Pierre, or, The Ambiguities Herman Melville
The following entry presents criticism of Melville's novel Pierre (1852). See also Bartleby, the Scrivener Criticism, Benito Cereno Criticism, Billy Budd Criticism, and Redburn: His First Voyage Criticism.
Many critics have deemed Pierre the most puzzling, and—alongside Moby-Dick (1851)—the most structurally and thematically complex work of Melville's career. Denigrated by most contemporary reviewers for its main themes of fornication, incest, and illegitimacy, Pierre was praised by some as a successful sentimental romance. The history of Pierre criticism has been controversial, with critics agreeing on very little, in part because the novel itself seems to contain and encompass two sides of every critical argument. For example, it is a romance that also parodies the genre of romance, a philosophical work that satirizes philosophers and philosophizing, and the story of an idealist who consistently undermines his own good intentions and ultimately commits suicide. Pierre has become increasingly popular in the latter part of the twentieth century, with many readers speculating about its psychosexual themes, Melville's intentions in the work, and the novel's place in Melville's corpus.
By the time he began writing Pierre in late 1851, Melville had already published seven novels—Typee (1846), The Story of Toby (1846), Omoo (1847), Mardi (1849), Redburn (1849), White Jacket (1850), and Moby-Dick—and was well-established in his literary career. His earlier narratives of exotic sea voyages appealed to the reading public, but Moby-Dick received mixed assessments. While some reviewers recognized and lauded Melville's technical and thematic accomplishment in that novel, many others found the work inscrutable. Most important to Melville himself was the enthusiastic praise of the novel by fellow novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, whom Melville considered a soulmate. In a letter written in 1851, Melville conveyed his heartfelt “content” with Hawthorne's response to Moby-Dick, but also expressed the continued pressure of his creative impulse and the need to move on: “So, now let us add Moby-Dick to our blessing, and step from that. Leviathan is not the biggest fish;—I have heard of Krakens.” Melville was feeling impatient with his past achievements, and also vulnerable as a result of harsh criticism of Moby-Dick. By Christmas, according to his family, he was so “engaged in a new work as frequently not to leave his room until quite dark … under a state of morbid excitement which will soon injure his health.” The new work was Pierre. The book, which grew from an estimated 360 pages to 500, was published by Harper and Brothers in the United States, but Melville's English publisher, Bentley, declined to publish it despite Melville's description of the work as “calculated for popularity … being a regular romance, with a mysterious plot to it, and stirring passions.” The advance proofs Melville had sent to Bentley clearly told a different story. Emotionally and physically exhausted, and unsure of what was expected of him any more as a novelist in the United States, after the publication of Pierre Melville decided to abandon novel writing and instead focused on short fiction.
Plot and Major Characters
A superficial plot outline of Pierre does indeed read like a typical sentimental novel of its day, but its dark psychological undercurrents manifest themselves soon enough. The novel's protagonist, Pierre Glendenning, the only son of a wealthy widow, grows up on a fine estate, Saddle Meadows, in bucolic upstate New York, and receives the best education available to a young man of his station. In addition, he is brought up to honor the near-saintly image of his dead father. In time, Pierre becomes engaged to Lucy Tartan, the daughter of another prominent New York family. His life changes drastically, however, when he meets Isabel and learns that she is his father's illegitimate daughter, and, therefore, his half-sister. Pierre's mother, leery of family scandal, does her utmost to hide the facts of the situation by controlling Pierre, but Pierre rebels and comes to believe that it is his duty and newfound mission in life to protect Isabel from his mother and from the world at large. He realizes that acknowledging Isabel as his sister would disgrace his father's memory, so he pretends to marry her and they elope to New York City. Now poor and friendless, Pierre pursues a career as an author, working on a book that no publisher will accept. Lucy, who is still in love with Pierre, follows him to New York, and in turn is followed by her brother and Pierre's cousin. The two threaten Pierre with discovery and Pierre kills the cousin. Lucy and Mrs. Glendenning die of grief when they hear the news, and Pierre and Isabel, who are now in love with each other, commit suicide together in his prison cell.
