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.
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...
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