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Pierre, or, The Ambiguities Herman Melville

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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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Themes

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.

Critical Reception

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.”

Principal Works

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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

Lewis Mumford (essay date 1929)

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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 recuperation, he plunged into his new work: an unwise decision. Melville was not without his weaknesses, and they rose to the surface in his new book, Pierre, or The Ambiguities. Moby-Dick, had disintegrated him: by some interior electrolysis, its sanative salt was broken up into baneful chemical elements. In this disintegration, Pierre rises at times as high as Moby-Dick, and sinks lower than any of Melville's other books. It contains passages that are the finest utterances of his spirit; it also has passages that would scarcely honour Laura Jean Libbey.

What caused this break-up? What value has Pierre in the sum of Melville's work? Neither of these questions admits of a quick and facile answer. One cannot dismiss the novel high-handedly as Melville's contemporaries did; and since the relation of the personal life of the artist to his art is still one of the major ambiguities in psychology, one cannot give a decisive or confident answer to the first question.


Melville's situation at the time of writing Pierre might have upset him even in a period of completer poise and more abundant health. He had written a great book: of that he could not possibly have had any doubt. Minor writers may think their rhinestones are diamonds, but rarely does a Shakespeare, a Swift, a Melville make the contrary mistake: if he speak lightly of his own work, or affect to disregard it, it is only for the reason that once he has reached the utmost depths of consciousness and realizes that vast and myriad interior which can never be fully reported, he begins to realize that diamonds, too, are only another kind of rhinestone: they are mined too cheaply.

Melville knew that Moby-Dick was bound to be his chief title to fame. In 1849 he had written to Mr. Duyckinck: “Would that a man could do something and then say It is finished—not that one thing only, but all others—that he has reached his uttermost and can never exceed it.” Melville had done this: he had mined and tunnelled through every part of his experience to produce this book. “There is a sure, though secret sign in some works,” he wrote in 1850, “which proves the culmination of the powers … that produced them,” and he recognized this secret sign in Moby-Dick: his letters to Hawthorne announce it. Mid all the tribulations and vexations of his life, there was, as in the heart of the whale Armada, a quiet place of calm and inward peace; within that spot, he had no reason to doubt or be dissatisfied with his work.

Still, what a writer articulates is always, though his words stay in a private diary, an effort at communication; the very nature of language makes this inevitable. Melville was necessarily not without his curiosity as to how the world would greet this magnificent product of his maturity, the first book in which he was in full command of his powers. And what was the world's answer?

The world's answer was no doubt what was to be expected; but it was no less discouraging for this reason. The Literary World indeed treated Moby-Dick with respect, and with as much understanding as a purely bookish man, like Mr. Duyckinck, could be expected to show: though it wasted most of the first review telling about the parallel fate of the Ann Alexander, it made up for this adventitious journalism by a second article which acknowledged Moby-Dick's manifold powers and excellences. “An intellectual chowder of romance, philosophy, natural history, fine writing, good feeling, bad sayings … over which, in spite of all uncertainties, and in spite of the author himself, predominates his keen perceptive faculties, exhibited in vivid narration.” In the light of other contemporary reviews, this was fairly handsome. The Dublin University Magazine, with steady opacity, said Moby-Dick was quite as eccentric and monstrously extravagant in many of its incidents as even Mardi, but was a valuable book because it contained an unparalleled mass of information about the whale. As for the Athenaeum, it righteously reminded Mr. Melville that he “has to thank himself only if his horrors and his heroics are flung aside by the general reader as so much trash”—criticism which reached a pinnacle in the New Monthly Magazine, which described the style of Moby-Dick as “maniacal—mad as a March hare—mowing, gibbering, screaming, like an incurable Bedlamite, reckless of keeper or strait-waistcoat.” [July 1853. Ed. Note.]

One need not go into all the forms under which the contemporary critic disclosed his insensitiveness to great prose and his servile compliance with the idola of the market; but one must note a singular fact: from Fitz-James O’Brien's first criticism of Melville's work as a whole in 1853 down to Mr. Vernon Parrington's commentary in 1927, Moby-Dick, the keystone of Melville's work, has frequently been left out of account. The book that triumphantly smothers all the contradictory opinions about Melville—that he was a romantic, that he could only portray external scenes, that he was a pure introvert, that he was an adventurous ne’er-do-well, never happy or at home in a settled community, that he was irresponsive to the life around him, that he was a sheer realist who could only record what he had seen—the book that makes these generalizations silly suffered something worse than antagonistic criticism: it met with complete neglect. It is only since 1914 in America that this neglect has been even partly atoned for.

Such obtuseness, such flat stupidity, must have had a dismaying effect upon Melville. The writer begins to doubt the possibility of literature in a world that so flagrantly misunderstands or ignores its higher manifestations. Faced with such contemporaries, the artist may retire within himself, as Bach or Ryder or Cézanne did; but it will only be a miracle that will keep him from taking into his retirement a deep contempt for the people around him. That contempt is worse than isolation; it brings isolation without hope. “I write to please myself,” exclaimed Melville in one passage in Pierre. In that mood of wilful defiance, a man may revolt from the good sense of his contemporaries as well as from their deficiencies. There was nothing in the reception of Moby-Dick that would have lessened Melville's scorn, or helped him to fortify himself against his own weaknesses. Quite the contrary. Like Pierre himself he was to learn “and very bitterly learn, that though the world worship mediocrity and commonplace, yet hath it fire and sword for contemporary grandeur.”

Moby-Dick was too much for them, was it? Well: it was a mere pencilling of the ultimate blackness that was his to paint: if one were going to tell the truth at all, one could go much further and be much plainer. “Henceforth,” proclaimed Pierre, “I will know nothing but Truth; Glad Truth or Sad Truth; I will know what is, and do what my deepest angel dictates.” And again: “I am more frank with Pierre than the best men are with themselves. I am all unguarded and magnanimous with Pierre: therefore you see his weakness, and therefore only. In reserves, men build imposing characters; not in revelations. He who shall be wholly honest, though nobler than Ethan Allen that man shall stand in danger of the meanest mortal's scorn.”

It was in some such mood of defeat, foreboding, defiant candour, that Pierre was conceived and written. Meanwhile, in November, 1851, the Hawthorne family had moved away from the Berkshires and Melville settled to his work, in the spring of 1852, on the north porch that faced Mt. Monadnock [actually, in the fall of 1851, indoors, facing Mount Greylock. Ed. Note.], with an intense feeling of human isolation which brought the mountain closer to him, as his only friend. The one possibility of a friendly, rapturous union of spirits was behind him: no longer could he write to Hawthorne, as he had done just a few months before: “Whence came you, Hawthorne? By what right do you drink from my flagon of life? And when I put it to my lips—lo, they are yours, and not mine. I feel that the Godhead is broken up like the bread at the Supper, and that we are the pieces. Hence this infinite fraternity of feeling.” No: already that was over: dead. If the spirit burned now, it burned as ice does to the human touch. It was not altogether in irony, or in wild whimsy, that Melville dedicated his next book, Pierre, to his one solitary and steadfast companion, Mt. Monadnock. [Actually, Mount Greylock. Ed. Note.]


There is a sense in which Pierre is an abortive complement to Moby-Dick. Moby-Dick, great fable that it is, contains a good part of human life under one figure or another; but it does not contain everything. I would claim much for it; I would claim much for Melville's work as a whole; but there is still a great segment that remained unexplored till Melville wrote Pierre, and that, to the end, he never satisfactorily penetrated or freely brooded upon.

All Melville's books about the sea have the one anomaly and defect of the sea from the central, human point of view: one-half of the race, woman, is left out of it. Melville's world, all too literally, is a man-of-war's world. Woman neither charms nor nurtures nor threatens: she neither robs man of his strength nor rouses him to heroic frenzy: she is not Circe: she is not Rosalind or Francesca or even the Wife of Bath—she simply does not exist. When the Pequod spreads sail, woman is left behind: she is the phantom of home for Ahab and Starbuck. The whales dally in Moby-Dick and beget offspring; but all the trouble, beauty, madness, delight of human love, all that vast range of experience from the mere touch of the flesh to the most enduring spiritual loyalty, all that is absent. One looks for some understanding of woman's lot and woman's life in Moby-Dick; and one looks in vain. One looks for it again in Pierre, and one is disappointed, although its ambiguities are concerned with nothing else. With experience of woman in every relationship, daughter, girl, sister, wife, mother, matron, he described her in only one aspect—that of the remote and idealized mistress of romantic courtship. Mother, sister, sweetheart, all appeared to Melville's hero in this brief and peculiar aspect.

There was, one is driven to believe, something in Herman Melville's life that caused him to dissociate woman from his account of man's deepest experience. Mr. Waldo Frank has suggested, in general social terms, that the quest of power, which has preoccupied Western man since the Renaissance, has incapacitated him as a lover and kept him from understanding woman and all her essential concerns. If that is true, Melville pushed his aberration to a logical extremity; and he, who captured to the full the poetry of the sea, became as bashful as a boy when he beheld Venus, born of its foam, rising from the waters he knew so well, the most unexpected of monsters, and the only denizen of the sea he dared neither snare nor harpoon nor otherwise dispose of, except by flight. …


This story of Pierre, hard to accept in bald summary, is no less difficult to accept in detail. The plot is forced: the situations are undeveloped: the dominant colours are as crude as the lithograph advertisements of a melodrama, although there are subordinate parts which are as delicately graded as a landscape by Corot. There is no passage between the various planes of action and mood, as there is in Moby-Dick: Melville slips from prose into poetry, from realism into fantasy, from the mood of high tragedy into that of the penny dreadful.

For the moment, Melville had lost the power to fuse these discordant elements, to reject what could not be fully absorbed: he was at the mercy of his material. All that lives with a vital unity in Moby-Dick has become a corpse in Pierre: there is life in the dead members, but it does not pertain to the body as a whole. The fragments of Pierre are sometimes marvellous, as the broken leg or arm of a great piece of sculpture may be: but the whole is lost. From the moment the story opens to the fatal lines that bring it to a close, one is in an atmosphere of unreality. I do not mean that the facts are untrue to life; I mean that the work as a whole is untrue to the imagination. One accepts Ahab as a demi-god: one cannot accept Pierre as a human being, although Pierres are plentiful, while one might dredge the five seas without bringing up the carcass of another Ahab.

The style itself is witness to this psychal disruption, quite as much as the fable. Pierre is quarried out of the same quarry as Moby-Dick; but whereas there the texture is even and firm, here it is full of flaws and intrusive granulations. Moby-Dick, to use another figure, slides down a long runway before it plunges into its poetic passages: by the time one reaches Ahab's great apostrophes, one is all prepared for the immersion; one's imagination has reached the same pitch of intensity and concentration, and nothing but the most rhythmic patterns will satisfy the mood itself. The common prose in Moby-Dick is but an interval for breathing: it sustains and carries forward the movement of the more expressive passages; and as for the words themselves, they are the exact equivalent for the mood and purpose: distended though the envelope may be, they never burst outside it.

In language, Pierre is just the opposite of this: from the first pages, it is perfervid and poetical in a mawkish way. With the disclosure of the two lovers, Pierre and Lucy, in the opening chapter, the style becomes a perfumed silk, taken from an Elizabethan chamber romance: it sounds exactly like Melville's first effusion in the Lansingburgh Advertiser: “‘Truly,’ thought the youth, with a still gaze of inexpressible fondness, ‘truly the skies do ope: and this invoking angel looks down. I would return these manifold good-mornings, Lucy, did not that presume thou hadst lived through the night; and by heaven, thou belongst to the regions of an infinite day!’” This is a fair sample of what happens in Pierre whenever Melville approaches romantic passion; his reflections were tied with the same ribbons and furbelows, as in his description of love as “a volume bound in rose-leaves, clasped with violets, and by the beaks of humming-birds printed with peach juice on the leaves of lilies.” In style, Melville had suddenly lost both taste and discretion. He opened on a note that could not be carried through. Lovers may indeed once have used such silly rhetoric, but it would take a more careful hand than Melville's to persuade us that the rest of the world adopted these affectations: when scene after scene is conducted in the same tone, the style becomes tedious, intolerable, ridiculous. It would be bad if the characters were in the Renaissance costume of Daphnis and Chloe: it is even worse in a novel that contains realistic caricatures of the slums of New York and satiric commentaries upon the bizarre habits of the transcendentalists. Occasionally, by some happy concentration of emotion, Melville either drops these flabby phrases or permits the reader to forget them, and there are passages which, when read as poetry, are almost as fine as Whitman's verses. But these intervals of good writing do not overcome the main impression; and the main impression is of hectic and overwrought language. With the powerful control he had over Moby-Dick, Melville could never have written in the style that characterizes a large part of Pierre. In Pierre he was no longer the cool rider of words, but the flayed and foaming horse, running away.

There is still another unfortunate lapse in Pierre; and that is the disproportion between stimulus and effect. When Pierre is first beheld by Isabel, then completely a stranger to him, she shrieks and faints away. Her own action was not improbable; but there is no reason why Pierre, healthy, robust, ignorant, should be so profoundly disturbed by this exhibition. The same is true of Pierre's heroic resolution to shield Isabel under the form of wedlock: it is a wild and dangerous leap out of a much less pressing difficulty. When Pierre finally comes to town, the disproportion is so broad it is grotesque, almost comical: his cousin's turning upon him and cutting him, before a group of strangers, with a frigid stare and a command to take that fellow away, does not belong to anything but the pages of crude melodrama. The turning against Pierre is not the subtle, devious series of rebukes and frigidities he would actually receive: such an affront as Melville pictures occurs only in raw dream.

In Moby-Dick, Melville carefully prepared, a hundred pages in advance, for the final effect: Mr. E. M. Forster has even suggested that the emphasis upon “delight” in Father Mapple's sermon is related to the encountering of a ship called the Delight just before the final catastrophe. In Pierre all this subtle preparation is lacking: Melville's impatience turned a genuine theme, the conflict of adolescent purity of purpose with the apologetic compromises and sordid motives of the world, into a crude melodrama. Melville was so immersed in the dilemma of his hero that he did not observe how often he failed to satisfy the demands of art, which require that the very incoherencies of life somehow hang together and be acceptable to the mind.

Finally, Pierre's emotional reaction to Isabel is entirely out of proportion to the fact that he has found a sister whose existence he had never before suspected. For a young man, filially tied to his mother, and by active courtship to Lucy, the entrance of another young woman should not have had such a volcanic effect, since, under the most ancient of social taboos, the relationship between them precludes further intimacy. Kindness and fellow feeling might easily arise there: but what Melville pictures is sudden and violent passion. “Fate,” he observes, “had separated the brother and sister, till to each they seemed so not at all. Sisters shrink not from their brother's kisses. And Pierre felt that never, never would he be able to embrace Isabel with the mere brotherly embrace; while the thought of any other caress, which took hold of any domesticness, was entirely vacant from his uncontaminated soul, for it had never consciously intruded there. Therefore, forever unsistered for him by the stroke of Fate, and apparently for ever, and twice removed from the remotest possibility of that love which had drawn him to his Lucy; yet still the object of the ardentest and deepest emotions of his soul; therefore, to him, Isabel soared out of the realm of mortalness and for him became transfigured in the highest heaven of uncorrupted love.”

The ambiguity that Melville finally brought his hero to confront in Pierre is that this highest heaven is not necessarily a heaven at all: such a transcendental displacement of earthly emotions and experiences is not the way of “willing, waking love”: it is the mood of dream, and by continuous dissociation, it may eventually become the mood of madness. The highest heaven of love does not come with such romantic fixation upon an unapproachable deity: it comes rather with diffusion, when all men are brothers, when all women are sisters, when all children are just as dear as one's own issue. The fixation on a remote figure or symbol is in fact just the opposite of this generous suffusion of love, and of all love's corruptions it is possibly the most dangerous. In the thirteenth century, the Queen of Heaven had such a place, and her almost exclusive worship is perhaps as much a sign of the breakup of the mediaeval synthesis as any more obvious emblem of disintegration.

Man's roots are in the earth; and the effort to concentrate upon an ideal experience, that seeks no nourishment through these roots, may be quite as disastrous to spiritual growth as the failure to push upwards and to rise above the physical bed in which these roots are laid. In Pierre, Melville explored and followed such a fixation to its conclusion: disintegration and suicide. Had this been Melville's purpose in writing the book, Pierre might, in a decisive figure, have ended an epoch—the epoch of the romantic hero; for he had probed that hero's nobility and virtue and disclosed their deeper ambiguities, their conflicts, their irreconcilabilities. Pierre might have been a sort of anti-Werther. Unfortunately, this is just what it is not; for Melville identified himself with Pierre and defended his immaturity. How this came about we will inquire later; for we have not yet done justice to Pierre as a work of art.


What did Melville consciously set himself to do when he wrote Pierre? He sought, I think, to arrive at the same sort of psychological truth that he had achieved, in metaphysics, in Moby-Dick. His subject was, not the universe, but the ego; and again, not the obvious ego of the superficial novelist, but those implicated and related layers of self which reach from the outer appearances of physique and carriage down to the recesses of the unconscious personality. “The novel will find the way to our interiors, one day,” he wrote in Pierre, “and will not always be a novel of costume merely.” [Unlocated. Ed. Note.] Melville, to use his own words, had dropped his angle into the well of his childhood, to find out what fish might be there: before Mardi, he had sought for fish in the outer world, where swim the golden perch and pickerel: but now he had learned to dredge his unconscious, and to draw out of it, not the white whale, but motives, desires, hopes for which there had been no exit in his actual life. Men had been afraid to face the cold white malignity of the universe; they were even more reluctant to face their own unkempt, bewrayed selves. Even Shakespeare, deep as he was, had had reserves: Melville would set an example.

Melville was not concerned to portray “real life,” for the unconscious is not for most people part of this reality: in a later book he gave an explanation of his own literary method. He describes readers after his own heart who read a novel as they might sit down to a play, with much the same expectation and feeling. “They look that fancy shall evoke scenes different from those of the same old crowd round the Custom House counter, and the same old dishes on the boarding house table, with characters unlike those of the same old acquaintances they meet in the same old way every day in the same old street. And as, in real life, the proprieties will not allow people to set out themselves with that unreserve permitted to the stage, so in books of fiction, they look not only for more entertainment, but, at bottom, for more reality, than real life itself can show. Thus, though they want novelty, they want nature, too; but nature unfettered, exhilarated, in effect transformed. In this way of thinking, the people in a fiction, like the people in a play, must dress as nobody exactly dresses, talk as nobody exactly talks, act as nobody exactly acts. It is with fiction as with religion: it should present another world, and yet one to which we feel the tie.” For this conception of literary method, there is much to be said, and had Pierre carried it out with plausibility and consistency it might have made an even more important contribution to the art of the novel than George Meredith and Henry James were to make. If Melville met failure here, it was not because he had chosen a poor method, but because he lacked adeptness in using it.

As concerns his psychological purpose, however, Pierre for all its weaknesses will stand comparison with the pioneer works of its period. Pierre is one of the first novels in which the self is treated as anything but a unit, whose parts consist of the same material, with the grain, as it were, running the same way. Pierre's double relation towards his father's image and towards his mother's actual presence, his mixed attitudes towards Lucy and Isabel, the conflict between his latent interests and his actions and rationalizations, all these things are presented with remarkable penetration: if there is slag at the entrance of this mine, there is a vein of exceptionally rich ore running through it. Pierre's identification of his mother's love with a supreme form of egotism, Pierre being the mirror in which she beholds her own proud grimace, is no less penetrating than Melville's account of the relation between Pierre and his cousin, which runs from romantic love into apathy and enmity. While the action of Pierre is full of harsh and even absurd contrasts, the psychological mood is portrayed with infinite retirement and with relentless surgical skill: Melville does not hold the pulse of his characters: he X-rays their very organs.

The supreme quality of Pierre is its candour. Like Pierre, the more Melville wrote, “and the deeper and deeper that he dived, [he] saw that everlasting elusiveness of Truth: the universal insincerity of even the greatest and purest written thoughts. Like knavish cards, the leaves of all great books were covertly packed.” Melville did his best to avoid playing a foul hand: he dealt his cards as they slipped from the fingers of Fate, Chance, Necessity, Truth; and in this grave honesty of his the greatest of thinkers seemed little better than fictioneers. “Plato, Spinoza, and Goethe, and many more belong to this guild of self-impostors, with a preposterous rabble of muggletonian Scots and Yankees whose vile brogue still the more bestreaks the stripedness of their Greek or German Neoplatonic originals.” Not exactly a kind criticism; but, in Melville's exacerbated state, he went even further: not merely did the “compensationists” or the “optimists” seem shallow: literature itself was a hollow business, too. The ultimate, the final truth was inexpressible, and even the mere hinting of it was inadequate: the intensest light of reason did not shed such blazonings upon the deeper truths in man as the profoundest gloom. Utter darkness is the wise man's light; silence his highest utterance. Catlike, one sees in the dark distinctly objects that are erased by blatant sunshine; indeed, one calls to one's aid senses and instincts that are dormant when one can move and see. “Not to know Gloom and Grief,” said Melville, in the midst of this illumination, “is not to know aught that an heroic man should learn.”

But if the gold of the transcendentalists was pewter and brass, Melville was equally honest about his own treasures. “By vast pains we mine into the pyramid; by horrible gaspings we come to the central room; with joy we espy the sarcophagus; but we lift the lid—and nobody is there!—appallingly vacant, as vast as the soul of man.” One threw away literature and philosophy, yes, language itself, only to find oneself without visible support. One eliminated not merely the debris and muck: one got rid of the miner, and the very purpose of his occupation. “In those hyperborean regions to which enthusiastic Truth and Earnestness and Independence will invariably lead a mind fitted by nature for profound and fearless thoughts all objects are seen in a dubious uncertain and refracting light. Viewed through the rarefied atmosphere, the most immemorially admitted maxims of men begin to slide and fluctuate and finally become wholly inverted. … But the example of many minds forever lost, like undiscoverable Arctic explorers, amid those treacherous regions, warns us entirely away from them and we learn that it is not for man to follow the trail of truth too far, since by so doing he entirely loses the directing compass of his mind, for, arrived at the Pole, to whose barrenness only it points, there, the needle indifferently respects all points of the horizon alike.”

Within the heap of fragments in Pierre that mark the thrust and power of Melville's mind, there is one fragment, fallen at random in the mass, that remains embedded in the memory. It is the message of the pamphlet that comes by accident into Pierre's hand when he is making his escape to New York: in his overwrought state, the words have a peculiar significance for his own purposes; and they are remarkable enough, in their enigmatic quality, to consider by themselves. The title of the pamphlet is Chronometricals and Horologicals: in it the fictitious lecturer purports to set forth his own heretical philosophy. The moral is embroidered in a single trope: the notion that there are two kinds of time in the world, that which is established at Greenwich and kept by chronometers, and that which prevails in other longitudes, recorded by the local watches. It is a parallel of the philosophic and practical aspects of life, or rather, of ideal and working morality; and I know no better exposure of the identity, yet dualism, of thought and action, ideal and practice.

The philosophic or religious minds are always correcting their watches by Greenwich time; and, by continuous observation of the heavens, they are always trying to make Greenwich time itself more correct. They know that the compromises and conveniences of society are useful: but they also know that these things have no ultimate reason for existence, and that one's employment of them must always be modified by reference to a scale of values alongside which they are false or meaningless. Shallow people never make such a correction: they believe in “dress” or “family” or “prestige” or “success” as if these were the vestments of eternity. Melville's error, at least Pierre's error, was just the opposite of this: he did not see that watches and local time are necessary, too, that there is no truth so cruelly meaningless as to give a person Greenwich time without telling him his longitude and enabling him to make his correction: that way lies disaster, confusion, shipwreck. A belief in ideal standards and values with no via media is scarcely better than a superficial life with no standards or insights at all.

The passage from the universal perception to the common life is difficult to make: it is the point at which religions and philosophies perpetually flounder. Melville saw this paradox; and he was plagued and puzzled by it; he even attributes it to Plotinus Plinlimmon, the leader of the transcendentalist sect, who drinks wine he forbids to his disciples, and, following supernal ideas, seems to prize cigars and food far more; Plinlimmon, whose non-benevolent stare seems to tell Pierre that all that he does is done in vain; Plinlimmon, the very embodiment of these ambiguities. Melville tended, with Pierre, to regard horologicals as a dubious frailty instead of what it actually is—the way that Greenwich time is universalized and incorporated in local practice. Human ideals are, as Melville saw, like the points of the compass: one does not seek the north by going northward: one seeks to reach a humanly important part of the earth, like Pekin or Paris; and ideals are the means by which a life that more fully satisfies our human potentialities can be lived. To observe this paradox without falling into the rôle of Mr. Worldly Wiseman is the essence of an active morality. Melville confronted the paradox; but the point of it eluded him. He idealized ideals as he idealized sexual passion: he wished both to remain for him in that adolescent state in which they are pure, remote, untouchable—forgetting that life is impossible in that sterile and clarified medium. Though Melville had anatomized many human impulses and probed in many sore and hidden places, one part of the personality remained sacred to him in Pierre: the sanctum of adolescence. All the values in the book are distorted, its very purpose is deflected, by Melville's unconscious assumption that the romantic purity of adolescence, the purity that arises not through experience and fulfilment, that is, through continuous purification, but through an ignorance and stagnation within sealed vials—that this purity is central to all the other values. That chronometer was correct enough at nineteen: at thirty-three it was no longer accurate, for a single reason—it had stopped. That, we shall see, was the chief ambiguity of Melville's personal life.

Melville was not alone in parading these fundamental ambiguities. In the dissociation of society in America, the American writer was able to examine all the premises and established truths which a European ordinarily takes so much for granted that he is not aware of taking them at all; and he could separate the essence of our human institutions from their conventional overlayers. Emerson, in “Uriel,” gives pithy expression to the same insidious ideas one finds in Pierre: but in Melville's novel they are on every page. His mother's love for her son is self-love and her admiration for him is vanity. His father's rectitude leads to a cold marriage, where an unclerked love had shown him a little radiant and a little finer at the core. Pierre's purest love is a disguised incest; his nobility is a worldly crime—while a lack of generous impulses would have led to wealth and honour. Melville's whole life, indeed, had taught him these ambiguities: Jack Chase was the real captain of the ship, not Captain Claret: the surgeon who amputated a living man, Surgeon Cuticle, with his glass eye, his false teeth, his wig, was more dead than the flesh he carved into: the cannibals of the South Seas were civilized, and the civilization of the New York slums was lower than cannibal gluttony: the missionary of Christ inflicted servitude, and the chief goods introduced by the trader were diseases: finally, the one civilization which thoroughly disregards the precepts of Christian morality is that of the Western world, which professes it.

These paradoxes were disturbing enough; but the fundamental ones were even worse. “The uttermost ideal of moral perfection in man is wide of the mark. The demi-gods trample on trash, and Virtue and Vice are trash!” Vice might lead to virtue; virtue might beget vice: the prostitute may teach purity and the holy man blasphemy! Where is one left when Melville and Emerson are through? One is left amid a debris of institutions and habits. Nothing is safe; nothing is secure: one no longer looks for the outer label, or believes in it. If north be the direction of one's ideal, the virtuous captain may have to tack back and forth from east to west in order to reach that destination: for no chart or compass ever enabled a ship to steer blindly for its port without paying close attention to wind and weather.

Had Pierre, as an imaginative work, been a more sufficient demonstration of these ambiguities, the book would have had a high destiny. But although the ideas are clear enough, they remain a potentiality in Pierre, since the story itself lacks integrity of form. The book is a precious crystal smashed out of its natural geometrical shape. Only by a chemical analysis of its elements do we discover what its primal character might have been.


The failure of Pierre as a work of art gives us a certain licence to deal with it as biography, all the more because Melville identified himself with the hero, giving him the initials and the Christian name of his beloved grandfather, Peter Gransevoort, and attaching him to objects like the portrait of his father which correspond to things about whose existence there is no doubt. If, as a work of art, Pierre was whole, we should have no good reason to suspect Melville's wholeness. It is the failure of Pierre as literature that draws our attention to Melville's predicament as a man; for in this particular way, he had not erred before. The young Melville who wrote Typee is not in Pierre; instead, a much younger self is there, a self erotically immature, expressing itself in unconscious incest fantasies, and capable of extravagant rationalizations in its effort to sustain them. Pierre is not a demonstration because it is a betrayal—and the person it betrays is Melville. In Pierre, he was an Iago, driven by his own frustration to betray the Othello who had been such a valiant captain in all his previous battles.

The significant question for us is what event, or series of occurrences, caused a hiatus in Melville's emotional and sexual development; and this question cannot be lightly answered by pointing to the obvious symbols in Pierre—for a symbol describes a tendency, rather than an objective event. We know that Melville's earliest associations of sex had been with vice and sexual disease; and in a sensitive lad, this introduction to passion may place bit and bridle on his own development. We know, too, that sexual relations in the United States among respectable people in the fifties were in a starved and stunted state: Stanley Hall, a boy in this very decade, recalled that he had never witnessed the slightest passage of affection between his father and his mother. It may be that Elizabeth, patient as a wife, was timid and irresponsive as a lover: in short, there are a dozen possible circumstances occurring long after childhood, which may have contributed to Melville's regression: and the incest-attachment, so far from being the cause of this, may in Pierre only serve as its emotional equivalent. Wherever sex is mentioned in other passages in Melville's books, it is referred to in a mood of disillusion. In Clarel, for example, he says:

May love's nice balance, finely slight,
Take tremor from fulfilled delight?
Can nature such a doom dispense
As, after ardor's tender glow,
To make the rapture more than pall
With evil secrets in the sense,
And guile whose bud is innocence—
Sweet blossom of the flower of gall?

And in one of the few passages in Moby-Dick where sex is referred to, the Sicilian sailor implies that sexual joy is in swayings, touchings, cozenings, and that when one tastes it directly, satiety comes. That, I submit, is not the experience of a healthy and well-mated man, or of a mature erotic state: to long for the pre-nuptial condition, to wish for fixation in courtship, is the mark of an immature, or at least an incomplete, attachment.

When one says that Melville longed for the pre-nuptial state one does not merely imply that he found his sexual relations difficult or unsatisfactory: this earlier condition meant something more: it meant irresponsibility, freedom to roam, carelessness about health and daily bread, the opportunity to do his work without foreboding and anxiety. Sex had brought disillusion not merely because the first ardour and glow had vanished suddenly with the first physical contact: it had increased all his burdens and threatened to curtail that inner development which he had come to prize above all things—even more than the robust outer experience that had produced Typee. Sex meant marriage; marriage meant a household and a tired wife and children and debts. No wonder he retreated: no wonder his fantasy attached him to a mother who could not surrender, to a half-sister who could not bear children! The ardent impulse remained; he sought only to make it innocuous to his own spiritual life.

In view of the terrific pressure upon Melville, one can sympathize with his retreat; but one sees that, so far from aiding his spiritual development, it halted a good part of it at a critical point: for he did not carry over into his thought and his work the experiences of a husband and a father and a happy lover. He does not speak about these experiences as a mature man: he speaks as an adolescent. At this point, his self did not grow and expand; rather, it became ingrown and withdrawn; and the symbol of incest is perhaps the symbol of this shrinkage, this defeat, and the ultimate blackness of mood that resulted from it. He associated his career with the deep well of adolescent purity, instead of with the running stream of maturity, turbid perhaps, but open to the sunlight, and swift. Doing so, he blocked his own development instead of releasing it: towards later experience he said No: No: and again No. For almost a decade after this, Melville's principal characters are tired, defeated, harassed, tormented, lonely men; and to the end of his days children, the last symbol of maturity, do not, directly or indirectly, enter his imaginative life.

