As passengers aboard the steamboat Fidele prepare for their trip from St. Louis to New Orleans, they read a placard offering a reward for the capture of an imposter from the East a confidence man. During the trip, the imposter assumes many disguises as he goes about the boat cheating and duping passengers out of their money. In confrontations between the confidence man and his victims, Melville explores the hypocrisy and deceit seen to be normal in a commercial society.
The Confidence-Man was Herman Melville's last major novel before his interests changed from being a professional writer to becoming a professional lecturer. With a writing style comparable to Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, in that all of the character's stories interlock as the book progresses, The Confidence Man is written in a manner of satire dealing with the themes of sincerity, identity, morality, economic materialism, and irony.
The book is written based on Melville's belief that It is or seems to be a wise sort of thing, to realize that all that happens to a man in this life is only by way of joke, especially his misfortunes, if he has them. And it is also worth bearing in mind, that the joke is passed round pretty liberally and impartially, so that not very many are entitled to fancy that they in particular are getting the worst of it. In an age of commercial deception and cynicism, this is must reading.