The major theme of Pierre, as its subtitle suggests, is ambiguity, and this idea is played out on many different levels of the novel. Melville was interested in the idea of exploring human psychology, especially repressed sexual urges, and in seeing how good can turn into evil in unpredictable ways. Pierre believes that conventional Christianity does not offer a high enough standard of conduct, and he sets for himself the goal of true Christ-like behavior. When Pierre and Isabel, in a pivotal chapter, are escaping to New York, he finds by chance a “philosophical lecture” on “Chronometricals and Horologicals.” The author of this discourse on time argues that the perfection of the chronometer makes it an imperfect timepiece for ordinary purposes and people (“Christ was a chronometer”). A horologue, which is adjustable to local standards, is more practical. Pierre aspires to follow chronometric time but, despite his high moral principles, ends in destroying those around him as well as himself. Melville develops the theme of the ambiguous nature of good and evil through Pierre, but also through the story of Isabel's childhood, and through Pierre's relationship with his manipulative mother. Again and again, Melville focuses on the mixed motives and the murky reasoning of the major characters of the novel. Even the treatment of nature proves problematic: Pierre rhapsodizes about the scenery of his native upstate New York and in part derives his optimistic philosophy from it, but discussions of nature often turn into satire and result in self-parody. The structure of Pierre also supports the idea of ambiguity. There are numerous shifts in tone and style, characters take on different roles with each other, narrative voices change over the course of the work, and there is a sharp change in the novel as the locale moves from rural upstate New York to the wasteland of New York City. Many critics have also pointed out an autobiographical dimension to the novel. Pierre, like Melville, is a novelist without a reading public who is trying to determine what is expected of him and to what extent he can comply with those expectations.
Pierre failed on both the critical and popular fronts and it did not bring Melville even the private satisfaction that Moby-Dick had offered. His popularity as an author, already seriously damaged by the publication of Moby-Dick, was completely destroyed by Pierre. The reading public, who preferred the entertainment of Typee and Omoo, were confused by the novel's metaphysical questionings and offended by its theme of incest. The book does contain conventional Romantic material, such as the beautiful blonde sweetheart and the mysterious dark lady with whom Pierre elopes, and the melodrama with its sexual tensions, murder, and suicide is not far off from the potboilers of the day. Contemporary readers rejected it probably for what they perceived as a lack of direction and good taste, but critics point out that they were probably also distressed by its acerbic treatment of the New York cultural scene, its undercutting of transcendental optimism and genteel conduct, and its subversion of religious doctrine embodied in the ironic outcome of Pierre's attempt to model his behavior on received Christian principles. Many critics, including Lewis Mumford, Hershel Parker, Gillian Brown, John Carlos Rowe, and Wyn Kelly have written about the autobiographical aspect of Pierre, often focusing on Melville's evolving view of himself as a writer and on his questioning of the validity of the profession of authorship in America. Broadening this discussion, Steve Gowler and Nicola Nixon have emphasized the pertinence of the American social context in the mid-nineteenth century to Pierre and to Melville's dilemma regarding his own choice of career. Other scholars, including R. K. Gupta and Nicholas Canaday, for example, have paid close attention to Melville's literary style in Pierre, discussing narrative stance, characterization, and Melville's borrowings from other genres. There is still an ongoing debate about the unity of Pierre as a novel; recently Bert C. Bach and Carol Colclough Strickland, among others, have argued for the novel's unity based on levels of narration and imagery, respectively. Perhaps most intriguing of all for late-twentieth-century critics has been exploration of Melville's treatment of human psychology, especially sexuality; R. Scott Kellner, James Creech, and Stephen Rachman have offered varied and controversial approaches to this field of study. Critical interest in Pierre has grown exponentially since the 1920s and the novel has provided a fertile field for research. Most Melville scholars now agree with Brian Higgins and Hershel Parker in their assessment of Pierre as perhaps “the best psychological novel that had yet been written in English.”
Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life. During a Four Months' Residence in a Valley of the Marquesas (novel) 1846
The Story of Toby (novel) 1846
Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas (novel) 1847
Mardi: And a Voyage Thither (novel) 1849
Redburn: His First Voyage (novel) 1849
White-Jacket; or, The World in a Man-of-War (novel) 1850
Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (novel) 1851; also published as The Whale (novel) 1851
Pierre; or, The Ambiguities (novel) 1852
Israel Potter: His Fifty Years in Exile (novel) 1855...
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SOURCE: “From ‘Amor, Threatening,’” in Critical Essays on Herman Melville's Pierre; or, The Ambiguities, edited by Brian Higgins and Hershel Parker, G. K. Hall & Co., 1983, pp. 135-49.
[In the following excerpt from an essay originally published in 1929, Mumford links the themes of Pierrewith events in Melville's life while he was writing the novel, concluding that “Pierre disclosed a lesion that never entirely healed.”]
Moby-Dick was done. In the fall of 1851 it appeared, first in England, then, a few weeks later, in America. Melville was exhausted, exhausted and overwrought. In the prodigious orchestration of Moby-Dick,...
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SOURCE: “Melville's Use of Non-Novelistic Conventions in Pierre,” in The Emerson Society Quarterly, No. 48, 3rd Quarter, 1967, pp. 141-45.
[In the following essay, Gupta maintains that in writing Pierre Melville felt that the conventions of the novel were inadequate and restrictive, and thus he borrowed specific literary devices from the dramatic and epic genres.]
In his essay “Melville's Search for Form” James E. Miller, Jr., says that Melville “was not content to accept without question the dominant form of his day—the novel. Instead, he adopted the outward shape but constantly pushed beyond the apparent limits. There is hardly a...
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SOURCE: “Melville's Pierre: At War with Social Convention,” in Papers on Language and Literature, Vol. V, No. 1, Winter, 1969, pp. 51-62.
[In the following essay, Canaday explores Melville's treatment of the individual's need to follow his or her moral imperative—even at the cost of defying social convention—and describes the writer's attitude toward the problem as ambivalent.]
The elements in Pierre Glendinning's vision of himself as Enceladus, when late in the novel Melville's hero contemplates the ruin of his life “with prophetic discomfiture and woe,” provide by analogy a significant comment on Pierre's career in its penultimate...
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SOURCE: “Narrative Technique and Structure in Pierre,” in American Transcendental Quarterly, No. 7, Part I, Summer, 1970, pp. 5-8.
[In the following essay, Bach discusses the various levels of narration in Pierre and suggests that the alternating narrative voices help to unify the work.]
In late 1851 Herman Melville, weary from his struggles to see Moby-Dick through publication, had no burning ambition for his next fictional production. Pierre would be a pastoral romance with a touch of the gothic and would, he hoped, regain some of the money and reputation with publishers that he had lost by his two previous publications, Mardi...
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SOURCE: “Style and Tone in Melville's Pierre,” in ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance, No. 60, Summer, 1970, pp. 76-86.
[In the following essay, Holder discusses the shifts in narrative tone, attitude, and mood in Pierre, conceding that, in the end, there is little to account for the novel's contradictions and fragments.]
“It is hard always to be sure of its intention. …”
F. O. Matthiessen on Pierre
The stylistic variety of Moby Dick has generally been regarded as one of that book's glories, a source of wonder and delight. If critics have differed in their interpretations, they have at least...
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SOURCE: “Melville's ‘Intentions’ in Pierre,” in Studies in the Novel, Vol. VI, No. 2, Summer, 1974, pp. 186-99.
[In the following essay, Milder suggests that in Pierre Melville set out to write a parody of the romance novel that would reveal the depravity of which mankind is capable.]
With the publication of the Northwestern-Newberry edition of Pierre with its historical note by Leon Howard and Hershel Parker, an orthodox interpretation of the novel has begun to emerge, an interpretation not so much of the meaning of the book as of Melville's complex intentions in writing it. The essence of this interpretation, first presented by Professor...
