Just when you think something serious is going to happen, Melville will happily settle on some tongue-in-cheek observation of life's absurdities. Melville uses this quirky tone all the time, even when he's discussing the potential violence that might be done to a character who cannot walk. Or when it seems like some stockbroker has made off with $100 of a dying man's moolah.
Basically, whenever Melville has a chance to poke fun at his characters, his readers, or himself, he 100% will. And that's basically 100% of the time.
The Confidence-Man tackles a number of philosophies, ranging from those rooted in the classical tradition, like Diogenes's cynicism, to good old American transcendentalism. But this exploration isn't exactly an earnest one; it's more of a snarky evaluation of different theories as they fail to inspire anyone to just love their fellow man.
Haha, gotcha...is what the devil might say, since character after character in this confounding book faces the question of living up to the foundational religious beliefs—like "love your neighbor"—to which the majority of characters (and probably the majority of Melville's 1857 audience) would have ascribed.
Basically, if a good Christian is supposed to love God and love others, then what are these folks doing suspecting each other at every turn? This darker track is what puts us squarely in satire territory. Melville's having a good laugh, and every time Christian confidence fails, the text asserts, maybe Satan wins. Or, maybe more accurately, every time one of these "Christians" cons another one, the big guy in the sky has to take one for the team.
What even is a confidence-man? Glad you asked.
Whether playing the short or long con, a confidence-man is someone who tricks you into doing something. More often than not, that something is parting with your cold hard cash. Although the title focuses on a singular figure (the con artist), you can't have a con artist without people lining up to be conned, so there's also a certain kind of relationship that's implied here.
But hold up. Just exactly who is the confidence-man in the title? The truth is that we never can quite tell. People manipulate each other left and right in this novel, and we never quite know who has the upper hand or who is up to what. We're just as much in the dark as the characters on the Fidèle are. Maybe the confidence-man of the title is the devil, morphing into various characters. Or maybe not. All we know is that conning is happening. Or is it?
All the suspected con-men in this novel are bent on "correcting" the lack of confidence people have in one another. "Wouldn't the world be a better place if we all believed in each other?" they ask. It's hard to tell if this is decent advice or another trick.
Con artists operate by getting you to doubt yourself, your instincts, and your senses. In that respect, Melville himself is a supreme con artist, and we as readers are just sitting ducks, along for the ride.
When the lights go out at the end of The Confidence-Man, we're left wondering whether the cosmopolitan is taking the old man to his sleeping quarters or whether the old man is headed for his—gulp—big sleep. Seriously, it's a toss up, and the ending isn't designed to answer any of the questions brought up in the novel. It's sort of a lingering question: "What do you have confidence in, eh?"
Up until now, we haven't seen anything as ghastly as murder, but we've been told a heinous tall tale about a mass butchering, and at one point, we do seriously worry about the safety of the miser. Threats abound at every turn, and we're not convinced that everything is peachy-keen.
In fact, when the bedeviled lamp gets extinguished, we're given no cozy reason to feel secure, as much as we'd like to believe that this could kind of, sort of, maybe mean that evil has been snuffed out. Yeah, probably not. There just aren't any easy answers to the questions Melville raises in this novel.
Probably best to invest in a nightlight.
Fidèle means "faithful" in French, and that's both appropriate and ironic, because this ship is the scene of many interactions that test one's faith in others. The ship—like any ship of fools—is in some respects a microcosm of the world: it's got people from all over the place, and there's no escaping this mini-planet.
The Fidèle is sort of like a floating big city. It's got all the fancy excitement and all the risks, and it's a crowded place stuffed to the gills with passengers. These crowds are sometimes represented as having a single voice, like a Greek chorus, deriding the lone speaker in unison. At other moments, the crowd breaks apart, and we see a kaleidoscope of individuals. In this novel, we see both individual and collective.
The Fidèle is chugging along the Mississippi River, and the Mississippi River was kind of a big deal in the United States at the time this book made its debut. It was a major trade and travel route, and St. Louis was a bustling city with a reputation for crime.
