Pierre, or, The Ambiguities, Herman Melville
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
The Piazza Tales (short stories) 1856
The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (novel) 1857
Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (poetry) 1866
Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land (poetry) 1876
John Marr and Other Sailors (poetry) 1888
Timoleon (poetry) 1891
Billy Budd and Other Prose Pieces (novel and short stories) 1924
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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, Melville had drained his energies, and, participating in Ahab's own pursuit and defiance, he had reached a point of spiritual exasperation which, like Ahab's illness after Moby-Dick had amputated him, was increased by his lowered physical tone, by his weak eyes. Books like this are written out of health and energy, but they do not leave health and energy behind. On the contrary, the aftermath of such an effort is irritation, debility, impotence.
Melville was worked up, in the writing of Moby-Dick, to the highest pitch of effort; and he was harried, no doubt, by his ever-present necessity to keep his public and add to his income. The spiritual momentum remained, but the force behind it dwindled away. With no time for...
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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 kind of literature he did not sample or assimilate: travel book, sea yarn, sociological study, philosophical tract, allegory, epic, domestic or historical romance, tragedy or comedy.”1 In Pierre Melville perhaps came closer to the form of the traditional novel than he did in any other work. At the same time, however, he found the conventions of the novel inadequate and unduly restrictive and, therefore, “pushed beyond the apparent limits” of his form and made use of certain specific devices derived from such literary genres as the epic and the drama. In Pierre Melville achieved some important artistic effects through epic and dramatic conventions, and hence my study of the ways in which they are used will, I...
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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 moment.1 Like Enceladus he is a rebel, and the “doubly incestuous” (408) Titan prefigures Pierre in his relationship with his mother and Isabel. But another element in the Enceladus myth has not received sufficient attention: he was an armed giant, not an Olympian god, and his war was with a society of gods. Enceladus's fate was to be buried in the earth. Although in spirit he was similar to Prometheus, another Titan, the general assault of Enceladus differed from the single, daring act of defiance against a single god. Pierre's spirit is akin to Ahab's but his immediate quarrel is with society.2 His fate is to be buried alive in the social environment, until in a wild moment he destroys himself: scorned as an author by a...
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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 and Moby-Dick. In a letter written to his publisher Bentley on April 16, 1852, he indicated his assumption that his new book would prove agreeable to public taste: “And more especially am I impelled to decline those overtures upon the ground that my new book possessing unquestionable novelty, as regards my former ones,—treating of utterly new scenes & characters;—and, as I beleive [sic], very much more calculated for popularity than anything you have yet published of mine—being a regular romance, with a mysterious plot to it, & stirring passions at work, and withall, representing a new & elevated aspect of American life—all these considerations warrant me strongly in not closing with terms greatly inferior...
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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 shared a common admiration for Moby Dick's richness. With Pierre, however, the shifts in style1 have occasioned not only radical disagreements among Melville critics, but unhappy bewilderment and irritation as well. In addition to the puzzlement over the novel's stylistic changes, there exists considerable doubt about what Melville is up to when using a single style at a given moment in the book. Depending on which critic one is reading, or sometimes on which passage in a particular commentary one is looking at, Melville is seen as wallowing in literary sentimentality or parodying it, assenting to Pierre's speeches or regarding them as rant, presenting his protagonist as a tragic hero or as a repulsive egoist,...
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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 Howard in his biography of Melville and modified only slightly in his section of the historical note, is that when Melville “began to write the book which was to become Pierre, he was planning to turn out a genuinely popular story, touched by the strange mystery of the Gothic romance yet full of the ‘genialities’ he had so admired in The House of the Seven Gables.”1 In Moby-Dick, so the argument runs, Melville had exhausted the last remaining portion of his nautical experience, his twenty-six months as a whaleman, but more than that he had exhausted the patience and attention of his audience. By November 25, 1851, roughly two weeks after the publication of Moby-Dick, he was still over four...