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SOURCE: “Sex, Toads, and Scorpions: A Study of the Psychological Themes in Melville's Pierre,” in The Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 31, No. 1, Spring, 1975, pp. 5-20.
[In the following essay, Kellner explores Melville's treatment of several psychological themes in Pierre,focusing on the relationship between ideal love and instinctive sex, and between sex and death.]
Although Melville was aware of the difficulties in pursuing half-conscious thoughts, he nevertheless persisted with psychological inquiries in his novels, probing “the endless, winding way,—the flowing river in the cave of man.”1 Melville saw the difference between man's...
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SOURCE: “Why Pierre Went Wrong,” in Studies in the Novel, Vol. VIII, No. 1, Spring, 1976, pp. 7-23.
[In the following essay, Parker examines documentary evidence such as Melville's correspondence with his publishers and reviews of Moby-Dick to suggest reasons why the author's focus on Pierre's psyche was diverted to self-analysis of his own literary career.]
Melville's intentions in writing Pierre have been debated with intermittent energy for several decades, but many basic questions remain unanswered.1 When and in what mood did Melville conceive it and write it? Did he conceive and begin it in one mood and finish it in another? Did...
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SOURCE: “Coherence and Ambivalence in Melville's Pierre,” in American Literature, Vol. XLVIII, No. 3, November, 1976, pp. 302-11.
[In the following essay, Strickland asserts that, while Melville's handling of imagery in Pierre provides a kind of coherence for the work, the novel remains ultimately “inconsistent and incomplete.”]
Readers familiar with the mastery of Moby Dick have often been perplexed by the mystery of Herman Melville's succeeding novel, Pierre. The mystery lies in the contrast between the artfully controlled style and structure of the earlier book, published in 1851, and the sophomoric fustian of Pierre, which...
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SOURCE: “The Flawed Grandeur of Melville's Pierre,” in New Perspectives on Melville, edited by Faith Pullin, Kent State University Press, 1978, pp. 162-96.
[In the following essay, Higgins and Parker consider the various ways in which Pierre fails as a novel, at the same time proclaiming it the best psychological novel that had been written in English by the middle of the Nineteenth Century.]
Pierre was not conceived as a lesser effort, a pot-boiler like Redburn, which Melville disparaged as something he wrote to buy tobacco with. Judging from his response to Hawthorne's praise of Moby-Dick in mid-November, 1851, Melville intended...
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SOURCE: “That Profound Silence: The Failure of Theodicy in Pierre,” in Southern Humanities Review, Vol. XV, No. 3, Summer, 1981, pp. 243-54.
[In the following essay, Gowler discusses the role of God and belief in Pierre, concluding that the novel portrays the breakdown of religious systems and “the absurdity of the human condition.”]
Herman Melville's Pierre is a story of unrelieved suffering, a devolution toward despair and suicide. In it Melville appears to have vented the bitter cynicism which infected him as he tried to consolidate his identity as artist, thinker, and husband. After completing Moby-Dick, Melville began the...
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SOURCE: “Melville's Pierre and the Psychology of Incongruity,” in Studies in the Novel, Vol. XV, No. 3, Fall, 1983, pp. 183-201.
[In the following essay, Lewis explores Pierre in terms of the various characters' responses to the incongruous, suggesting that this theme contributes to the overall ambiguity of the work.]
That sort of wayward mood I am speaking of, comes over a man only in some time of extreme tribulation; it comes in the very midst of his earnestness, so that what just before might have seemed to him a thing momentous, now seems but a part of the general joke.
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SOURCE: “Pierre: Domestic Confidence Game and the Drama of Knowledge,” in Studies in the Novel, Vol. XVI, No. 4, Winter, 1984, pp. 396-409.
[In the following essay, Dimock discusses the various characters' quests for knowledge in Pierre and concludes that, since the self proves to be unknowable in the novel, all the individual quests eventually degenerate into ambiguity.]
