Study Guide

The Confidence-Man Summary

By Herman Melville

The Confidence-Man Summary

It's April Fools' Day—time to pull some pranks. The Fidèle leaves St. Louis with someone we suspect might be a stowaway on board. He can't hear or speak, but his chalk tablet speaks volumes about the value of charity, complete with quotes from the Bible.

The crowd—and this ship is majorly crowded—isn't into it, and they violently harass the dude into giving up. The messages he writes on his tablet are rejected, but nobody seems to mind when the baker posts a sign saying your credit isn't worth anything in his establishment, so pay in cash.

The crowd starts to break up into smaller units, and we get a few (okay, a ton) more characters. First up is Guinea, who can't walk and who makes money making people laugh. We head into rough waters when a dude with a wooden leg decides to call Guinea out for being a fake. Wait, what? How does he know?

Cue the debate about trusting your fellow man. The country merchant stands up for Guinea (keep an eye on the country merchant because he ends up giving money to loads of people).

In other charity news, there's a guy in a grey-and-white suit running around collecting money for widows and orphans—he picks up some cash from a widow funnily enough.

There's also an herb-doctor on board who gets yelled at by an angry dad and lampooned by Pitch the burly Missourian. The herb-doctor snags some dough though from quite a few characters, including a very sick old man who's been tricked by snake-oil salesmen before, a day-laborer whose legs no longer work because of a freak accident, and a miser with a bad cough.

This miser also gets robbed by a stock broker wearing a cap with a tassel running around the ship flashing his company's ledger. That sneaky move draws the attention of the country merchant, who buys some stock after giving some money to an unfortunate man wearing a weed in his hat. This guy with the sob story weirds out a college student, who also happens to drop some cash with the stock broker. Kind of a knotted mess this.

The next big knot? We'll start with Pitch: after poo-pooing the herb-doc, he gets convinced to hire a farmhand from a man claiming to represent a servant-training program. It dawns on Pitch that this guy might have tricked him, and as he grumbles about it to himself, Frank the cosmopolitan shows up.

Well, hello, Frank—fancy meeting you here. Frank's the character we get to spend the most time with. Lucky us, because he is quite the character. After eavesdropping on Pitch, they have a heated debate about misanthropy. Unclear who wins, but Pitch definitely leaves Frank feeling exasperated. Enter Charlie stage left, who disses Pitch once he leaves. Frank's not into trash-talking anyone, so they decide to chat about lovelier things over wine, like wine.

Charlie tells a complicated tale about backwoodsmen as a backhanded insult to Pitch, and Frank responds with a parable about having confidence in men (same old same old). Charlie gets chased off when Frank asks to borrow money. Things are cool though, because Frank may have used demonic powers to calm Charlie down. Gulp. Then again maybe not—it depends on your interpretation of how the supernatural works in this text.

Moving on—no time to waste on this busy ship! After Charlie scoots away, Mark Winsome shows up. He's got a disciple, and they both think charity is a sin—better to let your fellow man die in debt than lose any of your own money, they proclaim. Frank thinks they're morally gross guys. He goes to get a shave.

He bums a free shave off of the barber we meet at the beginning, after convincing him to try a shave-on-credit experiment. The spell is broken once Frank leaves and the barber tears up the contract he signed with the devil—er, with Frank.

What's Frank up to after his clean shave? He goes to read the bible and finds an old man up late doing the same. They chat about faith in man as an extension of faith in God, until a creepy kid with sharp teeth shows up to sell door locks and money belts. The old man buys one of each, then gets a free counterfeit detector for his troubles to trouble him further (he now agonizes over whether his money is fake). There's a lamp overhead with a devilish design that goes out, and Frank leads the old man to his sleeping quarters, leaving the rest of us in the dark. So metal.