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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 conscious behavior and his unconscious desires as the difference between an open plain and a dark thicket. He believed his job as novelist was equal to the pioneer-explorers of his time, that an author was a scout “following the Indian trail” (p. 84) leading into the thickets of the mind. He was aware, though, of the dangers involved in such scouting. “It is not for man to follow the trail of truth too far,” he writes halfway through Pierre. There are some truths that even the most avid truthseeker cannot bear to face, precipices at the end of that Indian trail, and thickets so dense that the prober “entirely loses the directing compass of his mind” (p. 165). Ironically enough, in the case of Pierre, the truth for...
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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 he intend it to be a popular romance and only inadvertently or recklessly alter its course so that it was foredoomed to failure? Did he intend all along that it be simultaneously a profounder book than Moby-Dick and a book most readers could appreciate at a superficial level? How much had he written when he broke off work at the end of 1851 to make a two-or-three-week trip to New York City? Why did he make that trip, anyway? When did Melville first know that the Harpers would insist on less generous terms for Pierre than for any of his earlier books they had published? Did the negotiations for the contract take place early enough to have affected the composition of Pierre? What effect, if any, did the reviews of...
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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 appeared just one year later. Critics have attempted to explain this apparent regression in craftsmanship by noting in Pierre Melville's satiric purposes in the outbursts of juvenile overwriting, which reflect the hero's immaturity, and by detailing Melville's intentional parody of the style and substance of conventional romanticism.1 But there is further evidence of authorial control in the novel: the recurrence of certain motifs of imagery lends a degree of unity and coherence which shows that the hand of the master, though shaky, is still operating to shape Pierre.
This recurrent imagery is often manifested dichotomously, a technique which is completely appropriate to the theme of the novel,...
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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 his next book to be as much grander than his last as the legendary Krakens are bigger than whales.1 Never a novelist or romancer within the ordinary definitions, Melville in Moby-Dick had attempted to convert the whaling narrative, a flourishing division of nautical literature, into a vehicle for the philosophical and psychological speculations a pondering man like him was compelled toward. Pierre is his comparable attempt to convert the gothic romance (in one of its late permutations as sensational fiction primarily for female readers) into a vehicle for his psychological and philosophical speculations (now in this order of importance). The technical sea-knots he untied in Moby-Dick are grappled with again...
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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 labyrinthine psychological probings of Pierre without respite. Though on the surface Pierre seems very unlike Melville's masterwork, some scholars believe it is the culminating work in a trilogy which includes Mardi as well as Moby-Dick.1 With desperate urgency, Pierre presses the metaphysical questions introduced in these earlier works. Evil is no longer buffered by the unreality of Mardi, nor by the distancing of a healthy-minded narrator from a deranged psyche as in Moby-Dick. In Pierre evil appears as an immediate, inescapable power which rudely insinuates its way not only into the hero's thoughts and actions, but also into the anonymous narrator's...
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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.
All of us are confronted with conflicts or problems that must be dealt with. By occasionally stepping back from the seriousness of the situation and approaching it with a sense of humor (sometimes called “looking on the light side”), we are presumably better able to deal with the source of the problem. If laughter does serve the tension-relief and impulse-control functions discussed, a person must be in a better position to cope with conflict after humor than before it.
Paul E. McGhee, Humor: Its Origin and Development
Insights developed through research into the psychology of incongruity can be useful in understanding both Herman...
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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 about Pierre, appearing near the beginning and at the very end of the book, both dwell on a single—and to them, presumably the most important—activity: “knowing” Pierre. Pierre has often been discussed as the protagonist's quest for knowledge. One tends to overlook the same obsession on the part of the three women, Mrs. Glendinning, Lucy, and Isabel. Their obsession, of course, is with knowledge of a rather special kind—not knowledge in the abstract, but knowledge of Pierre. What does it mean to “know” Pierre, why is this knowledge so crucial, and how do these women's quests for knowledge tally with Pierre's own? Is knowledge a psychological category—as it seems to be in the women's attempt to “know”...
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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 weeks of completing it, he was already at work again preparing his seventh novel, which was eventually to be called Pierre: Or, The Ambiguities. In many ways, Pierre represented something of a new departure for Melville. For, in the first place, it was set on land rather than at sea; and, in the second, with its aristocratic hero, its dark and fair ladies, its concern with the issues of love and money, and its use of secret letters and hidden portraits to propel or complicate the plot, it seemed to belong in a tradition of domestic romance that was immensely popular at the time. Melville, whose five books prior to Moby-Dick had produced an annual income of less than $1,600, clearly felt himself under some pressure to...
