Melville's approach to The Confidence-Man appears to resemble the same creative method he had intimated to Hawthorne in the "Agatha" letters. There, he had suggested that the true story of the long abandoned woman was a tale "instinct with significance" and might be told by merely building about this "skeleton" of reality. Similarly, Melville's acquaintance with the original confidence man through newspaper and magazine articles may have inspired him to draw out the "significances" latent in the story of this actual contemporary swindler.
However, Melville did not restrict his considerations to this character alone. He placed his fictional rogue on a Mississippi riverboat and had him masquerade as many types of contemporary swindlers. The net effect of this was to create an atmosphere of chicanery and venality in his book; but his confidence man was such an artful deceiver that his identity as a single figure was obscured, if not lost. Thus, Melville's decision to pattern the character's masquerade after the types of the faithful as they were identified by Paul in I Corinthians not only gave his narrative the imaginative coherence it lacked but represented a shift from the simple social satire it may have been originally to an ironic commentary upon the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity. And the central character became a unifying device for an apparently episodic novel.
Melville was to further modify his conception of the confidence man, particularly in his last role as the cosmopolitan, by drawing inspiration from literature rather than life. The author's comments upon original characters in literature in Chapter 44 suggest that he also wished to create a truly original character; and he cites Milton's Satan, Hamlet, and Don Quixote as examples of such originality. But in most of his roles Melville's creation is a rather conventional swindler. His creation of the cosmopolitan, therefore, is especially significant, for it is primarily through this figure that Melville attempted to emulate the creators of the original characters whom he mentions.
Although the confidence man is the organizing principle in the main narrative, the author interpolated much material in his book as well. The detached narrator in this book prevented him from personally commenting upon the events of his story, but in the interpolated material Melville voices his own personal sentiments. In the five interpolated stories, Melville achieved a subtle coherence by once more taking his cues from Cervantes and Shakespeare. It is ambiguously suggested that the protagonist in each of these stories may suffer from a quixotic madness; and the circumstances of these tales of woe may have been derived in part from one of Hamlet's soliloquys. The "madness" of these figures was of the sort that Melville admired. Moreover, the interpolated material is directly related to the book's overriding theme of faith, or confidence.
Approached as a novel, The Confidence-Man invites many misunderstandings; it is preferable, therefore, to consider the book as what Northrop Frye has called an "anatomy." It is an imaginative fictional consideration of the world under the rubric of faith. In his anatomy, Melville is often cynical of the practical value of the Christian virtues, but ultimately he reveals greater admiration for those who have the heart to believe than for those who selfishly resist any appeal for confidence. As the final chapter reveals, the consistent object of Melville's scorn was neither human gullibility nor religious faith, but complacency.
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Quirk, Thomas Vaughan. "The Confidence Man: Melville's Problem of Faith." (1977). https://digitalrepository.unm.edu/engl_etds/312