So closely were Melville's sexual impulses and his intellectual career bound up that I am tempted to reverse the more obvious analysis of Pierre, and to see in its sexual symbols the unconscious revelation of his dilemmas as a writer. Lucy, then, may signify the naïve writings of his youth, which promised him happiness, and Isabel, the mysterious child of a foreign mother, lost in an obscure youth, may stand for that darker consciousness in himself that goads him to all his most heroic efforts, that goads him and baffles him, leaving him balked and sterile, incapable of going further in literature, and yet unable to retreat to the older and safer relations with Lucy—the Lucy of Typee and Omoo. We must recall that in writing Moby-Dick Melville had premonitions of his own final flowering and of his sudden falling into mould; and if this prospect haunted him, the relationship with Isabel would be a perfect symbol of it, since it showed him making an effort to go on with his literary career, living under the form of marriage with Isabel, but unable, through the very nature of their relationship, to enjoy the fruits of marriage. In spite of his confidence in Moby-Dick, a doubt might still lurk: suppose Isabel were an impostor! He had given up everything for her: he had abandoned the prospects of a happy literary career, such a career as his family, Elizabeth's family, all his friends and relatives, and the reviewers and society generally would approve of—abandoned it for a mad, chivalrous espousal of his inner life. He had defied the world for this dark mysterious girl; and what she was ready to give him in return the world regarded as an abominable sin. Very well: so much the worse for virtue, if virtue meant Mrs. Glendinning's pride or Lucy's lovely shallowness. Melville was not without hopes that success might join the unsanctified household, that Lucy and Isabel might live side by side; but when the reviewers told him, upon his publishing Mardi and Moby-Dick, that he had epoused a girl of the streets and seduced a virtuous maiden, he saw that there was no way out, except to shoot them and take the consequences.

Pierre itself, then, was a blow, aimed at his family with their cold pride, and at the critics, with their low standards, their failure to see where Melville's true vocation lay, and their hearty recommendation of “virtuous” courses that promised so little. Melville anticipated defeat: Lucy dies of shock, and Pierre and Isabel make away with themselves by poison; for he saw no way to go on with his deepest self, and still continue obedient to the conventions of society and the responsibilities of a married man. His failure to mature with his actual marriage contributed, I think, to his failure to go further with his spiritual union; but how much it contributed, and by what means the injury was done, we can still only speculate. There is no doubt about the final result. The mood of Pierre, the work of art, became the mood of Herman Melville, the man, for almost a decade. Before another year was over, he recovered his grip in writing, and his art became whole and sufficient once more: but his life suffered, and his vision as a whole suffered: Pierre disclosed a lesion that never entirely healed.

R. K. Gupta (essay date 1967)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3075

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 hope, throw varied lights upon his art and technique.

The three epic devices repeatedly used in Pierre are invocation, apostrophe, and Homeric simile. Melville uses them functionally—to heighten an effect, to clarify a situation, or to illuminate a mental or emotional state. The invocation and the apostrophe are generally used by Pierre himself, and always in some tense, significant situation which they serve to clarify. For example, take his apostrophe to grief:

Grief;—thou art a legend to me. I have known some fiery broils of glorious frenzy; I have oft tasted of revery; whence comes pensiveness; whence comes sadness; whence all delicious poetic presentiments;—but thou, Grief! art still a ghost-story to me. I know thee not,—do half disbelieve in thee. Not that I would be without my too little cherished fits of sadness now and then; but God keep me from thee, thou other shape of far profounder gloom! I shudder at thee!2

This apostrophe, and the one to the mysterious face which immediately follows it, forcefully dramatize the naivete and immaturity of a Pierre to whom grief has been a pleasing fiction (a “ghost-story”) rather than a painful reality. Then comes the invocation in which he calls upon the “sovereign powers” to “lift the veil”:

Tread I on a mine, warn me; advance I on a precipice, hold me back; but abandon me to an unknown misery, that it shall suddenly seize me, and possess me, wholly—that ye will never do; else, Pierre's fond faith in ye—now clean, untouched—may clean depart; and give me up to be a railing atheist. (p. 56)

At the moment of this utterance, Pierre is in an emotionally distraught state, torn between contending thoughts, racked by doubt and despair. This is the first time that evil has intruded into his idyllic world, and the extremely complex, often conflicting, feelings aroused in him are aptly rendered in this soliloquy and highlighted by the use of the epic conventions. The concluding portion of the invocation foreshadows the heretical mood which comes upon him toward the end.

In the most elaborate of all the invocations—the one addressed to the Terror Stone—Pierre's despondency and the various ramifications of the dilemma which confronts him are admirably brought out:

If the miseries of the undisclosable things in me, shall ever unhorse me from my manhood's seat; if to vow myself all Virtue's and all Truth's, be but to make a trembling, distrusted slave of me; if Life is to prove a burden I cannot bear without ignominious cringings; if indeed our actions are all fore-ordained, and we are Russian serfs to Fate; if invisible devils do titter at us when we most nobly strive; if Life be a cheating dream, and virtue as unmeaning and unsequelled with any blessing as the midnight mirth of wine; if by sacrificing myself for Duty's sake, my own mother re-sacrifices me; if Duty's self be but a bugbear, and all things are allowable and unpunishable to man;—then do thou, Mute Massiveness, fall on me! Ages thou hast waited; and if these things be thus, then wait no more; for whom better canst thou crush than him who now lies here invoking thee? (p. 189)

Somewhat like the Joycean epiphanies, the apostrophes and invocations in the novel are flashes of illumination, moments of revelation and insight, bringing out the agony of Pierre's spiritual turmoil with an immediacy and intensity seldom attained in passages of authorial analysis.

Homeric similes also are used in Pierre with complete appropriateness. Not only does their scope for endless expansion and modification enable Melville to bring in considerable tangential detail and thus provide the reader with a kind of poetic relaxation, but they also have subtler implications and satisfy the imagination through implied comparisons relevant to the context. Consider, for example, the passage in which Lucy Tartan's yearning for the countryside is depicted:

It was very strange, but most eloquently significant of her own natural angelhood that, though born among brick and mortar in a sea-port, she still pined for unbaked earth and inland grass. So the sweet linnet, though born inside of wires in a lady's chamber on the ocean coast, and ignorant all its life of any other spot; yet, when spring-time comes, it is seized with flutterings and vague impatiences; it cannot eat or drink for these wild longings. Though unlearned by any experience, still the inspired linnet divinely knows that the inland migrating time has come. And just so with Lucy in her first longings for the verdure. (pp. 33-34)

In these lines Melville, on the most obvious plane, is referring to Lucy's preference for rural life. But the simile goes further than that. Whereas the implied comparison between Lucy and the linnet brings out Lucy's sweetness and gentleness of disposition, words like “inspired” and “divinely” draw attention to her “angelic” qualities which Melville seeks to emphasize in his characterization of her. Again:

Weary with the invariable earth, the restless sailor breaks from every enfolding arm, and puts to sea in height of tempest that blows off shore. But in long night-watches at the antipodes, how heavily that ocean gloom lies in vast bales upon the deck; thinking that that very moment in his deserted hamlet-home the household sun is high, and many a sun-eyed maiden meridian as the sun. He curses Fate; himself he curses; his senseless madness, which is himself. For whoso once has known this sweet knowledge, and then fled it; in absence, to him the avenging dream will come.

Pierre was now this … self-upbraiding sailor: this dreamer of the avenging dream. (pp. 252-253)

This simile occurs immediately after Pierre has resolved to leave Saddle Meadows to befriend and protect Isabel, and it brings out, more suggestively than comments by the author possibly could, the pathos of Pierre's situation and his agonized awareness of all that he has irretrievably lost in rending his family bonds.

The Homeric similes in Pierre,3 then, serve two important functions. On the one hand, by their luxuriance and amplitude they provide the imagination with moments of poetic beauty and contribute volume and variety to the narrative; on the other, they are an important and valuable aid to the analysis of characters.

Pierre is a dramatic novel not only in its structure and characterization but also because Melville employs in it certain techniques (foreshadowing, dramatic irony, soliloquy) which are specifically dramatic.

F. L. Lucas says that in tragedy suspense is a more effective and powerful weapon than surprise. According to him, “it is the power to create the tense, overcharged atmosphere before the storm, to ‘pile the dim outlines of the coming doom,’” that forms a major part of the impressiveness of the great tragic dramatists.4 In Pierre Melville prefers suspense to surprise and by a skilful use of foreshadowing creates an atmosphere of restlessness and foreboding. The authorial comments on fate and destiny which figure so prominently in the early sections of the novel are not satirical, as they are sometimes taken to be, but premonitory, a foreshadowing of the evil to come. In order to create a “tense, overcharged atmosphere,” Melville as omniscient narrator inserts, in his portrayal of Pierre's early felicity, premonitory remarks such as the following:

Thus loftily, in the days of his circumscribed youth, did Pierre glance along the background of his race, little recking of that maturer and larger interior development, which should forever deprive these things of their full power of pride in his soul. (p. 5)

But while thus alive to the beauty and poesy of his father's faith, Pierre little foresaw that this world hath a secret deeper than beauty, and Life some burdens heavier than death. (p. 6)

Now Pierre stands on this noble pedestal; we shall see if he keeps that fine footing; we shall see if Fate hath not just a little bit of a small word or two to say in this world. (p. 14)

These anticipatory comments help to create an atmosphere of gloom and suspense which is in harmony with the tragic action of the novel.

In Pierre Melville also uses several devices for creating suspense which are rooted in the action rather than in the narrator's commentary. Some of these—like the paraphernalia of mysterious faces, unearthly shrieks, and prophetic portraits—are Gothic rather than truly dramatic. But when Mrs. Glendinning unwittingly and in unrepressed fury stabs her own portrait (p. 183) and says that she feels as though in Pierre she had “borne the last of a swiftly to be extinguished race” (p. 184), or when Pierre proleptically falls over his threshold as though “jeeringly hurled from beneath his own ancestral roof” (p. 258), or when Lucy in her letter to Pierre expresses her misgiving that he may become involved in “some terrible jeopardy” (p. 433), the effect is essentially that of dramatic foreshadowing without any suggestion of contrivance or artificiality.

The tragic irony in Pierre not only governs the plot but also throws light on the characters. Throughout the novel there are statements in which the reader is made to see an ironic meaning of which the speaker may be wholly unconscious. Two kinds of tragic irony are found in Pierre: one in which the reader immediately grasps the ironic meaning underlying an apparently innocent statement; the other in which this meaning dawns upon him only gradually and retrospectively. The best example of the first kind occurs in the famous breakfast scene, at the moment when Mrs. Glendinning, sitting in judgment on the adulterous Ned and Delly, characterizes Ned's conduct as the “sheerest and most gratuitous profligacy” and remarks that men like him are to her way of thinking “more detestable than murderers”:

… is not the man, who has sinned like that Ned, worse than a murderer? Has he not sacrificed one woman completely, and given infamy to another—to both of them—for their portion. If his own legitimate boy should now hate him, I could hardly blame him. (p. 140)

As she glibly censures the conduct of the guilty lovers, she is unaware of the fact that her own situation is similar, and that her husband, whom she has always deified and idolized, may not have been any better than Ned. The reader, however, is conscious of the subtle overtones of the situation.

Melville's forte in Pierre, however, is the other kind of irony in which the reader does not see the ironic meaning underlying a statement at the time it is made as in Mrs. Glendinning's repeated admonitions to her son to follow the path of his “extremely gentlemanly” father:

Never rave, Pierre; and never rant. Your father never did either; nor is it written of Socrates; and both were very wise men. Your father was profoundly in love—that I know to my certain knowledge—but I never heard him rant about it. He was always extremely gentlemanly: and gentlemen never rant. Milksops and Muggletonians rant, but gentlemen never. (p. 24)

Bless you!—God bless you, my dear son! always think of him and you can never err; yes, always think of your dear perfect father, Pierre. (p. 25)

Later, when the reader discovers the details about the father's youth, his mind is thrown back to these early panegyrics and his reaction is intensified. The whole passage in which Mrs. Glendinning expresses her thoughts about Pierre and Lucy is charged with dramatic irony of the finest and subtlest kind:

“A noble boy, and docile”—she murmured—“he has all the frolicsomeness of youth, with little of its giddiness. And he does not grow vain-glorious in sophomorean wisdom. I thank heaven I sent him not to college. A noble boy, and docile. A fine, proud, loving, docile, vigorous boy. Pray God, he never becomes otherwise to me. His little wife, that is to be, will not estrange him from me; for she too is docile—beautiful and reverential, and most docile. Seldom yet have I known such blue eyes as hers, that were not docile, and would not follow a bold black one, as two meek blue-ribboned ewes, follow their martial leader. How glad am I that Pierre loves her so, and not some dark-eyed haughtiness, with whom I could never live in peace; but who would be ever setting her young married state before my elderly widowed one, and claiming all the homage of my dear boy!—the fine, proud, loving, docile, vigorous boy!—the lofty-minded, well-born, noble boy; and with such sweet docilities!” (p. 25)

At the moment this soliloquy is uttered, the reader, of course, does not know any more than Mrs. Glendinning does that some “dark-eyed haughtiness” is soon to come between Pierre and his mother and divide irrevocably the “pure joined current” of their lives into “two unmixing streams” (p. 4). But later, when Pierre breaks his family ties for the sake of Isabel, the reader becomes aware of the deep irony implicit in Mrs. Glendinning's soliloquy, especially in her repeated application of the word “docile” to both Pierre and Lucy. The effect of the reiteration, at the time when Pierre is on the verge of defying her and hurting her in a sore spot, is to intensify the irony of the situation. Subsequently we discover that Lucy also is the very reverse of “docile,” however timid and shrinking she may appear on the surface.

The cumulative effect of the use of dramatic foreshadowing and tragic irony in Pierre is to create a tense and portentous atmosphere which is an important component of that satisfying sense of unity which we find in the novel.

One may also mention at this point Melville's highly skilful use of the dramatic soliloquy in Pierre at crucial moments in the story. The soliloquy is used by several characters—by Pierre (pp. 55-57, 90-91, 189, 259, 273, 445), by Mrs. Glendinning (pp. 25, 26, 183-185, 268-269, 271, 272), by Charlie Millthorpe (pp. 499, 505), even by the innkeeper (pp. 282-283), the jailor (p. 503), and Delly Ulver (p. 447). When uttered by a major character, it gives us insight into his innermost thoughts and feelings. The most notable example is the great soliloquy, too long to be quoted, in Book II (pp. 55-57) in which all the twists of thought and fluctuations of feeling in Pierre are appropriately rendered in broken and tortured language. When used by a minor character like Charlie Millthorpe or the innkeeper, it on the one hand sharpens the pathos and irony of a particular event and, on the other, serves a choric function—presentation of an objective, detached point of view on a specific situation or character. A memorable example is the soliloquy of the landlord of the Black Swan Inn after Pierre's pretended marriage with Isabel and his departure for New York:

I have kept this house, now, three-and-thirty years, and have had plenty of bridal-parties come and go; in their long train of wagons, break-downs, buggies, gigs—a gay and giggling train—Ha!—there’s a pun! popped out like a cork—ay, and once, the merry bride was bedded on a load of sweet-scented new-cut clover. But such a bridal-party as this morning's—why, it’s as sad as funerals. And brave Master Pierre Glendinning is the groom! Well, well, wonders is all the go. I thought I had done with wondering when I passed fifty; but I keep wondering still. Ah, somehow, now, I feel as though I had just come from lowering some old friend beneath the sod, and yet felt the grating cord-marks in my palms.—’Tis early, but I’ll drink. Let’s see; cider,—a mug of cider;—’tis sharp, and pricks like a game-cock's spur,—cider's the drink for grief. Oh, Lord! that fat men should be so thin-skinned, and suffer in pure sympathy on others' account. A thin-skinned, thin man, he don’t suffer so, because there ain’t so much stuff in him for his thin skin to cover. Well, well, well, well, well; of all colics, save me from melloncholics; green melons is the greenest thing!

Both in diction and effect, this soliloquy can be likened to those low-comedy interludes in Shakespeare (the porter scene in Macbeth and the grave-diggers' scene in Hamlet) in which, as Edward Rosenberry says, “a blood-curdling irony is achieved through characters in ignorance of the tragic issue of the business they are being droll about.”5 In general, then, the soliloquy is an important part of Melville's technique in Pierre and gives his characters complexity, subtlety, and dramatic immediacy. His use of epic and dramatic conventions renders him vulnerable to the charge of having violated the integrity of the novelistic form. By relying on non-novelistic conventions, however, he succeeded in clarifying his themes and characters, in broadening and diversifying his range of effects, and in giving his work depth of meaning and richness of texture.


  1. In Bucknell Review, VIII (1959), 276.

  2. Pierre: or The Ambiguities (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., Evergreen Books, Grove Press Edition, 1957), pp. 55-56. All subsequent references to Pierre will be to this edition and will be parenthetically incorporated in the text.

  3. For more examples of the Homeric simile in the novel, see pp. 120, and 252-253.

  4. Tragedy (New York, 1928), p. 88.

  5. Melville and the Comic Spirit (Cambridge, Mass., 1955), p. 129.

Nicholas Canaday, Jr. (essay date 1969)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4872

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 Philistine publisher, trapped by poverty in a household of three dependent women, and assaulted by an outraged social convention represented by Glendinning Stanly and Frederic Tartan—the conventional lover and brother.

What Melville later calls “conventionalness” is the key to an understanding of the opening idyllic scenes of the novel. The picture is ironic. William Braswell has written about the early love scenes: “Instead of showing an inexplicable loss of taste, or the debilitating influence of cheap, sentimental fiction he is known to have thought ridiculous, his style reveals a satirical purpose.”3 Braswell observes that extravagance and overstatement are the principal devices that reveal the irony. Conventionally conceived, Pierre's early world is a rural Eden. Yet convention, the enforcing arm of social authority, can be a relentless coercing power.

The environment of Saddle Meadows, locale of Pierre's youth, brings immediately to the novel an element of social authority. The feudal atmosphere makes great demands of the Glendinnings. They are looked to as examples of good conduct by those socially inferior to them, and their peers expect them to maintain at least the reputation for goodness so that their class may not be betrayed. As a member of the landed gentry, Pierre has an obligation to society, “for the country is not only the most poetical and philosophical, but it is the most aristocratic part of this earth” (13). Mrs. Glendinning sees it as her duty to be the biggest contributor to the church of the community, to provide for the poor and the sick, and to organize and oversee community functions. Such activities, of course, are the warrant for her authority as arbiter of manners and morals for the entire area. Her training of Pierre is designed to fix in him this same sense of what she conceives to be social responsibility.

The Glendinning family history, recited with grand extravagance by Melville, is another element in the novel that creates and enforces the social pressure on its hero. Pierre's paternal great-grandfather, General Pierre Glendinning, had fought an Indian battle in the meadows that slope away from the rear of the manor house. Mortally wounded in the encounter, the general had sat unhorsed upon his saddle in the grass, cheering his men in the fray. From that incident had been derived the name Saddle Meadows for the house, the village, and the area. A short distance away, Pierre's grandfather, also a general, had defended a rude stockade for several months against Tories, Indians, and Regulars during the War of the Revolution. With an exaggeration of detail verging on burlesque, Melville portrays Pierre's mother as the daughter of a general, and Pierre's duty to uphold the traditions of two families is constantly brought to his attention. Since his father's untimely death by a fever, Pierre has been the sole remaining male Glendinning. Reared in an atmosphere devoted to proud family memories and surrounded by trophies reminiscent of a glorious family history, Pierre is deeply imbued with an aristocratic sense of duty. Thus from his youth he has been subjected to a form of social pressure exerted by his illustrious ancestors.

Mary Glendinning, the proud matriarch of Saddle Meadows, is the chief exponent of the social pressure that is applied to her son Pierre. Her world is exclusively the shallow world of social status grandly conceived. She is described as “an affluent, and haughty widow; a lady who externally furnished a singular example of the preservative and beautifying influences of unfluctuating rank, health, and wealth, when joined to a fine mind of medium culture, uncankered by any inconsolable grief, and never worn by sordid cares” (2-3). Melville's emphasis on externals characterizes Mary Glendinning as a hollow woman concerned only with forms and social usages. She never felt deeply the premature death of her husband, nor troubled her mind with serious thoughts on any subject. Despite the affectionate veneer of their relationship, her joy in Pierre is simply “triumphant maternal pride” combined with a narcissistic self-love, because she sees in him “her own graces strangely translated into the opposite sex” (3). Mary Glendinning's life is summarized by Melville's statement that “in a life of nearly fifty years” the ordinary qualities of womanhood “had never betrayed her into a single published impropriety, or caused her one known pang at the heart” (15). Her obsession with conduct that is socially correct has always concealed her true inner feelings, if, indeed, she has any. If she was not entirely satisfied with her late husband's conduct, if he caused her any slight pang at the heart, her frigidly correct outward demeanor was all that showed itself to the world. She constantly admonishes Pierre to think of his “dear perfect father” (20). Whether she believes Pierre's father was perfect or not, her one concern is that he be considered so in the eyes of her son and society.

Still another form of social pressure is exerted on Pierre by Lucy's family. Mrs. Tartan is described as the “mistress of an ample fortune,” aware of her wealth and position, and “inclined to force it upon the notice of other people, nowise interested in the matter” (29). The irony of Melville's description of Mrs. Tartan's world is immediately apparent: “Nevertheless, Mrs. Tartan was an excellent sort of lady, as this lady-like world goes. She subscribed to charities, and owned five pews in as many churches, and went about trying to promote the general felicity of the world, by making all the handsome young people of her acquaintance marry one another” (29-30). Mrs. Tartan, of course, is pleased with the marriage match she fancies she has made for her daughter, although her efforts, Melville wryly adds, were about as helpful as “match-making between the steel and the magnet” (31). Thus in Lucy's family the notions of propriety held by Mrs. Glendinning have their counterpart. In the seemingly idyllic community of Saddle Meadows inexorable forces are at work. The feudal environment, the proud Glendinning family background, the unsullied reputations of three Pierre Glendinnings, the two mothers so conscious of social status—these elements are the forces of society that surround and coerce the unfortunate Pierre.

Pierre is a “conventional” hero in two senses of the word. In the first place, he is a conventional romantic hero. The faceless young men in the romances so popular in Melville's day all had similar character traits and ideals. Melville begins the novel with an appropriately exaggerated setting of rural bliss. Pierre is first seen walking across a green and golden meadow to make a morning call upon his ideal young lady, whom he finds peering out of an upper casement surrounded by flowered vines. After an exchange of compliments and sentiments, Pierre proceeds on his way, marching under her colors, as he says, because he has plucked a flower from her hedge and pinned it conspicuously in his bosom. This first scene sets the tone for the first part of the book. Pierre's upbringing has molded a passive youth, a product of an ideal world far removed from ordinary facts of life. He had, in fact, spent long summer afternoons in his father's library, “where the Spenserian nymphs had early led him into many a maze of all-bewildering beauty” and had inspired “imaginative flames in his heart” (5). If Pierre fancies himself a modern version of the Red Cross Knight, it is because he cherishes the same ideals (and lives by the same conventions) as his literary predecessor.

Pierre's ideality is best revealed in his attitude toward women. Melville pictures the early Pierre-Lucy relationship as having all the characteristics found in popular romantic fiction, and Pierre reveres his mother with the “profoundest filial respect” (14). Pierre lacks only a sister, the one omission in his seemingly idyllic world: “Oh, had my father but had a daughter! … some one whom I might love, and protect, and fight for, if need be. It must be a glorious thing to engage in a mortal quarrel on a sweet sister's behalf!” (6). Melville's specific irony in this passage, which is only revealed later, indicates his attitude toward Pierre's entire romantic world. Pierre will find that the real fight in his sister's behalf will be the very opposite of glorious. Whatever villainous foe Pierre has in mind here can be nothing like the sordid enemy he soon finds himself pitted against. It is obvious that Pierre is ill-equipped to wage the battle into which he thrusts himself.

The young Pierre is also a “conventional” hero because of the oppressive conventions of society that have shaped him in his youth and that now bind and obligate him. Pierre's plight is that the very conventions that have so inexorably molded him will be of no use to him in his struggle. In fact he will be forced to take a stand against the very social conventions that have been given so much emphasis in his life. His education has stressed sentiment, sensibility, and the appreciation of beauty, and his forebears have exemplified martial courage in the face of danger or even death. Such values and examples are not sufficient: “Pierre little foresaw that this world hath a secret deeper than beauty, and life some burdens heavier than death” (6). Had Pierre been allowed to live out his days in the ideality of Saddle Meadows, the conventions of society would have served him as an adequate guide to life. This was not to be: “Now Pierre stands on this noble pedestal; we shall see if he keeps that fine footing; we shall see if Fate hath not just a little bit of a small word or two to say in this world” (11). When Fate steps into Pierre's life, he soon finds that the social conventions offer no adequate solution to his dilemma.

Before Pierre makes his decision to leave Saddle Meadows but after he has heard of the existence of Isabel, he is permitted to witness a sample of the conventional response to the affair of Delly Ulver, “forever ruined through the cruel arts of Ned” (130). His mother personifies that response and indeed dictates what is to be done about Delly. Pierre himself assents to the notion that Delly “is forever ruined” and that seduction is a “cruel art” practiced by the male on the unwitting, innocent female. The conventional response is to banish the offending female from the community despite the fact that her sin springs from weakness rather than cruelty. Pierre is present when his mother indicates to the village clergyman, the Reverend Mr. Falsgrave, that her attitude toward Delly is uncompromisingly severe. Because it is relevant to Isabel's unhappy state and to his memory of his father, Pierre asks Mr. Falsgrave about the attitude he would have had toward Delly and her child if it had lived. Mrs. Glendinning interrupts to say that sinners deserve to be miserable, but Mr. Falsgrave seems more humane: “‘The sins of the fathers shall be visited upon the children to the third generation,’ … But Madam, that does not mean, that the community is in any way to take the infamy of the children into their own voluntary hands, as the conscious delegated stewards of God's inscrutable dispensations” (118). Mrs. Glendinning then speaks as the voice of social authority: “But if we entirely forget the parentage of the child, and every way receive the child as we would any other, feel for it in all respects the same, and attach no sign of ignominy to it—how then is the Bible dispensation to be fulfilled?” (118). Mr. Falsgrave is silenced by this question. The force of society also coerces the man of God, who dares not offend a prominent patroness.

In case there was any doubt in Pierre's mind, Mrs. Glendinning's reaction to the affair of Ned and Delly demonstrates to her son the futility of appealing to her in behalf of Isabel, and of course her maternal vindictiveness would increase when in addition her own pride is at stake. While Mrs. Glendinning serves notice that she is prepared to enforce vigorously Old Testament injunctions, Melville portrays Mr. Falsgrave somewhat more sympathetically. The minister's unassuming opinion that members of a community should not appoint themselves stewards of God's inscrutable dispensations is sound enough, but it is timidly expressed at a time when timidity is no virtue. Still Pierre agrees readily with Falsgrave's little sermon on the foolishness of adopting universal maxims to embrace all moral contingencies—a point relevant to the absolutism of the chronometrical man introduced later in the novel. Pierre is disappointed in Falsgrave, or perhaps more specifically the institutional church as represented by Falsgrave, but later he comes to the conclusion that not too much can be expected of one who “is unavoidably entangled by all fleshly alliances, and can not move with godly freedom in a world of benefices” (193). Thus the church is buried in the social environment, and the minister cannot directly reproach his chief contributor with her lack of Christian charity. The result is that the society of Saddle Meadows heartlessly expels its wayward members. The force of social authority operates on Delly and Ned just as later it is to coerce Pierre and Isabel.

When Melville entitles the chapter of Pierre's decision to leave Saddle Meadows “The Unprecedented Final Resolution of Pierre” (202), he is referring to a decision that has no precedent in the annals of romance or in the mind of conventionalness. Pierre's decision to leave with his supposed sister and to tell the world that she is his wife is an unconventional solution to a problem faced by a conventional hero. Yet Pierre's character clearly shapes the resolution. His decision is “not only strange and extraordinary in its novelty of mere aspect,” but also it is “wonderful in its unequaled renunciation of himself” (202). Romantic heroes are noted for their self-sacrifice, and thus it appeals to his ideal nature. Unprecedented as this resolution is, it derives in this respect from his early upbringing.

Pierre's new knowledge of his father's transgression and his new experience with the harshness of what had seemed an ideal world has a profound effect on him, but he is not left totally without moral resources. Pierre no longer believes that he exists in a perfect society, and once he finds that the authority of his society is based neither on truth or right, he cannot continue to believe in it or obey it. Pierre's secluded, rural nurturing has protected him from that “darker, though truer aspect of things” (80). Unsettling as this new awareness is, still “he seemed to feel that in his deepest soul, lurked an indefinite but potential faith, which could rule in the interregnum of all hereditary beliefs, and circumstantial persuasions” (102). Pierre's unprecedented decision, consciously setting aside hereditary beliefs yet unconsciously shaped by them because it is romantically self-sacrificing, derives ultimately from an indefinite faith in his own ability to perceive right and to act upon it.

Although Pierre's obligations to his father's memory and to Isabel are important in his decision to flee Saddle Meadows, he is mainly concerned with his mother's pride. He wishes to spare his mother because he does not believe that she is to blame for the way she is made: “He too plainly saw, that not his mother had made his mother, but the Infinite Haughtiness had first fashioned her; and then the haughty world had further molded her; nor had a haughty Ritual omitted to finish her” (105). God, society, and conventional religiosity have thus created his mother and confirmed her in haughtiness. Pierre joins Ishmael in perceiving the powerful, mysterious authority of God the Creator. Melville makes the identification conclusive when he writes that at the moment of this perception Pierre feels “entirely lonesome, and orphan-like,” as if he were “driven out an infant Ishmael into the desert, with no maternal Hagar to accompany and comfort him” (105). This loneliness is the price Pierre must pay for alienating himself from his mother and her society.

After Pierre leaves Saddle Meadows, the elements of the novel combine to portray Pierre as a social delinquent; he is a rebel against social forms. Pierre has not violated any standard of morality or the law. He has outraged his mother by eloping with an unknown girl, and later when Lucy joins his New York household Pierre is charged with exercising an undue influence over her. But he is not charged with immorality with Lucy—she thinks he is married to Isabel. And there is no evidence that there is a physical consummation of the love between Pierre and Isabel. In his study of Pierre and Manfred, Joseph J. Mogan expresses what seems to be the critical consensus that in the case of Pierre the “actual incest itself remains ambiguous.”4 Floyd C. Watkins is less tentative: “… the relationship between mother and son verges on the latently incestuous; this is a foreshadowing, perhaps, of the potential incest that probably becomes real between Isabel and Pierre.”5 John Bernstein maintains that “it is clearly indicated—or at least as clearly as the mores of the time would permit—that on one occasion the love between Pierre and Isabel is consummated.”6 On the other hand, in the introduction to the Hendricks House Edition of the novel Henry A. Murray thoroughly elaborates Pierre's double incestuous relationship but concludes that the love for Isabel is not consummated: “With this in mind [that a sister is the proper object of love in the courtly love tradition] we might guess that one of Pierre's secret motives was to avoid marriage, ‘that climax which is so fatal to ordinary love,’ and to commit himself forever to a wholly spiritual relationship. This hypothesis would explain Pierre's declaration that he has resolved ‘to follow Virtue to her uttermost vista, where common souls never go,’ and his apprehension lest ‘the uttermost virtue, after all, provide a betraying pander to the monstrousest vice.’”7 Such seems to be Pierre's conscious motivation, and it may be, as Nathalia Wright suggests, that there are hints of repressed homosexuality in Pierre's relationship with Glen Stanly and that a retarded sexual development “is partly responsible for his decision to abandon Lucy and to assume the relationship of brother and the masquerade of husband to Isabel.”8

For Pierre to pursue the wildly unnatural, unprecedented, and self-sacrificing course of living with Isabel continently is perfectly in character. The motif of incest runs through the book, of course; it gives a flavor of unique folly to Pierre's action. He enjoys it while he despairs of it. Pierre is obviously attracted sexually by the dark Isabel, and he expresses doubts that he would so readily commit himself to the rescue of a supposed sister who lacks her appeal. Isabel's caresses in their darkened New York apartment stir him to a wild excitement, and Isabel definitely shows a sexual jealousy of Lucy when Pierre receives the letter announcing her arrival in the city. Yet in this same conversation it is made clear that the Pierre-Isabel relationship has not included sexual intercourse:

“Oh, I want none in the world but thee, my brother—but thee, but thee! and, oh God! am I not enough for thee? …”

Pierre spoke not; but he listened; a terrible burning curiosity was in him, that made him as heartless. But still all that she had said thus far was ambiguous. (367-68.)

In this conversation Pierre recognizes an invitation in her wild questionings, however ambiguous. A “terrible burning curiosity” is aroused about her sexual favors; lust makes him heartless. The temptation is clear, but equally clear is the fact that he has resisted it in the past and continues to do so. The conversation here does not result in physical consummation, and proof of past celibacy follows immediately. Isabel asks Pierre if Lucy is to sleep with her in her room, and Pierre answers: “On thy account; wishful for thy sake; to leave thee incommoded; and—and—not knowing precisely how things really are;—she probably anticipates and desires otherwise, my sister” (369). Thus late in the novel Pierre reminds Isabel that Lucy does not know precisely how things are, that their intimacy is only apparent, not real.9 The story then moves rapidly to its conclusion, and there is no reason to believe that their relationship changes.