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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 different from the rover in Polynesia, the bitter White Jacket and Redburn, or the ruminating Ishmael. As it turned out, however, the narrative voice in Pierre is not so different, and the phrase presenting his new hero Pierre in the clabber of domesticity is not ironic. What I am labeling the “domestic circle” is not only a setting but is also a symbolic construct in Melville's thought that, it seems to me, has a great deal of power in shaping attitudes and behavior patterns. Since there are two main domestic circles in the novel, one in Saddle Meadows and the other in New York City, we may here be observing a structural principle that will afford us some new insights.
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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 course, been mined for symbols and themes in general studies of the novel. And in the past it has also been attacked by some prominent commentators. Henry Murray, for example, in his famous introduction to the Hendricks House edition of Pierre, dismisses Isabel's story, saying, “the incoherent flow of her shadowy memories will not be so engrossing to the reader as they are to Pierre” (xlviii). Milton Stern, writing about a decade later, appreciates the story's content but believes it to be misconceived because in it “the person who is supposed to be inarticulate becomes one of the most articulate characters in the novel” (188). Stern, moreover, objects to the form of the tale, charging that Isabel's many pauses—her most obvious...
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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 intended to write a popular romance, a satire of a popular romance, or even a psychological novel;1 and whether (and if so, why) Melville deviated from his original plot when he added the autobiographical material in the second half of the novel.2 Little agreement has been reached on any of these questions, and meanwhile important thematic and textual matters in Pierre have remained unexplored.
One of the most important elements in Pierre, one which is central to both the Saddle Meadows and the New York sections of the novel, is the multi-layered theme of violence and its connection to the sentimental education of Pierre Glendinning, Melville's nineteen-year-old protagonist. From the...
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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 typical: “Pierre becomes the allegorical type of the ‘Enthusiast’—literally, God-possessed and God-inspired. And Melville further manipulates the actions of his young enthusiast in such a way as to illuminate his own anti-Christian theological beliefs.”1 Thompson assumes we know how the “allegorical type” will act. He follows Henry Murray's explanation of Melville's “conception of his hero” as seen in the epithet “Enthusiast to Duty”: the term derives from the “Socratic or Platonic notion of Eros”; it means “a man possessed by Eros, passionate love.”2 Without defining the term, Bruce Franklin discusses at length the “case against Pierre's enthusiasm,” which is “more lustful than...
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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 apparently resistless damnation, as Pierre submits precisely to those self-evident truths that he has ostensibly rejected. Pierre, we learn, is actually writing two books, and the unconsciously authored narrative that dooms him deconstructs the narrative about Vivia, himself an “author-hero,” to expose Pierre's “plagiari[sm] of his own experiences.” The result, Pierre, is a compilation of unravelings that frustrates narrative expectations as it explores the impulse to narrativize.2
Pierre's “plagiarism” highlights his “characterization.” His resistance to autonomy is apparent both in his life and in his earliest writings. Pierre is a scribbler whose “occasional contributions to magazines...
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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 literary individualism heralds a satirical discussion of “Young America in Literature,” as typified by “the juvenile author” of “that delightful love-sonnet, entitled ‘The Tropical Summer’” (245). We now learn that Pierre has enjoyed some success as the author of this sentimental sonnet and other “gemmed little sketches of thought and fancy” (245).
The switch from the parodic Glendinning family plot to a lampoon of nineteenth-century American literary production sets the individual who writes precisely as he pleases against prevailing literary as well as domestic relations. For the remainder of the book Melville chronicles not only Pierre's progression from idyllic domesticity to incest and murder but his...
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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, Melville's Pierre (1852) is perhaps the most openly deconstructive work under consideration in this book. Its “thematics” of reading and writing anticipate a number of Freudian, Nietzschean, and Derridean insights: the sublimation of repressed sexuality, the illusory nature of human “truths,” and the fiction of a stable center or origin. Its basic structure is also reminiscent of biblical genetics, the loss of an always already lost innocence and the failed achievement of an always already inadequately reassuring knowledge of good and evil. Just as its “intentional incoherence” is finally interpretable as “totally coherent both internally and in its effect on the reader” (Kearns 1983: 50), so, too, its wildly...
