Study Guide

The Confidence-Man Themes

  • Poverty

    The Fidèle contains multitudes, and with that comes the fancy and not so fancy. Melville's lingering descriptions of who wore what are less about red-carpet gossip and more about assessing class difference and hardship. In The Confidence-Man, we meet people who are down on their luck, and we get a bleak look at how most of the crowd treats them. They're a reminder of harsh reality in a text that is pretty wink-wink, nudge-nudge about a lot of its messages.

    Questions About Poverty

    1. Which characters have choices or actions limited by their clothes? Which characters seem unencumbered regardless of what they're wearing?
    2. Who loses the most money on this ship? Who earns the most?
    3. What's the value of a dollar, and how can you tell what's worth what?
    4. How do powerful characters treat the poor in this novel?

    Chew on This

    Poverty in The Confidence-Man is just window-dressing, and no real commentary is being made about our human duties toward one another.

    Melville is arguing that poverty is a sign of a damaged society, so those who believe well of their country have a duty to serve others in order to fix that society.

  • Philosophical Viewpoints: Misanthropy vs. Charity

    Misanthropy is a four-letter word in The Confidence-Man. It's a distrust of and distaste for other people—all the people.

    Now, if you're a misanthrope and you're out at sea, you're in for a tough time, since all you've got is time and a crowd. If you do venture to mingle on this particular ship, you'll meet liars, tricksters, pick-pockets, and ruffians.

    At least that's how you'll see these peeps if you're a misanthrope. Self-fulfilling prophecy?

    In this novel, misanthropy gets pitted against charity, which is both a feeling and an action. "Do you love your fellow man?" is a quick self-check on the charity meter. Failing that, the next best thing is seeing how willing you are to help a stranger—or even a friend—out.

    The battle between misanthropy and charity seems polarizing for Melville's characters, but there are scenes when things are more complicated. The various confidence-men in the text are quick to label people as either human-loving or human-hating, but some of the characters push back. They want to be able to give a nuanced answer and rely on the power of "sometimes."

    Questions About Philosophical Viewpoints: Misanthropy vs. Charity

    1. How would you define misanthropy and charity based on the information from the text?
    2. In what ways is Pitch not a misanthrope?
    3. How does hypocrisy affect misanthropy in this text? How does it affect charity?
    4. How can you determine if Frank is truly charitable?

    Chew on This

    Melville isn't really interested in getting his readers to love one another. All he's trying to do is prove that people are hypocrites who don't care about others, even if they pretend they do.

    Misanthropy versus charity in this text is a zero-sum game: either you love everyone, or you hate everyone. There's no in-between.

  • Foolishness and Folly

    There's a sucker born every minute, and The Confidence-Man is banking on it.

    Several characters in the novel make the case that to part with one's money is a clear sign that you've got a few screws loose. Only the gullible, the foolhardy, or the straight-up dumb-dumbs of the world would fall for charlatans and tricksters peddling their snake oil. Right?

    Here's the catch: some of the loudest champions of skepticism in this text are the hardest to fall when they get played. In keeping with the ship-of-fools motif he's built his novel on, Melville paints a picture of the great variety of human missteps.

    Questions About Foolishness and Folly

    1. What's the difference between foolishness and folly?
    2. Which characters are most foolish, and why?
    3. To what extent do the characters in this text who call others fools exhibit foolishness of their own?
    4. Is there a way to recover from folly in this text? If so, how?

    Chew on This

    According to the novel, foolishness and folly are moral failings, and a smart person can still be foolish.

    According to the novel, foolishness and folly are intellectual failings rather than sins.

  • Isolation

    The Fidèle is sardine-can-level crowded. It's hard to think of isolation as a key player in a text crammed so full of characters you pull a Dory and forget half of them just as you're getting acquainted with the next.

    Nevertheless, all our guys in The Confidence-Man are one-offs who don't seem to have too much sense of a community. Maybe that's why in the midst of all the philosophical debates about who and how to trust, the question about chucking it all and living in the woods comes into play.

    One question keeps coming up: does society push us toward isolation (because it is evil), or do we need to be cured of our isolating tendencies (because those are evil) by mingling with society?