In his new social environment in New York Pierre still remains an outcast. He does not, then, substitute the mores of one society for another. He does not seek to adapt himself to the rough democratic society of his poor tenement house. He treats his fellow tenants like servants; he is rudely condescending to those who befriend him, even after Glendinning Stanly has given him the same treatment. He appeals to Charlie Millthorpe for help, and this son of a Saddle Meadows farmer, who is now apparently a successful lawyer in the city, responds with aid and the offer of friendship. But Pierre is “startled by his exceedingly frank and familiar manner” and shocked by his lack of “old manorial deference” (329). In the eyes of his new acquaintances in the city Pierre has defied his mother's authority to break off his engagement to a rich girl and has married a poor orphaned servant girl. No one knows, of course, not even Delly Ulver, that Isabel may be his half-sister. In the Bohemian society of the tenement there are many who would have respected his independent attitude had he desired to make friends with them.

There is no Ishmael to view Pierre's career and tell his story, but despite Melville's obvious sympathy for Pierre (he is a deep diver, a box of treasure that sinks, and Charlie Millthorpe a weightless floating bladder) one part of the author also judges his hero.10 Pierre is quite capable of supporting himself financially while he is writing his book: the practical Charlie Millthorpe suggests that people will pay to hear Pierre lecture on Kantian philosophy. Three young women—Isabel, Delly, and later Lucy—are willing to aid him in any way they can, but he makes no effort to direct their energies toward some financial return. The practical, the expedient cannot be completely ignored. One recalls the lessons learned by Wellingborough Redburn and not learned by his English friend Harry Bolton.11 The same impulse that brings Pierre away from Saddle Meadows, an impetuous pursuit of the heart, results in his isolation and ultimate death in the city. Yet on the grounds that “all the world does never gregariously advance to Truth” (195) Pierre stubbornly justifies his attitude and behavior.

Melville enlarges Pierre's struggle against society so that it gains cosmic significance. He learns about the vast mystery of life, that “all the world … was steeped a million fathoms in a mysteriousness wholly hopeless of solution” (150). Pierre concludes, like Ishmael, that “human life … partakes of the unravelable inscrutableness of God” (166). One specific aspect of the problem of life is set out by the pamphlet that Pierre finds in the coach carrying him to New York, the chronometrical and horological argument of Plotinus Plinlimmon. Pierre has already discovered and identified the horological pressures as the conventions of society. The chronometrical man is assaulted by social forces: “… the never-entirely repulsed hosts of Commonness, and Conventionalness, and Worldly Prudent-mindedness return to the charge; press hard on the faltering soul; and with inhuman hootings deride all its nobleness as mere eccentricity, which further wisdom and experience shall assuredly cure” (197). The pamphlet warns that man must not do precisely what Pierre has done: man must “by no means make a complete unconditional sacrifice of himself in behalf of any other being, or any cause, or any conceit” (251). The chronometrical man will “array all men's earthly time-keepers against him, and thereby work himself woe and death,” become involved in “strange, unique follies and sins, unimagined before,” and commit “a sort of suicide as to the practical things of this world” (249-50). Pierre fulfills precisely these predictions.

Plinlimmon's dichotomy is a form of absolutism which Melville does not approve.12 Two characters in the novel have been notably conquered by the hosts of commonness, prudent-mindedness, and conventionality—Mr. Falsgrave and Glendinning Stanly. They and their horological solutions are not sympathetically treated. Charles Millthorpe seems less objectionable, but because of his intellectual limitations and his humble origin he may have less obligation. Pierre's chronometrical soul, like Ahab's higher perception, does not receive Melville's unqualified approval either. As Melville says directly to the reader, the pamphlet “seems more the excellently illustrated restatement of a problem, than the solution of the problem itself” (246).

The cause of Pierre's social rebellion is his obedience to a moral imperative, “the loftiest behest of his soul” (244), which happens to be contrary to the dictates of social authority. The sanctions of society in the end have more force than the mere strength of moral right. This is the pessimism of Melville's Pierre. And the personal tragedy of Pierre Glendinning has as its cause the fact that though he rebels against the authority of his former society, nevertheless its shaping influence is precisely the reason for his downfall. Melville's attitude is ambivalent. On the one hand, he is sympathetically drawn to the war of his Enceladus. Yet Pierre is a “fool of Truth, … fool of Virtue, … fool of Fate” (422), noble and foolish (the concept is ambiguous) to pursue such abstractions in wanton disregard of reason and the demands of this world. These, then, are the ambiguities promised by Melville's subtitle to the novel. Out of Pierre's obedience to a moral imperative in defiance of society have come heroism and foolishness, knowledge and grief, independence and death.


  1. Herman Melville, Pierre: Or, The Ambiguities, ed. Henry A. Murray (New York, 1949), p. 407. Subsequent page references to this edition will be made parenthetically in the text.

  2. John Bernstein, Pacifism and Rebellion in the Writings of Herman Melville (The Hague, 1964), p. 144, sees Pierre's rebellion as beginning in an attempt to right social injustice but ending with an Ahablike Pierre at war against God.

  3. “The Early Love Scenes in Melville's Pierre,AL, [American Literature: A Journal of Literary History, Criticism, and Bibliography] XXII (1950), 285. In this article there is also a good summary of the views of earlier critics who had accused Melville of a lapse of taste in the opening scenes introducing the youthful Pierre and Lucy in love. Perhaps the most recent commentator on this point has been Floyd C. Watkins, who writes that in the opening of the novel Melville mocks pride, religion, triteness, and ideality. See “Melville's Plotinus Plinlimmon and Pierre,” Reality and Myth: Essays in American Literature in Memory of Richard Croom Beatty (Nashville, Tenn., 1964), pp. 39-51, passim.

  4. Pierre and Manfred: Melville's Study of the Byronic Hero,” PELL, I (Summer 1965), 239.

  5. Watkins, p. 47.

  6. Bernstein, p. 131.

  7. P. lvii.

  8. Pierre: Herman Melville's Inferno,AL, XXXII (1960), 180.

  9. The arrival of Lucy's letter and their conversation takes place some time after the scene that John Bernstein cites as the one occasion when Pierre and Isabel consummate their love.

  10. Watkins suggests that Plinlimmon is Pierre's Ishmael, “the passive observer of his fate, the character who is exactly antithetical to him” (p. 40). Aside from the obvious difference that Ahab's entire story filters through Ishmael's consciousness, Ishmael's intellectual and emotional posture is somewhat different from but not antithetical to Ahab's.

  11. Redburn's voyage to Liverpool as ordinary seaman aboard the merchantman Highlander serves as the initiation of a gentleman's son into the discipline of seafaring life; he survives because of his practical self-reliant shrewdness. His English counterpart, Harry Bolton, who signs aboard for the return voyage to New York, lacks the adaptability of the young American democrat and thus becomes the target of the “worst jibes and jeers” of the sailors and in fact “a hunted hare to the merciless crew” (Redburn, Constable Edition [London: 1922-24], p. 333).

  12. That Melville does not approve Plinlimmon's pamphlet has long been noted. See, for example, Willard Thorp ed., Herman Melville, Representative Selections (New York, 1938), p. lxxvii; Tyrus Hillway, “Pierre, The Fool of Virtue,” AL, XXI (1949), 202; Charles Moorman, “Melville's Pierre in the City,” AL, XXVII (1956), 572-73.

Bert C. Bach (essay date 1970)

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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 to those upon which our previous negotiations have proceeded. … If nothing has been made on the old books, may not something be made out of the new?”1

Whatever Melville considered a “regular romance” to be, he certainly knew that the symbolic and allegorical patterns employed in Mardi and Moby-Dick were not “calculated for popularity.” He was also aware that they created a situation in which misreading and over-interpretation could easily take place. On January 8, 1852, he wrote Sophia Hawthorne, suggesting that her interpretations of certain symbolic sections of Moby-Dick had gone beyond his symbolic intention. In the same letter he asserted that Pierre would not be open to such over-interpretation, the implication being that the book would not be heavily symbolic: “But, my Dear Lady, I shall not again send you a bowl of salt water. The next chalice I shall commend, will be a rural bowl of milk.”2 How, we may ask, did Melville alter this original intention? The answer to the question rests principally in his use of narrative and structural devices that had not previously been a part of his aesthetic repertoire.

Almost every critic of Pierre has assumed both that it is related in the third person and that the third-person narrator is omniscient. Actually, neither of these assumptions is entirely true. On numerous occasions the narrator employs first person, and on other occasions he indicates existing limitations on his narrating powers. It is relevant, then, to clarify the exceptions to these general assumptions. A second cause for difficulty arises from the necessity to distinguish between levels of narration in the novel. Besides the semi-omniscient first narrator who relates most of the novel in the third person, there is also a second level of narration, represented by the character Pierre, who serves as the principal recorder or reflector of experience. Throughout the novel there is alternation from first to second level of narration, thus constituting a rhythmical quality which unifies the work. Moreover, the functions of the two levels of narration differ. The first is concerned with observation and imparting of knowledge; the second is concerned with the recording of experience.

Since the alternating modes of narration constitute Melville's principal structural devices in this novel, it is imperative to evaluate the first narrator's changing attitudes toward Pierre. The arcadian imagery of the first part of the novel is soon abandoned, and the narrator warns the reader to distinguish between Pierre's own thoughts and those thoughts which simply relate to him: “But the thoughts we here indite as Pierre's are to be very carefully discriminated from those we indite concerning him.”3 In The Modern Psychological Novel, Leon Edel cites a comparable situation in The Turn of the Screw, where there are actually three narrators, but the second is not really independent “since his account is at first being quoted or summarized by the First Narrator.”4 Melville's method is clearly not so systematic as James's; thus, from the first narrator's warning, one must conceive of his narration and that of the character Pierre as separate entities. Pierre is, of course, the catalyst for the novel's narrative progression; the principal pattern of the novel is constituted by his attempt to find a course of action, his finding it and meeting its results, and his continuous evaluation of the motives for which he has made his choice. Throughout the novel this threefold pattern is subservient to the rhythm of the juxtaposed narrative voices. Although R. P. Blackmur is incorrect in recognizing but three situations in the novel for which Pierre is not the sole register,5 he is correct in assuming that such episodes are extremely rare. For this reason, if one accepts E. M. Forster's definition of plot as “a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality,”6 he must also assert that Pierre, as principal catalyst and register, is central to all structural devices employed in the novel. A brief description of the spiral form of the novel, emphasizing a near perfect balance of imagery and character relationship, is therefore relevant. Pierre is made up of twenty-six books, each of different length and an unequal number of subsections. As the narrator says, “This history goes forward and goes backward, as occasion calls. Nimble center, circumference elastic you must have” (p. 62). Thus, while most of the books deal with the present and Pierre's actions in it, others are flashbacks or are devoted to narrative commentary not necessarily continuing the action which has taken place in the previous book.

Books I-XIII are set in or near Saddle Meadows, a rural estate which is described by highly romantic and arcadian imagery. In time, the thirteen books consume five summer days, and events are arranged in each of these days so that the reader recognizes movement from morning to evening. This first setting serves as a background for introducing Pierre, Mrs. Glendinning, Lucy Tartan, Isabel Banford, Delly Ulver, and the ineffectual Reverend Falsgrave. The principal events include the close relation of Pierre and Mrs. Glendinning, the relation of Pierre to the “white” Lucy Tartan, Pierre's recounting the vision of a face and his receiving from Isabel the letter which claims she is his sister, Isabel's two narratives of her past life, Pierre's decision to abandon his past and present in order to fulfill his supposed sister's need of him, and his actual break with Lucy Tartan and his mother. Three significant image patterns are established: (1) Mrs. Glendinning is associated with past ideals and contemporary situations which suggest falsity of position; (2) Lucy Tartan is associated with images of whiteness, of purity, and of angelic qualities; and (3) Isabel Banford is associated with images of mystery, of uncertainty, and of darkness. Book XIV is the structural point of the spiral. In time, it constitutes a part of one day, beginning at 4 a.m. and extending for an unspecified time until Pierre has completed one act. It is set in a coach which is taking Pierre, Isabel, and Delly from Saddle Meadows to the city, and the one act related involves Pierre's finding, reading, and meditating on a piece of a pamphlet left in the coach by some previous occupant.

Books XV-XXVI are set in the city. They introduce three new characters: Plotinus Plinlimmon, the author of the document which Pierre had read in the coach and whom the reader deduces to be the counterpart of the Reverend Falsgrave in the first section, and Glendinning Stanly and Charlie Millthorpe, both of whom are associated with Pierre's past at Saddle Meadows and who demonstrate the various moral poles of that past. The principal events related are Pierre and Isabel's taking quarters in an old church called the Apostles, Pierre's varying success in attempting to write a book by which he could earn his livelihood, Pierre's rejection by his cousin Glen Stanly and the latter's inheriting of Saddle Meadows and courting of Lucy Tartan after the reported death of Mrs. Glendinning, Pierre's renewal of association with Charlie Millthorpe, Lucy's decision to come to the city to live with Pierre and Isabel, and the deaths of Lucy, Pierre, and Isabel. Books I-XIII, then, present a situation, offer a choice to the hero, and picture the making of that choice. Book XIV offers another view, an alternative emotional and intellectual position which could have been assumed by the hero. And Books XV-XXVI demonstrate the hero's facing the results of his choice and his eventual destruction by it.

Excluding the occasional use of the editorial “we,” there are six major episodes which demonstrate the self-conscious narrator's breaking from third into first person. In each he is serving to impart knowledge, to clarify his position and method as narrator, or to foretell the final results of an action already begun. The first of these occurs in Book V: Pierre's “grand enthusiast resolution,” his decision to abandon all that has previously constituted happiness, is “foetally forming in him” (p. 125). In a prayer, he employs a metaphor which likens his own potential sacrifice to that of Christ. The narrator, clarifying the ambiguity of the scene and anticipating the almost blasphemous nature of this facet of Pierre's character; comments: “How shall I steal yet further into Pierre, and show how this heavenly fire was helped to be contained in him, by mere contingent things, and things that he knew not. But I shall follow the endless, winding way,—the flowing river in the cave of man; careless whither I be led, reckless where I land. … I am more frank with Pierre than the best men are with themselves. I am all unguarded and magnanimous with Pierre; therefore you saw his weakness, and therefore only. In reserves men build imposing characters; not in revelations. He who shall be wholly honest, though nobler than Ethan Allen; that man shall stand in danger of the meanest mortal's scorn” (pp. 126-127).

The second commentary occurs in Book XIV. As Pierre is described reading a “curious paper-rag” written by Plotinus Plinlimmon, the narrator intervenes to present his reasons for inserting the document itself into the chapter. The reasons are that “Pierre may not in the end be entirely uninfluenced in his conduct by the torn pamphlet, when afterwards perhaps by some means he shall come to understand it; or, peradventure, come to know that he, in the first place, did …” (p. 246); and that Pierre will come to know the author of the pamphlet by reputation and be greatly influenced by seeing him from a distance. Following this the narrator shifts to the first person, commenting on the dubious authenticity of the views presented in the document: “For all these reasons I account sufficient apology for inserting in the following chapters the initial part of what seems to me a very fanciful and mystical, rather than philosophical lecture, from which, I confess, that I myself can derive no conclusion which permanently satisfies those peculiar motions in my soul, to which that lecture seems most particularly addressed. For to me it seems more the excellently illustrated re-statement of a problem, than the solution of the problem itself. But as such mere illustrations are almost universally taken for solutions (and perhaps they are the only possible human solutions), therefore it may help to the temporary quiet of some inquiring mind; and so not be wholly without use” (p. 246).

The third and fourth first-person intrusions appear in Books XVII and XVIII. These two books comprise narrative commentary relative to Pierre's ability as a writer. The first, ironic in tone, commends in Pierre everything which the narrator apparently considers despicable in a writer. The second, in an authoritative tone, evaluates seriously Pierre's potential as a writer. In both books the “I” narrator is an advocate of a type of literature antithetical to the pastoral optimism favored by an audience which he ironically says is constituted of Pierre's “more intimate acquaintances” and of “the less partial applauses of the always intelligent, and extremely discriminating public” (p. 288).

The fifth intrusion comments on the spirit of the dwellers at the Apostles, suggesting later that Charlie Millthorpe exemplifies the essential charity of the group. Almost all the dwellers are artists of various sorts who have attempted to ground their lives on somewhat mystical bases. The narrator mocks their efforts, yet recognizes that in their charity they will not resent such mocking: “Yet let me here offer up three locks of my hair, to the memory of all such glorious paupers who have lived and died in this world. Surely, and truly I honor them—noblemen often at bottom—and for that very reason I make bold to be gamesome about them; for where fundamental nobleness is, and fundamental honor is due, merriment is never accounted irreverent. The fools and pretenders of humanity, and the imposters and baboons among the gods, these only are offended with raillery; since both those gods and men whose titles to eminence are secure, seldom worry themselves about the seditious gossip of old apple-women, and the skylarkings of funny little boys in the street” (p. 314).

The last of these intrusions, most significant because it clarifies the theme of the novel, occurs in Book XXI. Pierre sees at a distance the face of Plinlimmon, which seems to tell him to desist from his present course of action, to refrain from a vain quest. Pierre then looks for Plinlimmon's pamphlet which he had read in the coach. Ironically he carries it in the lining of his coat but is unable to find it, and he curses himself that he had never understood the document. The narrator enters to question the truth of this assumption: “I think that, regarded in one light, the final career of Pierre will seem to show, that he did understand it. And here it may be randomly suggested, by way of bagatelle, whether some things that men think they do not know, are not for all that thoroughly comprehended by them; and yet, so to speak, though contained in themselves, are kept a secret from themselves?” (p. 346)

To summarize, Melville's use of the first-person narrative voice on a basically third-person frame serves to intensify the series of intrusions by contributing a definitive tone. The first intrusion patterns with the sixth, since the subject of each is the vanity of Pierre's quest and the depths of human motivations. The second anticipates Pierre's later recognition of the distinction between “horological” and “chronometrical” reality, while the third and fourth demonstrate the effect of self-confident enthusiasm in clouding that distinction. The fifth emphasizes the ironic ambiguity of the protagonist's role, for Pierre also has followed the “mystical” course of the Apostles. One may perhaps strain a point to say that Melville consciously patterns intensified narrative intrusions. However, he may say that the effect of intensity gained by the use of the first-person intrusion demonstrates in Pierre an interesting artistic innovation which is not observed in the author's earlier novels.

The degree of the first narrator's omniscience must also be clarified. While his comments are generally forceful, he often reveals a lack of knowledge of incidental details. For instance, after the second narrative of Isabel's past, Pierre kisses her and leaves. Walking back to Saddle Meadows he stops to seek advice from the Reverend Falsgrave, and on the walk he obviously is attempting to assimilate the significance of Isabel's story for his own life. Of these thoughts the narrator says: “We know not Pierre Glendinning's thoughts as he gained the village and passed on beneath its often shrouding trees …” (p. 191). While examples of narrative limitation such as this are numerous, on more revealing occasions the narrator admits that his interpretation of Pierre's motives, as well as any interpretations of them, has possibility of error: “Ofttimes it is very wonderful to trace the rarest and profoundest things, and find their probable origin in something extremely trite or trivial. Yet so strange and complicate is the human soul; so much is confusedly evolved from out itself, and such vast and varied accessions come to it from abroad, and so impossible is it always to distinguish between these two, that the wisest man were rash, positively to assign the precise and incipient origination of his final thoughts and acts. Far as we blind moles can see, man's life seems but an acting upon mysterious hints; it is somehow hinted to us, to do thus or thus. For surely no mere mortal who has at all gone down into himself will ever pretend that his slightest thought or act solely originates in his own defined identity” (p. 207). One may easily overestimate the omniscience of the overriding narrative voice, and the novel's subtitle, “The Ambiguities,” further emphasizes this possibility. Perhaps, then, as the narrator later says, we cannot definitively find the basis of Pierre's choice or the motives on which he makes that choice; we can only continue to restate the problem (p. 246).


  1. The Letters of Herman Melville, ed. Merrell R. Davis and William H. Gilman (New Haven, 1960), p. 150.

  2. Ibid., p. 146.

  3. Pierre; or, The Ambiguities, ed. Henry A. Murray (N. Y., 1949), p. 196. Subsequent references to this edition appear in the text.

  4. N. Y., 1955, pp. 39-40.

  5. “The Craft of Herman Melville: A Putative Statement,” in Melville: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Richard Chase (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1962), p. 82.

  6. Aspects of the Novel (N. Y., 1954), p. 86.

Alan Holder (essay date 1970)

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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, writing with detached amusement or showing a desperation equal to that of Pierre. Melville's first use throughout an entire work of the omniscient narrator technique resulted, ironically, not in the relative poise and consistency of attitude we might expect but in astonishing tonal discontinuities. Through the close scrutiny of various portions of the novel that will be undertaken here, an attempt will be made to establish a clear auctorial intention when such can be textually supported, but there will also be an effort to indicate how the style (or styles) creates the tonal breaks and ambiguities that bulk so large in this thoroughly interesting but, finally, thoroughly exasperating book.

We need go no further than the book's first sections to find ourselves in disputed territory. These describe Pierre's privileged, carefree existence at Saddle Meadows, his family estate, and his relationship with the girl he plans to marry, Lucy Tartan. Lewis Mumford contends that the opening passage appears as though it were “taken from an Elizabethan chamber romance; it sounds exactly like Melville's first effusion in the Lansingburgh Advertiser …”2 Mumford apparently accepts the following declaration, which is part of a supposed hymn to Love, and which has become a locus classicus of Pierre criticism, as a serious, sincere statement on Melville's part: “… Love is god of all. Man or woman who has never loved, nor once looked deep down into their own lover's eyes, they know not the sweetest and the loftiest religion of this earth. Love is both Creator's and Saviour's gospel to mankind; a volume bound in rose-leaves clasped with violets and by the beaks of humming-birds printed with peach-juice on the leaves of lilies.”3 F. O. Matthiessen gloomily observes that this “impotent echo of the Lady's Book” is presented “without undercutting. …”4 Newton Arvin says, “It would be charitable to attribute such mannerism to the intention of parody; unhappily, the context makes such an interpretation impossible.”5 Lawrance Thompson, however, argues that “The early chapters of Pierre are easily misunderstood if they are not recognized as stylistic parodies of the saccharine domestic-sentimental fiction which was so popular in America in the middle of the nineteenth century. …” He then cites the humming-bird passage, saying that “Unless forewarned and on guard, anyone may read almost straight through such a passage—without suspecting that this is all parody. …”6 Thompson is right here, and none other than Melville himself has put us on guard.

On the very first page of the book we get this presentation of the “pastoral” scene into which Pierre enters: “The verdant trance lay far and wide; and through it nothing came but brindled kine, dreamily wandering to their pastures, followed, not driven, by ruddy-cheeked, white-footed boys.” The very concentration of pastoral clichés, the eighteenth-century epithetic quality—“verdant trance,” “brindled kine,” “dreamily wandering,” “ruddy-cheeked”—should give us pause, but if these do not, then the thrusting into the sentence of the qualifier, “not driven,” certainly will. The insistence on lack of compulsion in this scene, an insistence focused on cows, is clearly evidence of a parodic intention.

The treatment of animals elsewhere in the early pages of the novel reinforces this conclusion. Much is made of the horses on the Glendinning estate. Those belonging to Pierre are described as “a sort of family cousins to Pierre … they were splendid young cousins …” (p. 23). This in itself constitutes a kind of joke on Melville's part, picking up as it does his comic use of simile some pages earlier when he described Nature as having blown “her wind-clarion from the blue hills … Pierre neighed out lyrical thoughts, as at the trumpet-blast, a war-horse paws himself into a lyric of foam” (p. 14). The exchange here between man and animal, effected by the use of a two-fold simile (“neighs” and “lyric”) is surely a jou d’esprit on Melville's part and one that creates a ludicrous effect. Continuing his description of Pierre's horses he said, “These young cousins never permitted themselves to run from Pierre; they were impatient in their paces, but very patient in the halt. They were full of good-humor too, and kind as kittens” (pp. 23-24). The cadence and content of this last sentence surely smacks of children's literature, and should be taken as a mocking portrait of a pastoral relationship to animals.

The same holds true for the description of Pierre's colts as he steps between them. They turn their heads toward Lucy “as much to say—We understand young master; we understand him, Miss … why, bless your delicious little heart, we played with Pierre before you ever did” (p. 24). A little after this, the horse of Pierre's grandfather is depicted as responding to his master's death by refusing to be petted: “plain as horse can speak, the old gray steed says—‘I smell not the wonted hand; where is grand old Pierre? Grain me not, and groom me not;—where is grand old Pierre?’” (p. 35). The horses who made motion “as much to say” have been succeeded by one who actually does talk, and if this were not dubious enough, Melville has given him a talent for alliteration (pointed up by the narrator's own use of alliteration in the preceding paragraph). Here is a gifted horse whose mouth heeds looking into. What we are viewing is a parody of sentimental portraits of animal devotion.

Helping to sustain the parodic effect of Pierre's early pages is the use of extravagance. Describing Lucy, Melville takes the cliché-ridden description of a beautiful girl and transforms it by going too far: “Her eyes some god brought down from heaven; her hair was Danae's, spangled with Jove's shower; her teeth were dived for in the Persian Sea” (p. 26). The sentence holds up until its last clause, at which point it takes a pratfall. After rendering the “poetic” properties of Lucy's eyes and hair, Melville implicitly refers to the image of “teeth like pearls,” but extends this, bringing to it an effortfulness that renders it ludicrous. The sentence itself has gone diving in search of the poetic, but ends up drowning.

That such a comic effect was Melville's intention and not unwitting is indicated by his obvious self-consciousness in portraying Lucy. He asks: “By immemorial usage, am I not bound to celebrate this Lucy Tartan? Is she not my hero's own affianced? … Never shall I get down the vile inventory! … Who shall put down the charms of Lucy Tartan on paper?” (p. 28). Plainly, Melville is showing some good-humored resentment at the a priori demands made on the novelist, turning the supposed fulfillments of those demands into comic occasions.

His description of Lucy's teeth is immediately followed by another piece of extravagance that produces this burlesque of chivalric ideals in a supposed paean to female beauty: “A true gentleman in Kentucky would cheerfully die for a beautiful woman in Hindostan, though he never saw her” (p. 26). The sentence immediately collapses under the weight of its own absurdity. These findings are at variance with Edward Rosenberry's contention that “Melville almost certainly intended his worst writing in Pierre for satire, but there is no way of proving it by the test of exaggeration.”7

The element of exaggeration should be borne in mind when we come to the hymn to love section and its notorious humming-bird image. A strain of comic hyperbole runs through this supposed hymn, beginning with the assertion that on the morning the narrative is speaking of, the sailors out at sea (presumably all sailors) “tied love-knots on every spangled spar” instead of bowline-knots (p. 36). Evidence of the power of love is found in the absence of wolves from Britain, of panthers and pards from Virginia: “the fierce things of this earth [are] daily, hourly going out …” (p. 38). Italy, we are assured, “hath not a sight before the beauty of a Yankee girl …” (p. 39). (What we have here perhaps is not only a parody of the sentimental glorification of love and female beauty but of the Emersonian habits of viewing the material world as infused and dominated by spirit, of seeing the supposedly large and imposing crumble into insignificance when confronted by the small, the personal, the individual.) Coming as it does between extravagant statements about love-stupefied sailors and fierce animals driven out by Love's power, the humming-bird passage most certainly is undercut, Matthiessen notwithstanding. And if we look at the sentences immediately preceding the humming-bird passage quoted above, we find: “The eye is Love's own magic glass, where all things that are not of earth, glide in supernatural light. There are not so many fishes in the sea, as there are sweet images in lovers' eyes. In those miraculous translucencies swim the strange eye-fish with wings, that sometimes leap out, instinct with joy; moist fish-wings wet the lover's cheek” (p. 38). This is surely a blatant parody of the treatment of eyes in literary portrayals of love. Melville has produced a preposterous conceit; “moist fish-wings wet the lover's cheek” evokes a picture of fin-covered faces that is grotesque. To view him as not knowing this is highly questionable.

What can account for critics so fine as Matthiessen and Arvin taking Melville's humming-bird seriously? For not only is there the evidence of a humorous intention in the materials immediately preceding and following the passage in question, there is the larger fact of the distance from his materials that Melville has already shown in Book I of Pierre (the hymn to love is found in Book II). In Book I, Melville explicitly indicates the gap between the apparently ideal condition of Pierre, together with his assumptions of future happiness, and the woe that is actually to befall him. The omniscient narrator reveals a painful knowledge of his protagonist's fate that renders the later, lyrical effusions on the power of Love impossible to take at face value. There are no fewer than four paragraphs in the second section of Book I that are given a parallel structure which provides an overview of Pierre plainly at variance with his own expectations. In each of these paragraphs, a picture of Pierre's happy life terminates with an indication of dire things to come (pp. 3-6).

In showing Melville's distance from his materials, one could cite as well the third section of Book I, which mocks the pride that members of the English peerage take in their long pedigrees. While the narrator advances the seemingly superior claims of Americans to such pedigrees, he derides the latter group as well, saying of the descendants of the Dutch patroons: “Unimaginable audacity of a worm that but crawls through the soil he so imperially claims!” (p. 10). The section that follows this deflation of “aristocracy,” European and American, begins, “In general terms we have been thus decided in asserting the great genealogical and real-estate dignity of some families in America, because in so doing we poetically establish the richly aristocratic condition of Master Pierre Glendinning …” (p. 11). The mocking incongruity of the phrase “real-estate dignity” affects, of course, the way in which “poetically” should be taken, and should affect our reception of the “poetic treatment of Pierre, Lucy, and Love that we get in Book II.

Given all this, the assumption by such critics as Mumford, Matthiessen, and Arvin that Melville offers his humming-birds without irony would appear extremely puzzling. Matthiessen does see an element of mockery in the early sections of Pierre, and Arvin observes that an effect of “angry parody” dominates the whole of the book.8 But neither extends these observations to the humming-birds. We are apparently faced here with examples of critical schizophrenia. But it should be said at once that such a condition is almost forced upon the reader of Pierre. It derives in part from finding in the book, along with the parodic, instances of sentimentality untouched by irony, for example, the following description of Pierre's entry into Lucy's bedroom (which anticipates Kenyon's reverent entry into Hilda's chamber in The Marble Faun): “So he advanced, and with a fond and gentle joyfulness, his eye now fell upon the spotless bed itself, and fastened on a snow-white roll that lay beside the pillow. Now he started; Lucy seemed coming in upon him; but no—’tis only the foot of one of her little slippers, just peeping into view from under the narrow nether curtains of the bed. Then again his glance fixed itself upon the slender, snow-white ruffled roll; and he stood as one enchanted. Never precious parchment of the Greek was half so precious in his eyes. Never trembling scholar longed more to unroll the mystic vellum, than Pierre longed to unroll the sacred secrets of that snow-white, ruffled thing” (p. 45). “If this, then why not humming birds?” critics like Matthiessen and Arvin could ask. For here there is nothing, either in the passage, or in what follows or precedes it, unmistakably to suggest undercutting. But more than such instances of unabashed sentimentality, the general movement in the book from the parody, satire, humor and distanced quality of its early chapters to the melodramatic, agonized, involved mode of much of the remainder of the story might account for critics' failing to find parody in a given passage.9

If such critics sometimes read the early parts of Pierre too much in the light of the later portions, a critic like Lawrance Thompson does just the reverse, extending the spirit of the opening chapters to the whole of the book. He claims that “Parody, parody, parody … will be found throughout the context which Melville builds around the central narrative of Pierre's pilgrim-like progress to defeat and damnation.”10 This assertion does not take account of the shift in the novel just described (there is certainly little, in the bulk of the book, of the humor one normally associates with parody). The same might be said of William Braswell's stress on the “satirical temper” of Pierre.11 Such a characterization suggests a removal from his materials on Melville's part which is often not there.

