Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1009

Pierre is the most controversial of Herman Melville’s novels. The work was condemned by contemporary reviewers, and readers since then have had difficulty in understanding the book and in determining Melville’s intent. Critics still differ widely, with some regarding Pierre as a failure and others praising it as Melville’s masterpiece.

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Travel books about a world that was still being explored and discovered fascinated mid-nineteenth century readers, and Melville pleased this audience with his first two books about travels in the South Seas, Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847). The erudite and brilliant Melville could not restrain his intellect and imagination, however, and his third novel, Mardi (1849), was, in the guise of a travel book, really a philosophical satire. This effort confused readers and reviewers, and the book was a failure. Melville returned to relatively simple accounts of sea voyages in his next two books, Redburn (1849) and White-Jacket (1850), but in Moby Dick (1851), his interest in psychological and philosophical issues burst forth again.

Pierre was Melville’s next work, and in it he initially appears to give his readers what they want. Melville’s account of the idyllic life lived by Pierre Glendinning and his mother on their country estate is similar in tone and style to the sentimental romances that were then popular, particularly among female readers. Although the first third of the novel is filled with purple passages, and a reader might suspect a leg pull, Melville’s style and story are no different from many nineteenth century novels that present such scenes without irony. Nevertheless, there are some unsettling touches, such as Pierre and his mother calling each other brother and sister. This rhetorical attempt to increase the closeness between mother and son is a foreshadowing of the darker forces that destroy the lives of both.

That Melville does intend the book as a satire becomes clear when Pierre meets his supposed sister, Isabel. It is never established without doubt that Isabel is, indeed, Pierre’s sister—some critics have maintained that Pierre’s interest in Isabel is primarily sexual and therefore incestuous, and that he accepts the “sister” hypothesis to be near her, but also because this arrangement prevents him from acting on a physical urge that frightens and confuses him. Readers of romances expected complications before the obligatory happy ending, but plot changes with such sordid overtones were not welcome.

The middle portion of the novel switches the satire to the gothic novel, another type of fiction popular in the nineteenth century. The mystery surrounding Isabel’s parentage, the dark forest in which she lives, Pierre’s internal struggle when faced with the evidence of his father’s portrait, and his taunting stay under the balanced rock are elements and scenes that suggest the standard plot devices of the gothic novel with its delight in weird plot twists and touches of the supernatural. Before Melville shifts the direction of Pierre again, he has toyed with the excesses of this literary form.

Pierre’s acceptance of Isabel as his sister, which he considers a noble gesture, has disastrous effects for him and everyone he knows. His fiancé, Lucy Tartan, who has also been like a sister because she and Pierre grew up together, is momentarily cast aside for a stranger. The idea that two people who have known each other since childhood and are as close as brother and sister are the best candidates for marriage is another plot device familiar in nineteenth century novels, and, like Pierre’s relationship with Isabel, again raises the issue of incest. Instead of explaining to his mother what he takes to be the truth about Isabel’s parentage, Pierre chooses to spare his father’s reputation (which, if he is correct, he no longer has any reason to respect) by concocting the fiction that Isabel is his wife, a lie that eventually kills his mother, grievously wounds Lucy, and causes the loss of his inheritance. Here the satire of the first part of the novel bears fruit; Melville may be suggesting that people nurtured in sentimental fantasies are so ill-equipped to deal with reality that when they must do so, the result is yet another sentimental fantasy. Incestuous wishes, familiar in literature since the Greeks, are symbolic of human self-absorption.

The last part of the novel has still another orientation occasioned by the philosophical theories of Plotinus, which appear in a pamphlet Pierre finds. Plotinus asserts that there are two measures of time: the chronometrical, or celestial measure, which does not change with changing circumstances (like a clock set to Greenwich time); and the horological, which is a measure set to a specific locality. Plinlimmon argues that although chronometrical time may be more correct in an absolute sense, to attempt to live one’s life according to it at all times (to go to bed at noon in China, for example, because it is nighttime by Greenwich time) is to invite difficulties that will make life impossible. Humans live in a horological world, flawed by all sorts of local customs, and to attempt to live chronometrically is to invite disaster. Pierre fails to understand the meaning of this warning, and in the last part of the novel he is trying and failing to write a chronometrical book. He becomes enraged when Glen Stanly receives what he takes to be his inheritance, and he shoots his cousin. Then, Pierre and Isabel commit suicide, in another attempt to live up to a code of honor only they understand.

In Pierre, Melville gives readers a main character with whom they at first identify, then whose motives and actions they suspect, and finally, from whom they recoil. Although Pierre tries to base his actions (such as his relationship with Isabel) on what he thinks are firm moral principles, his shooting of Stanly and his suicide demonstrate that he is, in fact, thrown by the winds of emotion. The entire novel is riddled with contradictions and puzzles, so it is well to remember its subtitle—The Ambiguities—which might well have been its only designation.

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