue you in to the kind of fun Melville is going to have with you in the book.

Did we mention that the book is set—and was published—on April Fools' Day, 1857? And that the devil himself may be a character? And that the whole plot revolves around shady people conning each other?

You're getting the idea now, aren't you?

The Confidence-Man caused a boatload of financial trouble for Melville and his publishing house, and it started an unresolved debate about whether this text even counts as a novel. This is definitely not your traditional story: it's twisty, dark, funny, sly, and it seems to have a great time doing what it does. It's almost like the book knows it's playing us and making us pay super close attention to its twists and turns.

Melville's story is part exposé, part thought experiment wherein some questions don't quite get answers: Who even is the confidence-man, really? Did the devil really just board the ship? Is wickedness just a result of our own paranoia? Is this book actually a look at some sort of failed prisoner's dilemma? What is even going on here?

Hey, check it out, let Melville mess with your head, and let us know if you've got any answers.

What is The Confidence-Man About and Why Should I Care?

The devil made us do it.

At least that's what we might say if we were caught red-handed doing exactly what we're not supposed to do, like teasing our little brother or laughing a little too hard when our friend trips over a step. Maybe being caught up in mean-spiritedness ourselves is exactly why we're not sure if our friends are telling the truth when they say they missed our text message. Can we trust that they didn't ignore us? Do we have confidence in their word? In their goodwill?

Welp, we can't actually get away with blaming supernatural forces of darkness for interpersonal ills, even though American literature has a long tradition of doing just that. (See Exhibit A and Exhibit B.) But what we can do is delve into Melville's cheeky account of how hard it is to trust one another.

Why is it that even when we're certain someone's our friend, our buddy, our pal, we can't quite give that person the benefit of the doubt all the time? This problem gets even trickier when we try to extend that goodwill to strangers—or when we try to factor in Melville's intended audience, which would be American Protestants professing a belief in divine Providence.

Melville takes up the biblical notion of charity—or loving your fellow earthlings and having confidence that they are good because God made them, and God is good—and asks his readers to put their money where their good intentions are.

If you love BuzzFeed quizzes and are dying to know who you'd judge and how you'd do—by their cover, their talk, or their game-spitting—then let The Confidence-Man be your mirror unto yourself.

The Confidence-Man Resources

Websites

All About Melville
Here's a fun quick bio on our crazy author. Did you know Melville wrote poetry?

Define Me
Cover your bases and read up a little more on the man behind The Confidence-Man.

Everything You Want and More, You Say?
Check out this chapter by chapter full text of The Confidence-Man.

Movie or TV Productions

Wait, We're Lost
Lots of things are a mystery on the Lost island, including what's going on with this Melvillian episode.

Articles and Interviews

That's So Meta
There's a lot of wink-wink, nod-nod, story-within-a-story, and "see what I did there?" stuff going on in The Confidence-Man. Read more about it.

Waiting for Melville
Some folks decided to put on a play inspired by The Confidence-Man…minus most of the text.

How to Run a Scam in the 1800s
Want to know some of the ins and outs of historical confidence-men?

Audio

It's Hip to Be a Conundrum
NPR includes The Confidence-Man on its lists of hip reads.

Long Road Trip?
Listen to The Confidence-Man while you ride.

Images

He's Got You
Check out what might be the creepiest cover for The Confidence-Man ever.

Respectable Society
Here's a nice, traditional cover. No scary business.

What a Cutie
This cover has a lovely line drawing of a boat, and we heart it and want to hold it.

Add Me to Your Collection
This isn't just a Melville portrait. It's a Melville portrait on a stamp.

We're On a Boat
And so is everyone else in this book. Get a load of what it may have looked like.

Draw Me a River
No, really, we need a map.