The overall shift in the tone of the book is signalled by the initial reference to Isabel, occurring in a conversation between Pierre and Lucy, “Tell me [says Lucy] once more the story of that face, Pierre,—that mysterious, haunting face, which thou once told’st me, thou didst thrice vainly try to shun … tell me the story of the face,—the dark-eyed, lustrous, imploring, mournful face, that so mystically paled, and shrunk at thine. … Tell me, tell me, Pierre;—as a fixed basilisk, with eyes of steady, flaming mournfulness, that face this instant fastens me” (p. 42). The portentousness of this adjective-ridden, stylized speech is only too characteristic of the tone that will prevail in the treatment of Isabel. Here is a sample of Pierre's response to Isabel's face: “The terrors of the face were not those of Gorgon; not by repelling hideousness did it smite him so; but bewilderingly allured him, by its nameless beauty, and its long-suffering, hopeless anguish” (p. 56). This reaction is not jeered at by Melville as the product of an over-heated sensibility, of a too-ready inclination to Gothic frissons, but is, rather, an extension of Melville's own feeling. In the voice of the omniscient narrator we are told that Isabel's is “One of those faces, which now and then appear to man, and without one word of speech, still reveal glimpses of some fearful gospel. In natural guise, but lit by supernatural light; palpable to the senses, but inscrutable to the soul; in their perfectest impression on us, ever hovering between Tartarean misery and Paradisaic beauty; such faces, compounded so of hell and heaven, overthrow in us all foregone persuasions, and make us wondering children in this world again” (p. 49). The periodic sentence here, with its parallel clauses, its conjunction of opposites, its diction denoting extreme conditions, lends weight to Pierre's response to Isabel. It authenticates Pierre's reaction rather than making it seem headlong and excessive. No parody operates here.

Without such auctorial statement we might dismiss the grandiose, hysterical and stagey apostrophes of Pierre, the orotund conditionals he flings before the universe, as insufferable mouthings which are being laughed at by Melville. Such a dismissal would be the response of most readers encountering:

“Now, never into the soul of Pierre, stole there before, a muffledness like this! If aught really lurks in it, ye sovereign powers that claim all my leal worshipings, I conjure ye to lift the veil; I must see it face to face. Tread I on a mine, warn me; advance I on a precipice, hold me back; but abandon me to an unknown misery, that it shall suddenly seize me, and possess me, wholly,—that ye will never do; else, Pierre's fond faith in ye—now clean, untouched—may clean depart; and give me up to be a railing atheist” (pp. 47-48).

“On my strong faith in ye Invisibles, I stake three whole felicities, and three whole lives this day. If ye forsake me now,—farewell to Faith, farewell to Truth, farewell to God; exiled for aye from God and man, I shall declare myself an equal power with both; free to make war on Night and Day, and all thoughts and things of mind and matter, which the upper and the nether firmaments do clasp!” (p. 126).

“… if Life be a cheating dream, and virtue as unmeaning and unsequeled with any blessing as the midnight mirth of wine; if by sacrificing myself for Duty's sake, my own mother re-sacrifices me; if Duty's self be but a bug-bear, and all things are allowable and unpunishable to man;—then do thou, Mute Massiveness, fall on me!” (p. 158).

These statements by Pierre, the outpourings of an Ahab manqué, are hard to take in a narrative where so little in the way of external events (up to the point of the last quotation) has occurred. The rhetoric is not floated by any tremendous actions (as it is in Moby Dick) but, rather, attempts to substitute itself for them. A wonderful opportunity for humor exists in such a situation, but humor runs in short supply for most of that portion of the book following Isabel's appearance. As Pierre confronts the fact of Isabel and endures his fall into knowledge, Melville draws close to him and gives him a kind of license to declaim in the manner exemplified above. His suffering sanctions his style.

Isabel's entry into the book renders Pierre hospitable not only to the Gothic and the declamatory, but to the melodramatic as well (a category which often overlaps with the other two). This is particularly true in the story's treatment of sexual matters. Referring to a young man who has seduced and gotten pregnant one of the girls living on the Glendinning estate, Pierre's mother says “‘My mind is made up concerning Ned; no such profligate shall pollute this place; nor shall the disgraceful Dolly’” (p. 113). Later, she refers to “‘that vile fellow, Ned,’” and says “‘Such men’ … ‘are to my way of thinking more detestable than murderers’” (p. 117). Mrs. Glendinning is seen by the novel as being unduly harsh towards Dolly. Her attitude is set in sharp opposition to that of Pierre, who decides to give the girl shelter. But his style of response to the situation is at one with that of his mother, both partaking of the crudest nineteenth-century renderings of sexual waywardness. When told of Dolly's seduction, her giving birth to a dead baby, and falling into despair, Pierre cries (in another of the book's loci classici), “‘Curses, wasp-like, cohere on that villain, Ned, and sting him to his death!’ …” (p. 183). Worse, Melville's own sensibility appears to be given expression here, for immediately following on Pierre's statement are the words “cried Pierre, smit by this most piteous tale” (p. 183). The auctorial voice joins with that of the protagonist to form a continuum of outraged, gushing feeling. Earlier, the narrator had referred to “… Dolly, forever ruined through the cruel arts of Ned” (p. 130).12

Melville and Pierre seem at one also in their response to New York, conceived of by both as the Wicked City, that wickedness largely defined in terms of sexual dangers. Says Pierre to Isabel as they ride into New York, “‘Milk dropped from the milkman's can in December, freezes not more quickly on those stones, than does snow-white innocence, if in poverty, it chance to fall in these streets’” (p. 270). Melville stages Pierre's encounter with a prostitute as follows: “… in the flashing, sinister, evil cross-lights of a druggist's window, his eye caught the person of a wonderfully beautifully-featured girl; scarlet-cheeked, glaringly-arrayed, and of a figure all natural grace but unnatural vivacity. Her whole form, however, was horribly lit by the green and yellow rays from the druggist's. ‘My God!’ shuddered Pierre, hurrying forward, ‘the town's first welcome to youth!’” (p. 278). The garish lighting Melville has provided is the perfect complement to Pierre's reaction. Shortly after this, we have the scene in the police station, done in the purest of melodramatic terms. Describing the people brought there by the police, Melville writes: “The thieves'-quarters, and all the brothels, Lock-and-Sin hospitals for incurables, and infirmaries and infernoes of hell seemed to have made one combined sortie, and poured out upon earth through the vile vomitory of some unmentionable cellar” (p. 283). Returning to the station, after having left Isabel and Dolly there in the supposed safe-keeping of the police, Pierre finds Isabel “struggling from the delirious reaching arms of a half-clad, reeling whiskerando. With an immense blow of his mailed fist, he sent the wretch humming …” (p. 283). His “mailed fist”—Pierre is clearly a knight in armor, rescuing his damsel in distress from a fate worse than death, as the story treats us to a bit of chivalric melodrama.

Melodramatic as well is Pierre's confrontation in New York with his cousin Glen Stanly, who pretends not to know him and who, in the face of Pierre's obviously distraught condition, plays the role of the cool cosmopolitan to the hilt. Pierre, outraged, terms his cousin a “‘Hound, and base blot upon the general humanity!’” and flees from his house (p. 281). The quality of this scene between the cousins, which is placed in Book XVI along with the incidents of the prostitute and the melee at the police station, stands out all the more strongly because of the nature of the earlier treatment of the two. Melville had given over all of Book XV to tracing the relationship of Glen and Pierre. That book, done in a narrative and expository mode, is one of highly refined, even intricate analysis of motive and response, sometimes moving into generalizations about human behavior. Nothing could be in sharper contrast than the thoughtful, ruminating, analytic voice of this section, together with the subtle responses of Glen and Pierre that it describes, and the brief, sharp, melodramatic encounter of the two cousins in the next section. The abrupt change in style makes it hard for us to believe in the scene between Pierre and Glen, makes it hard to believe that Books XV and XVI are parts of the same story.

But the sudden change in style and tone that we have here is all too frequent in Pierre, and sometimes makes for great difficulty in discerning Melville's intention and his attitude toward his chief character. We find, for example, the melodrama and garishness of Book XVI giving way to a light, frolicsome caricature of contemporary literary standards and manners in Book XVII, entitled “Young America in Literature.” There, we are told that on the basis of some trivial poems he had published, Pierre had been invited to lecture on “Human Destiny” to the “Urquhartian Club for the Immediate Extension of the Limits of all Knowledge, both Human and Divine,” a club located in Zadockprattsville (p. 296). He had been urged by several men to allow them to write his biography: “… how would his last hours be embittered by the thought [they contended], that he was about to depart forever, leaving the world utterly unprovided with the knowledge of what were the precise texture and hue of the first trowsers he wore. These representations did certainly touch him in a very tender spot, not previously unknown to the schoolmaster” (p. 299). Reading this, it is as though the encounters with Glen, the prostitute, and the “reeling whiskerando” had never occurred. We now view Pierre's situation with amusement rather than with the strong sense of horror, pity and indignation Melville apparently intended us to feel in reading of those events.

The humorous caricature and satire of “Young America in Literature” gives way, in turn, to a commentary (in Book XVIII) on the pains of serious authorship, a commentary full of bitterness and a sense of futility. And as though this change were not confusing enough, we find, sandwiched between remarks on Pierre's desertion by the gods and his heroic labors on his book, some wonderful satire on the asceticism of the “Apostles,” the men who inhabit the building in which Pierre has taken up residence. We are told of their “Flesh-Brush Philosophy” and “Apple-Paring Dialectics.” But such satire, very funny and engaging in itself, does not consort well with the depiction of Pierre who, at this time, is writing himself into exhaustion. Once again the impression arises of pages of different books having been pasted together.

The switching of styles and the consequent generation of very different tones may be said to be habitual with the book, a characteristic in evidence from the very start. The parody of the pastoral with which the novel opens is succeeded by the description of Pierre's relationship with his mother and his position vis à vis his family heritage, a description marked by a somberness of tone coming out of the narrator's awareness of the downward turn Pierre's fortunes will take. That somberness has hardly been anticipated by the parody. A little later on, Melville stresses the fact that Pierre has been brought up in the country, and, apparently without irony, draws a contrast between the country and the city with the former seen as the more desirable locale: “… the country, like any Queen, is ever attended by scrupulous lady's maids in the guise of the seasons, and the town hath but one dress of brick turned up with stone; but the country hath a brave dress for every week in the year; sometimes she changes her dress twenty-four times in the twenty-four hours; and the country weareth her sun by day as a diamond on a Queen's brow; and the stars by night as necklaces of gold beads; whereas the town's sun is smoky paste, and no diamond, and the town's stars are pinchbeck and not gold” (p. 13). This is followed immediately by a paragraph which tells us that Nature planted Pierre in the country because she “… intended a rare and original development in Pierre. Never mind if hereby she proved ambiguous to him in the end; nevertheless, in the beginning she did bravely. She blew her wind-clarion from the blue hills, and Pierre neighed out lyrical thoughts, as at the trumpet-blast, a war-horse paws himself into a lyric of foam. … She lifted her spangled crest of a thickly-starred night, and forth at that glimpse of their divine Captain and Lord, ten thousand mailed thoughts of heroicness started up in Pierre's soul, and glared round for some insulted good cause to defend” (pp. 13-14). We find here irony and humor at Pierre's expense. Noting this, what are we to think of the preceding passage, where the country seemed to be given genuine praise? Are the metaphors there to be regarded as parodic, an example of the saccharine used once again to mock the pastoral? And is the reference to lady's maids undercut by the scene that follows, in which Pierre plays at being “‘First Lady in waiting to the Dowager Duchess Glendinning’ …” (p. 14)? It would seem so but one cannot be sure. For if there is mockery here, how does it square with the apparent celebration later on of Lucy's aversion to the city and love of the country, a passage where no traces of irony can be found (pp. 28-29).

Another example of how Melville's tonal changes can puzzle us is found in his comment on Pierre's night visit to the Reverend Falsgrave, whom he routs out of bed to ask what the clergyman and Mrs. Glendinning have decided to do about the dishonored Dolly. Melville opens the chapter in question with a consideration of fearless thinkers who advance beyond the conventional boundaries of thought. Such minds, he says, are likely to be feared and hated. “What wonder, then, that those advanced minds, which in spite of advance, happen still to remain, for the time, ill-regulated, should now and then be goaded into turning round in acts of wanton aggression upon sentiments and opinions now forever left in their rear” (p. 195). Pierre, we are told, had been visited by such aggressiveness in going to Falsgrave. “Yielding to that unwarrantable mood, he had invaded the profound midnight slumbers of the Reverend Mr. Falsgrave, and most discourteously made war upon that really amiable and estimable person” (p. 195). This is surely a trivial and humorous instance of the aggressiveness Melville is talking about (think of that fatal aggressiveness Pierre will show later as he seeks out Glen to murder him). Humorous, too, is the sly metaphoric comment on Falsgrave's condition—his “profound midnight slumbers” are of the spirit as well as the body. We are forced to ask why Melville has inserted a comic touch in a serious context. The triviality of the occasion tends to deflate what had been put forward as a weighty and straightforward observation on the societal position of radical minds.

A similar clash of materials and tones occurs late in the book, when Pierre receives a truculent letter from his publishers, “Steel, Flint & Asbestos” (p. 420). This amusing naming of the firm comes at the end of a letter that is crucial to Pierre, rejecting as it does the manuscript he has slaved over. The letter is accompanied by one from Glen and Lucy's brother Frederick, which calls Pierre “‘a villainous and perjured liar’” (p. 420). Pierre places the two letters under his heels, delivers one of his grand apostrophes, and goes out to meet his fate. If the general intention of the scene is serious, and it undoubtedly is, what purpose is served by the momentary slipping into the comic “Steel, Flint & Asbestos?” What we find, then, in the various instances we have been examining, is a kind of pressure exerted on a given passage by materials sharply different in tone and sometimes immediately adjacent to it. This pressure leaves us confused as to how the original passage should be taken.

A similar difficulty, perhaps even more perplexing, arises from Melville's use of dramatic irony, if, indeed, that is what he is using. Pierre thinks at one point that Fortune has endowed him “with all the beauty of a man,” only that she might hide from him “all the truth of a man. Now I see that in his beauty a man is snared, and made stone-blind. … Welcome then be Ugliness and Poverty and Infamy, and all ye other crafty ministers of Truth …” (p. 106). But the fact is that not Ugliness but Beauty, in the form of Isabel, will come to be associated with Poverty, Infamy and Truth. Yet, Pierre's statement has in it a local force which commands our assent at the time. Did Melville intend us to think of the statement as a piece of dramatic irony, or wish us to take it as being the case? The same question can be asked of Pierre's justification for burning his father's portrait. He says (the statement coming at the end of a long speech): “Of old Greek times, before man's brain went into doting bondage, and bleached and beaten in Baconian fulling-mills, his four limbs lost their barbaric tan and beauty; when the round world was fresh, and rosy, and spicy, as a new-plucked apple; all's wilted now!—in those bold times, the great dead were not, turkey-like dished in trenchers, and set down all garnished in the ground, to glut the damned Cyclop like a cannibal; but nobly envious Life cheated the glutton worm, and gloriously burned the corpse; so that the spirit up-pointed, and visibly forked to heaven!” Pierre proceeds to burn the portrait, declaring he now has no past and is free to do his own will. Pierre's assertion is proved wrong in the course of events, which present him as fated rather than free. But Melville has invested Pierre's speech justifying the burning with considerable rhetorical power. In retrospect, is that speech to be taken as a splendid disavowal of the burden of the past or a piece of empty bombast? Later in the book, Pierre, addressing Glen and Frederick, who are trying to keep Lucy from joining him, says “‘I render no accounts: I am what I am’” (p. 382). This echo of Jehovah in the Old Testament would seem at first glance an insufferable piece of self-glorification, and one undermined by Pierre's all-too-mortal end. But shortly after his statement, Melville tells us that Glen and Frederick began to be affected by Pierre's manner at the time, “for any social unusualness or greatness is sometimes most impressive in the retrospect” (p. 384). Rather than mocking Pierre as having a grossly exaggerated conception of himself, this would seem to confirm him in his self-image.

As confounding a passage as any in the book is the one where Pierre says to Isabel: “‘… we will love with the pure and perfect love of angel to angel.’” Such is plainly not the case with these two. Before long they will come together in a sexual embrace. The difficulty here is that Melville has prepared for Pierre's assertion by saying, “He leaped to his feet, and stood before her with such warm, god-like majesty of love and tenderness, that the girl gazed up at him as though he were the one benignant star in all her general night” (p. 181). Might we have here (and elsewhere) a piece of auctorial dramatic irony? That is, might Melville himself, rather than a character, be formulating a judgment that will turn out to be very far from the facts? Might the omniscient narrator be not so all-knowing after all? It is hard to believe that Melville is not aware at this point of what the future relationship of Pierre and Isabel will be, but he writes as though he were not. Observing this (and the other instances of presumable dramatic irony), one is reminded of what R. P. Blackmur once said of Melville: “He was without knowing it in the habit of succumbing to the greatest insincerity of all, the intoxicating insincerity of cadence and rhythm and apt image, or, to put it on another plane, the insincerity of surrendering to the force of a single insight, which sometimes amounts to a kind of self-violation.”13

The questions that arise in looking at the nature of the dramatic irony that gets into Pierre are parts of a larger question: What is the novel's underlying attitude toward its central character? Relevant in a crucial way to that question is the matter of the tone assumed towards Plinlimmon's pamphlet, “Chronometricals and Horologicals,” which is, plainly, a commentary upon and judgment of precisely the kind of moral career Pierre has chosen to pursue. William Ellery Sedgewick calls the pamphlet, with its advancement of horological (relative, moderate) moral standards, as opposed to chronometrical (absolute, ideal) standards, “an admirable critique upon Pierre's conduct. …” It “opens the doors of love and salvation to all kinds and conditions of men. …”14 Sedgewick adds that “For all its good sense, its kindness and tolerance …” Melville has “no more stomach” for it than does Pierre.15 Matthiessen finds Melville, in introducing the pamphlet, counseling a policy of “moderation,” though his heart is not in the distinction he makes between the two kinds of moral standards.16 Arvin says that Melville saw “what was harsh, egoistic, inhumane and destructive” in the kind of “virtuous enthusiasm” shown by Pierre. Arvin goes on to state: “Many readers of Pierre have imagined that Melville's simple purpose in this whole passage [the one reproducing Plinlimmon's pamphlet] was to deride the preachers of a low, expedient comfortable morality of compromise and adjustment; but surely this was not at all his conscious intention. On the intellectual level, the level of deliberate reflection, “Chronologicals and Horologicals” means just what it says. … The whole drift of the action of Pierre is intended to demonstrate that the hero's tragic error lay in his not distinguishing early enough between absolute, ideal Good and the good that is possible, achievable, consistent with other goods, and therefore genuinely human.”17 Arvin adds that Melville was not at one with himself in writing the book and that Pierre's center does not lie in “Plinlimmon's mature sagacity. …”18

The three critics cited here appear to agree that the pamphlet per se holds up as a moral directive, while suggesting that other elements in the book go counter to it. Milton Stern, on the other hand, questions the pamphlet itself, saying that, from Melville's point of view, it is correct “Insofar as it makes God to be the impossibility. … In its reasons for rejecting the absolute, and because it swings to a polar denial of human aspiration … it is wrong.”19

One must agree with Stern that Melville is not assenting to the pamphlet even temporarily, for, in addition to other considerations, the pamphlet is so written as to make us reject it. (We are prepared for that rejection by the narrator's noting that it was written on “miserable, sleazy paper-rag” which was “dried-fish-like …” (p. 242). The pamphlet's language is, at a crucial point, self-damning: “To give all that thou hast to the poor, this … is chronometrical; hence no average son of man ever did such a thing. Nevertheless, if a man gives with a certain self-considerate generosity to the poor; abstains from doing downright ill to any man; does his convenient best in a general way to do good to his whole race; takes watchful loving care of his wife and children, relatives, and friends; is perfectly tolerant to all other men's opinions, whatever they may be; is an honest dealer, an honest citizen, and all that; and more especially if he believe that there is a God for infidels, as well as for believers, and acts upon that belief … such a man need never lastingly despond, because he is guilty of some minor offense. …” (pp. 250-251). There is much here to seduce us into thinking that this is an admirable statement. But notice the formulation of a good part of the ethical directives. Generosity to the poor is strongly qualified by “self-considerate.” The ill we are not to do is “downright”—something less direct or evident is apparently permitted. But what is really striking is the vagueness of the language: “convenient best in a general way,” “his whole race,” and, most revealing, “an honest dealer, an honest citizen, and all that. …” “And all that”—there is in this phrasing almost an impatience on the part of the pamphlet with the ethical content it is supposed to be dealing with. Surely, this is the point—that the stress falls on what a man need not do in the way of moral action rather than on what he should do. And when the pamphlet goes on to argue that a man should not make a sacrifice of himself for any cause or other being, it does so on the basis that nothing sacrifices itself for him, that the sun does not abate its heat for one who is swooning from it—a dubious analogy. Thus, the pamphlet, apart from the criticism implicitly brought to bear upon it in other parts of the novel (particularly in the treatment of Plinlimmon) subverts itself.

Does the novel, then, advocate the chronometrical course pursued so intensely by Pierre? What is its attitude toward him? Lawrance Thompson says Pierre's idealism is “ridiculous,” but adds that it is made so by God and society.20 William Braswell at one time formulated an extreme position when he said that “Pierre … is presented in a more or less ridiculous light throughout the novel.”21 But in a later comment on the book he asked: “Is it fitting that a novelist go so far in mocking a hero to whom he is obviously devoted and for whom he ultimately desires the reader's deepest sympathy?”22 Stern's close study of Pierre23 presents Melville as firmly rejecting Pierre's idealism, divorced as it is from time, history, and human limitation. Hungering for the inhuman absolute, he becomes inhuman himself. Stern does say that the book “indicates sympathy, perhaps love, for Pierre,” but adds that “one must reject an identification between Melville and Pierre, for the tone always works hard to enable the narrative to show the reader that Pierre's goal is pathetically hopeless and foolish and murderous.”24 Stern's exhibition of the network of interlocking details and images in Pierre is impressive, testimony to the book's considerable art. But Stern is able to maintain his implicit view that Pierre displays a consistency of attitude only by failing to consider the problems of tone that this essay has concerned itself with (he refers to the matter of tone for the space of only two or three sentences). If the tone “works hard,” it works hard to confound us. Also, one can hardly speak of “the” tone of Pierre, as has been demonstrated, nor can one call the book's narrator “reliable” as Stern does.25

Moreover, Stern's approach to the book does not begin to take adequate account of the many occasions when Pierre is admired for his sensitivity, sincerity, profundity, nobility, charity, purity, fearlessness or grandeur (all these are the narrator's terms). Can anybody, besides Stern, doubt that Melville is drawn to Pierre as Enceladus, as the Titan, hurtling himself upon the unattainable? It is true that Stern could point to passages where Melville warns against taking the path of Pierre, saying, “it is not for man to follow the trail of truth too far, since by so doing he entirely loses the directing compass of his mind …” (p. 194), or noting that “ultimate Truth … consumes all, and only consumes” (p. 258). He could point to the distinction Melville draws between the “steady philosophic mind [which] reaches forth and draws to itself, in their collective entirety, the objects of its contemplation,” and the “young enthusiast” (the latter a term repeatedly applied to Pierre) whose perception distorts (p. 206). But to counter this, there is the passage where, after observing the wild humor in which Pierre's troubled feelings are released, Melville says, “The cool censoriousness of the mere philosopher would denominate such conduct as nothing short of temporary madness; and perhaps it is, since, in the inexorable and inhuman eyes of mere undiluted reason, all grief, whether on our own account, or that of others, is the sheerest unreason and insanity” (p. 219). Undoubtedly, it is such passages as this which make most critics, e.g., Matthiessen, Arvin, and Leslie Fiedler, find a strong sense of identification on Melville's part with his hero. Stern's is a minority position.

Yet, imbalanced as it is, that position does focus attention on the challenge to Pierre's Titanism present in the book. There is, for one thing, the nature of Pierre's actions. In taking leave of Isabel and Lucy to seek out Glen, he wishes death upon them. He obviously wants to murder Glen and to bring about his own end. His idealism has brought him to the destruction of self and of others. Apart from this, there is the literary manner in which Melville renders Pierre's Titanism. That aspect of him is dramatized, to a large extent, through his labors on a momentous book (his dream of Enceladus comes during a state of trance following on his attempt to continue with the book despite severe troubles with his eyes). Melville calls on a grand metaphor to describe Pierre's dogged literary efforts, from which he takes no rest, even on holidays. “In the midst of the merriments of the mutations of Time, Pierre hath ringed himself in with the grief of Eternity. Pierre is a peak inflexible in the heart of Time, as the isle-peak, Pico, stands unassaultable in the midst of waves” (p. 358). But in the paragraph that follows we view Pierre through Isabel who, in the adjoining room, overhears “the long lonely scratch of his pen. It is, as if she heard the busy claw of some midnight mole in the ground” (p. 358). The heroic image of Pierre has been swiftly supplanted by something very different, and we are made to stand between the two images, uncertain, confronting one more of the book's ambiguities. In Pierre's vision of Enceladus, Melville describes the Titan as writhing out of the earth and eternally assailing a majestic mountain which repels him and “deridingly [leaves] him to bay out his ineffectual howl” (p. 406). Up till the last phrase the picture of Enceladus has been one of superb defiance, but “ineffectual howl” tends to deflate this. Another example of tonal uncertainty in the novel's relating of Pierre to Enceladus occurs when Pierre is seen as a mixture of “heavenliness and earthliness”—his “reckless sky-assaulting mood … was … on one side the grandson of the sky. For it is according to eternal fitness, that the precipitated Titan should still seek to regain this paternal birthright even by fierce escalade” (p. 408). Yet, on the preceding page, Enceladus is seen as “wreaking his immitigable hate …” in assaulting the mountain (p. 407). This characterization hardly elicits the admiration drawn forth by the later formulation, and places the focus on the destructive violence of Pierre's Titanism. Melville seems distinctly unable to make up his mind about the desirability of that Titanism, and does not adequately acknowledge his ambivalence. Is Titanism noble aspiration or self-deluding, murderous self-aggrandizement? These two elements are not brought into synthesis through a tragic view. First one is put forth, then the other.

Looking at the book as a whole, one can reconcile the basically humorous and satiric treatment of Pierre in the early chapters with his later, more respectful presentation by saying that Melville mocks him only so long as he enjoys the protection afforded by Saddle Meadows and believes in the illusions it has fostered. Once he begins to know and to suffer, Melville shows sympathy and admiration for him. However, as has been demonstrated, there are major inconsistencies in Melville's handling of his materials even after the break in Pierre's life has occurred. These cannot be resolved. Time and again the book undermines itself.

Explanations for the novel's collapse into contradictions and fragments abound, and have been advanced by various critics. Perhaps, it has been suggested, the sexual and familial feelings of Pierre were too close to those of Melville himself, too powerful for him to have rendered in a controlled way. Perhaps the failure of Moby Dick to achieve a popular success comparable to that of his early works had plunged him into despair, and his labors on that book had induced the kind of exhaustion he describes in Pierre. It may have been that he was at once trying to satisfy genteel literary taste and to satirize it. It may have been that his contemplation of the ambiguity of human motives made him doubt the possibility of ever knowing or judging anything. Possibly, too, he had come to regard literary form as a falsifying instrument, questioning the thing under his hand in the very act of fashioning it. Whatever the explanation, the result is before us. In writing Pierre, Melville did not land the Kraken, bigger than Leviathan, that he had hoped for,26 but a very different kind of catch. For, like many creatures of the deep, Pierre fascinates but also repels.


  1. Lewis Mumford, in his Herman Melville (N.Y. 1929), observes that in Pierre, “… Melville slips from prose into poetry, from realism into fantasy, from the mood of high tragedy into that of the penny dreadful,” p. 206.

  2. Ibid., p. 207.

  3. All quotations from Pierre have been taken from the Hendricks House edition, by Henry A. Murray, (N.Y., 1949). The quotation above is found on p. 38 of that edition. Subsequent quotations from Pierre will be followed by the relevant page numbers in the text of the essay itself.

  4. Matthiessen, American Renaissance, (N.Y., 1941), p. 486.

  5. Arvin, Herman Melville, (N.Y., 1957), pp. 230-231.

  6. Thompson, in his “Foreword” to the Signet Classic edition of Pierre, (N.Y., 1964), p. xix.

  7. Rosenberry, Melville and the Comic Spirit, (Cambridge, 1955), p. 160.

  8. Arvin, op. cit., p. 231.

  9. This failure might also stem from the tonal changes found within the early chapters, changes which will be discussed later in the essay.

  10. Thompson, op. cit., p. xix.

  11. Braswell, “The Satirical Temper of Melville's Pierre,American Literature, VII, (Jan., 1936), 424-438.

  12. Milton Stern, who appears to believe that Pierre's “Curses” statement is an example of speech used for “a comic revelation of the speaker” ignores the continuity of Melville's style with Pierre's. See Stern, The Fine Hammered Steel of Herman Melville, (Urbana, 1957), p. 161.

  13. Blackmur, “The Craft of Herman Melville: A Putative Statement,” in Melville: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Richard Chase, (N.Y., 1962), p. 79.

  14. Sedgewick, Herman Melville: The Tragedy of Mind, (Cambridge, 1945), p. 161.

  15. Ibid., p. 162.

  16. Matthiessen, op. cit., p. 471.

  17. Arvin, op. cit., p. 221.

  18. Ibid., p. 222.

  19. Stern, op. cit., p. 190.

  20. Thompson, Melville's Quarrel with God, (Princeton, 1952), p. 278.

  21. Braswell, op. cit., 431.

  22. Braswell, “The Early Love Scenes in Melville's Pierre,American Literature, XXII, (Nov., 1950), 289.

  23. In Stern, op. cit., pp. 15-205.

  24. Ibid., p. 163.

  25. Ibid., p. 154. I hope it has been made clear that this unreliability is not, wherever it occurs, an intended effect. In general, the narrator in the earlier portions of the story (i.e., before the appearance of Isabel) is frequently unreliable because Melville is working in an ironic or parodic mode. But in the later part of the story, the narrator is unreliable in the sense of displaying inconsistencies of tone without showing awareness of those inconsistencies. It should be added that my assumption in the course of the essay has been that there is no significant distinction to be made between the narrator in the later portion of the book and Melville himself.

  26. In a letter to Hawthorne, written in November, 1851, Melville said: “Let us add Moby Dick to our blessing, and step from that. Leviathan is not the biggest fish;—I have heard of Krakens.” The Melville Log, ed. Jay Leyda, (N.Y., 1951), I, 435.

Robert Milder (essay date 1974)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6126

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 hundred dollars in debt to Harper's and “needed a new book which would sell well enough to carry him over the next winter.”2 It was imperative that he “do something new,”3 and with a shrewd appreciation of the popular taste he turned “toward the feminine audience which formed the largest novel-reading public in his time,”4 hoping to regain a measure of his popularity through the tried-and-true formula of a romance. As it proved, he could not resist the “inner compulsion” to write as he pleased,5 producing a book far less genial than appalling; yet his initial motive was pure: he genuinely conceived Pierre as a popular romance, and long after the book was completed he remained “curiously unwilling to face the fact of what he had done and persistently thought of the book he had intended rather than the book he had written.”6

Though this theory has much to recommend it, it involves us in a highly controversial reading of Pierre, particularly of the early books, and relies heavily on two of Melville's letters of the period. As Merrell Davis has shown in his study of Mardi, the letters can be a valuable tool in elucidating Melville's literary purposes.7 The difficulty here is, first, that the letters Howard cites are far from conclusive and require a good deal of interpretation themselves, and, second, that the implications he finds in them are not always compatible with the evidence of the text. Pierre is an overwrought book, even a “mad” one, but from the outset there is an unrelenting method to its madness which precludes the idea that Melville was writing a genial romance. Whatever its excesses, Pierre is an intensely deliberate book and, as I hope to suggest in my final section, an intensely personal one.


Before addressing myself to the problem of Melville's intentions in Pierre, I should like to consider the two pieces of biographical evidence which seem to support Howard's thesis—Melville's brief allusion to Pierre in a letter to Sophia Hawthorne and his more extended remarks in a letter to his English publisher, Richard Bentley. Responding to Mrs. Hawthorne's praise of Moby-Dick, Melville promised that his next offering would not be “a bowl of salt water” but “a rural bowl of milk,”8 a reference which prompted Howard to conclude that Melville “had clearly made a distinction in his own mind between the tastes of masculine and feminine readers and was planning, when he wrote Mrs. Hawthorne, … to address his book to the latter.”9

Possibly Melville did have this distinction in mind, though his comment might as easily have referred to the settings of the two books. Nor should we overlook the possibility of irony here. Like virtually all Melville's letters to women—those to Sarah Morewood, for example—the letter to Mrs. Hawthorne is written with a playfulness and mock-heroic gallantry which seem almost to parody the meaning of its words. “My Dear Lady,” the allusion to Pierre reads in full, “I shall not again send you a bowl of salt water. The next chalice I shall commend, will be a rural bowl of milk” (L [The Letters of Herman Melville, edited by William H. Gilman and Merrell R. Davis, 1960], 146). Whether from awkwardness or from a certain genuine but embarrassed chivalry, this was Melville's characteristic stance toward women, and while it may have produced much delight among Melville's female correspondents, it presents a serious problem of tone for the critic.

