I suppose this will fall into the category of Subjects for Future Research. Almost all of this is from the last chapter. It is especially good.
The confidence man enters a stateroom where he finds an old man reading the boat’s Bible, an early Gideon, “a present from a society.” The light comes from a single highly symbolic lamp – it may well represent Christianity. Men are sleeping in berths along the walls, off in the shadows. The setting is one of the few in the book that takes advantage of the actual geography and practice of a riverboat, and in consequence Melville expands on the usual collocation between two characters, although that is the bulk of the scene.
So this is something new (the confidence man, the cosmopolitan, is punning on the Bible – I will mark the innovation in boldface):
"And so you have good news there, sir – the very best of good news."
"Too good to be true," here came from one of the curtained berths. "Hark!" said the cosmopolitan. "Some one talks in his sleep."
"Yes," said the old man, "and you – you seem to be talking in a dream. "
Offstage ironic commentary on the conversation. From whom? Soon the sleeping man speaks again. The cosmopolitan is reading the Bible, quoting lines from Ecclesiasticus:
"'If thou be for his profit he will use thee; he will make thee bear, and will not be sorry for it. Observe and take good heed. When thou hearest these things, awake in thy sleep.'"
"Who's that describing the confidence-man?" here came from the berth again.
"Awake in his sleep, sure enough, ain't he?" said the cosmopolitan, again looking off in surprise. "Same voice as before, ain't it? Strange sort of dreamy man, that. Which is his berth, pray?"
The sleeper appears to be presenting a genuine challenge to the devil at the center of the novel. He speaks one more time, with another ironic challenge, so three times total, the magic number, before awaking. I remember the strange line from Chapter 16, “Speeds the dædal boat as a dream,” and chase down related lines (“’Now, dreams are wonderful things, as everybody knows – so wonderful, indeed, that some people stop not short of ascribing them directly to heaven,’” Ch. 40), and begin to wonder who is dreaming and who is dreamed.
Perhaps no one. Perhaps this is a dead end, If the novel were written on the principles of Pale Fire, the identity of the man in the berth would be ascertainable through clues from a hundred pages back. Who am I kidding, the sleeper is Herman Melville, dreaming his own novel, who else could it be?
Strangely (strange for most novels), the awakening of the man in the berth summons a boy demon, flames and all:
All pointed and fluttering, the rags of the little fellow's red-flannel shirt, mixed with those of his yellow coat, flamed about him like the painted flames in the robes of a victim in auto-da-fe. His face, too, wore such a polish of seasoned grime, that his sloe-eyes sparkled from out it like lustrous sparks in fresh coal.
The boy is a peddler of objects related to distrust (locks, money belts). His constant winking at and asides to the confidence man are among the best jokes of the book. Maybe the confidence man is not meant to be the devil throughout the book, but he sure is here. Or at least the little demon thinks he is.
The book ends with a return to earthier matters, a scatological metaphor that I was surprised to find in an American novel., the novel’s last surprise among many.
Or last until I read it again.
Monday is a holiday, thank goodness. Back Tuesday with something. There is always something.