“They know him not;—I only know my Pierre;—none else beneath the circuit of yon sun.”
“All's o’er, and ye know him not!”
Lucy's and Isabel's pronouncements...
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SOURCE: “All's o’er and ye know him not’: A Reading of Pierre,” in Herman Melville: Reassessments, edited by A. Robert Lee, Vision and Barnes & Noble, 1984, pp. 116-34.
[In the following essay, Gray explores Pierre as “an artifice that calls attention to its own artificiality” and suggests that the novel is a predecessor of Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire and Jorge Luis Borges's Ficciones.]
Herman Melville completed his sixth and greatest novel, Moby-Dick, in the summer of 1851. The book must have cost him an enormous amount in terms of imaginative energy, moral effort, and sheer physical strain: and yet, within a few...
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SOURCE: “Pierre in the Domestic Circle,” in Studies in the Novel, Vol. XVIII, No. 4, Winter, 1986, pp. 395-402.
[In the following essay, Canaday explores the connection between Pierre's psychological problems and his becoming a male member of a female world as he moves from Saddle Meadows to New York City.]
When Melville wrote to Sophia Hawthorne and promised that his new novel would be a “rural bowl of milk,”1 he may have been referring to a central theme, which, in our predilection for irony, we have overlooked. Melville was assuring Mrs. Hawthorne, of course, that at last there would be no sailor-narrator here, that there would be a sensibility...
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SOURCE: “Isabel's Story: The Voice of the Dark Woman in Melville's Pierre,” in American Transcendental Quarterly: A Journal of New England Writers, Vol. 1, No. 2, June, 1987, pp. 99-110.
[In the following essay, Egan examines Isabel's story as a bildungsroman, or coming-of-age narrative, and interprets it in the light of several key concepts of Romanticism.]
Isabel, the “dark” woman in Melville's Pierre, fascinates critics in part because she appears suddenly to tell a story that becomes the mainspring of the novel's plot. It is surprising, therefore, that her story itself has received relatively little detailed attention. It has, of...
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SOURCE: “The Sentimental Education of Pierre Glendinning: An Exploration of the Causes and Implications of Violence in Melville's Pierre,” in American Transcendental Quarterly: A Journal of New England Writers, Vol. 1, No. 3, September, 1987, pp. 167-77.
[In the following essay, Wilson notes that Melville attributes Pierre's psychological problems, especially his belief in his own capacity for heroic action, to his sentimental education.]
Pierre; or, The Ambiguities (1852), Melville's seventh and most problematic novel, is still so little understood that critics have tended to focus on questions of authorial intent and/or composition: whether Melville...
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SOURCE: “Why an Enthusiast?: Melville’s Pierre and the Problem of the Imagination,” in ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance, Vol. 33, No. 3, 3rd quarter, 1987, pp. 146-67.
[In the following essay, Simmons suggests that Pierre presents the problem of uncontrolled imagination, and provides evidence from Melville's reading, which includes the works of Isaac Taylor.]
Few studies of Herman Melville's Pierre (1852) fail to mention the hero's “enthusiasm” or to refer to Pierre as an “enthusiast,” but seldom does the critic consider exactly what the word implies for our reading of the novel. Lawrance Thompson's statement is...
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SOURCE: “Hearing Narrative Voices in Melville's Pierre,” in boundary 2, Vol. 17, No. 1, Spring, 1990, pp. 100-32.
[In the following essay, Wald characterizes Pierre as an endless succession of narrative voices and perspectives that requires the readers' participation in making conclusions about the events of the novel.]
Melville's Pierre inaugurates the tradition of author protagonists in American literature.1 Pierre Glendinning's declaration of independence from an authorizing cultural discourse immediately precedes his resolve to write a novel that will “gospelize the world anew.” But his narrative consciousness underwrites his...
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SOURCE: “Anti-Sentimentalism and Authorship in Pierre,” in Domestic Individualism: Imagining Self in Nineteenth-Century America, University of California Press, 1990, pp. 135-69.