Howard's second and more persuasive piece of evidence is Melville's description of Pierre to Richard Bentley as “treating of utterly new scenes and 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” (L, 150). “Mysterious,” passionate, and “new” we may accept as a truthful, if euphemistic, description of Pierre, but to believe that Melville intended his book as “a regular romance” “calculated for popularity”—or, more to the point, that he continued to regard it in this way after he had completed it—requires a considerable act of faith. If nothing else, the poor sales of Mardi and Moby-Dick should have taught Melville what was and what was not “calculated for popularity,” so that he could hardly have recognized Pierre for what it was and at the same time have anticipated its favorable reception. Either he was so deceived in his new book that he drastically misjudged its popular appeal or, as Harrison Hayford has unflatteringly put it, “the whole letter to Bentley is to be shrugged off as an utterly insincere sales promotion designed to dupe and mulct his publisher.”10

Howard inclines toward the first alternative, finding it “difficult to believe that Melville was either being facetious or trying to fool a shrewd and friendly publisher.”11 But a look at the context of Melville's remark suggests that this was precisely what he was trying to do. Bentley had declined to pay a flat sum for Pierre, citing his consistent losses on the four Melville works he had published and offering instead the safer and, from Melville's point of view, more dubious prospect of half-profits. Melville's answering letter is a patent attempt to overcome these reservations, and his claim for the probable success of the book is sandwiched between an appeal to Bentley's self-interest (an edition of Pierre would stimulate sales of the four previous books) and a plea for his indulgence (“Besides,—if you please, Mr. Bentley—let bygones be bygones; let those previous books, for the present, take care of themselves” [L, 150]). “Dupe” and “mulct” are strong words to apply to an author negotiating with his publisher, but it is far more plausible to believe that Melville was engaged in an urgent “sales promotion” than to imagine him wholly deceived in the tastes of his audience or the character of his new book.

A further problem arises when we look more closely at Melville's correspondence with Bentley. In declining to purchase Pierre, Bentley had complained that Melville's works were produced in too rapid a succession to be profitable, an objection which Melville attempted to answer by suggesting that his new book be published “anonymously, or under an assumed name” (L, 151). Though Bentley was not convinced by Melville's proposal, he did change his offer after reading through the proofs of Pierre: he would publish the book on the basis of half-profits, he now wrote Melville, but only “If you will give me permission to make or have made by a judicious literary friend such alterations as are absolutely necessary to ‘Pierre’ being properly appreciated here.”12 Bentley did not specify his criticisms, and it is possible that he had nothing more in mind than those occasional indelicacies and flights of rhetoric which, in his own words, had “sometimes offended the feelings of many sensitive readers.”13 In any case, Melville refused. The American sheets of Pierre were bound and distributed in England by Harper's London affiliate, an event which proved costly to Melville, since “it lost Pierre at one stroke the chance to be widely reviewed in England and the chance to be sold to the English circulating libraries in the customary three-decker form.”14

From his experience with past books Melville must have known the advantages of an English imprint, even at the price of bowdlerization, yet despite his pressing financial needs he refused to allow any tampering with Pierre. From his offer of anonymity it is apparent that he cared little for whatever fame the book might bring him. Why then did he insist upon publishing an unexpurgated Pierre? And why, more particularly, did he insist upon it if the book was conceived and written primarily as a money-making venture, another variation on the popular romance?

The explanation for this, I would argue, is that Melville's intentions in Pierre were much like Pierre's own when, his illusions shattered by experience, he resolved to pour forth his new understanding of life in the form of an autobiographical novel—in his own words, to “gospelize the world anew, and show them deeper secrets than the Apocalypse!”15 Somewhere in the months between Moby-Dick and Pierre Melville himself discovered such “deeper secrets,” and Pierre was his attempt to deliver them evangelically to an ignorant and maddeningly complacent world. It did not matter whether or not these truths went forth under his name; it did not even matter finally whether they brought him an appreciable profit. What mattered was that they be delivered whole in all their moral and metaphysical subversiveness, all their latent horror.


At this point it might be helpful to sketch my own interpretation of Pierre. To those few contemporary reviewers who managed to make sense of the book at all, the meaning of Pierre lay in its exploration of chronometricals and horologicals. “The purpose of the Ambiguities,” wrote the reviewer of The Southern Literary Messenger, “… we should take to be the illustration of this fact—that it is quite possible for a young and fiery soul, acting strictly from a sense of duty, to erect itself in direct hostility to all the universally received rules of moral and social order.”16 The Duyckincks in The Literary World were even more blunt: “The most immoral moral of Pierre, if it has any moral at all, seems to be the impracticability of virtue” and the “loathsome suggestion” that “virtue and religion are only for gods and not to be attempted by man.”17

Yet for all the indignation it aroused, the problem of chronometricals and horologicals is by no means the most disturbing of Pierre's morals, or the most profound. The central theme of Pierre, as of each of Melville's major works, is the problem of knowledge, knowledge of the external world and knowledge of the self. Like Mardi, Pierre explores these questions through the vehicle of a bildungsroman; but where Mardi had been a genuine attempt on Melville's part to order the chaotic thoughts which had begun to swarm through his mind, Pierre was written and conceived as what might be termed a “negative bildungsroman,” a deliberate reductio ad absurdum of all metaphysics, all ethics, and all psychology, founded on the proposition that nothing can be known, least of all the knower himself. After placing his hero amidst the certainties of Saddle Meadows, Melville leads him unsparingly from one dark insight to another, with each successive episode enmeshing him further in ambiguity and doubt. Plinlimmon's pamphlet marks one way station along this route, but what is of most importance in Pierre is the journey in its entirety—its direction and its inevitable goal.

The journey begins early in the narrative with the appearance of Isabel. To Pierre, comfortably at home in the world of Lucy and his mother, Isabel supplies the first hint that life may be a larger, sadder, more mysterious, and infinitely more terrible affair than he has previously imagined;18 and when she reveals to him that she is his half-sister, that his father has sinned, and consequently that “the before undistrusted moral beauty of the world” is an illusion (p. 65), she precipitates his decision to “know nothing but Truth” (p. 65) and begins him on his fatal quest.

In much the same way it is through Isabel that Pierre is led to explore the recesses of his own soul. In devoting himself to Isabel, Pierre had gloried in the loftiness of his sacrifice and the heroic, “Christ-like feeling” it engendered in him (p. 106). Plinlimmon's pamphlet offers him a radically different view, and one which he eventually comes to accept. But what disposes Pierre toward Plinlimmon's skepticism is less an awareness of the disparity between Christ's law and the world's than a recognition of the highly un-Christlike character of his own motives.19 The critical scene occurs in Book XII just prior to his departure from the Meadows and his reading of Plinlimmon, when, alone with Isabel, Pierre first discovers the incestuous nature of his love for her and “a terrible self-revelation” shoots across his face (p. 192). The effect of this insight is to destroy for him the moral beauty of the inner world and plunge him into the second and more psychological phase of his development. From this moment on Pierre's quest for Truth is complicated by an increasing self-distrust, as the mind comes to doubt not only the substance of its beliefs but the motives underlying them.

This point is underscored through a revealing metaphor in which Melville compares “the heart of a man” to “a spiral stair in a shaft, without any end, and where that endlessness is only concealed by the spiralness of the stair, and the blackness of the shaft” (pp. 288-89). Were we to take this metaphor further and apply it to the whole of Pierre we would find ourselves with two such spiral stairs winding infinitely in opposite directions, one descending inward to the depths of the heart, the other ascending outward to the furthest reaches of Absolute Truth. The further Pierre ascends the stair of Absolute Truth, or tries to, the more clearly he sees the hopeless immensity before him, while at the same time a dawning awareness of his own unconscious motives pulls him ever more deeply down the stairway of his self, away from the certainty he seeks. Book by book the distance between Pierre and his object increases until finally, having resolved to “gospelize the world anew,” Pierre arrives at the most appalling realization of all: “the everlasting elusiveness of Truth” and “the universal lurking insincerity of even the greatest and purest written thoughts” (p. 339). From the assurance of his early life Pierre has been reduced to an epistemological nihilism and moral prostration; his twofold journey—outward toward Truth, inward toward the depths of his soul—is virtually complete.


The Pierre I have outlined here is a far more terrifying book than Moby-Dick, less tragic in the classical sense of the word yet more insistent in its vision of utter nothingness. Few students of Melville would deny that the author of Pierre was a deeper, if more chastened, thinker than the man who had written Moby-Dick; the point of dispute is whether this development took place before or during the composition of Pierre. We know from the letter to Bentley that Pierre grew to be “a larger book, by 150 pages & more,” than Melville had originally planned (L, 150). Comparing this earlier version with the published text, Howard finds that the first eight books of Pierre “would have constituted two-thirds” of this initial volume and that there is “no incompatibility” between these eight books and the “rural bowl of milk” Melville described to Sophia Hawthorne.20 His inference is that Melville began Pierre as a “regular romance,” became caught up in the logic of his unfolding thought, and, commencing with Book IX, gradually transformed his narrative into a psychological melodrama.

Such a process, of course, would have ample precedent in Mardi, whose flaws of structure and theme bear witness to the several distinct stages of composition through which it passed. In Pierre, however, there is no evidence of such a discontinuity, and the impending tragedy of its young hero is foreshadowed from the very start. Scarcely has Melville introduced us to Pierre when these intimations begin—the allusions to “that maturer and larger development” which shall “forever deprive” Pierre of the “full power” of his family pride (p. 6); to that “period of remorseless insight” when the “delicate warmths” of his father's library “should seem frigid to him, and he should madly demand more ardent fires” (p. 6); and to the bitter realizations that “this world hath a deeper secret than beauty, and Life some burdens heavier than Death” (p. 7). Not only does Melville know from the outset what he will do with Pierre, but he insists that the reader know as well. In some strange fashion, we are told, “Nature intended a rare and original development in Pierre” (p. 13), and though the particulars of this development are deliberately left obscure, we are made to feel that it will be something ghastly and unnerving, hardly the material of “a regular romance.”21

This feeling is reinforced by the rhapsodical tone of the early books, which serves as a correlate to Pierre's saccharine view of the world and prepares us for its inevitable collapse. One passage seems particularly grotesque, the famous hymn to Love in Book II:

Endless is the account of Love. Time and space cannot contain Love's story. … Love made not the Arctic zones, but Love is ever reclaiming them. Say, are not the fierce things of this earth daily, hourly going out? Where are now your wolves in Britain? Where in Virginia now, find you the panther and the Pard? Oh, Love is busy everywhere. Everywhere Love hath Moravian missionaries. No propagandist like to Love … (p. 34).

Not only is the optimism of this passage incompatible with the previous dark allusions to Pierre's fate,22 but it is immediately juxtaposed to and qualified by an alternative vision of life, the “nameless sadness” evoked by the “lustrous, imploring, mournful face” of Isabel (p. 37). Even the title of the book is instructive—“Love, Delight, and Alarm”—for it indicates that this juxtaposition is highly deliberate, an attempt to foreshadow the two visions of life which will contend for Pierre's soul and the two figures, Lucy and Isabel, who will embody them. Here, as throughout the early books, the apparent sweetness of Melville's tone is belied by a latent and savage irony.

The conclusion to be drawn from all this is that Melville was in command of his material from the very start—in command of his plot, which did not change substantially as he labored on it, and in command of his complex and ironic attitude toward Pierre, which also did not change.23 The book Melville published, “loathsome” as it seemed to many of its first readers, is the book he set out to write. It is as if he were determined to take the trappings of the popular romance—the light and dark heroines, the melodrama, the “elevated” style—and bend them to his purpose, producing a book which, “far from being a regular romance,” would be a diabolical parody of the romance, “a vicious perversion of a formula so universally worshipped as to be sacrosanct.”24


Since I have suggested Melville's “intentions” in Pierre, let me close by trying to account for them—no small problem in itself, since there is little in Melville's outward situation that would seem to warrant the perverse evangelicalism of the book. From all appearances the summer and early fall of 1851 were among the happiest months in Melville's life, certainly among the most satisfying.25 Hawthorne had understood and appreciated Moby-Dick, and for Melville the praise of such a discerning critic was reward enough. Moreover, Melville seems to have felt that his latest book was only the prelude to a greater and deeper book to come. “Lord, when shall we be done growing?” he wrote Hawthorne in November, 1851: “As long as we have anything more to do, we have done nothing. 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” (L, 143).

Though Melville's words are buoyant, implying an infinite reservoir of energy and an eagerness to venture on, there are indications that his confidence was by no means as well-founded as his letter suggests. For one thing, “Melville's strength had been thoroughly depleted by the terrific creative strain of writing Moby-Dick26 more so perhaps than he knew at the time—yet the burden of past debts, coupled with the poor sales of Moby-Dick, required that he begin a new work almost at once, his seventh in six years. No less important, Hawthorne had moved from Lenox to Concord in November, 1851, ending the brief but intense friendship so vital to Melville's development and leaving Melville once again profoundly alone.

Few facts are known about Melville's life during the winter of 1851-52, the months when he wrote Pierre; but Sarah Morewood, who hosted the Melvilles on Christmas Eve and who was as close to Melville as anyone, described him as “more quiet than usual” and given to “irreverent language” and unsettling religious opinions. “I hear that he is now so engaged in a new book,” she added, “as frequently not to leave his room till dark in the evening when he for the first time during the whole day partakes of solid food—he must therefore write under a state of morbid excitement which will soon injure his health.—I laughed at him somewhat and told him that the recluse life he was leading made his city friends think he was slightly insane—he replied that long ago he came to the same conclusion himself but that if he left home to look after Hungary the cause in hungery would suffer.”27 Though it would be unwise to extrapolate too broadly from these remarks, we cannot help feeling that Melville was under a considerable strain during these months, a feeling that is strengthened by his granddaughter's hints of a mental and physical breakdown.

Nonetheless, there is more to the debacle of Pierre than Melville's exhaustion or frayed nerves. Even as he was completing Moby-Dick, more conscious of his creative strength than ever before, Melville confided to Hawthorne that strange premonition of decay so central to an understanding of his mind: “My development has all been within a few years past.” He wrote:

I am like one of those seeds taken out of the Egyptian pyramids, which, after being three thousand years a seed and nothing but a seed, being planted in English soil, it developed itself, grew to greenness, and then fell to mould. So I. Until I was twenty-five, I had no development at all. From my twenty-fifth year I date my life. Three weeks have scarcely passed, at any time between then and now, that I have not unfolded within myself. But I feel that I am now come to the inmost leaf of the bulb, and that shortly the flower must fall to the mould (L, 130).

Why, a brief six years after his awakening in Typee, Melville felt so despondent, so utterly played out, we can only speculate; but one answer seems particularly convincing. As his flower image suggests, Melville tended to regard his development as organic—germinating from a seed planted belatedly in a fertile soil, sprouting and unfolding outward through fixed laws of growth, flourishing for a brief season, and then decaying and dying as all life must. Applying this metaphor to his own life, Melville seems to have felt that the same process of development which had brought him to the tragic vision of Moby-Dick would carry him irresistibly onward, beyond tragedy, to a debilitating skepticism. As he wrote in Pierre,

it is only the miraculous vanity of man which ever persuades him, that even for the most richly gifted mind, there ever arrives an earthly period, where it can truly say to itself, I have come to the Ultimate of Human Speculative Knowledge; hereafter, at this present point I will abide. Sudden onsets of new truth will assail him, and overturn him as the Tartars did China; for there is no China wall that man can build in his soul, which shall permanently stay the irruptions of those barbarous hordes which Truth ever nourishes in the loins of her frozen, yet teeming North … (p. 167).

The thought that final knowledge is unattainable is scarcely a new one, even for Melville; what is significant here is Melville's language: “Sudden onsets,” “assail,” “overturn,” “Tartars,” “irruptions,” “barbarous hordes,” and “frozen, yet teeming North.”28 The implication is not only that new truth will force itself upon the individual whether he is willing or not, but that this new truth will be terrible, unwelcome, deeply chaotic, and unmanning.

What “new truth” precipitated Melville's decline, or sense of decline, we cannot say with certainty, but given the profoundly associational nature of Melville's letters we may conjecture a source in the perception which immediately follows his reference to the “inmost leaf.” “It seems to me now,” he told Hawthorne, “that Solomon was the truest man who ever spoke, and yet that he a little managed the truth with a view to popular conservatism” (L, 130).29 We may recall that in Moby-Dick Solomon had represented a wisdom which, while recognizing the vanity of all things, had incorporated that knowledge into a larger affirmation of life and so had returned from “the congregation of the dead.” What Melville appears to be saying here is that even Solomon's truth is a partial one, mitigated for reasons of expediency, and that the full truth involves a recognition of the irredeemable meaninglessness of life and of the shallowness of any philosophy that pretends to offer consolation.

Melville had touched on this idea himself almost a year earlier in “Hawthorne and His Mosses” when he had spoken of those “things, which we feel to be terrifically true, that it were all but madness for any good man, in his proper character, to utter, or even hint of them.”30 Though at that time, under the combined tutelage of Hawthorne and Shakespeare, he had begun to discover the “great power of blackness,”31 it was not until the final month or two of Moby-Dick that he realized for himself the full meaning of his “Mosses” remark: that the truth, if told unsparingly, was terrible and subversive, madness to utter and madness even to think. It was then that he sensed where his thought was leading him and confided that sense to Hawthorne, though he understood full well (as he wrote of Pierre) that knowing his fatal condition did not enable him to change it (p. 303).

The perception of a moral darkness beyond Solomon was the first insight that assailed Melville, but no less important for Pierre was his growing awareness of the ambiguities of the self. In Moby-Dick Melville had shown what modern critics have since reaffirmed: that tragedy can exist with a context of metaphysical doubt, even of nihilism, as long as author and audience retain a common belief in man's potential heroism.32 Yet as Melville's thought deepened and he began to concern himself more critically with the workings of the mind, it was precisely this potential heroism that he came to question. In Ahab he had created a hero worthy of his divine antagonist in every respect, but he had done so only through an extreme psychological reticence. He wrote in Pierre: “In reserves men build characters; not in revelations. He who shall be wholly honest, though nobler than Ethan Allen; that man shall stand in danger of the meanest mortal's scorn” (p. 108).

In Pierre the “reserves” of Moby-Dick give way to a scrupulous and almost indecent “revelation,” with all the predictable consequences. No sooner does Pierre arrive at his “grand enthusiast resolution” to renounce his world for Isabel than Melville beings to scrutinize the motives for his choice. “Save me from being bound to Truth,” he writes, and as if to dramatize the point: “How shall I steal yet further into Pierre, and show how this heavenly fire was helped to be contained in him, by mere contingent things, and things that he knew not. But I shall follow the endless, winding way,—the flowing river in the cave of man; careless whither I be led, reckless where I land” (p. 107). What follows is the suggestion of Pierre's incestuous love for Isabel with its implication that not even the noblest and seemingly most altruistic of resolves can ever be free from the taint of human clay. It is as though Melville discovered that on the deepest level all men were hypocrites, assigning motives to their behavior but propelled nonetheless “by mere contingent things” and “things [they] knew not.” “Appalling is the soul of a man!” he wrote in Pierre (p. 284), appallingly “vast” and appallingly “vacant” (p. 285): layer upon layer in an infinite regression of rationalizations and half-truths, with no ascertainable core of being, no final and integral self, no “I.” In short, the inner world was too immense and unknown to admit of “sovereign natures” like Ahab; there would be no more Moby-Dicks in Melville's fiction.

The effect of this discovery, as of his growing skepticism toward the wisdom of Solomon, was to lead Melville beyond the limits of conventional tragedy. Like Pierre he had followed “the trail of truth too far,” and though he had not quite lost “the directing compass of his mind” (p. 165), he had come to doubt the most fundamental premises of moral and religious belief, not least of them the integrity of the individual soul. To his own mind there was an inevitable logic to this development, but an appreciation of that logic was scant consolation. His will to believe—in God and Truth, if it were possible; in himself, if it were not—balked at this revelation of nothingness, and from the disparity between the conclusions of his intellect and the requirements of his soul came the peculiar self-lacerating humor of Pierre. His mind had been “overturned” by a “sudden onset of new truth,” and, driven as always by his fierce earnestness, he set out to deliver this truth, unmitigated, to the world—to “gospelize the world anew, and show them deeper secrets than the Apocalypse!”


  1. Leon Howard, Herman Melville (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1951), p. 184. See also Howard, “Historical Note” to Pierre; or the Ambiguities (Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern Univ. Press and the Newberry Library, 1971), p. 369.

  2. Howard, “Historical Note,” p. 365.

  3. Ibid.

  4. Ibid., p. 366.

  5. Ibid., p. 372.

  6. Howard, Herman Melville, p. 193.

  7. See Merrell R. Davis, Melville's Mardi: A Chartless Voyage (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1952).

  8. The Letters of Herman Melville, ed. William H. Gilman and Merrell R. Davis (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1960), p. 146. Subsequent references to the Letters are included in the text and abbreviated L.

  9. Howard, “Historical Note,” p. 365.

  10. Harrison Hayford, “The Significance of Melville's ‘Agatha’ Letters,” ELH, 13 (1946), 307.

  11. Howard, “Historical Note,” p. 365.

  12. Richard Bentley, quoted in Bernard Jerman's “‘With Real Admiration’: More Correspondence Between Melville and Bentley,” AL [American Literature: A Journal of Literary History, Criticism, and Biography], 25 (1953), 313.

  13. Ibid., p. 312.

  14. Howard, “Historical Note,” p. 380.

  15. Herman Melville, Pierre; or the Ambiguities (Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern Univ. Press and the Newberry Library, 1971), p. 273. Subsequent references to Pierre are included in the text.

  16. Rev. of Pierre in The Southern Literary Messenger, quoted by Hugh W. Hetherington in Melville's Reviewers (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1961), p. 233.

  17. Rev. of Pierre in The Literary World, 11 (21 Aug. 1852), 119. The review is generally attributed to George and/or Evert Duyckinck.

  18. See particularly Book II, vii (pp. 40-42) and Book III, ii (pp. 48-54).

  19. A central paradox in Pierre and a cause for much of the critical confusion which surrounds the book is the fact that Pierre's deepest miseries do not result from his being “too chronometrical,” but from his not being chronometrical enough. Plinlimmon is correct in claiming that the man who attempts to live chronometrically will almost invariably entangle himself in “unique follies and sins.” The reason for this, however, is not primarily the incongruence between Christ's law and the world's, as many have asserted, but the element of human imperfection which mixes itself into all men's actions so that even the highest are impure—and hence un-Christlike, unchronometrical—from the first. Pierre's failure proves that he is not a Christ; it does not imply the failure of a true Christ. Thus, while Plinlimmon's pamphlet has an experiential relevance to “the mass of men,” it should not be taken as a metaphysical absolute. Like “all our so-called wisdom,” it too has only a “provisional” truth.

  20. Howard, “Historical Note,” pp. 369, 368.

  21. Conscious perhaps of the difficulties raised by these early pages, Howard concedes that “There is no evidence that Melville … planned to be pellucid or merry in his … romance. Ambiguities and tragic implications were in Pierre from the beginning” (“Historical Note,” p. 378). But Howard insists that these “ambiguities” were compatible with Melville's description of the book to Bentley and Mrs. Hawthorne, and that the changes which transformed Pierre occurred “not in the plot of [Melville's] romance but in his attitude toward it” (“Historical Note,” p. 372). In other words, he implies, Melville was planning not only to write a popular story, but to write one which would contain such seemingly discordant elements as “the appearance of Plinlimmon and his pamphlet, the arrival of Lucy, and the events leading up to a final catastrophe” (“Historical Note,” p. 372).

    That Melville was aiming his novel toward a feminine audience is questionable enough; that he would found such a novel upon a suggestion of incest or include in it a pamphlet which held, without authorial refutation, that the Christian doctrine of forgiveness was a horologically “false one” (p. 215) seems extremely doubtful. If the plot of Pierre is all of a piece—and I strongly agree with Howard that it is—then clearly, given the demonic implications of that plot, Melville could scarcely have intended his book for a popular audience.

  22. See Alan Holder, “Style and Tone in Melville's Pierre,ESQ [A Journal of the American Renaissance], No. 60 (1970), 78.

  23. This is an essential point in view of Howard's claim that Melville's irony toward Pierre does not fully emerge until Book IX, when he begins “to scold his hero in the manner of Carlyle” (“Historical Note,” p. 372). The tone of the early books is one argument against Howard's theory; another is the fact that though Pierre does not become conscious of his deeper motives until Book XII, Melville alerts the reader to them as early as Book V—a clear indication that irony was central to Melville's intent from the very first.

  24. Perry Miller, “The Romance and the Novel,” Nature's Nation (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1967), p. 243.

  25. For an account of Melville's life during these months, see Letters, pp. 126-44. See also the letters of Hawthorne, Mrs. Melville, and Evert Duyckinck included in Elizabeth Melville Metcalf's Herman Melville: Cycle and Epicycle (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1953), pp. 113-23, and the letters of Evert Duyckinck published in Luther S. Mansfield's “Glimpses of Herman Melville's Life in Pittsfield, 1850-51: Some Unpublished Letters of Evert A. Duyckinck,” AL, 9 (1937), 26-48.

  26. Metcalf, p. 135.

  27. Sarah Morewood to George Duyckinck, quoted in Metcalf, p. 133.

  28. A likely source of Melville's imagery here is Milton's description of the throng of fallen angels in Paradise Lost (Book I, 11. 351-55):

                        A multitude, like which the populous North
                        Pour’d never from her frozen loins, to pass
                        Rhene or the Danaw, when her barbarous Sons
                        Came like a Deluge on the South, and spread
                        Beneath Gibraltar
    to the Lybian sands.

    The association of these “sudden onsets of new truth” with Milton's devils underscores the havoc they wreak on the mind and suggests, much as Azzageddi did in Mardi, the demonic nature of Truth.

  29. For Melville, as for many nineteenth-century readers of the Bible, Solomon was the author of Ecclesiastes, and it is in this capacity that Melville alludes to him both here and in “The Try-Works” in Moby-Dick.

  30. Melville, “Hawthorne and His Mosses” included in Moby-Dick, ed. Harrison Hayford and Hershel Parker (New York: W. W. Norton, 1967), p. 541.

  31. Ibid., p. 540.

  32. See Murray Krieger, The Tragic Vision (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1960); Susan Sontag, “The Death of Tragedy,” Against Interpretation (New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1966); and Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1957).

R. Scott Kellner (essay date 1975)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5657

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 Melville turns out to be his own fears—and the accompanying abhorrence—of sex.

The main character in Pierre, for whom the book is titled, undergoes a sexual awakening which eventually leads to disgust with, and an attempt to reject, the libido. Pierre is just emerging from his teens, still an adolescent; he is in late puberty perhaps, and inexperienced in love. That he is still a virgin is implied when Melville writes “as yet he had not seen so far and deep as Dante;” he has had no “sensational presentiment or experience” (p. 54) with which to understand his sexual emotions.

Pierre sublimates his sexual energy, releasing it in strenuous physical activity. He rides, walks, swims, and even vaults in order that he might “invigorate and embrawn himself.” His outward concern is with becoming muscular and manly. Yet it is in retreat from masculinity that he seeks this “noble muscular manliness” (p. 50). All his robustness and athletic prowess, felling hemlock trees and fencing and boxing, are manifestations of an inward fear about his masculinity. Pierre is burdened with doubts of his manhood and seeks to hide these fears by a manly outward appearance: “It had always been one of the lesser ambitions of Pierre, to sport a flowing beard, which he deemed the most noble corporeal badge of the man” (p. 253).

There are a number of reasons for Pierre's insecurity. To begin with, his relationship with his mother has confused and stymied his sexual identity. Unfortunately for him, he sees himself both as his mother's platonic lover and as her “First Lady in waiting” (p. 14). This femininity in Pierre's nature is expressed in homosexual overtones in his relations with Glen Stanley and Lucy's brothers. Melville's description of Pierre and Glen's early association borders on homosexual love. Pierre's passionate embrace of Lucy's brothers understandably startles and offends them, just as Glen later refuses to acknowledge any love for Pierre. While other men outgrow their boyhood sexual confusion, Pierre retains his.

Most important though is Pierre's fear of impotency, which has resulted from these identity problems. He is under heavy pressure, sexually, as one of the last male Glendinnings. Pierre's mother has made his responsibility painfully clear—he must produce a son. Pierre has to live up to the image of his father and grandfather in this regard. He is unable to do so. He tries on his grandfather's vest and later, after he has run off with Isabel, gazes at his grandfather's old bedstead: “It seemed powerfully symbolical to him” (p. 270). And well it should—Pierre will not be furthering the line of Glendinning. By choosing his half-sister Isabel, a union which could not lead to any normal offspring, he has chosen extinction. This suicidal aspect of his sexual nature is again symbolized when he murders Glen Stanley, the last living male cousin: “Spatterings of his own kindred blood were upon the pavement; his own hand had extinguished his house” (p. 360). This is an extension for Pierre of his self-castration. “Pierre is neuter now!” (p. 360), he ultimately says.

Pierre's fears for himself are again evident in his Enceladus dream: the Titan is amputated, impotent, “without one serviceable ball-and-socket above the thigh” (p. 346). Pierre sees his own face on the Titan's armless and phallic trunk. Melville uses this image to depict Pierre's impotency and fears of being unable to fulfill his masculine function. The armless giant,

despairing of any other mode of wreaking his immitigable hate, turned his vast trunk into a battering-ram, and hurled his own arched-out ribs again and yet again against the invulnerable steep. (p. 346)

This emphasizes Pierre's inability to have a normal sexual union, one that would lead to offspring and the fulfillment of his ancestral responsibility. He must have unusual stimulation, an incestuous love, simply to be potent. By so doing, though, he cuts himself off from his past and from society's laws, a past and laws which twisted his sexual desires in the first place.

The roots of Pierre's feelings of sexual inadequacy lie in his unusual relationship with his mother. Pierre is more a lover than a son to her. He addresses his mother as “sister” and she calls him “brother,” a foreshadowing of the eventual relationship Pierre has with his real sister.

Pierre's confusion about his filial role is understandable. His mother is attractive to young men and is used to their attentions. She uses her son as she might use one of those younger suitors, to wait upon her and flatter her and feed her ego. Only when she is angry with him or in doubt of his attention does she call him son and put him in his place. She is so successful in her dual role that Pierre has threatened “with a playful malice” to make anyone who tried to marry her and take her away from him “immediately disappear from the earth” (p. 5).

The mother has her own overt sexual problems. She exhibits them when she likens adulterers to murderers. She views sex darkly, quite probably in reaction from her own true desires. She loathes Delly when she hears of that girl's untimely pregnancy; she even hates (fears would be more exact) the girl Pierre “marries.” The girl, to her way of thinking, must be a bastard and vile (p. 131). Pierre's union with such a girl destroys “at one gross sensual dash, the fair succession of an honorable race! Mixing the choicest wine with filthy water from the plebeian pool” (p. 194).

Mrs. Glendinning does not want to believe that Pierre is ready for women. In a distinction she makes between the angelically sexless Lucy and herself—Lucy is “Pale Sherry” while she is “potent Port!”—she pictures Pierre only with pale sherry. Her son isn’t quite ready for port, she says. Or she isn’t ready to admit the physical side of Pierre's nature, particularly as it relates to her and her own latent desires. Her mistaken judgment about her son's libido becomes painfully clear to her when Pierre finally rejects Lucy for Isabel. He is ready for port after all.

His mother plays on his sympathies:

Could you unalarmed see me sitting all alone here with this decanter, like any old nurse, Pierre; some solitary, forlorn old nurse, Pierre, deserted by her last friend, and therefore forced to embrace her flask? (p. 55)

If he marries Lucy, a compliant girl, he will not be leaving her all alone; he will still be under her dominance, still be hers. For Pierre, though, staying with his mother means being her surrogate lover; it means desiring her at least to some extent. By running off with Isabel, who is like his mother (and even related to Pierre by blood), he can break free from his mother's dominance and satisfy his Oedipal wishes at the same time.

