Study Guide

The Mute in The Confidence-Man

By Herman Melville

The Mute

The first individuated character we meet on this crowded ship, the mute stands out in the bustle through his silent communication. His presence garners our sympathies and implicitly pits the reader against the crowd. On the other hand, we're not fully in the mute's head, so we're able to maintain an outsider prospective toward him.

In a way, the mute may be the most important character in the novel. Maybe. Not convinced? Well, hear us out. This book is about con-artists, and this guy asks for nothing; in fact, his M.O. is pretty much "innocent character." Case in point—look at how he's described when he falls asleep on deck:

Gradually overtaken by slumber, his flaxen head drooped, his whole lamb-like figure relaxed, and, half reclining against the ladder's foot, lay motionless, as some sugar-snow in March, which, softly stealing down over night, with its white placidity startles the brown farmer peering out from his threshold at daybreak. (1, 22)

He's bathed in light and white (read: purity), and he's described as a lamb. We don't want to be too heavy-handed about this, but it's a safe bet that when a character holding up Bible quotes is called a lamb, that character is probably being associated with the "lamb of God"—a.k.a. Jesus Christ. Yeah, sometimes Christ figures exist in literature—but not that often, folks, so don't go to town with that kind of comparison.

So why raise the suggestion that the mute is a Christ figure?

Well, for one thing we do get a nasty look at the crowd's violence toward him and the way he turns the other cheek, which is a notion raised in the Bible…by Christ. The mute is also the first to throw down the gauntlet in favor of charity with his dauntless presence among this very inhospitable crowd.

The thing is, though, that we don't really know if he is as innocent as he seems. (You knew that was coming, didn't you?) A couple of times, Melville seems to suggest that the mute is, in fact, the first example of a con-artist on the ship. Now, maybe it's simpler than all that, and Melville just really wants to start with a questionable Christ figure and end with a perplexing Satan? That would be appropriate, given the moral and thematic complexity of the whole novel, right? What's good and what's bad?