Study Guide

Francis Goodman, a.k.a. The Cosmopolitan in The Confidence-Man

By Herman Melville

Francis Goodman, a.k.a. The Cosmopolitan

In the Details…

We can't be sure, but Frank might be the devil.

Yeah. It's not good. But the thing is, among this dizzy array of characters, Frank's the only one that's actually worth talking to. Sure, he goes a little overboard on the whole "humans are worthy of love and trust" thing, but he's also easily the smartest person (or smartest supernatural villain?) on the ship.

Goodwill toward Man

Complicated as Frank's relationship to the reader might be—Do we love him? Hate him? Is he testing us?—he provides a critical function on board the Fidèle: he exposes hypocrisy. After all, he's the one who always seems to be rooting for the little guy. When Charlie calls Pitch a "Queer 'coon," (25, 2) who is probably not all that good at heart, Frank refutes him with:

Charity, charity!...Never a sound judgment without charity. When man judges man, charity is less a bounty from our mercy than just allowance for the insensible lee-way of human fallibility. God forbid that my eccentric friend should be what you hint. You do not know him, or but imperfectly. (28, 1)

The biggest takeaway from this interaction is Frank's reminder that Charlie doesn't know Pitch—not really, anyway. In other words, you can't judge a book by its cover, after all. Charity isn't just about donating money or volunteering to help people out; Frank's lines here emphasize that charity is also about giving people the benefit of the doubt.

Well, perhaps that's true—but there may be other reasons for Frank to want people to give others the benefit of the doubt. If people trust you, it's just that much easier to con them. And that may be exactly what Frank wants. So is he wrong? Is he right? Somewhere in between?

It's complicated.

99% Angel, but Oh, That 1%

But hold up. Before we move on, let us prove to you that we're not being paranoid when we say that Frank might be the devil. We have evidence, folks.

For just one example, take the magic act Frank pulls with Charlie. When Charlie legit flips out after Frank asks for money, we get a bizarre spectacle during which Frank creates a "magic-ring" (32, 3) around Charlie out of ten gold coins. At this moment, Frank has an "air of a necromancer, an air heightened by his costume, accompanying each wave with a solemn murmur of cabalistical words" (32, 2).

Frank's dress, words, and deed are all shrouded in magic, and we're left wondering where in the world this shift has come from. We were just on a normal, crowded boat on the Mississippi. Now we've got a devil to deal with. Maybe.

Plus, there's the whole practically turning into a snake thing. Okay, that's not exactly what happens, but take a look at this conversation between Frank and the mystic, Mark Winsome. Mark sort of intrudes on Frank's thoughts and Frank's behavior whiffs of the supernatural:

"…I am pleased to believe that beauty is at bottom incompatible with ill, and therefore am so eccentric as to have confidence in the latent benignity of that beautiful creature, the rattle-snake, whose lithe neck and burnished maze of tawny gold, as he sleekly curls aloft in the sun, who on the prairie can behold without wonder?"

As he breathed these words, he seemed so to enter into their spirit—as some earnest descriptive speakers will—as unconsciously to wreathe his form and sidelong crest his head, till he all but seemed the creature described. Meantime, the stranger regarded him with little surprise, apparently, though with much contemplativeness of a mystical sort, and presently said:

"When charmed by the beauty of that viper, did it never occur to you to change personalities with him? to feel what it was to be a snake?" (36, 5-7)

Maybe Mark Winsome and Frank are having a mind meld in this conversation that starts about beauty as the good (an ancient notion that goes back to Plato and Aristotle), but this moment when Frank embodies a serpent has got some major echoes of Genesis. First off, just as God breathed life into Adam and Eve, words breathe life into serpent-Frank. What's double weird is the fact that it's Frank's own words that cause this transformation. It's like Frank breathes life into himself.

Maybe the devil can do that.

And it's not like we need to spell this out, but, um, serpent-Frank is all about tempting the guys on the ship with secret, strange, and slippery philosophical knowledge.

In Humans We Trust

Now, if we read Frank as the devil, then his maneuverings in this text are sort of a throwback to Satan's actions in Job. In that book, Satan bet God that if he tested people enough, they would just abandon God and prove that they were actually faithless. In Job, God wins. In The Confidence-Man, things are a little more complicated than that.

Each conversation Frank has—with Pitch, Charlie, Mark, Egbert, the barber, and even with the old man—shows him asking these dudes to justify their opinions against the trust they're supposed to have in divine Providence. That is, each of these dudes has expressed a lack of faith in the goodness or trustworthiness of his fellow man—and hence of Providence, and maybe even God. If these guys are truly faithful to God, Frank wonders, then how can they be so unfaithful to other humans?

There's logic there, of course, but does it actually hold? In a way, yes. If you really believe that everything is arranged by God or Providence, and if you really believe that God is good, then you have to account for human nastiness somehow. Either you say it doesn't really exist, or you say that God is actually not so good, or you say that things are too complicated to work out and maybe have faith, anyway.

This is complicated, so let's dig a little deeper.

Pretty much all of Frank's conversations come back to the same argument: humans should trust each other because of the trust they are supposed to have in God, who they attest created all humans. If God created humans, then they must be like God, and hence they should be trusted as God is trusted. (Follow that?)

Whenever Frank poses this argument, most people are all, "Yeah, cool, good point"—but doubt nevertheless prevails. Sad day. For Frank, anyway.

As a smartypants cosmopolitan, Frank has an arsenal of learning and experience at hand, which he pools to convince people—but the key is that his arguments always fail. Literally every single time. These failures continue to demonstrate the "ye of little faith" mentality when it comes to the way people actually think about each other and the world.

If the devil can prove that humans have no faith in each other, then Melville's text is like a giant, flashing Vegas sign pointing to—gulp—their lack of faith in Providence. Within the text and among Melville's intended audience, this is a big ol' deal. Like, an "upset the cornerstone of that society's sense of self" big deal; if people can't or don't have faith in Providence, then Melville's society is built on a lie.

Worse, each episode on board the ship gives us readers one more reason not to trust our fellow humans. Like, there doesn't seem to be even one single worthy exchange of money, or one that we can leave unquestioned. Everyone seems to be scamming everyone else.

And that leaves us wondering: are humans actually really bad, or is Melville putting us, the readers, on trial ourselves?

Melville, you old dog.