The Oedipal aspect of this story is brought directly to the reader in three separate analogies: Pierre is compared to Hamlet on more than one occasion; he identifies himself with the Titan, the son of an incestuous union who later married his mother, compounding the incest; and in a vivid scene toward the end of the story, Pierre is struck blind (although only momentarily)—the fate of Oedipus. “He knew not where he was; he did not have any ordinary life-feeling at all. He could not see; though instinctively putting his hand to his eyes, he seemed to feel that the lids were open” (p. 341). Symbolically, he then falls into the gutter and is covered with mud and slime.

It is in keeping with the situation that Mrs. Glendinning becomes more like an angry mistress than a disappointed mother when she first suspects Pierre is keeping something from her. Her violent outrage upon learning of his “marriage” to Isabel is a logical extension of her sexual frustration. By not marrying Lucy and refusing to allow Mrs. Glendinning continued control over his libido, Pierre is threatening his mother's mental stability. She cannot stand the thought of his being with a “slut”—with “potent Port”—it brings out her own unconscious desires for her son. She is driven into insanity and finally death by the union between Pierre and Isabel: “How agonizedly now did it hint of her mortally-wounded love for her only and best-loved Pierre!” (p. 285).

His mother likes Lucy because she is docile. And so, she thinks, is Pierre. But Pierre needs a woman like his mother, somebody—in nineteenth-century metaphorical terms—with “the jettiest hair” (p. 118). Mrs. Glendinning has twisted Pierre's libido out of shape. Lucy is not the girl to stir his essential passions. She is “transcendent beauty.” She is a blonde angel, sexless. Isabel, described as a dark angel, is quite different from Lucy's transcendence.

Lucy is Pierre's heaven. She is not made for sexual embraces. She is unearthly: “Her flowing, white, blue-ribboned dress, fleecily invested her.” She has for him an “unearthly evanescence” (p. 58). Pierre is caught between this ideal love for Lucy and the forces of his more earthy libido. The subtitle of the novel, “The Ambiguities,” is this dualistic aspect of his nature. On the one hand, Pierre desires sex, he certainly thinks of it—he sees a pillow that belongs to Lucy, “a snow-white glossy pillow reposes, and a trailing shrub has softly rested a rich, crimson flower against it” (pp. 3-4). But when he actually enters her bedroom he does so with “reverentialness,” and the carpet to him seems “as holy ground” (p. 39). There is no crimson flower for him on the girl's bed. On the contrary, the bed is “spotless” (p. 39). And when he catches a glimpse of it in the mirror, he envisions two separate beds, symbolic of his inability to consummate a marriage with her.

Part of Pierre's incestuous longings stem from a breast fixation that manifests itself on several occasions in the book. Pierre fawns over his mother, helping her to dress and fix her hair; he passes a ribbon around her neck, crossing the ends in front across her breasts and then offers to “tack it with a kiss” (p. 14). It is only a few pages later when Melville injects the rather funny pun: “Don’t be a milk-sop, Pierre!”

Isabel is included in this fixation when she tells Pierre, “the lips that do now speak to thee, never touched a woman's breast” (p. 114). Isabel claims that the sight of an infant feeding at its mother's breast saved her from insanity. She describes it as “that white and smiling breast” (p. 122).

Pierre's mother, motherhood, Isabel, and sexuality are all connected to this fixation. And the last dramatic scene in the story tragically underlines the consequences of this fixation. Pierre seizes Isabel and reaches into her bodice with these words: “wife or sister, saint or fiend! … in thy breasts, life for infants lodgeth not, but death-milk for thee and me” (p. 360). Hidden between her breasts is a vial filled with poison.

Another traumatic stage in Pierre's early development is explored by Melville. Pierre disassociates his father and mother from sexuality. He represses any such knowledge; thinking of his father's sexual nature reminds him of his own and verifies his worst fears about himself. Particularly as they regard his unconscious wish to take his father's place with his mother. When his father rages in his dying moments about his adultery, young Pierre refuses to examine the issue. “Into Pierre's awe-stricken, childish soul, there entered a kindred, though still more nebulous conceit. But it belonged to the spheres of the impalpable ether: and the child soon threw other and sweeter remembrances over it, and covered it up” (p. 71). When he is finally forced by the presence of Isabel to admit his father's sexuality, he must also face that side of his mother's nature: “Not even his lovely, immaculate mother, remained entirely untouched, unaltered by the shock” (p. 88). His parents are no longer saints; love cannot be viewed as ideal, existing above and apart from the corporeal person. Revelations about his father's sexuality shatter the young man's existence because it mocks the sexless love toward which he is aspiring.

The pressures of being the last male heir are not wholly depressing. There is a certain challenge in this that appeals on occasion to Pierre's pride. In a very phallic passage Melville writes:

But in his more wonted natural mood, this thought was not wholly sad to him. Nay, sometimes it mounted into an exultant swell. For in the ruddiness, and flushfulness, and vaingloriousness of his youthful soul, he fondly hoped to have a monopoly of glory in capping the fame-column, whose tall shaft had been erected by his noble sires. (p. 8)

Phallic symbols abound in this novel. Outdoing the symbol of Moby-Dick, the book is dedicated to the mountain Greylock, which gives off “unstinted fertilizations.” Images of sex and sexual organs pervade the entire structure of the story. Pierre goes out for a walk to search for Isabel; he takes his cane along. Melville cannot resist writing: “let thy cane stay still, good Pierre. Seek not to mystify the mystery so” (p. 53). And on another occasion the “mystery” deepens; Pierre burns his hand. When Isabel touches his hand she comments about the soot it leaves on her own: “I would catch the plague from thee, so that it should make me share thee” (p. 202). There is in this last image a contradiction of the positive aspects of “unstinted fertilizations.” Sexual energy can be destructive as well as procreative.2

The unifying force of these somewhat disparate symbols is the character of Isabel. In almost every instance, the symbols are associated with her. Isabel's guitar becomes a womb and a phallic symbol, the very shape of the instrument lending itself to this ambiguity. Isabel plays upon the guitar and Pierre feels strangely drawn to it and her. Its music is described as “supersensuous and all-confounding intimations” (p. 282), and its power “not only seemed irresistibly to draw him toward Isabel, but to draw him away from another quarter—wantonly as it were” (p. 151). Melville's choice of words here, “supersensuous” and “wantonly,” are clear guides to his meaning in these passages.

Pierre's sexual longings for Isabel are represented in yet another phallic symbol, a “primeval pine-tree” alone in a meadow, which “drops melodious mournfulness” (p. 40). Sitting beneath this tree Pierre sees the face of Isabel. The face and the tree are connected in his mind and when the face disappears, he says: “Pray heaven it hath not only stolen back, and hidden again in thy high secrecies, oh tree! But ’tis gone—gone—entirely gone … Thou pine-tree!—henceforth I will resist thy too treacherous persuasiveness” (pp. 41-42).

More obvious is the use to which Melville puts the stove pipe in Pierre's apartments, the last phallic symbol we will discuss in this paper, but certainly not the last one in the novel. Isabel wants Lucy to get the warmth from the stove and suggests that Pierre redirect the pipe to Lucy's room. “‘Pierre, there is no stove in the room. She will be very cold. The pipe—can we not send it this way?’ And she looked more intently at him, than the question seemed to warrant” (p. 322). Pierre must choose between Lucy and Isabel. He chooses Isabel for the expression of his passions, and the pipe remains where it is. “It shall not be done, Isabel. Doth not that pipe and that warmth go into thy room? Shall I rob my wife … to benefit my most devoted and true-hearted cousin?” (p. 323).

Although Pierre is aroused by Isabel, his real wish is to transcend sex altogether. He wants to be like Christ, with “no unmanly, mean temptation” (p. 106) to come between him and his ideals. He would like to be an angel, sexless. In Plinlimmon's terms, Pierre would like to be governed by ideas chronometrical, celestial, rather than horological, terrestrial desires. Pierre strives to be noble; nobility to him means being beyond the stirrings of the libido. Such nobility, as it is made clear in the Plinlimmon pamphlet, is not really possible on earth. And Pierre, “though charged with the fire of all divineness, his containing thing was made of clay” (p. 107).

It remains clear then throughout the novel that there is a difference in relationship between Pierre and the two girls. As for Lucy, “he was never alone with her; though, as before, at times alone with Isabel” (p. 337). In context, being “alone” with Isabel means having had intercourse with her. In comparison, Lucy remains chaste and pure, representative of Pierre's now unattainable Ideal Love. While Lucy is the pure one, Isabel represents abandoned sex for Pierre. A description of her playing the guitar bears this out:

with every syllable the hair-shrouded form of Isabel swayed to and fro with a like abandonment, and suddenness, and wantonness:—then it seemed not like any song; seemed not issuing from any mouth; but it came forth from beneath the same vail concealing the guitar. (pp. 126-27)

Watching her, “a strange wild heat burned” (p. 127) upon Pierre's brow, a reaction not evoked by Lucy.

Isabel is not a jezebel though, not out to seduce Pierre. Her attractiveness seduces him, but only as a result of his own confused inclinations. Isabel is “all plastic” (p. 189) in Pierre's hands, transferring her love for her father onto Pierre. “But it was most the sweet, inquisitive, kindly interested aspect of thy face,” she tells Pierre, “so strangely like thy father's, too—the one only being that I first did love—it was that which stirred the distracting storm in me” (p. 158). Isabel longs to be a part of Pierre's existence, a longing for a family she never had. She does not feel at peace with herself alone. “I feel that there can be no perfect peace in individualness” (p. 119). She wants to become part of all things, including a union with Pierre. But her response to him was sexual only after he first embraced her. She gave him at first “no gesture of common and customary sisterly affection. Nay, from his embrace had she not struggled? nor kissed him once; nor had he kissed her, except when the salute was solely sought by him” (p. 142). Far from pursuing sex, Isabel actually fears it in her nature and deliberately withholds herself—or tries to.

But Isabel is schizoid in part. After playing the guitar abandonedly, she becomes gentle again, confusing Pierre:

… it seemed well nigh impossible that this unassuming maid should be the same dark, regal being who had but just now bade Pierre be silent in so imperious a tone, and around whose wondrous temples the strange electric glory had been playing. (p. 152)

She is capable of, and is continually expressing, the qualities of passion and frigidity. Whether it is schizophrenia or manic-depression (it is not plain guile), Isabel goes forth “into the places of delight,” but only, according to her words, that she “might return more braced to minister in the haunts of woe” (p. 156).

Pierre is not prepared for the excitations Isabel arouses in him. He is too caught up in his own idealized versions of love; he has tried to repress his feelings about the “secret deeper than beauty” (p. 7). When he thinks about the mystery face, before he finds out Isabel's identity, his thoughts and feelings are accompanied by a touch “of unhealthiness” (p. 53). His repressed sexuality is expressed whenever Lucy asks him about the face of Isabel. He becomes vehemently impassioned and imagines devils taunting him and mocking his love for Lucy. He feels that his “whole previous moral being was overturned” (p. 87) after learning about Isabel.

Pierre's introduction to Isabel is noteworthy. He receives a message from her, delivered by “a hooded and obscure-looking figure, whose half-averted countenance he could but indistinctly discern” (p. 61), the personification of his id, his own unconscious thoughts breaking through and mirrored in the world about him. When Pierre returns to his room with Isabel's letter and sees himself in the mirror, the image is understandably “strangely filled with features transformed, and unfamiliar to him” (p. 62). This evocation by Melville of the unfamiliar and distorted qualities of our unconscious thoughts is one of the strongest themes throughout the book. When Pierre first sees Isabel, before getting the message from her:

The emotions he experienced seemed to have taken hold of the deepest roots and subtlest fibres of his being. And so much the more that it was so subterranean in him, so much the more did he feel its weird inscrutableness. (pp. 48-49)

Pierre's feelings for Isabel are “mixed and mystical” (p. 226); until he ultimately possesses her and satisfies the demands of his id, his “subterranean” feelings will remain mystical.

Pierre's sexual interest in Isabel is evident right away. She reminds him of Francesca in Dante's Inferno, who committed the Unpardonable Sin of premarital intercourse with Paolo. When he looks at Isabel “his eyes fixed upon the girl's wonderfully beautiful ear, which, chancing to peep forth from among her abundant tresses, nestled in that blackness like a transparent sea-shell of pearl” (p. 119). Isabel's features and darkness transfix him. “Thy all-abounding hair falls upon me with some spell which dismisses all ordinary considerations from me” (p. 145). From their first embrace Pierre knows that he will never be able to embrace her with a brotherly attitude. Despite all his protestations of his glorious ideal love, when he first takes Isabel in his arms:

Over the face of Pierre there shot a terrible self-revelation; he imprinted repeated burning kisses upon her; pressed hard her hand; would not let go her sweet and awful passiveness … they coiled together, and entangledly stood mute. (p. 192)

However ambiguous Melville wishes to leave the question regarding ultimate contact between the brother and half-sister, one thing is certain: Pierre is very ardent with Isabel, eager to hold her in his arms. The problem for him is one of ambivalence rather than ambiguousness. He is torn between two different emotions for the girl. He is capable of feeling reverence for her, she soars “out of the realms of mortalness” for him and becomes “transfigured in the highest heaven of uncorrupted Love” (p. 142); and he suffers from “strange wild heat” which she produces in him as well.

Pierre's idea to pretend to be Isabel's husband is a form of wish-fulfillment on his part, a way of dealing with the wild heat she stirs in him. This enables him to succeed in another sense, to complete the transposition he had been trying to make with his mother. “Possibly the latent germ of Pierre's … conversion of a sister into a wife—might have been found in the previous conversational conversion of a mother into a sister” (pp. 176-77). There is a decided change of role for both Pierre and Isabel in their union with each other. Isabel becomes his mother, and he fulfills Isabel's unconscious wish for her father. Isabel unblushingly contrasts her mother's love for her father with her own love for Pierre. “But I saw thee, Pierre; and, more than ever filled my mother toward thy father, Pierre, then upheaved in me” (p. 155). Her father was the first person she loved, and Pierre takes his place. Only by his becoming her father does the later comparison Melville makes with the Cenci portrait hold together. Besides reinforcing the theme of incest, the comparison of Isabel and Beatrice works to clarify some of the ambiguity of the story. It is evident finally that Pierre and Isabel have consummated their relationship in sexual union.

There are several clues in the book to help the reader resolve the ambiguity of Pierre's sexual relationship with his half-sister. Their willingness to aid Delly, for instance, shows their liberalness in the affairs of sex—their uninhibitedness perhaps, which will prefigure their own sexual union. Delly's trouble, in Isabel's words, is not an “unpardonable shame” (p. 155), and therefore Pierre and Isabel's union will also be pardonable.

When Pierre and Isabel are alone in his room they make love.3 But Melville disguises it. They sit on the camp-bed in the dark. “Sit close to me,” says Isabel. “Each felt the other's throbbing.” Pierre puts his arm around her and holds her tight. He trembles and calls out her name “in a low tone of wonderful intensity” (p. 272). His tremor passes over to her as she puts her arm around him. Pierre initially fights against his desire, but he gives in and tells her not to call him brother. He makes love to her on the pretense that she is not his sister. They both choose to ignore reality. In a very imagistic sentence, Isabel says: “I would boldly swim a starless sea, and be buoy to thee, there, when thou the strong swimmer shouldst faint” (p. 274). He will rest his body upon hers. This brings to mind Pierre's earlier comments about lying upon Lucy, about his body being too heavy for her. He has no such reservations with Isabel. “How can one sin in a dream?” he asks her.

And so, on the third night, when the twilight was gone, and no lamp was lit, within the lofty window of that beggarly room, sat Pierre and Isabel hushed. (p. 274)

Substitution of the word “lay” for “sat” seems in order in the above quote.

Their sexual union is harmful to their love. Isabel sees herself as “a vile clog” (p. 355) and tries to kill herself. As an illegitimate child she was “dirty” to the old couple taking care of her (they throw away a loaf of bread because she has touched it); she is considered a slut by Pierre's mother; and the girls at the sewing club refer to her as “some other ruined Delly, run away;—minx” (p. 157). With so many accusing fingers being pointed at her, her association with Pierre must lead to guilt and self-abuse. “Heard ye ever yet of a good angel with dark eyes, Pierre?” (p. 314), she asks him, comparing herself to the still chaste Lucy. She can no longer abide Lucy, who symbolizes what she herself has lost through sexual contact with Pierre. Isabel determines to keep Lucy in her place, purposely arranging to be in Pierre's embrace while the door adjoining their rooms opens to Lucy's view. She becomes as jealous of Lucy as Pierre's mother had been of her. “One look from me shall murder her, Pierre!” (p. 313). The cycle for Pierre is complete.

Once his passions are satisfied, once Isabel is no longer a mystery for him, Pierre becomes embarrassed whenever he finds himself alone with her. It is quite obvious that Pierre's desire for her has faded: “involuntarily he started a little back from her self-proffering form” (p. 332). He no longer wants Isabel to touch him. His love, based on libidinal desires, is gone once those desires are satisfied. Also, he is shocked by what he has done. Pierre accepts the anger Lucy's brother directs at him for having violated (as the brother mistakenly believes) Lucy's honor. Pierre is “thoroughly alive to the supernaturalism of that mad frothing hate which a spirited brother forks forth at the insulter of a sister's honor—beyond doubt the most uncompromising of all the social passions known to man” (p. 336). As the violator of his own sister, Pierre is frothing with hate at himself. So much so that he seeks death. That he finds death at the hands of his sister is symbolically fitting.

Pierre's greatest anguish is caused by his inability to remain pure. The discovery of his father's sexual liaison with Isabel's mother shatters his idolization of his father, and also corrupts his own intentions of living a Christ-like sexless existence. He is initially resolved to help Isabel purely “to assuage a fellow-being's grief” (p. 104), not to exploit her sexually. The discovery that his motives are other than philanthropic is not easy for him to accept. We can see in Plinlimmon's description of the man who tries to be like Christ, Pierre's situation:

in his despair, he is too apt to run clean away into all manner of moral abandonment, self-deceit, and hypocrisy (cloaked, however, mostly under an aspect of the most respectable devotion). (p. 215)

Pierre has sought to make an unconditional sacrifice of himself, a noble act which calls for the rejection of his past and his passions. His inability to do so is underscored by the leering face (or so it seems to Pierre) of Plinlimmon, who is looking down at him from the tower. Plinlimmon becomes the personification of Pierre's guilt feelings. The position on morality taken by Plinlimmon is exactly opposite the high standards Pierre wishes to follow. It is quite right then for Pierre to feel that Plinlimmon is mocking him. The inner torment he feels frightens him, and he fears it will break loose, that everyone will be able to see through him. When a photographer wishes to take his picture, Pierre predictably reacts violently. “To the devil with you and your Daguerreotype!” (p. 254) he tells the insistent photographer. He is afraid that his real self will be exposed in the photograph, as was his father's in the portrait that his mother hated.

In summation, Pierre's rather distorted love for his mother is a retreat from normal love. Pierre and his mother have a presex love, anticipatory love, not to be ruined by sex. Their love is “not to be limited in duration by that climax which is so fatal to ordinary love” (p. 16). Their relationship gives Pierre a closeness with femininity which he needs, but a safe closeness. Their love is “etherealized from all drosses and stains” (p. 16). This helps explain Pierre's reactions to Isabel after they have intimate relations. He and Isabel are not able to love as he and his mother. Despite Isabel's assurance that “there is no sex in our immaculateness” (p. 149), Pierre feels that there is no immaculateness in their sex.

Melville regards sex in this novel as a necessary evil. Pierre “seemed gifted with loftiness, merely that it might be dragged down to the mud” (p. 339). Man aspires to love, while his body clamors for lust. The design on the clergyman's cameo brooch emphasizes this: “the allegorical union of the serpent and dove” (p. 102). That’s what marriage and sex are to Melville—the union of lust and love. In another snake image in Pierre, Melville writes: “I felt that all good, harmless men and women were human things, placed at cross-purposes, in a world of snakes and lightnings” (p. 122). These cross-purposes, we must surmise, are the clash of ideal love and instinctive sex.

Sex is man's downfall. Man “stoops” to sex. Pierre insists “I do not stoop to thee, nor thou to me; but we both reach up alike to a glorious ideal!” (p. 192). This is a vision he is not able to maintain. In the end, the chivalrous knight Pierre wishes both Lucy and Isabel dead. “For ye two, my most undiluted prayer is now, that from your here unseen and frozen chairs ye may never stir alive” (p. 358). He has been ruined by his conflicting feelings about sex and women. It is only justice, in Melville's mind, that in a world where sex is the cause of the hero's ruin, all the heroines should be killed off with him.

The equation that Melville makes in Pierre between sex and death is not a very pleasant one, nor does it seem in keeping with the otherwise fearless questioning of restrictive social norms usually associated with this author. But the final statement is a clear one: man is pulled downward, away from the realm of the angels, away from all noble acts and aspirations, by his own sexual nature. Love between a man and a woman might seem a wonderful thing, but to Melville the reality is as “haunting toads and scorpions” (p. 91).


  1. Pierre, or The Ambiguities (Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern University Press and the Newberry Library, 1971), p. 107. Subsequent references to this edition, volume seven of the Northwestern-Newberry edition of The Works of Herman Melville edited by Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker, and G. Thomas Tanselle, will be placed in parentheses in the text.

  2. Martin Leonard Pops in The Melville Archetype (Kent: The Kent State University Press, 1970), p. 83, writes: “In Pierre and in such later works as “Benito Cereno” and The Confidence-Man possession and use of the phallic weapon suggests that sexual energy is unfailingly destructive.” This is an overstatement, but Pops's discussion is well worth reading.

  3. This view is in opposition to the more prevalent one, which insists that Isabel remained “physically unattainable.” The most impressive of these critics remains Henry A. Murray. See his Introduction to Pierre (New York: Hendricks House, Farrar Straus, 1949), p. xcii.

Hershel Parker (essay date 1976)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9063

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 Moby-Dick have upon the composition of Pierre, and when did any such effects occur? If Melville was angered by his friend Evert Duyckinck's review in November 1851, why did he apparently wait until February 1852 before breaking the friendship? How can one explain the discrepancy between the low page-estimate in the contract, signed 20 February 1852, and the much longer manuscript which may well have been handed over to the publishers that day? The answers to some of these questions depend partly on aesthetic judgments and are beyond the scope of this paper, but the answers to others lie in documentary evidence, some of it overlooked until now or not previously sorted out in meaningful ways.

We do not know precisely when Melville began planning Pierre. Leon Howard suspected that he had it in mind as early as September 1851, when he wrote his Pittsfield neighbor, Sarah Morewood, that the Fates had plunged him “into certain silly thoughts and wayward speculations” which would keep him for a time from reading two books she had sent him. Whether Melville was thinking about Pierre that soon or not, Mrs. Morewood very likely figured more largely in the conception of Pierre than we can now establish. The archness of Melville's special language in his letters to her is so clearly related to the diction of certain passages early in his book that one suspects they were partly written with her in mind as one potential reader, just as passages in Typee were obviously written as a way of teasing his household of sisters. Demonstrably, Mrs. Morewood's inveterate socializing is related to the composition of Pierre.2 Reclusive as Melville later seemed to many people, he at this time sought occasions for “vagabondism” (as he wrote Hawthorne on 22 July 1851). After a notably sociable August, when Evert and George Duyckinck, the joint editors of the New York Literary World, were exhilarated but exhausted guests, Melville took several outings with members of the Morewood and Melville families into the Berkshire hills during Elizabeth Melville's confinement before the birth of Stanwix on October 22. Many scenes in the first half of Pierre record the hero's perambulations about a landscape obviously based on the stretch of the Berkshires from Mount Greylock to Lenox. There is no need to imagine that Melville took field notes during these excursions, but the fictional scenes do derive from his immediate experiences: in dedicating Pierre to “Greylock's Most Excellent Majesty,” he declared that he had received from that sovereign “most bounteous and unstinted fertilizations.” One such fertilization was soon clear to many in the Berkshire area. Some time in 1851 (more likely during the August feting of city friends than during the family excursions of the fall), Melville and his party had picnicked at the local curiosity, the Balanced Rock, where Mrs. Morewood had placed a music box far under the overhanging stone, so as to make it breathe “mysterious and enchanting music.” Melville himself thereupon inscribed “Memnon” on the rock, and J. E. A. Smith coyly hinted that this act was linked to the abandonment of a broken champagne bottle at its foot.3 It certainly was linked to the creation of the “Memnon Stone” in Pierre. Such verifiable use of the Berkshire scenery, while gossip-worthy to Melville's acquaintances, is insignificant compared to the profounder fertilizations manifested in the interior landscape of the hero's mind early in the book, as well as in the later vision of Enceladus.4

Probably some weeks elapsed between the fertilizing excursions and their springing forth in Melville's new manuscript. On 6 November, two weeks after Stanwix's birth, Melville received from Duyckinck a clipping about the sinking of the Ann Alexander by a whale. In his reply on the seventh Melville wrote: “For some days past being engaged in the woods with axe, wedge, & beetle, the Whale had almost completely slipped me for the time (& I was the merrier for it) when Crash! comes Moby Dick himself (as you justly say) & reminds me of what I have been about for part of the last year or two.” Melville's 17(?) November letter in response to Hawthorne's praise of Moby-Dick speaks anticipatorially about the next book, but not in terms of specific work already underway: “Lord, when shall we be done growing? As long as we have anything more to do, we have done nothing. 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.” All in all, these two letters offer only negative evidence: Melville did not take advantage of two conspicuous opportunities to make casual mention of a new work in progress. However, any new book was to be more ambitious than Moby-Dick: “I have heard of Krakens.”5

The actual book as he began it was remarkably well-plotted, the story of Pierre Glendinning, the young master of the great country estate of Saddle Meadows (evidently in the patroon region of New York)—a high-minded American enthusiast in search of a cause to champion. The cause, when it patly came, involved him in extraordinary mental, moral, and sexual ambiguities and allowed Melville the chance to demonstrate his mastery of many novelistic techniques even while subtly training his readers to be discontent with the superficial perplexities the “brisk novelist” regularly served up. It was the most objective and tightly controlled piece of writing Melville had yet achieved: for the first time his hero (whether putatively himself as in Typee, Omoo, and White-Jacket, or plainly a fictional character as in Mardi, Redburn, or Moby-Dick) was not telling his own story in the first person, and for the first time in one of his novels (Mardi, Redburn, and Moby-Dick) the voice of the narrator-hero was not dissolving at times into that of the author. The writing went steadily and intensely, as we know from a letter Mrs. Morewood wrote George Duyckinck three days after the Melvilles had eaten Christmas dinner at her house. This is the first definite mention of Pierre:6

I hear that he is now so engaged in a new work as frequently not to leave his room till dark in the evening when he for the first time during the whole day partakes of solid food—he must therefore write under a state of morbid excitement which will soon injure his health.—I laughed at him somewhat and told him that the recluse life he was leading made his city friends think he was slightly insane—he replied that long ago he came to the same conclusion himself but that if he left home to look after Hungary the cause in hungery would suffer.

Certain facts stand out, though the claims in this letter must be weighed against other evidence. By the end of 1851 Melville was deeply engaged on the manuscript of Pierre, not merely entertaining silly thoughts and wayward speculations of one sort or another, for this rehearsal of his working habits implies a considerable duration. Mrs. Morewood could hardly have described him as so engaged that he “frequently” worked through till dark if he had just begun the routine a week or two earlier. The routine had gone on long enough for her to think he would “soon” injure his health if he continued in it, not the sort of thing one says about a healthy farmer-writer of thirty-two when he has only briefly been laboring under extreme conditions. Melville had been working on Pierre for at least several weeks, from about the time of the American publication of Moby-Dick in mid-November, if not still earlier, establishing a pattern of incessant application from which he was not deflected by any farm or household obligations or any reviews of Moby-Dick which he inevitably saw (such as the two-part review in the Duyckincks' Literary World, to which he subscribed) or any which his friends and relatives passed on to him.

Mrs. Morewood's account forms the basis for speculation about how much of the book was written by the end of 1851. When working at top speed, as he had done in the summer of 1849, Melville could write the equivalent of fifty Harper pages a week. If he began Pierre as late as mid-November, he could have written 250 pages, more or less, before he interrupted his schedule for the trip to New York. This guess gains some support from the letter he wrote Mrs. Hawthorne from New York on 8 January 1852. Although mainly concerned with her earlier praise of Moby-Dick, it contains Melville's first reference to the work in progress: “But, My Dear Lady, I shall not again send you a bowl of salt water. The next chalice I shall commend, will be a rural bowl of milk.” Melville was having wry fun in echoing that fellow Scotch nobleman, Macbeth, and being archly condescending to an intellectual woman, but a question suggests itself: why did he not say, “a rural bowl of milk and a city vial of hebenon”? One reason is that he was setting up an ironically cheery and familiar contrast to his whaling book, but another may simply be that he had not yet written any or very many of the city scenes. Internal evidence makes it certain that he had planned from the outset to have Pierre and Isabel come to the city, but if he had already drafted many of the city chapters it is unlikely he would have written to Mrs. Hawthorne just as he did, even allowing for playfulness: actual bulky and messy manuscript pages have a reality which scenes yet to be written rarely have. As evidence about the composition, this reference to “a rural bowl of milk” is far from conclusive, but it interlocks with Mrs. Morewood's description of Melville's pre-Christmas labor and with later evidence, internal and external. A reasonable assumption is that when Melville interrupted his work on the manuscript at Christmas time in order to go to New York City he had reached or nearly reached the end of the Saddle Meadows section but had not gotten very far, if at all, into the city section, which he then thought would consist of about a hundred pages, at most.7

This trip has been puzzling to biographers, especially since it seems to have been hastily arranged (otherwise Sarah Morewood would have had no reason for writing George Duyckinck as she did on 4 January 1852: “Were you not surprised to see Herman Melville in Town?”)8 and since it lasted so long (from the last days of December through the second week of January or into the third). Leon Howard handled the dates and the motive in gingerly fashion, assuming that Melville's rural household routine was upset because Elizabeth had decided that “she needed to go ‘home’ in order fully to recuperate from her confinement,” but that before seeing her off to Boston Melville had “escorted her to New York” and “spent a few days” with Allan Melville, his brother and his lawyer. Howard continued: “He was too busy to see as much of Duyckinck as he usually did on his visits; but he probably took time to check up on a few city scenes he planned to use in Pierre and certainly talked over his literary business with Allan.”9 This is educated guessing. What drew Melville to New York, almost certainly, was the fact that he thought himself nearly enough finished with the manuscript of Pierre to negotiate a contract with the Harpers for a book of 360 pages and perhaps even get an advance on it. The evidence is in the letter Allan wrote to the Harpers on 21 January 1852, presumably several days after Melville had left for home:10

My brother would like to have his account with your house to the 1st Feby made up and ready to render to me, as near that date as will be convenient to you[.]

Respecting ‘Pierre’ the contract provides that if the book exceeded 360 pages a corresponding addition should be made to the number of copies required to liquidate the cost of the stereotype plates &c for a book of that size[.] As the book exceeds that number of pages it will of course be necessary to ascertain how many more copies are to be allowed than provided by the contract for a book of 360 pages. The retail price of the book has been also raised beyond the price fixed by the agreement, which was one dollar & of course a corresponding increase per copy should be made to the author.

This letter, hitherto known only in the portion of the first paragraph printed in the Log, has complex ramifications, and requires going backwards before going forwards.

