Study Guide

The Confidence-Man Isolation

By Herman Melville


Chapter 2

Meantime, like some enchanted man in his grave, happily oblivious of all gossip, whether chiseled or chatted, the deaf and dumb stranger still tranquilly slept, while now the boat started on her voyage.


Though hitherto, as has been seen, the man in cream-colors had by no means passed unobserved, yet by stealing into retirement, and there going asleep and continuing so, he seemed to have courted oblivion, a boon not often withheld from so humble an applicant as he. (2, 22 & 27)

Shhh…don't bother this dude. He's asleep. Definitely don't talk about him like he's not there, either. Geez. Our guy, the charity-loving mute, is alone, and Melville emphasizes this by contrasting his silent world with the busyness of the crowd. Here, the mute is even further removed from others by being described as sleeping in a grave, lost to oblivion. His ignorance of what others are saying about him leads to his isolation through both his sleep and inability to hear.

Chapter 11

At length, the good merchant, whose eyes were pensively resting upon the gay tables in the distance, broke the spell by saying that, from the spectacle before them, one would little divine what other quarters of the boat might reveal. He cited the case, accidentally encountered but an hour or two previous, of a shrunken old miser, clad in shrunken old moleskin, stretched out, an invalid, on a bare plank in the emigrants' quarters, eagerly clinging to life and lucre, though the one was gasping for outlet, and about the other he was in torment lest death, or some other unprincipled cut-purse, should be the means of his losing it; by like feeble tenure holding lungs and pouch, and yet knowing and desiring nothing beyond them; for his mind, never raised above mould, was now all but mouldered away. To such a degree, indeed, that he had no trust in anything, not even in his parchment bonds, which, the better to preserve from the tooth of time, he had packed down and sealed up, like brandy peaches, in a tin case of spirits. (11, 2)

This sad sight is the country merchant's depiction of the miser's miserable state. He's telling Tassel all about how the miser was all alone, ill, and scared about being robbed. It's a particularly uncomfortable look into the life of a very old man who has nobody he can rely on while his body is failing him. Worse, whether the country merchant is aware of it or not, these lines reveal his own insensitivity: the country merchant brings up this man just to demonstrate "all the different kinds of people there are!" Merp. Way to stop and care for your fellow man while you're rubbernecking it, man.

Chapter 22
Pitch, the Missourian

"No, no. Look you, as I told that cousin-german of yours, the herb-doctor, I'm now on the road to get me made some sort of machine to do my work. Machines for me. My cider-mill—does that ever steal my cider? My mowing-machine—does that ever lay a-bed mornings? My corn-husker—does that ever give me insolence? No: cider-mill, mowing-machine, corn-husker—all faithfully attend to their business. Disinterested, too; no board, no wages; yet doing good all their lives long; shining examples that virtue is its own reward—the only practical Christians I know." (22, 22)

The PIO man wants to send Pitch a boy to help with his farm. Nothing doing—Pitch wants machines. Machines he can trust. Machines don't lie and steal from you. Machines are more Christian than people. Oof, that's some tough (lack of) love.

"To the devil with your principles! Bad sign when a man begins to talk of his principles. Hold, come back, sir; back here, back, sir, back! I tell you no more boys for me. Nay, I'm a Mede and Persian. In my old home in the woods I'm pestered enough with squirrels, weasels, chipmunks, skunks. I want no more wild vermin to spoil my temper and waste my substance. Don't talk of boys; enough of your boys; a plague of your boys; chilblains on your boys! As for Intelligence Offices, I've lived in the East, and know 'em. Swindling concerns kept by low-born cynics, under a fawning exterior wreaking their cynic malice upon mankind. You are a fair specimen of 'em." (22, 18)

These lines are actually kind of funny. We know Pitch isn't here to make friends, but even as he's putting in a plug for being a loner, he can't overcome the human desire to communicate. He calls the dude from the Philosophical Intelligence Office (PIO) back several times just to explain to him why he doesn't want his services. Translation: I will break through my isolation in order to tell you why isolation is the bee's knees.

Chapter 24
Francis Goodman, a.k.a. The Cosmopolitan

"A cosmopolitan, a catholic man; who, being such, ties himself to no narrow tailor or teacher, but federates, in heart as in costume, something of the various gallantries of men under various suns. Oh, one roams not over the gallant globe in vain. Bred by it, is a fraternal and fusing feeling." (24,10)

Frank puts in a plug for not being a man-island. Travel the world, folks. It's a brotherhood. See and meet and chat with everybody. This type of roaming connectivity is the ultimate freedom, and isn't freedom what people are actually trying to get with the solitary life?

"Excuse me, but it just occurs to me that you, my dear fellow, possibly lead a solitary life."

"Solitary?" starting as at a touch of divination.

"Yes: in a solitary life one insensibly contracts oddities,—talking to one's self now." (24, 12-14)

Pitch is uber-surprised that Frank can tell he's doing the lone wolf thing. Of course Frank can tell: he's read Pitch's idiosyncrasies like a book. Pitch's isolation signal? Talking to himself. Can't hold it against him. But it is pretty transparent.

Pitch, the Missourian

"Been eaves-dropping, eh?"

"Why, a soliloquist in a crowd can hardly but be overheard, and without much reproach to the hearer." (24, 15-16)

You can't technically have isolation unless there's a crowd out there you're not a part of. Maybe. Anyway, here Pitch is rocking the Shakespearean soliloquizing aside. Thing is, people can still hear you when you're talking to yourself, so you may be "alone," but you're not invisible. On the other hand, if people know you're there, does this make you more or less alone?

Chapter 26

"For the diluted Indian-hater, although the vacations he permits himself impair the keeping of the character, yet, it should not be overlooked that this is the man who, by his very infirmity, enables us to form surmises, however inadequate, of what Indian-hating in its perfection is." (26, 21)

Isolation is hard, y'all. Plus, even those trying to stick to twisted goals like being hateful human hunters end up having to take a break from taking a break from society. The hiccup: this changes the definition of what a lonely hunter actually is, since the kinds that venture into towns sully their lone-wolf stances.

Francis Goodman, a.k.a. The Cosmopolitan

"The judge, with his usual judgment, always thought that the intense solitude to which the Indian-hater consigns himself, has, by its overawing influence, no little to do with relaxing his vow. He would relate instances where, after some months' lonely scoutings, the Indian-hater is suddenly seized with a sort of calenture; hurries openly towards the first smoke, though he knows it is an Indian's, announces himself as a lost hunter, gives the savage his rifle, throws himself upon his charity, embraces him with much affection, imploring the privilege of living a while in his sweet companionship." (26, 20)

While we don't have any sympathy for peeps of this kind, apparently even those who've decided to make mortal enemies out of American Indians and devote their lives to solitude get lonely. They get so lonesome for human contact, in fact, that they're willing to put down their weapons and ask for some chitchat. Precious.

Pitch, the Missourian

"Accommodate? Pray, no doubt you could accommodate me with a bosom-friend too, couldn't you? Accommodate! Obliging word accommodate: there's accommodation notes now, where one accommodates another with a loan, and if he don't pay it pretty quickly, accommodates him, with a chain to his foot. Accommodate! God forbid that I should ever be accommodated." (22, 22)

Pitch balks at the notion that the PIO man wants to help him out. Here's the thing, though: PIO guy is offering help in getting Pitch a servant, but it's Pitch who brings up the notion of friendship when he says, Yeah, I bet you could even get me a bestie. What's up with that? Sure, Pitch is saying he needs a BFF like he needs a hefty loan that'll get him into debtor's prison (he doesn't), but why bother even bringing up friends at all? Pitch, is this a cry for company?