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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 days thrust out from the Family, and as having grown up in a state of isolation from family affection. …
The immoral active severity of the Romans in this private side of character necessarily finds its counterpart in the passive severity of their political union. For the severity which the Roman experienced from the State he was compensated by a severity, identical in nature, which he was allowed to indulge towards his family—a servant on the one side, a despot on the other.
—Hegel, The Philosophy of History
In his Introduction to the 1949 Hendricks House edition of Pierre, Henry A. Murray criticizes Melville...
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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 is in general difficult to know at all just what Melville himself consciously thought he was doing in Pierre. To complicate an already complicated question, there is reason to think, for example, that the tone, if not the entire nature, of the project may actually have changed, perhaps after the first thirteen or sixteen chapters, perhaps as a result of difficulties he encountered at that time.
Brian Higgins and Hershel Parker have suggested that the bad reviews of Moby-Dick, which began coming in during the composition of Pierre, may in part explain why the novel turns so dark, destructive, and just plain weird after a certain point.1 Melville scholars have puzzled over his promises to...
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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 subordinately range. By the one mode, all contemporaneous circumstances, facts, and events must be set down contemporaneously; by the other, they are only to be set down as the general stream of the narrative shall dictate; for matters which are kindred in time, may be very irrelative in themselves. I elect neither of these; I am careless of either; both are well enough in their way; I write precisely as I please.1
With a characteristically paraliptic flourish, in which he simultaneously posits and rejects the “conflicting modes of writing history,” Melville emphasizes his refusal to abide by prescribed novelistic rules and unapologetically celebrates what appears to be narrative whimsy—the whimsy in...
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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 itself.
—Review of Pierre, Graham's Magazine 18521
So, if thou wouldst go to the gods, leave thy dog of a body behind thee.
Near the end of his most vexed novel, Pierre, or The Ambiguities (1852), Herman Melville describes his author/protagonist in the thrall of nervous exhaustion, brought on by literary activity:
Much oftener than before, Pierre laid back in his chair with the deadly feeling of faintness. Much oftener than before, came staggering home from his evening walk, and from sheer...
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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 is like a fine old chamber, abundantly, but still judiciously, furnished. … There is old china with rare devices, set out on the carved buffet; there are long and indolent lounges to throw yourself upon; there is an admirable sideboard, plentifully stored with good viands; there is a smell as of old wine in the pantry; and finally, in one corner, there is a dark little black-letter volume in golden clasps, entitled “Hawthorne: A Problem.”1
This witty letter develops into Melville's famous characterization of Hawthorne as the tragic hero who “says NO! in thunder, but the Devil himself cannot make him say yes” (186). Melville's opening, however, lingering as it does over the household...
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Barber, Patricia. “Melville's Self-Image as a Writer and the Image of the Writer in Pierre. In Massachusetts Studies in English III, No. 3 (Spring 1972): 65-71.
Traces parallels between Pierre as a writer and Melville himself, contending that in the novel Melville deromanticizes writing and writers.
Bell, Michael Davitt. “The Glendinning Heritage: Melville's Literary Borrowings in Pierre.” In Studies in Romanticism 12, No. 4 (Fall 1973): 741-62.
Maintains that in Pierre Melville deals with the relationship between life and art and notes that all Pierre's efforts to make his life imitate art degenerate into parody.
Berthold, Michael C. “The Prison World of Melville's Pierre and ‘Bartleby.’” In ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 33, No. 4 (4th quarter 1987): 237-52.
Discusses prison imagery in Pierreand “Bartleby the Scrivener,” suggesting that both works exhibit Melville's general contemplation of the institutional power of prisons.
Chai, Leon. “Melville and Shelley: Speculations on Metaphysics, Morals, and Poetics in Pierre and ‘Shelley's Vision.’” In ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 29, No. 1 (1st quarter 1983): 31-45.
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