The previous April, the Harpers had refused Melville an advance on Moby-Dick, alleging two reasons, first “an extensive and expensive addition to our establishment” and, second, the fact that Melville already owed them “nearly seven hundred dollars” ($695.65, to be precise). Late in the summer Melville had come to terms with Richard Bentley on The Whale, receiving less of an advance against half-profits than he had been given for Mardi and White-Jacket, though more than for Redburn. The Harper contract for Moby-Dick signed on 12 September contained no provision for an advance, unlike those for the three previous books, and when the 25 November 1851 statement reached Melville it showed that he still owed the Harpers $422.82, despite the sale of 1,535 copies of Moby-Dick and fewer copies of the older books.11 The contract for Pierre which Herman and Allan worked out with the publishers during the early days of the post-Christmas trip could not have pleased the brothers, since the Harpers had been more cautious than ever before, stipulating that for the first 1,190 copies sold, the number required to pay for the plates of the projected 360-page book, the author was to receive no royalties. During the interval between the drawing up of the contract and his return to Pittsfield (that is, apparently between early and mid-January), Melville reconceived the unwritten part of Pierre and saw that 360 would be too low an estimate to accommodate the new material he would introduce. Allan's letter either means that Melville had already written enough new pages (presumably while in New York City) to drive the book beyond the initial estimate, or, less likely, that Melville had made up his mind to write passages which he knew would undoubtedly drive the book well beyond that length. The letter gives no clue as to why Melville's intentions had altered so suddenly and drastically, but it makes plain his unusual concern to know the precise status of his account. Despite this concern there was no money forthcoming until 20 February 1852, the day the contract was signed, when the Harpers paid him $500, of which just over $200 was already earned (mainly from Moby-Dick), while only $298.71 was technically an advance. On or soon after the day the contract was signed, the Harpers were given the manuscript, which proved to contain not the 360 pages which the final contract still called for but 495 pages of text, exclusive of the preliminary pages in roman numerals. There was no sudden, inexplicable composition of roughly 150 pages of unplanned material after the contract was signed: the additions not in the original plan had probably all been completed by 20 February. At that time the 360 estimate was some six or seven weeks old and already more than a month out of date, but there was no legal necessity for altering it since the contract provided for adjusting the number of copies that had to be sold before Melville's royalties began, depending on the length of the book.12

Although Allan's letter removes the problem of how Melville managed to write 150 pages after the contract was signed, a major question remains, for the disappointing negotiations with the Harpers do not fully account for the drastic differences in subject matter and authorial attitude between the parts of Pierre presumably written before Melville's trip to New York and those surely written either during the trip or after he arrived home. Melville's experiences in New York had profoundly altered his feelings about his career as a whole as well as the manuscript at hand. For months he had been talking aloofly about fame, saying calmly that if he wrote the Gospels in his century he would die in the gutter. Hawthorne's approval of Moby-Dick had confirmed him in that mood, as Melville's response shows:

People think that if a man has undergone any hardship, he should have a reward. … My peace and my supper are my reward, my dear Hawthorne. So your joy-giving and exultation-breeding letter is not my reward for my ditcher's work with that book, but is the good goddess's bonus over and above what was stipulated for—for not one man in five cycles, who is wise, will expect appreciative recognition from his fellows, or any one of them. Appreciation! Recognition! Is love appreciated? Why, ever since Adam, who has got to the meaning of this great allegory—the world? Then we pygmies must be content to have our paper allegories but ill comprehended. I say your appreciation is my glorious gratuity. In my proud, humble way,—a shepherd-king,—I was lord of a little vale in the solitary Crimea; but you have now given me the crown of India.

Judging from Books 17 and 18 of Pierre, what broke Melville's exalted mood was the sudden exposure to a large number of reviews of Moby-Dick before, during, and after his disappointing negotiations with the Harpers. At Christmas he may have focused for the first time on reviews which had been accumulating around the house, but more likely he gained access to a number of earlier reviews once he reached New York, at just the time of month when the January magazines were appearing with reviews, including some of the most scathing of all. In the aftermath of his abnormal work pattern, which must have left him psychologically and physically vulnerable, and with his hazardously ambitious literary experiment still incomplete, Melville was in no position to content himself with the lavish praise which he must also have seen, especially not after his dealings with the Harpers enforced upon him the realization that he might have to abandon the hope of earning a living as a writer just when he had become a great one.

Melville's reaction to the contract discussions and to the reviews soon found a convenient outlet in the manuscript, which he surely had at hand in New York for showing to the Harpers. Instead of pursuing the consequences of Pierre's unprecedented resolution, Melville struck out in Book 17 against the reviewers who had offered him perfunctory and irrelevant praise as well as those who had condemned him or grudgingly praised him for what he knew should have entitled him to profoundest homage. In his new mood Melville began writing passages which could have relevance only to himself, not to the Pierre he had so consistently characterized in the Saddle Meadows section: “And in the inferior instances of an immediate literary success, in very young writers, it will be almost invariably observable, that for that instant success they were chiefly indebted to some rich and peculiar experience in life, embodied in a book, which because, for that cause, containing original matter, the author himself, forsooth, is to be considered original; in this way, many very original books, being the product of very unoriginal minds.” This section from the end of Book 18 is extraordinary as self-analysis, as Melville's own objective understanding of why Typee had become so popular and what its ultimate worth was, but it is wholly irrelevant to Pierre, who had had no such rich and peculiar experience in life and who (we are belatedly and distractingly told) had embodied whatever experiences he had had in magazines, not in a book. Whether or not Melville had intended all along to make Pierre turn writer once he reached the city cannot be established, but he surely had not intended to make Pierre's career distortedly mirror whatever the reviewers would be saying about Moby-Dick through the year's end and the start of 1852.13 Planning and writing Books 17 and 18 disturbed Melville's judicious narrative distance from his hero so thoroughly that he never fully regained it, and destroyed the intended proportion of longer rural section to shorter city section.

The evidence, which is mainly in Book 17, has been read with an imperfect sense of the chronology of Melville's work on Pierre. One of the commonest (and obviously correct) assumptions about the book is that in portraying the asinine critics of young Pierre, Melville was taking satirical revenge on his own critics. (Since the 1930s it has been known that Evert Duyckinck himself was the model for the impudently aggressive joint editor of the Captain Kidd Monthly.) Aware that Melville was recalling aspects of his own literary career in this Book and the next, many critics, myself among them, have taken for granted that what the reviewers say of Pierre is either very like or else patently the opposite of what real reviewers had said of Melville's Typee, Omoo, Mardi, Redburn, White-Jacket, and Moby-Dick. That turns out not to be altogether accurate. When the phrases attributed to Pierre's critics are compared with the known reviews of Melville's first six books, it becomes obvious that in Book 17 Melville was not reacting generally to the reviews of all six of these books (or to a certain segment of them, such as those in religious periodicals).14 Rather, he was reacting specifically to the reviews of his latest book, Moby-Dick. Lewis Mumford's impression in 1929 was partly right: it was the reviews of Moby-Dick which Melville was reacting to, but not at the time he conceived and began Pierre; rather, his reaction came only during or after his trip to New York, when at least half and probably more of the book was already completed. One cannot safely point to particular reviews which Melville must have read before he wrote Book 17, but among the most conspicuous American reviews of Moby-Dick and those British reviews of The Whale most likely to have reached New York by early January, Melville could have seen many examples of the phrases which he satirizes in Pierre. He twists them one way or another for his immediate satirical ends, but the words are readily found in the reviews of Moby-Dick as they are not found in reviews of his earlier books.15

When Pierre was complimented for his surprising command of language, Melville had just been praised for his “mastery over language and its resources” (the London Examiner), condemned for ravings “meant for eloquent declamation” (the Charleston Southern Quarterly Review), and denounced for his “rhetorical artifice,” “bad rhetoric,” and “incoherent English” (the New York Democratic Review). Where Pierre was commended for his euphonious construction of sentences, a reviewer had just condemned Melville for his “involved syntax” (the Democratic Review). Where Pierre was praised for the pervading symmetry of his general style, Melville had just been praised for his “bold and impulsive style” (the New York Harper's New Monthly Magazine), tolerated for his “happy carelessness of style” (the Hartford Daily Courant) and his “quaint though interesting style” (the Springfield Republican), blamed for a style “disfigured by mad (rather than bad) English” (the London Athenaeum), for his “unbridled extravagance” (the London Atlas), and for his “eccentricity” in style (the London Britannia). There is a bare possibility that by mid-January Melville might have seen a reproach for his not adhering to “the unchanging principles of the truthful and the symmetrical” (the London Morning Chronicle). While Pierre's writings were praised for highly judicious smoothness and genteelness of the sentiments and fancies, Melville had just been condemned for his “forced,” “inflated,” and “stilted” sentiment (the Democratic Review) and for allowing his fancy “not only to run riot, but absolutely to run amuck” (the London Atlas). Where Pierre was characterized throughout by Perfect Taste, Melville had just been condemned for “harassing manifestations of bad taste” (the Athenaeum) and for “many violations of good taste and delicacy” (the New York Churchman), and called (by Evert Duyckinck) “reckless at times of taste and propriety” (the New York Literary World) and called also the author of scenes which neither “good taste nor good morals can approve” (the Washington National Intelligencer). A reviewer said that Pierre never permits himself to astonish; is never betrayed into any thing coarse or new; as assured that whatever astonishes is vulgar, and whatever is new must be crude. Reviewers had just praised Melville himself for his “original genius” and “wildness of conception” (the London Atlas), for “genuine” evidence of “originality” (the London Leader), and for his “lawless flights, which put all regular criticism at defiance” (the New York Daily Tribute). A critic had just found Melville's materials “uncouth” and the Americanisms of The Whale charming, although the book might not fall within “the ordinary canons of beauty” (the London John Bull). A reviewer also had found that Melville evinced “originality and freshness in his matter” (the Worcester Palladium). A critic declared that vulgarity and vigor—two inseparable adjuncts—were equally removed from Pierre. Reviewers had just condemned Melville for “‘a too much vigour,’ as Dryden has it” in the earlier books but unsurpassed “vigour, originality, and interest” in The Whale (the London Morning Herald), or praised him for “vigor of style” (the National Intelligencer), even while condemning him for “vulgar immoralities” (the New York Methodist Quarterly Review). A clerical reviewer declared that Pierre was blameless in morals, and harmless throughout, while real critics had just condemned Melville's “irreverence” (the Albany Argus), his “irreverence and profane jesting” (the Worcester Palladium), his frequent “profaneness” and occasional “indelicacies” (the Boston Daily Evening Traveller), and his “insinuating licentiousness” (the Democratic Review), or else deplored his “primitive formation of profanity and indecency” (the New York Independent). A religious critic declared that the predominant end and aim of Pierre was evangelical piety. Melville had just been denounced by clerical critics or pious lay reviewers for his “heathenish talk” and “occasional thrusts against revealed religion” (John Bull), for “sneering at the truths of revealed religion” (New York Commercial Advertiser), for “a number of flings at religion” (the Methodist Quarterly Review), and for “irreligion and profanity” and “sneers at revealed religion and the burlesquing of sacred passages of Holy Writ” (the Churchman).16 Similar parallels abound: these are offered as readily available comments from the reviews and not necessarily the particular comments which Melville read, though he certainly read some of them.

This theory that Melville lost his once-superb control over his manuscript and began farcing it out with disastrously inappropriate scenes goes far toward explaining one of the most baffling aspects of the period of composition, the contradiction between Melville's apparent amity with Evert Duyckinck while in New York17 and his cold letter on 14 February 1852 to the “Editors of the Literary World”:18

You will please discontinue the two copies of your paper sent to J. M. Fly at Battleboro’ (or Greenbush), and to H. Melville at Pittsfield.

Whatever charges there may be outstanding for either or both copies, please send them to me, & they will receive attention.

Nothing in the recent issues of the magazine seems adequate to account for Melville's extraordinary rudeness, and no private communication between Melville and the Duyckincks at this time has been preserved, aside from Melville's hasty note while he was in town. We have tended to look for some public cause, as in Leon Howard's proposal that the February letter was “a delayed petulant reaction against parts of his friend Evert A. Duyckinck's review of Moby-Dick in the Literary World.19 Even the hedging “delayed” and “parts of” (after all, the review implicitly compared him to Shakespeare) do not account for the timing and the abruptness of Melville's simultaneous cancellation of subscription and friendship. Melville's action may have been caused by an event much more recent than the review, but discussing it requires another look backward.

Melville's resentment against the Duyckincks might never have surfaced so plainly without the combination of events in late 1851 and early 1852, but it had long been building. In a late (and presumably late-written) section of Mardi (chap. 180), Melville had first declared his independence of the Duyckinck circle, implying in the process just how much he must have resented Duyckinck's treating him not as potentially a great writer but as a sailor-author always on call to review nautical books or books of inland travel. On 12 February 1851, almost precisely a year before he cancelled his subscription to the Literary World, Melville had (not for the first time) refused a request from Evert:

How shall a man go about refusing a man?—Best be roundabout, or plumb on the mark?—I can not write the thing you want. I am in the humor to lend a hand to a friend, if I can;—but I am not in the humor to write the kind of thing you need—and I am not in the humor to write for Holden's Magazine. If I were to go on to give you all my reasons—you would pronounce me a bore, so I will not do that. You must be content to beleive that I have reasons, or else I would not refuse so small a thing.—As for the Daguerreotype (I spell the word right from your sheet) that’s what I can not send you, because I have none. And if I had, I would not send it for such a purpose, even to you.—Pshaw! you cry—& so cry I.—“This is intensified vanity, not true modesty or anything of that sort!”—Again, I say so too. But if it be so, how can I help it. The fact is, almost everybody is having his “mug” engraved nowadays; so that this test of distinction is getting to be reversed; and therefore, to see one's “mug” in a magazine, is presumptive evidence that he’s a nobody. So being as vain a man as ever lived; & beleiving that my illustrious name is famous throughout the world—I respectfully decline being oblivionated by a Daguerretype (what a devel of an unspellable word!)

Then Melville had gone on to say, “I trust you take me aright. If you dont’ I shall be sorry—that’s all.” Knowing in early 1852 that he still could not and would not scramble for attention in the magazines, Melville foresaw that literary tit-men like Duyckinck could destroy his career. Their olympian criticisms had retarded sales of Moby-Dick, and Melville must have had irrepressible inklings that his new manuscript contained passages more explosive than any in his earlier books, for all his desire to persuade himself that it would pass for “a regular romance.” But the event which impelled his Valentine's Day letter may have been less a reaction to the review of Moby-Dick in the Literary World than to Melville's own act of writing Duyckinck into Book 17 as the joint editor of the Captain Kidd Monthly, out to pirate Pierre's daguerreotype. Having written (or even come to the point of writing) the passage ridiculing Duyckinck, Melville may have felt that honesty demanded that he break the friendship. However, if this happened with no further explanation than a cancelled pair of subscriptions, the Duyckincks must have remained puzzled until they read Pierre. (They reviewed it with horror, especially at the hints of incest and the apparently atheistic moral of the Plinlimmon pamphlet, but wrote not a word of Books 17 and 18.) Although some mystery still remains, in our speculations we should remember that the event which caused Melville to break the friendship need not have been a new action of Evert Duyckinck's or even a delayed reaction on Melville's part to the November review: the planning, the writing, and the aftermath of writing Books 17 and 18 were momentous psychological events to Melville.

The aesthetic implications of this arraying of old and new evidence are analyzed in the collaborative Higgins-Parker study. For now, suffice it to say that by Christmas of 1851 Melville thought himself at least two-thirds through his dramatic analysis of the way an explosive tragic revelation may impel an exceptional human being into sudden and ambiguous mental growth; and he had pretty much convinced himself that the book would pass as sensational fiction even while embodying tragic profundities forbidden in the marketplace.20 Had he continued in the same vein, Pierre would have been one of the world's masterpieces, although it would probably have been scorned by the critics and readers of 1852. But during an interruption of his intense labor at least two demoralizing events occurred to compound the disruption of his work schedule: the Harpers refused to grant him a contract on terms as good as those for his earlier books, and Melville in his wrought-up state read many of the reviews of Moby-Dick, including some of the most hostile. Stung by the reviews and by the realization of his impotence against them, and very likely stung by the suspicion that, after all, his book could not succeed on the two levels as he had hoped, Melville was diverted from the exploration of Pierre's psyche into a psychological analysis of his own literary career. What he wrote either in New York or after his return to Pittsfield was often superb of its kind (Books 17 and 18 are masterpieces of literary satire, for instance) but disastrous for the book he had first conceived and had brought far on the way to completion in one sustained period of composition. The book as finished was much longer and much less unified than it would have been if Melville had retained his initial purpose and intensity of concentration.

Earlier critics and scholars have often been very near the truth. Lewis Mumford was wrong in saying that Pierre was both “conceived and written” in a “mood of defeat, foreboding, defiant candour”;21 in fact, only certain parts among those composed after early January are products of such a mood. Leon Howard is right in believing that Melville “conceived” the book in “unusually good spirits,”22 although he may be wrong in suspecting that Melville was seriously planning or writing it as early as September and October 1851. Howard was almost right in thinking that Melville's plans altered after (“during and after” is the safe formulation) his return from New York, but in my judgment wrong in thinking that the new mood led to more powerful writing than that before the trip. Howard was misled into thinking that Melville gave Allan instructions for the contract about Valentine's Day: in fact, Melville had discussed the contract with Allan and the Harpers well over a month before that. Howard was also misled into thinking that the unanticipated pages were added after the contract was signed: most of them, if not all, were written by then; but he was right in thinking that most of these pages had to do with Pierre as an author. The conjunction of old but inadequately-studied evidence (such as the relation of the reviews of Moby-Dick to Pierre) and new evidence (especially Allan Melville's letter of 21 January 1852) allows the story to be told with much greater accuracy than ever before. As an account of a writer at work, this is a poignant story enough, but its full significance cannot be comprehended until Melville's achievement in the first half of the book receives the sort of criticism it deserves. After Higgins and I have converted all skeptics to our sense of the novel's literary stature there will be ample time to claim that the greatest single tragedy in American literature is that Melville broke off work on his manuscript when he did in order to make a routine business trip to New York City.


  1. For a review of the controversy (in which Raymond Weaver, Lewis Mumford, Robert S. Forsythe, William Braswell, Harrison Hayford, and Leon Howard were the main participants) see my part of the “Historical Note” in the Northwestern-Newberry edition of Pierre, eds., Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker, and G. Thomas Tanselle (Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern Univ. Press and the Newberry Library, 1971), pp. 396-403. The only serious recent contribution to the debate is Robert Milder, “Melville's ‘Intentions’ in Pierre,Studies in the Novel, 6 (1974), 186-99. I disagree with most of Milder's conclusions, but we start with several of the same questions.

    For freedom to work out this new telling of an often-told story, I am grateful to the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. Merton M. Sealts, Jr., generously criticized an early draft. Over the last seven years Brian Higgins and I have been teaching Pierre to each other, and now we are writing a book about where and why it is good and where and how it fails. Our demonstration proceeds mainly by close reading of the text, but the aesthetic judgments from internal evidence are supported by the external evidence adduced in this article.

  2. There are good accounts of what Evert Duyckinck called Mrs. Morewood's maelstrom of hospitality. See especially Luther S. Mansfield, “Glimpses of Herman Melville's Life in Pittsfield, 1850-1851,” American Literature, 9 (1937), 26-48; Leon Howard, Herman Melville: A Biography (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1951), chaps. 7 and 8; and Eleanor Melville Metcalf, Herman Melville, Cycle and Epicycle (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1953), chap. 8. Good coverage of Melville's socializing in October and November 1851, before and after the birth of his son Stanwix, is in Metcalf, pp. 125-26.

  3. Godfrey Greylock [J. E. A. Smith], Taghconic; or Letters and Legends about Our Summer Home (Boston, 1852), as printed in Merton M. Sealts, Jr., The Early Lives of Melville (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1974), p. 195. Published about the end of September, 1852, Smith's account was written before he read Pierre; otherwise having mentioned Melville's use of the Pittsfield Elm in Moby-Dick he would surely have mentioned the use of the Balanced Rock in Book 7, as he did in the short biography he wrote for the Pittsfield Sun after Melville's death. See Early Lives, 145-47.

  4. A striking instance of the fusion of outer and inner landscape is the start of Book 6, “Isabel, and the First Part of the Story of Isabel.”

  5. The Letters of Herman Melville, eds., Merrell R. Davis and William H. Gilman (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1960), p. 139 (7 November) and p. 143 (17[?] November). Hereafter letters are quoted from this edition but normally cited only by their dates. Caution requires the reminder that Melville had expressed a very similar ambitiousness between the publication of Mardi and the decision to write the unambitious Redburn. See Letters, p. 83, especially the image of putting one leg forward ten miles, then having the other distance it.

    Several weeks later, on 8 January 1852, Melville claimed that Hawthorne's letter, by revealing to him “the part-&-part allegoricalness of the whole,” had altered the way he thought about Moby-Dick. As Harrison Hayford pointed out in “The Significance of Melville's ‘Agatha’ Letters,” ELH, 13 (1946), 299-310, Melville had already developed a theory that great works of literature could be simultaneously popular and profound, appealing to the masses while being truly understood only by a select few. Still, Hawthorne's special insight into Moby-Dick may have affected Melville's attitude toward Pierre: the book would—this time by conscious design—work on dual levels, being comprehensible and salable as a regular romance with stirring passions awork yet susceptible of profounder interpretation by readers such as Hawthorne, whose understanding of Moby-Dick had given Melville a “sense of unspeakable security.”

  6. This letter is in Jay Leyda, The Melville Log (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1951; rpt. with a Supplement, New York: Gordian Press, 1969), p. 441, and in Metcalf, Herman Melville, p. 133. The passage is quoted here from Metcalf, since the Log wrongly omits “so” before “engaged.” Later Melville might fairly have been described as a recluse, but the raillery in this letter can be comprehended only if one keeps in mind Sarah Morewood's compulsive socializing. As for the pun, involved as he had been with the manuscript, Melville had not escaped the triumphal progress through the country made by the Hungarian patriot Kossuth, an event which had all but monopolized space in American newspapers that month.

    Earlier in this letter is a passage which ominously parallels the response many reviewers had had and were to have toward Moby-Dick and which suggests that the climate of opinion in the Berkshires may have triggered Melville's aggressiveness toward conventional Christianity in Pierre: “Mr. Herman was more quiet than usual—still he is a pleasant companion at all times and I like him very much—Mr. Morewood now that he knows him better likes him the more—still he dislikes many of Mr. Hermans opinions and religious views—It is a pity that Mr. Melville so often in conversation uses irreverent language—he will not be popular in society here on that account—but this will not trouble him—I think he cares very little as to what others may think of him or his books so long as they sell well—”

  7. For proof of how short Melville then thought the city section would be, see the following paragraph. In visualizing the proportions of Pierre it helps to recall that in the Harper edition “The Journey and the Pamphlet” starts on p. 277 and the last page of the text is p. 495, with preliminary pages, including the preface, in roman numerals. I am assuming that the Saddle Meadows section was composed pretty much in the final order, or at least that Melville made few or no additions to it during the last weeks of his work on the book. In our longer study Higgins and I will examine the evidence for thinking that some of the sections set in the city may well have been juggled about before attaining their final positions.

  8. Metcalf, p. 134. The Log, p. 443, erroneously prints “Were you surprised. …” For checking this variant and the one mentioned in footnote 6, I am much indebted to Paul R. Rugen, Keeper of Manuscripts, the New York Public Library.

  9. Howard, p. 186. The best attempt to trace Melville's movements in late December 1851 and January 1852 is in the Letters, pp. 347-48, the note to Melville's letter to Evert Duyckinck conjecturally dated 9 January 1852. Normally precise, Davis and Gilman were not proof against the complexities of this period in Melville's life. The Morewoods did not return to New York on 29 December, as the editors say; they stayed on at Pittsfield for the New Year and returned on Monday, 5 January. (Mr. Rugen pointed out to me that Mrs. Morewood altered the date of her letter to George Duyckinck from 4 to 5 January. Perhaps she began it in Pittsfield and completed it in New York.) Mrs. Morewood did not expect to see Elizabeth Melville in New York on 5 January, as Davis and Gilman say. Knowing Mrs. Morewood's need for company, one can guess that her mention of remaining “quietly indoors” ever since her arrival might have taken her to midweek: probably the following “evening” she hoped to pass with Elizabeth was the eighth or ninth, which would still allow Elizabeth time to reach Boston by the tenth. Also, it is not Elizabeth's brother who recorded her presence with her children in Boston, but her sister-in-law. Furthermore, Melville's saying to Duyckinck that he was “engaged to go out of town tomorrow” does not mean he left for Pittsfield at the same time his wife went to Boston: the note specifies that he was going out of town only for the day. (Maybe he accompanied her and the boys to Boston, then returned immediately to New York.) Finally, “9 December” is a typo for “9 January,” and 21 January 1852 fell on a Wednesday, not a Friday! Although its terseness is appealing, one had better scrap the account in the Letters and make do with the less concise version offered here.

    We still know very little of what Melville did in town aside from the crucial business dealings discussed below. He gave a copy of Moby-Dick to his friend Dr. Robert Tomes on the fifth (see the Supplement to the revised edition of the Log, p. 930), wrote Mrs. Hawthorne on the eighth, and wrote Evert Duyckinck on the ninth, apparently, to say that he would be out of town all the next day: “I will be glad to call though at some other time—not very remote in the future, either.” It is quite possible that Melville ensconced himself to work on Pierre in the same third-story room (presumably at Allan's) where he had labored on Moby-Dick a few months before.

  10. Leyda describes this letter in Log, p. 445, as Allan Melville's “adjusting the details of the contract for Pierre,” and quotes the opening words about rendering an account as of 1 February. Leyda may not fully have realized the letter's significance in dating the composition of Pierre, and Howard and I in preparing the “Historical Note” neglected to question Leyda's description of it or to obtain a copy. The letter is quoted with the kind permission of the Harvard College Library. I am indebted to Carolyn Jakeman for help in obtaining and transcribing the letter and to W. H. Bond for permission to quote it here.

  11. The April statement is in Log, p. 410; the November statement in Log, p. 438. For details of the earlier contracts see the various “Historical Notes” in the Northwestern-Newberry Edition as well as Harrison Hayford, “Contract: Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville,” Proof, 1 (1971), iii-vi, 1-7. For a detailed analysis of the contract for Pierre (including the surviving draft passages) see Hershel Parker, “Contract: Pierre, by Herman Melville,” forthcoming in Proof, 5 (1976); the draft indicates that Allan's first impression was that the book was more likely to run shorter than 360 pages rather than longer.

  12. Of course, it is misleading to speak of 150 unexpected pages. Melville did not simply write the amount he had planned from the first, then write 150 pages more for insertion at various points. He must have failed to write certain scenes he had projected—and had prepared the reader to expect—and have failed to elaborate certain scenes as fully as he had intended. Therefore along with the parts not planned from the outset, the book, or the second half of it, also contains the condensed presentation of some scenes which had been in Melville's mind all along.

    Melville's compulsion to work his new preoccupations into the manuscript at the cost of lengthening it was at war with his best pecuniary interests. He had reason for thinking that every few pages he added beyond 360 would cause the Harpers to add several copies to the number they had to sell before he began accruing royalties. If the Harpers were to hold him to the letter of the contract, Melville probably realized, the more he wrote the more he would lose. As it turned out, they did not do so. In Pierre, the “Historical Note,” p. 378, Leon Howard explains: “Although the contract provided for an increase or decrease in the number of copies required to pay the cost of stereotyping if the book was not of the estimated length, and although a large number of copies (150) were given away, the publishers only claimed the first 1,190 for costs. It was probably a just claim in view of the increased retail price, but, within the terms of the contract, they could have claimed the proceeds from 400 more. …”

  13. There is some internal evidence that Books 17 and 18 (possibly even the whole plan to have Pierre become an author) were not part of the original plan for the book but were added under the new, autobiographical impulse. Certain passages in “Young America in Literature” and elsewhere indicate that Melville had been away from his manuscript (physically or psychologically or both) long enough simply to have forgotten what he had earlier written, a distressing sort of lapse in what had begun as his most thoroughly plotted book. Higgins and I will elaborate on these internal contradictions; Higgins's forthcoming study of “The Author and Hero in Melville's Pierre” painstakingly considers that judicious distance and what happened to narrow it.

    One more point: I do not mean to imply that Books 17 and 18 were necessarily written before all the subsequent Books. They probably were not, but their inclusion led Melville to damage the unity of passages which were already drafted.

  14. Melville might seem to be recalling the Protestant clerical and lay attacks on Typee and Omoo in satirizing the clerical compliments paid to Pierre's effusions, and perhaps he is; but even here the language attributed to the fictional reviewers is best seen as precisely the reverse of what was being said of Moby-Dick.

    For quotations from the reviews of Melville's first five books we are still dependent on the Log and, especially, Hugh W. Hetherington's unreliable Melville's Reviewers (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1961), though certain reviews have been reprinted in my Recognition of Herman Melville (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1967) and still more in Watson G. Branch's Melville: The Critical Heritage (London and Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974). Melville's contemporary reception is also discussed in each of the Northwestern-Newberry “Historical Notes.” Before this article appears the Melville Society will have published a booklet by Steven Mailloux and Hershel Parker, Checklist of Melville Reviews, which is based on new research as well as dozens of older reports of reviews.

  15. The quotations in the next paragraph are representative of many that Melville could have seen during his stay in New York City. They do not constitute a representative sampling of the range of commentary on Moby-Dick, however; Melville was ignoring many points the reviewers were making, especially anything said in praise. The quotations may readily be located in Moby-Dick as Doubloon, eds., Hershel Parker and Harrison Hayford (New York: W. W. Norton, 1970), or (in the case of the quotations from the New York Independent and New York Churchman) in Hershel Parker, “Five Reviews not in Moby-Dick as Doubloon,ELN [English Language Notes], 9 (1972), 182-85. The quotation from Harper's New Monthly Magazine is not from the review in the December issue but the commentary on the British reception in the January issue. A melancholy addendum: The reviews in the Athenaeum and the Spectator were probably the two British reviews most widely distributed in this country (mainly through reprintings). As bad luck had it, they were among the most hostile, and in a final ironic twist their justifiable complaints about the bungled catastrophe influenced opinion in the United States, where they did not apply at all to the text being sold and read. (No one knows why there was no “Epilogue” in The Whale, but I am convinced that its absence was not deliberate. Maybe the American proof stuck to the wrapping paper, being at the bottom of the bundle sent to England, and got lost.)

  16. These accusations, however well grounded, would probably have caused anguish in any household in the country. The anguish in the Melville household may have been intensified by the memory that Elizabeth's father, Lemuel Shaw, the Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court, had become the last judge to sentence a man to jail for blasphemy in that state. At the sentencing of Abner Kneeland in 1836 Shaw had offered this as the legal definition of blasphemy: “speaking evil of the Deity with an impious purpose to derogate from the divine majesty, and to alienate the minds of others from the love and reverence of God. It is purposely using words concerning God, calculated and designed to impair and destroy the reverence, respect, and confidence due to him. … It is a wilful and malicious attempt to lessen men's reverence of God” (See Leonard W. Levy, The Law of the Commonwealth and Chief Justice Shaw [Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1957], p. 52).

  17. As long as we thought the unexpected pages (including Books 17 and 18) were added after 20 February, we were not wholly free to look for any motive for the Valentine's Day letter other than the much earlier (and basically laudatory) review.

  18. See Letters, pp. 122-23, for why Melville should have been uncertain of the address of his old friend Fly.

  19. Pierre, “Historical Note,” p. 376.

  20. Melville probably did not admit to himself until late in the composition that he might fail in making the book both popular and profound, but in Book 26 the accusatory letter from Pierre's publishers, Steel, Flint, & Asbestos, can hardly be construed as anything but Melville's self-accusation: “Sir:—You are a swindler. Upon the pretense of writing a popular novel for us, you have been receiving cash advances from us, while passing through our press the sheets of a blasphemous rhapsody, filched from the vile Atheists, Lucian and Voltaire.”

    It is important to remember that Melville's mood of “lamentable rearward aggressiveness” (his own term in Book 9 for Pierre's behavior toward Falsgrave) may have lasted a relatively short time. He may have passed out of that particular mood well before he finished the book, though the damage had been done. In the months between the completion of the book and its publication nothing in his recorded behavior suggests that he was weighed down by a sense of guilt and trepidation. Both his reckless behavior and his self-accusatory mood may have been brief indeed, so brief that he all but forgot that he had anything to feel guilty about.

  21. Lewis Mumford, Herman Melville (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1929), p. 200.

  22. Ibid., p. 183.

Carol Colclough Strickland (essay date 1976)

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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, since its hero's vision is polarized. Pierre's journey through the course of the novel is from one extreme position to another, from optimism to pessimism, faith to cynicism, dependence to autonomy, joy to despair. Melville embodies these shifts of stance in the imagery of opposites: summer and winter, light and dark, country and city,2 meadow and mountain, morning and evening.3 But there is one further opposition and one apposition which enhance the complexity of Melville's design in Pierre. He consistently counterpoises the green fertility of vegetation with the arid intractability of stone.4 And, apposite to the novel's central theme, the imagery of marble permeates Pierre, linking many of the oppositions and illustrating Melville's message which so agonizingly eludes Pierre: that the dualities such as light and dark, good and evil, Lucy and Isabel, as well as the perpetual strife between the human heart and head, are not irreconcilable at all but are inseparable parts of the whole continuum of life.