    Questions About Isolation

    1. How does isolation relate to sin in this text? Is it right, wrong, or neutral to go off into the wild alone?
    2. Is isolation always a choice in this text? Is anyone isolated against his or her will or inclination?
    3. What are we told about the nature of isolation?
    4. In what way does isolation influence character development in this novel?

    Chew on This

    According to this novel, isolation is a myth. No one can really get away from society in this text.

    Everyone on board the Fidèle is alone and friendless.

  • The Supernatural

    Rumor has it the devil is on board the Fidèle. Could be true, for all we know—Melville's a master of the weird and wonky, and while you won't find fire and brimstone in The Confidence-Man, you'll definitely get some incantations and a few references to the master trickster himself. In fact, Melville makes us speculate about whether the various dudes pulling cons may in fact be one and the same being. If so, then there sure is something diabolical going on because, that kind of switcheroo isn't achieved through a quick-change or a pair of Clark Kent glasses.

    Questions About The Supernatural

    1. Are the weird things Frank does truly supernatural?
    2. How do other characters react to Frank? Who takes to him right away, and who is suspicious?
    3. Do any other characters exhibit supernatural capabilities? If so, what are they?
    4. To what extent, in this novel, is the supernatural a product of the power of suggestion?

    Chew on This

    There is nothing supernatural in this text.

    Melville's representation of the supernatural calls the existence of Divine Providence into question.

  • Cunning and Cleverness

    There's a sucker born every minute, and as The Confidence-Man can show you, there's a con for every type. The con-man's goal isn't simply to apply a one-size-fits-all ploy to dupe people. Nope—the key to being a successful con-man is to work your smarts to fit the situation and, um, customer at hand.

    Questions About Cunning and Cleverness

    1. How do character interactions in the text seem to play tricks on the reader?
    2. Who is the cleverest character in the novel? How did you come to that conclusion?
    3. How do you know when a character is being played?

    Chew on This

    Cunning and cleverness are innate attributes in this text: some characters have them, some don't.

    Cunning and cleverness are inevitably servants to deception; the smarter a character is, the less likely that character is a good person.

  • Men and Masculinity

    Okay, okay—we don't want to lean too hard into the fact that "man" is in the title, but it is. Plus, nearly every one of the very many characters in this text are cast is a dude. The Confidence-Man is kind of like a "Small World"-type survey of the different types of men in the world.

    You get glimpses of this in the way women are mentioned: they are wives, widows, and daughters of men, mostly appearing in the text to demonstrate character development for the guys. Published in 1857—a time when sometimes writing about "people" meant writing about "dudes" by default—it actually offers more than one opinion about what it means to be "a man."

    Questions About Men and Masculinity

    1. What's the difference between being a man and being masculine for Melville?
    2. What are three ways Melville defines masculinity?
    3. Which characters struggle with these definitions of masculinity?
    4. How does the text's treatment of intelligence relate to its treatment of masculinity?

    Chew on This

    Melville thinks masculinity is a joke and uses the text to undermine accepted notions of what it means to be a man.

    Masculinity for Melville is complicated; there's no one-size-fits-all definition for him.

  • Education

    When characters in The Confidence-Man meet up here and there on the ship, they nearly immediately fall into philosophical debates or semi-formal disputations. Real talk: you can't be part of those debates and disputations if you're not educated.

    What's a disputation, by the way? Disputations were assignments schoolchildren earning a classical education would have to complete. They were basically argumentative essays that these kids would have to be prepared to recite on command. That's a very specific skill. And guess what? In this novel's world, once you've got that skill, you've entered at least one kind of old boy's club. Education is a class issue.

    Melville also examines the most important aspect of education: the ability to change your nature through training. This is a thought as old as (and rooted in) humanism. In this novel, education is the way up, and it's the way forward.

    Questions About Education

    1. Who is the most educated character? Who is the most intelligent?
    2. Do any other characters learn throughout the course of the novel? If so, how do they learn, and what do they learn?
    3. Does this novel consider education a right?
    4. What are some pitfalls of a bad education, as suggested in the text?

    Chew on This

    Melville doesn't value traditional education.

    For Melville, education is necessary for morality to flourish.