Environment is important in this novel, and at times it even affects the characters' thoughts and opinions. If the title of Chapter 23 weren't enough ("In Which the Powerful Effect of Natural Scenery Is Evinced in the Case of the Missourian, Who, In View of the Region Round-About Cairo, Has a Return of His Chilly Fit"), then take a look, for example, at Pitch's dark thoughts as he looks upon Cairo: "He bethinks him that the man with the brass-plate was to land on this villainous bank, and for that cause, if no other, begins to suspect him" (23, 2).
Just a moment before, Pitch was chummy with the PIO man, but he's now extra dubious. He feels (realizes?) he's been bamboozled, and it was his surroundings that really brought him to this conclusion.
Finally, let's deal with the elephant in the room: this book totally takes place during April Fools' Day, and yes, April Fools' Day was a thing back then. This day is basically a free-for-all when practical jokes are all the rage. In this book, the characters aren't really pulling ha-ha-funny jokes on each other, but they sure are tricking and coning the bejezus out of each other.
And that's just how Melville likes it. He wants us to feel some of the absurdity of life that this novel just revels in.
Oh, and, um, by the way, this book was totally published on April 1, 1857…the same day it was set.
Maybe the joke's just on us, then?
The Confidence-Man is the master of the hard sell. This book doesn't pull any punches when it comes to literary, historical, social, political, and biblical allusions. Melville also pulls out the SAT vocabulary prep book and throws in words that were already obscure during the time he was writing, in the 1850s.
If that doesn't trip you up, the multi-layered storytelling, complex framing, and meandering plot might give you a run for your money.
So why bother? Well, for one thing, we're pretty sure the double-dog-dare-you spirit in which this text is offered goes a long way toward egging us on and making it kind of fun. Each chapter builds on the previous one, making the curiousness of the characters on the ship fold back on each other in funky—and often funny—ways.
Plus: short chapters; like, super short.
Melville is totally playing with his readers, on multiple levels. Not only are we left to contend with crazy content, but the text itself also demands that we engage in some serious mental acrobatics if we want to follow Melville's exercise in showing off his writing chops.
Where he could use one word, Melville uses twenty. Where he could be plainspoken, he uses erudite conceits. Basically, the dude breaks all the rules of the realist handbook, and most style guides (e.g. William Strunk and E. B. White) would have a field day editing this stuff down.
It's not just enough to have your dictionary handy. To really dig into this, you'll probably need to back up and track Melville's allusions in the middle of his already complex chapters—where you might find yourself in a story within a story within a conversation within a narration that is kind of a joke. To get a sense of how complicated and wordy Melville's style can be, check out this one-sentence paragraph (yes, one sentence):
As, in gaining his place, some little perseverance, not to say persistence, of a mildly inoffensive sort, had been unavoidable, it was not with the best relish that the crowd regarded his apparent intrusion; and upon a more attentive survey, perceiving no badge of authority about him, but rather something quite the contrary—he being of an aspect so singularly innocent; an aspect too, which they took to be somehow inappropriate to the time and place, and inclining to the notion that his writing was of much the same sort: in short, taking him for some strange kind of simpleton, harmless enough, would he keep to himself, but not wholly unobnoxious as an intruder—they made no scruple to jostle him aside; while one, less kind than the rest, or more of a wag, by an unobserved stroke, dexterously flattened down his fleecy hat upon his head. (1, 6)
The thing is, we're pretty okay with how complicated this text is. Melville does what he does well. His intricate sentences, big words, and big ideas are working for him—and he knows it. This text is as much a challenge to himself as it is to us. It's also hilarious once you get the hang of it.
Melville is trying things out and putting on an ambitious show. His elaborate style doesn't let up even when he addresses the reader about his writing choices. As his audience, he expects a lot from us because he's putting time, effort, and consideration into each word.
