Study Guide

The Scholar in The Confidence-Man

By Herman Melville

The Scholar

Okay, no character escapes this story without some harsh critique of their attitudes and behavior, but Melville really lays it on when it comes to the scholar. Don't believe us? We'll prove it:

[…] a young gentleman with a swan-neck, wearing a lady-like open shirt collar, thrown back, and tied with a black ribbon. From a square, tableted-broach, curiously engraved with Greek characters, he seemed a collegian—not improbably, a sophomore—on his travels; possibly, his first. A small book bound in Roman vellum was in his hand. (5, 5)

Melville's narrator goes hog-wild in decorating this guy with all the 19th-century American stereotypes of elite intellectuals. His outfit is described as feminine (in this text, that's an ouch), and it matters that he's a sophomore holding a Greek text.

Sophomore is Greek for "wise fool," and Melville is trotting out the big joke about being in your second year of advanced studies: you think you know everything, but you don't really know anything.

This is good, though: it's important to laugh at our foibles and then try to do better next time. How else would we grow? The scholar is a quiet young man who doesn't say much when we first meet him—he's an observer of human nature, after all.

He does get an earful from Weeds about why it's important not to be a misanthrope and not to be "duped" by some of his classical readings. Much of this discussion feeds into the notion of theory versus practice and the argument over which is better. Scholars sometimes get accused of being too much in their own heads.

When the scholar does speak, we learn that he's not so much an impartial viewer of human folly as he is a quiet man who thinks much of his own business acumen—and Tassel totally plays this up in order to get a hefty sum out of the poor student.