[In the following essay, Brown interprets Pierre as Melville's parody and critique of the typical sentimental domestic novel of his day, focusing on the author's handling of the role of the individual in American society.]
Seventeen books into the narrative of Pierre; or, The Ambiguities, Melville abandons the chronology of Pierre's family history—the stuff of the sentimental novel—to announce: “I write precisely as I please.”1 This declaration of...
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SOURCE: “Herman Melville: The Subversive Lie of Expedient Truth in Pierre: Or, the Ambiguities,” in Pious Impostures and Unproven Words: The Romance of Deconstruction in Nineteenth-Century America, University Press of America, 1990, pp. 67-94.
[In the following excerpt, Scheer examines the relationship between Pierre and the narrator of Pierre and explores the nature of self-knowledge and virtue.]
1. THE EPISTEMOLOGICAL GROUND: OR, THE EXPEDIENT LIE
“… a most singular act of pious imposture”
Because it traces the causes and effects of the inscription of this chapter,...
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SOURCE: “Romancing the Stone: Melville's Critique of Ideology in Pierre,” in Theorizing American Literature: Hegel, the Sign, and History, edited by Bainard Cowan and Joseph G. Kronick, Louisiana State University Press, 1991, pp. 195-232.
[In the following essay, Rowe discusses Pierre as Melville's critique of nineteenth-century literary production, suggesting that the novel is his farewell to writing as he conceived it before Pierre, and that it serves as a bridge to The Confidence-Man.]
The founders of Rome …—Romulus and Remus—are, according to the tradition, themselves freebooters—represented as from their earliest...
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SOURCE: “Pierre, or, The Ambiguities: A Camp Reading,” in Closet Writing/Gay Reading: The Case of Melville's Pierre, The University of Chicago Press, 1993, pp. 93-155.
[In the following excerpt, Creech interprets Pierre as a covertly homoerotic novel, with Pierre's attraction to his father manifested through his feelings for Isabel.]
PIERRE'S TWO FATHERS
“A WORD TO THE WISE”
Pierre has few of the … obviously homoerotic themes which have now been so frequently acknowledged in Melville's other novels. Even beyond these difficult questions of homoerotic content, the wink, or its audience, it...
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SOURCE: “Compromising Politics and Herman Melville's Pierre,” in American Literature, Vol. 69, No. 4, December, 1997, pp. 719-41.
[In the following essay, Nixon examines Pierre in its historical context, maintaining that Melville preferred ambiguity to political allusion.]
In a now rather famous chapter at the midpoint of Pierre; or, the Ambiguities, “Young America in Literature,” Herman Melville announces a thoroughly uncompromising narrative agenda:
Among the various conflicting modes of writing history, there would seem to be two grand practical distinctions, under which all the rest must...
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SOURCE: “Melville's Pierre and Nervous Exhaustion; or, ‘The Vacant Whirlingness of the Bewilderingness,’” in Literature and Medicine, Vol. 16, No. 2, Fall, 1997, pp. 226-49.
[In the following essay, Rachman explores Pierre in the context of male hysteria, asserting that Pierre's nervous exhaustion both shapes and makes problematic the idea that the novel was written as a romance.]
The author … has succeeded in producing nothing but a powerfully unpleasant caricature of morbid thought and passion … [T]he details of such a mental malady as that which afflicts Pierre are almost as disgusting as those of physical disease...
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SOURCE: “Pierre's Domestic Ambiguities,” in The Cambridge Companion to Herman Melville, edited by Robert S. Levine, Cambridge University Press, 1998, pp. 91-113.
[In the following essay, Kelley suggests that Melville's notion of domesticity based on the brother/sister rather than husband/wife relationship was too extreme for his middle-class readers, and so contributed to the novel's failure.]
In the spring of 1851, Melville wrote to his Pittsfield neighbor Nathaniel Hawthorne, pretending to review his new novel:
“The House of the Seven Gables: A Romance. By Nathaniel Hawthorne. One vol. 16mo, pp. 344.” … This book...
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