Con artists want money, but that's not the only reason coin gets play in this text. In fact, what's more interesting is how the question of confidence so closely precedes a request for money: Do you trust me? Can I has your monies? The two go hand-in-hand in this text, and money—as currency—seems to be the means of proving your trust.
Plus, there's totes a connection with the barber's "No Trust" sign indicating he doesn't accept credit. No fiscal trust here equates to no social trust, and Frank is miffed at the barber over this.
Why does money get this kind of overlap with confidence? Well, for one thing, money and a country's currency—even when still tied to a gold standard—requires a certain faith in that nation's economy. The economy is a function of society, and many of the ways humans interact with one another is through some sort of financial exchange.
What happens when you further strain the relationship between confidence in others and your money? You get this scene about a lack of faith in money itself:
"What a peck of trouble that Detector makes for you now; believe me, the bill is good; don't be so distrustful. Proves what I've always thought, that much of the want of confidence, in these days, is owing to these Counterfeit Detectors you see on every desk and counter. Puts people up to suspecting good bills. Throw it away, I beg, if only because of the trouble it breeds you."
"No; it's troublesome, but I think I'll keep it.—Stay, now, here's another sign. It says that, if the bill is good, it must have in one corner, mixed in with the vignette, the figure of a goose, very small, indeed, all but microscopic; and, for added precaution, like the figure of Napoleon outlined by the tree, not observable, even if magnified, unless the attention is directed to it. Now, pore over it as I will, I can't see this goose."
"Can't see the goose? why, I can; and a famous goose it is. There" (reaching over and pointing to a spot in the vignette).
"I don't see it—dear me—I don't see the goose. Is it a real goose?"
"A perfect goose; beautiful goose." (45, 105-109)
This conversation between Frank and the old man at the end of the book is hilarious and depressing. The old man has just gotten a freebie from a sales-boy that's turning out to be more trouble than it's worth: a counterfeit detector that's making the old man doubt all of his bills are true. He's poring over his money trying to find various images that the directions say are unobservable even if magnified. That's some mischievous wild goose chase right there.
If you can't even trust your money is real, what—and who—can you put your faith in? What good is your word? Maybe this is why, "put your money where your mouth is," gets trotted out for bets whenever someone talks a big game. The challenge: tie your word to something you may care about more (cold hard cash). Just be sure your cash is legit.
Money and good faith problems get even trickier when you think about Winsome and Egbert's stance about not diluting the "purity" of friendship with the contractual obligations of money. For these two, money and friendship cannot coexist.
When money is introduced, the interaction is either a strict contract or a donation (though they'd definitely reject anyone asking for one of those). What do you think, though? Do the bonds of friendship demand a vote of confidence if someone is in need? What's the best way to handle a loan (gift?) to a buddy?
Melville's narrator is a tricky devil. Having access to the consciousness of multiple characters gives this narrator a lot of power and allows him (her? it?) to inform our understanding of everyone and everything in the novel. We get a hefty survey of characters, and we end up with a good idea about their suspicions, prejudices, hopes, and fears.
The curveball is that the narrator doesn't tell us everything he knows. Instead, we get moments when the narrator wonders aloud about what's going on in various characters' heads—even though we know he must know. For instance, take a look at this passage where the narrator tries to guess what Guinea is thinking during that awful coin game:
To be the subject of alms-giving is trying, and to feel in duty bound to appear cheerfully grateful under the trial, must be still more so; but whatever his secret emotions, he swallowed them, while still retaining each copper this side the oesophagus. And nearly always he grinned, and only once or twice did he wince, which was when certain coins, tossed by more playful almoners, came inconveniently nigh to his teeth, an accident whose unwelcomeness was not unedged by the circumstance that the pennies thus thrown proved buttons. (3, 18)
An added bonus is that our narrator addresses us directly, even if he never really enters full-out second-person narration. Woot. He's sly about it, of course. He doesn't say things like, "You're probably wondering why I did x just then." Instead, we get chapters that offer commentary on the book. These moments kind of make us conflate Melville's narrator with Melville himself, since they read as sort of manifestos of writing fiction.
