A Mute Goes Aboard a Boat

In the first chapter of Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man: His Masquerade (1857), there is the image of a mute stark in his whiteness:

Though neither soiled nor slovenly, his cream-colored suit had a tossed look, almost linty, as if, traveling night and day from some far country beyond the prairies, he had long been without the solace of a bed. His aspect was at once gentle and jaded, and, from the moment of seating himself, increasing in tired abstraction and dreaminess. Gradually overtaken by slumber, his flaxen head drooped, his whole lamb-like figure relaxed, and, half reclining against the ladder's foot, lay motionless, as some sugar-snow in March, which, softly stealing down over night, with its white placidity startles the brown farmer peering out from his threshold at daybreak.

The description which closes the chapter comes after a scene rich in rhetoric. The stranger in the cream-colored suit cannot speak, and yet he seeks the attention of the crowd of passengers on the Mississippi river boat Fidéle, scrawling out messages on a slate next to the captain’s office. Depending on which critic you read, most assume that this stranger is one avatar of the endless stream of “confidence men” which appear and disappear throughout the book. The date is April Fool’s day—and it seems like this book invites a critic to climb out on thin limbs to make sense of the jokes.

Around half of the critics assume that the stranger is the Devil. A few more see him as God—a reading that seems more interesting to me, given his muteness and his “lamb-like” figure. However, I feel as if they press to hard to draw connections when they see this character as only a mask worn by some sinister singular “confidence man” lurking behind the text. The stranger seems to have more in common with the eleatic stranger of Plato’s later dialogues than any apocalyptic vision of the devil; this stranger doesn’t seem to be a trickster,

The mute stranger scrawls parables about charity on his slate until he is nearly trampled by passing porters, revealing that he is not only mute but deaf. The barber, next-door down from the scene, hangs up a contrasting sign: “No Trust” signifying his unwillingness to accept credit. The crowd disperses into the shipboard arcade, and the stranger sits down (as described in the passage above).

Tired abstraction and dreaminess might be the operative words for this book; it unfolds mostly through dialectic conversations among confidence men and their marks. However, the first two scenes: the stranger and a black cripple performing on deck (chapter 3) offer a different sort of potentiality. They frame a stark contrast, with deep uncertainties about their intentions in the larger arc of the story.

Are these characters “authentic” and separate or are they meant to be mashed together? I think I prefer to keep them separate, myself.

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January 4, 2006 4:18 PM