Basically, Melville's narrator is the way he is because Melville wants you to know a lot about what's going on—but so not everything. There's supposed to be a little mystery. The book is supposed to be weird. You're not always supposed to know what's going on.
So just roll with it and laugh along with—or be creeped out by—Melville and his wacky cast of weirdos.
If bona fide comedies start in a state of darkness or confusion, boarding the ship in The Confidence-Man is a dizzyingly wonderful place to begin. We don't really have a sense of what's what—and most of the characters aren't much better off in that respect.
We're provided with a pretty bleak view of human nature, one in which people are grumpy and just don't seem to trust each other very much—if at all. Having a cast of transient characters who board and disembark the ship at random times makes it difficult to pinpoint a hero.
The shadow of confusion that falls on members of this boat ride on the Mississippi doesn't have a clear source just yet. We have a sneaking suspicion though that it was us all along.
As the various confidence-men meet various saps and cajole them into buying things they don't need, enlightenment isn't aimed at other characters so much as at the reader. We readers are implicated in the long philosophical debates that go on between the countryman, the broker, the cosmopolitan, and the philosopher, and more and more, it seems like it's our own powers of interpretation that are on trial.
How we read a scenario is probably a good indicator of what our own beliefs about human nature are. The text makes the reader a sort of additional silent character whose beliefs matter as much as those of the characters we read about. If comedies attempt to reconcile something that's amiss, this is a big, complicated, take-the-plank-out-of-your-own-eye moment.
In a cut-and-dried comedy, by the time the devil had his big reveal, we'd probably have all the answers. Not so with The Confidence-Man. In place of a happily-ever-after, we get the sense that the nightmarish tangle of human misunderstanding will simply continue.
When the cosmopolitan leads the old man to his room and the devilish lamp goes out, leaving all in actual darkness, we're sort of stuck. What was all this for? The answer might be found if we instead ask, "What did we learn?" If the text entertained us and got us to think about our own relationship to other humans, then it did its job. We think. Maybe. Hopefully.
We arrive on a ship, and the first thing we notice are the crowds. People to the left of us, people to the right—it's a frenzy. It's also exciting, because it looks like there's someone from everywhere. There's a clear divide between those who meld into the crowd (like the barber), and those who don't (like Guinea and the man who can't hear). We spot a hiccup: this crowd is not easy to please, and heaven forbid you need a helping hand around here…
Okay, we've been on board for a while, and it looks like the magic word for getting yourself some easy cash is "confidence." Evoke this notion, and people are eventually cajoled into sharing a little dough. This is the longest section of the text, and the many characters we're exposed to spend their time begging and borrowing from each other—or get antsy about being pressed for coin.
Use the word "confidence" sparingly, though: it could backfire. At the point of greatest emotional intensity, we see the cosmopolitan getting seriously ticked off at a young man's failure to have confidence in his fellow man.
The cosmopolitan tries, tries, again. His headlong approach is paved with one last sociable contract. This contract ends in tears: after the cosmopolitan stiffs the barber on his bill, the barber tears up a contract in which he had promised to extend credit to strangers.
The last chapter is a downbeat: we're below deck in the sleeping cabins. It's quiet time. The cosmopolitan helps an old man get to his room. We're not sure what exactly we're supposed to worry about, but we do know that this is not a happy ending.
The first twenty or so chapters of the novel take us all over the ship. We meet people of various levels of shadiness who ask for money, from the most sympathetic (Guinea) to the least (the herb-doctor and the stock broker). Things start to shift when we make the acquaintance of the cosmopolitan.
The cosmopolitan is the last confidence-man we meet—and the one we stay with the longest. Act II follows his exploits with a handful of misanthropes: Pitch (the Missourian), Charlie, Mark Winsome, and Egbert.
After Frank, the cosmopolitan, flips out at Egbert's inhumanity to man, he visits the barber for a shave he doesn't pay for then tucks an old man into bed. End scene.