Pierre's two paramours, Lucy and Isabel, illustrate Melville's tactic of presenting two apparent opposites which are fused to make one whole through the marble imagery. No two characters could seem more opposite. The ethereal, sexless Lucy, who is said to belong “to the regions of an infinite day,”5 is associated with everything light, bright, and angelical. Her name suggests “lucid,” and Pierre's initial relation with her is as clear and unclouded as Melville's depiction of Lucy herself, bathed “in golden loveliness and light” (p. 83). In contrast, the sensual Isabel, who possesses “extraordinary physical magnetism” (p. 180), is described as literally and figuratively dark; her scenes with Pierre take place at night or twilight. Isabel is the very opposite of Lucy's transparent lucidity, for her origins and the thoughts and emotions she arouses in Pierre are veiled in mystery, just as Isabel is veiled by her ebony hair.

Melville describes a vision Pierre has of the two girls which both reveals their antithetical symbolism and foreshadows their synthesis: “For an instant, the fond, all-understood blue eyes of Lucy displaced the as tender, but mournful and inscrutable dark glance of Isabel. He seemed placed between them, to choose one or the other; then both seemed his; but into Lucy's eyes there stole half of the mournfulness of Isabel's, without diminishing hers” (p. 157). The “all-understood” world which Lucy represents is the fertile lowland world of Saddle Meadows, of joy and serene summer mornings, of repose and rural sunshine. It is the realm of rationality about which the immature Pierre naively rhapsodizes at the beginning of the novel: “It is a flawless, speckless, fleckless beautiful world throughout; joy now, and joy forever!” (p. 85).

In the “inscrutable” world to which Isabel introduces Pierre, dark, unknown forces of the unconscious and the undecipherable mysteries of metaphysics reign. It is Isabel's letter which first impels Pierre to look for the dark truth beneath the “flawless” surface of his life at Saddle Meadows and to discover his father's, his mother's, and his own weaknesses. Thus, as opposed to Lucy, Isabel is associated with the arid, stony, urban environment, with the bitter winter, the dark night, and with Pierre's intellectual anguish.

Yet, as different as Isabel and Lucy appear to be, they are linked through Melville's use of stone and marble imagery. Lucy represents the whiteness of the marble. She is variously described as a “snowy, marble statue” (p. 233), “marble-white” (p. 370), a “marble girl” (p. 400), “transparently immaculate, without shadow of flaw or vein” (p. 357). But Pierre needs a lesson in petrology. Just as he must learn that the world is not “flawless, speckless, fleckless,” he must recognize the painful truth of Melville's cry: “Why in the noblest marble pillar that stands beneath the all-comprising vault, ever should we descry the sinister vein?” (p. 135).

Just as the purest marble contains traces of other minerals, giving marble its distinctive coloration of contrasts, so Isabel represents the black vein in the white marble. Pierre's friend, Charlie Millthorpe, notes just such a dark vein in Pierre: “There was ever a black vein in this Glendinning; and now that vein is swelled …” (p. 400). His prophecy is fulfilled when he comments on Pierre's suicide at the book's conclusion, “The dark vein's burst …” (p. 405). Isabel's identification with the dark vein is made clear, for it is her black hair which envelops Pierre as she pronounces the final words over him: “‘All's o’er, and ye know him not!’ … and her whole form sloped sideways, and she fell upon Pierre's heart, and her long hair ran over him, and arbored him in ebon vines” (p. 405).

The symmetry of Isabel's mirror-image relationship with Lucy is also revealed in this passage, for Lucy, in the naive ignorance of Saddle Meadows, had longed to be able to say to others, “They know him not;—I only know my Pierre” (p. 61). And, contrary to Isabel's “ebon vines” which now enclose Pierre, Lucy is associated with green vines, called by Pierre “green heart-strings” (p. 359), wreathing her easel. The fact that these “green heart-strings” are stripped from Lucy's easel when she comes to the city and that Isabel's black vines encircle his heart demonstrates Pierre's failure to keep the forces that Lucy and Isabel represent in equilibrium and his inability to perceive their inextricability.

This dualism is portrayed in the depiction of the mountain which is simultaneously the appealing Delectable Mountain and, from another perspective, the terrifying Mount of the Titans. Lucy and Isabel, the Delectable Mountain and Mount of the Titans, as well as all the other polarities of the novel, are like the “two mutually absorbing shapes” Pierre cites from Dante's Inferno, neither “double now, / Nor only one!” (p. 111). Thus, too, can the forces which contend for loyalty in the human soul neither resolve into complete separateness nor fuse homogeneously into one. Both the catnip and the amaranth compete for dominion on the mountain. Lucy, who represents the light of the heart, domestic tranquillity, and knowledge that is readily comprehensible to man, is the green catnip, “man's earthly household peace” (p. 386). Isabel, the girl of dark mystery who spurs Pierre to his recondite speculations, is the sterile amaranth, emblem of man's “ever-encroaching appetite for God” (p. 386).

The fact that Isabel is now associated with the whiteness of the amaranth, the color previously ascribed to Lucy, shows that Melville finally conceives of the two as one entity. Indeed, white is here invested with all the ambiguity and complexity of “the whiteness of the whale” in Moby Dick. For white, besides its prior association with the spotless Lucy, also describes flawed characters, such as Pierre's father, the equivocating Reverend Falsgrave, and Plotinus Plinlimmon, the advocate of expediency.6

Thus, it appears overly simplistic to assume that white is the color of purity and black its opposite, just as Pierre errs in facilely terming Lucy and Isabel his “Good Angel and Bad Angel” (p. 403). The separate attitudes associated with both Isabel and Lucy provide an incomplete outlook; only together do they make a whole. The title of Book IX reveals this indissoluble synthesis of the forces represented by the two girls: “More Light, and the Gloom of That Light. More Gloom, and the Light of That Gloom” (p. 195). Lucy Tartan's name also hints of this truth, for, like marble, a tartan always consists of more than one color.

It is Pierre's ignorance of the mixed elements in himself and all humanity which causes his career of grief. His conception of his father, who is consistently characterized in terms of stone and marble imagery, is an example. And, since Pierre's name means “stone” in French, the implications associated with his father's character should apply to Pierre also.

Pierre, in the ignorance of immaturity, first conceives of his dead father as a perfect saint. In Pierre's heart is enshrined “the perfect marble form of his departed father; without blemish, unclouded, snow-white, and serene …” (p. 93). When Pierre discovers his father's alleged iniquity, however, he completely reverses this idealized image of his father and of the world of Saddle Meadows. Pierre is incapable of moderation in his appraisals, and the violence of his reaction against his father is at the other pole from his former adulation.

The two extreme versions of Pierre's father are represented by the two differing portraits, which should have earlier given Pierre an inkling of the two sides of his father's personality. But Pierre is unable to affirm simultaneously these inseparable light and dark elements of human nature.7 Pierre had failed to see the dark veins of sin and human weakness beneath the “snow-white” surface of his father's memory. After rejecting the saintly image of his father, he then sees him as completely blackened with sin.

At the end of the novel Pierre has allowed the darkness to supplant entirely the whiteness in his outlook on life, to the point that his eyes literally no longer can tolerate the light. He refuses to live in the holistic world of black and white mankind; he cannot view his father and himself as both black-and-white but insists on judging conduct through the perspective of either / or extremes. Pierre cannot admit that the white, idealized version of his father, symbolized by the world of Lucy and light, is valid only when fused with, not replaced by, the darker knowledge of human sin represented by Isabel, and vice versa.

The parable of the mythical Enceladus makes clear this mixed heritage of all humanity. Enceladus, whose fate and aspirations are identical with Pierre's, was the offspring of both heaven and earth. His claim to divine parentage made him assault the heavens for admission “to regain his paternal birthright” (p. 389), but the taint of his terrestrial mother kept him in bondage on earth. His fate, as well as Pierre's, was adumbrated by Melville in the very beginning of the book in the description of the ruins of Palmyra: “the proud stone that should have stood among the clouds, Time left abased beneath the soil” (p. 28).

Pierre, too, feels himself prompted by inner divinity, when he undertakes his course of Christ-like self-sacrifice for Isabel. But he, too, fails to escape his earthly manacles and ends paralyzed in a stony prison. Pierre must acknowledge that, “though charged with the fire of all divineness, his containing thing was made of clay” (pp. 134-135) when he realizes that his heavenly aspirations, his struggle to be completely virtuous, are partially motivated by incestuous desire for Isabel. Striving to be god-like, Pierre finds himself all too humanly fallible.

Yet, to the end, he resists capitulating to the knowledge of the inextricable good and evil, divinity and mortality, in himself and all humanity. In a final effort to escape the ignominious bonds of his mortal body, Pierre commits suicide, even at the point of death refusing to admit that he is an underling to God's decrees.

Pierre's assumption of a god-like role, first by attempting to practice the dictates of Christ without compromise, and then by seeking to penetrate the mysteries of existence, puts him in direct opposition to the recommendations of Plinlimmon's pamphlet. This tract raises the central philosophical question expounded by this allegory of the human soul, caught between the warring claims of its heavenly father, God, and its terrestrial mother, the world. The pamphlet urges man to accept the limitations imposed by the fact of his mortality.

The imagery Melville employs throughout the novel which shows opposites not as eternally separate and mutually exclusive but as linked points on a single continuum may appear to indicate that Melville feels such relativism to be the solution for Pierre's dipolar oscillation between extremes. But the difficulty here lies in the fact that Plinlimmon ignores the “heaven-aspiring” component in man and capitulates wholly to the “terrestrial taint” (p. 389), to borrow terms from the Enceladus analogy again. Melville insists upon “the organic blended heavenliness and earthliness of Pierre, another mixed, uncertain, heaven-aspiring, but still not wholly earth-emancipated mood” (p. 389; italics mine).

In the description of Enceladus Melville offers Pierre only two extreme alternatives and ignores the possibility of the compromising, middle way espoused by Plinlimmon: “Wherefore whoso storms the sky gives best proof he came from thither! But whatso crawls contented in the moat before that crystal fort, shows it was born within that slime, and there forever will abide” (p. 389). Pierre as the soul of man has only two choices: to be a stolid, ignoble creature (denoted by “it,” “whatso”) in the slime of earth or to be a human being (characterized by the words “whoso,” “he”) perpetually trying, and perpetually failing, to escape his humanity and gain full divinity. Henry Murray is correct in saying that the moral of this book “is that there is no moral. …”8

Thus, like Plinlimmon's pamphlet, Melville's book “seems more the excellently illustrated re-statement of a problem, than the solution of the problem itself” (p. 243). And perhaps this sense of incompleteness is one source of many readers' and critics' dissatisfaction with the novel. While it is true that the eddying complexities of Pierre approximate the ambiguities of life with a vengeance, one expects internal clarity and order from a carefully crafted work of art.

Melville seems of two minds about Pierre; he has made it half comedy and half tragedy, half parody and half serious philosophy.9 Finally, Melville stubbornly refuses to deliver any answers to the reader, though the carefully constructed framework of imagery permeating the book implies a Hawthornian answer of acceptance of the mixed nature of humanity, where good is never absolute and evil never absent. The synthetic fusion, as in variegated marble, of the dichotomous images of the novel implies that good and evil, man's heavenly aspirations and mortal weaknesses, can viably co-exist in human nature.

The fused dichotomous imagery of fertility and aridity also demonstrates how the imagery of the novel implies what its denouement denies. The green vegetation of vines and flowers represented by Lucy and the summery, rural milieu of Saddle Meadows is opposed to the sterile stone represented by Pierre's devotion to Isabel in an urban, wintery environment. Isabel's face is often compared to Gorgon's (pp. 73, 91), though Pierre denies the correspondence when she asks him directly, “‘Tell me, do I blast where I look? is my face Gorgon's?’” (p. 222). Pierre replies: “‘Nay, sweet Isabel; but it hath a more sovereign power; that turned to stone; thine might turn white marble into mother's milk’” (p. 222). This prediction is ironically negated in the end of the book, however, when Pierre wrests the poison from Isabel's bosom with which he kills himself. He then concludes that Isabel's “mother's milk” is instead “death-milk” (p. 403). And Isabel's face does indeed turn Pierre to stone, for his dedication to her, and thence to the mysteries of existence, turns him against the glad joys of life and isolates him from common humanity until, as Melville had predicted after Pierre read Isabel's letter, “his petrifying heart dropped hollowly within him, as a pebble down Carisbrooke well” (p. 198).

Thus, Pierre's devotion to the forces Isabel represents, his antitheodicean speculations, necessitate his total denial of the forces of vitality symbolized by Lucy. He must give up l’allegro for il penseroso, the country for the city, Lucy's transparency for Isabel's mystery. And this preoccupation with the dark rather than the light is a life-negating process. For Pierre, extreme alternatives are mutually exclusive rather than symbiotic.

But Melville unites, as Pierre is unable to, the imagery of the two opposites, green growth and sterile stone, when he describes the rocks on the Mount of the Titans: “… for the rocks, so barren in themselves, distilled a subtile moisture, which fed with greenness all things that grew about their igneous marge” (p. 385). Melville had noted in the beginning of the book that “green is the peculiar signet of all-fertile Nature herself. … For the most mighty of nature's laws is this, that out of Death she brings Life” (p. 29). Such imagery suggests that it is possible to live with the wisdom that is woe, to unite the antagonistic facets of human nature.

For, even in Pierre's stone prison of his egotism and pride, “the stone cheeks of the walls were trickling” (p. 402). Could this moisture, too, yield life in inhospitable stone? Melville describes the Enceladus rock itself as “turbaned with upborne moss” (p. 387). The implication of the union of stone and vegetation imagery is that man can live as a hybrid of opposites, of “organic blended heavenliness and earthliness.” Chastening self-knowledge could yield new growth rather than result in self-destruction. But Melville undercuts this possibility when he says Pierre was unable to gain comfort and caution from the Enceladus myth, unable to “leap the final barrier of gloom … flog this stubborn rock as Moses his, and force even aridity itself to quench his painful thirst” (p. 388).

Perhaps the thirst-quenching moisture would have been “chill as the last dews of death” (p. 385), as was the water on the Mount of the Titans. But perhaps the painful awareness Pierre gained of his human limitations would permit him to live and grow with true self-knowledge, recognizing that he is neither completely good nor completely evil but capable of both. The stony Mount of the Titans exhibited such a renewal of life out of death when it “put forth a thousand flowers [both amaranth and catnip], whose fragile smiles disguised his [Enceladus'] ponderous load” (p. 389). But in the world of Pierre's mind, as in Eliot's waste land, stone yields no fructifying water but only despair.

Though the imagery of marble combines light and dark elements and Melville fuses the opposites of fertility and aridity, Pierre cannot similarly unite the antithetical forces which compete for his allegiance. Unable to cope with his divergent desires, he is sundered by their opposite attractions. Herman Melville's novel Pierre exhibits a similar bifurcation; the meshed imagery of opposites implies a hopeful acceptance of imperfect reality, while the hero's bombastic defiance urges continued futile rebellion against the ignoble fact of checkered human nature. Thus, Pierre looks both forward and backward in the Melville canon: backward to Captain Ahab's “ungodly, god-like” usurpation of divine prerogative in Moby Dick and forward to Captain Vere's awareness in Billy Budd10 of the impossibility of perfect human justice and his faith in ultimate acquittal by divine judgment. In Pierre Melville can neither laud nor condemn wholeheartedly Ahab's indomitable questing spirit or Vere's resolute and resonant humanity. And there is no Starbuck, no Ishmael to perceive the hero's valiance while lamenting his error.

“Pierre's world is gone,” as F. O. Matthiessen notes, “but, contrary to Shakespeare's method, nothing rises to take its place and assert continuity.”11 The kindly, complacent, pompous Charlie Millthorpe hardly qualifies as Horatio or Fortinbras. Melville's unwillingness to take a positive stand for some character or solution, rather than merely against the opposite extremes of Pierre and Plinlimmon, may account for the reader's frequent failure to recognize the novel's satiric intentions. True satire is basically optimistic. Its end is to expose folly as a first step toward improvement. But Melville dooms Pierre to failure. He never allows his hero even the possibility of merging the extreme alternatives which split him, although Melville accomplishes this feat himself in the marble and stone/verdure imagery.

Thus, the novel provides no hope for the future and no proposed philosophic solution. Pierre's suffering, without the possibility of amelioration, is pathetic rather than satiric. Pierre's failure cannot even be presumed to be Melville's unequivocal recommendation of how not to live, for often Melville seems to share Pierre's sense of his own superior vocation and scorn for the other characters.

The imagistic patterns of Pierre provide a framework of coherence which shows the extent of Melville's effort in the book, but his ambivalence toward the hero undercuts this accomplishment. Melville's book, like Pierre's, is inconsistent and incomplete. It portrays the catastrophe of perpetual vacillation between resistance and resignation while never resolving its own vacillations.


  1. For example, William Braswell, in “The Satirical Temper of Melville's Pierre,American Literature, VII (Jan., 1936), 424-438 and “The Early Love Scenes of Melville's Pierre,” American Literature, XXII. (Nov., 1950), 283-289, discusses the novel as satire. Raymond J. Nelson, “The Art of Herman Melville: The Author of Pierre,Yale Review, LIX (Winter, 1970), 197-214, cites specific objects of parody in Pierre.

  2. See James Polk, “Melville and the Idea of the City,” University of Toronto Quarterly, XLI (Summer, 1972), 277-292, on the country-city thematic opposition.

  3. Michael Davitt Bell, in “The Glendinning Heritage: Melville's Literary Borrowings in Pierre,Studies in Romanticism, XII (Fall, 1973), 746, notes, “Pierre is built, thematically and structurally, upon a series of interrelated dichotomies. …” Richard Chase, “An Approach to Melville,” in Psychoanalysis and American Fiction, ed. Irving Malin (New York, 1965), pp. 111-120, also mentions the novel's thematic oppositions. R. K. Gupta, “Imagery in Melville's Pierre,Kyushu American Literature, No. 10 (Dec., 1967), 41-49, presents a salient discussion of imagery.

  4. H. Bruce Franklin's chapter on Pierre, in The Wake of the Gods: Melville's Mythology (Stanford, Calif., 1963), contains the most thorough discussion of stone imagery. Saburo Yamaya, in “The Stone Image in Melville's Pierre,Studies in English Literature (Japan), XXXIV (1957), 31-57, argues that Pierre's identification with a stone implies his gradual transcendence of earthly concerns and attainment of Nirvana.

  5. Herman Melville, Pierre; or, The Ambiguities, with a Foreword by Lawrance Thompson (New York, 1949; rpt., 1964), p. 24. Subsequent citations refer to this edition and appear in parentheses in the text.

  6. James Kissane, in “Imagery, Myth, and Melville's Pierre,American Literature, XXVI (Jan., 1955), 569, believes that the image of whiteness, associated with both the spotless Lucy and Pierre's sinning father, symbolizes the ambiguity and relativism of good and evil.

  7. Merlin Bowen, The Long Encounter: Self and Experience in the Writings of Herman Melville (Chicago, 1960), p. 161.

  8. Henry A. Murray, introduction to Pierre; or, The Ambiguities (New York, 1949), p. xvi. (Italics in original.)

  9. Newton Arvin, Herman Melville (New York, 1950), p. 231, though denying Melville's intentional parody in Pierre, notes, “there is something in the violence, the overheatedness, the hysterical forcing of now one note, now another, in the novel, that inescapably suggests a doubleness in the mind of the man who wrote it, a bitter distaste of and disbelief in his own book in the very process of writing it. …” One senses Melville's ambivalence in the fact that Pierre is depicted alternately as ludicrous and heroic, the object of Melville's ridicule and grudging admiration.

  10. Billy Budd was begun in the 1880's. It was unfinished at Melville's death in 1891 and not published until 1924.

  11. F. O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (New York, 1941), p. 469.

Brian Higgins and Hershel Parker (essay date 1978)

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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 in the lacy toils of Pierre. In the earlier book, certain obligatory scenes, the staple of any whaling story, had to be converted into chapters which would retain their sturdy informativeness while advancing Melville's higher purposes. At best, as in ‘The Try-Works’, routine exposition was transformed into intense philosophical drama. Much the same way, Melville in Pierre inherited a Gothic toybox stuffed almost as full as Poe's with mysterious family relationships, enigmatical recollections of long-past events, suspenseful unravelling of dark, long-kept secrets, and landscapes symbolical of mental states, but once again in the best passages the trivial subgenre bore up under the weight of intense psychological and philosophical drama.

While Moby-Dick succeeded for many of its first readers, even if only as a reliable source of cetological information, Pierre failed disastrously on all levels. Yet Melville's basic preoccupations and aesthetic strategies are almost identical in both, except that in Pierre he shifted considerably from metaphysics toward psychology. Many of the themes of Moby-Dick recur, among them the determinant power of wayward moods over human destiny and the tragic necessity that loftier souls hurl themselves against the unresponsive gods in order to assert their own godhood; many of the images recur, especially the sliding, gliding aboriginal phantoms which link Fedallah and Isabel as embodiments of the Unconscious.2 Stirred by these or other powerful elements, whether or not related to Moby-Dick, the best readers of Pierre have paid tribute to the heroic intellectual tasks Melville undertook in it. Yet of them only E. L. Grant Watson thought those heroic tasks had been successfully accomplished,3 while others more often admired the endeavour, whatever they construed it to be, but praised only one aspect or another of the performance. This critical ambivalence toward Pierre is captured in the concluding assessment of the Historical Note in the Northwestern-Newberry Edition: ‘none of Melville's other “secondary” works has so regularly evoked from its most thorough critics the sense that they are in the presence of grandeur, however flawed’.4 But scholars and critics have not been able to define the precise nature of the book's grandeur or the precise nature of the flaws which prevent it from being the masterpiece which Moby-Dick indisputably is. The problem of how Pierre fails can be answered only by rigorous attention to both biographical and aesthetic evidence. Our answers derived from documentary evidence are presented elsewhere; here we focus on evidence from within the book itself.5

To understand Melville's achievements and failures in Pierre, especially the unusual complexity of its plottedness, the air it initially breathes of being all worked out in advance, requires going backwards beyond Moby-Dick. Though real-life adventure dictated the simple, suspenseful outline of Typee, the book is marred by confusing shifts in narrative attitude, and several late-written chapters betray Melville's pragmatic necessity to overlay useful information onto his slim set of personal actions and perceptions. Omoo is much more of a piece, but its secure point of view does not wholly disguise the tinkering process by which Melville added chapters or parts of chapters as he gained access to certain sourcebooks or became absorbed with a particular topic. The first chapters of Mardi reveal far greater literary control than Typee and Omoo, but much of the book is notoriously ‘chartless’. Far from being written consecutively according to a well-designed plan, the book reflects Melville's altering interests, as when the lengthy section of political satire was plumped down into a manuscript already thought of as completed. The latter half of Redburn is less unified than the first, despite the power of individual scenes. Most critics agree that an alteration in the point of view blurs the distance between Melville and his narrator and between the narrator and his younger self. As with Mardi, Melville seems to have drafted an ending of Redburn before inserting lengthy sections of new material, possibly even adding a major character. In White-Jacket Melville skilfully deals out through the book little sets of chapters concerning the Jacket, flogging, places visited or passed in the voyage, and chapters anatomizing the man-of-war and its inhabitants. His narrator this time is close enough akin to himself to speak the most profound thoughts Melville could think on subjects such as human societies, and even shares his own lesser crotchets and compulsions. Still more ambitious than White-Jacket, with epic and tragic drama the models rather than a somewhat perfunctorily allegorical anatomy, Moby-Dick triumphs over its grabbag qualities. Melville's narrator is once again all but indistinguishable from the author in his patterns of thought, and as much more complex than White Jacket as Melville himself had become during the intervening year or two. Still, Melville's letters to Hawthorne show that however strong the ‘pervading thought that impelled the book’, the completion of Moby-Dick involved last-minute patchwork. After the first half or so had gone to press, chapters or parts of chapters were inserted here and there in the latter parts of the manuscript. Unlike his first three books, Moby-Dick triumphantly sustains its power to the end. By Moby-Dick, however, an ominous pattern had emerged: when Melville failed, it was not at the outset of a book, but later on, when the initial impulse had faded.

We are convinced that in Pierre Melville knew what he wanted to do when he set out to write and that for many chapters (and entire ‘Books’) he did very much what he had planned, exhibiting an intellectual power and artistic control which before this he had manifested only in Moby-Dick. Leon Howard thought that Pierre was ‘possibly the most carefully planned’ of all Melville's novels, even though he also thought that Melville's attitude toward his plot changed after the eighth Book and that he subsequently made unexpected enlargements.6 But we believe the evidence shows that what changed first was not Melville's attitude toward his plot but toward his literary career: his unsuccessful efforts to peddle his manuscript on the good terms he had previously enjoyed coincided with his reading some of the most condemnatory reviews of Moby-Dick, so that he had good reason to feel that his career might well be brought to an abrupt end. Swiftly reconceiving the plot, Melville used the unfinished manuscript as an outlet for his all-absorbing preoccupation with authorship, not only introducing unplanned-for elements but also condensing or otherwise altering parts already written or projected. Still, signs of Melville's careful planning undeniably remain evident everywhere throughout the first half of Pierre and survive even later, especially at the level of plot details, just where he had never manifested anything approaching a compulsive tidiness.7 A few awkwardnesses can be adduced,8 but by and large the plotting in Pierre (at least in the first half) is intricate and accurate, and of a novelistic kind new to Melville. To the end of Book XIV, ‘The Journey and the Pamphlet’, action taking place in the novel's present occupies just four days, with Pierre and his companions leaving Saddle Meadows early on the morning of the fifth; lengthy flashbacks to different periods in the past illuminate and explain developments in the present. Care in plotting is also obvious—indeed, deliberately over-obvious—both in the elaborate predictions of events to come and in the complex set of cross references which lace parts of the book together.

The predictions come thick and fast at the outset, where one would expect them if they were going to come at all. We are led to expect that the lives of Pierre and his mother will divide (5), and that after Pierre's interior development he will not prize his ancestry so much (6). His aspirations clearly will be thwarted by Time (8), and his ‘special family distinction’ will be important to his singularly developed character and life career (12). Fate will very likely knock him off his pedestal (12), he will become philosophical (13), and will become a thoroughgoing democrat, even a Radical one (13). The predictions continue: Nature will prove ambiguous to Pierre in the end (13); Lucy will long afterwards experience far different ‘flutterings’ from those at Saddle Meadows (26); Pierre will never regain his lost sense of an undisturbed moral beauty in the world (65); his crawling under the Memnon Stone will later hold immense significance for him (135); in aftertimes with Isabel, Pierre will often recall his first magnetic night with her (151); Pierre, Isabel, and Delly will never return to Saddle Meadows once they leave (203). After the departure from Saddle Meadows the predictions diminish, as they naturally would past the middle of the book, when predictions are being fulfilled, not made. The pamphlet which Pierre reads in the coach may influence his conduct (210); he will later understand the utility of Machiavellian policy though not have the heart to use it (222); his ties to Glen will involve in the end the most serious consequences (224); and he will learn that the world has fire and sword for contemporary grandeur (264). On reflective scrutiny a few of these predictions seem a trifle misleading, as when the reader may gather (5) that Pierre's and his mother's lives will divide then continue apart for longer than actually happens. Still other predictions (such as those at page 135 and page 151) seem to promise a more patient following of Pierre's river of mind than occurs after he arrives at the city and becomes settled at the Apostles'. But the predictions usually come true in unambiguous fashion. If the early chapters now stand roughly in order of their composition, they indicate that Melville had much of the basic plot well outlined from the beginning. The rather thick-strewn predictions do not, however, prove that no radical new elements were introduced into the plot. Curiously enough, despite all the fulfilled predictions there is nothing which conclusively proves that Melville intended from the outset to have Pierre become a writer once he was exiled from his home. In fact, the pattern of predictions makes it seem most likely that if Melville had had any such plan he would have signalled it at intervals throughout the Saddle Meadows section. Moreover, Melville may not have elaborated the city episodes in the ways he had once intended. These limitations aside, the predictions do furnish at least some evidence as to the unusual degree of Melville's control over his material.

Equal care in plotting is revealed in the way much of the book is tied together by cross references such as those to Nature's bounty toward Pierre (13-14, 257); what Pierre and Lucy believe about lovers' secrecies (37, 81, 309); Lucy's easel (39, 318); the will of Pierre's father (55, 179); the first paragraph of Isabel's letter (63, 175); Pierre's promise to protect Isabel (66, 113, 205); the chair portrait in the chintz-covered chest (87, 196); Isabel's one outburst of aggressive enthusiasm (160, 174); Lucy's fainting words (183, 206, 308); Mrs Glendinning's words of banishment (185, 206); the military cloaks which Dates packs (187, 301); the fire at the Black Swan Inn (198, 217, 255-6); Pierre's interest in the pamphlet attributed to Plotinus Plinlimmon (209, 293); Pierre's youthful sonnet ‘The Tropical Summer’ (245, 263, 306); and Pierre as a toddler (296, 305). The number and aptness of most of the cross references indicate that sometimes Melville was planning ahead for such details with what was, for him, remarkable thoroughness, while at other times he was making an unusual effort to tie some of what he was writing to particular passages already written; and while writing some passages he may even have gone back to introduce forward-looking references.

Unusual though it was for Melville, control of such details obviously does not of itself lead to great fiction. Indeed the excessive emphasis on predictions early in Pierre reflects Melville's satirical playing with one of the routine conventions of popular fiction. His real triumph of control in Pierre is the way he leads the reader into fascinated engagement with his remarkable thematic preoccupations. At the outset he risks failing to achieve any such engagement at all, for he strangely idealizes the social rank and superior natures of the characters, who feel extraordinary emotions and speak an extraordinary language. In Book I, ‘Pierre Just Emerging from His Teens’, the first words of dialogue are ludicrous, by realistic standards, and there seems some fairy-tale quality about the whole situation. The style is often pseudo-Elizabethan bombast, often near the cloying romanticism of female novels of Melville's own time. Yet rapidly the reader begins to feel the tension created between the idealization of the characters and the constant predictions of disaster: the novel is to be a grand experiment in which Fate will take a hand in the life history of a rare specimen of mankind. With daring and often outrageous stylistic improvising Melville is in fact mocking Pierre's adolescent heroics, his unearned sense of security, and his unwillingness to face those dark truths that are to be the burden of the novel. The reader is led to view Pierre with amused, objective condescension and even slight contempt at the same time that he feels concern for the approaching crash of Pierre's illusions. After the early sense of impending calamity, Melville moves into another way of engaging his readers, by giving his hero unbidden inklings of a darker side of life. Events within and without impel Pierre toward maturer thought, yet he is reluctant to become philosophic (which in this novel means to awaken to a tragic sense). At the end of Book II, ‘Love, Delight, and Alarm’, Grief is still only a ‘ghost-story’ to Pierre (41). He resists the ‘treacherous persuasiveness’ (42) of the mournful pine tree and curses his reading in Dante (42), rejecting even imagined, not felt, experience of the darker aspects of reality, thinking, in juvenile pugnaciousness, that deprived of joy he would find cause for deadly feuds with things invisible.

In Book III, ‘The Presentiment and the Verification’, as Melville begins to develop Pierre's deeper side, his narrative voice becomes more restrained and sombre. He portrays the first stirrings of Pierre's long-dormant Unconscious from which ‘bannered armies of hooded phantoms’ (49) attack and board his conscious mind. Yet Pierre still shrinks ‘abhorringly from the infernal catacombs of thought’ when beckoned by a ‘fœtal fancy’ (51); he fights against his new sensations as a ‘sort of unhealthiness’ (53) when stirred ‘in his deepest moral being’ (as he thinks) by the sight of Isabel's face (49). But after receiving Isabel's letter his reluctance to face Truth when he does not know what he is evading changes into overeagerness to face Truth when he does not know what he is inviting (65). Hereafter Melville continues to trace the process of Pierre's mental growth, so that the reader becomes privy to the seemingly ‘boundless expansion’ (66) of the young hero's life. Previously engrossed and perhaps intermittently baffled by the stylistic virtuosity with which Melville reveals Pierre's absurdities, the reader is now impelled to follow the murky courses of Pierre's mind through all the ambiguous consequences of his absolute behaviour.

Book IV, ‘Retrospective’, as the title suggests, interrupts Melville's analysis of Pierre's current mental state. Now Melville announces explicitly a major theme present from the beginning but not emphasized before: that of the supersubtle complexity of psychological motivations and indeed of all psychological processes. We had been told (7) that tracing out ‘precisely the absolute motives’ which prompted Pierre to partake of the Holy Sacraments at the age of sixteen would be needless as well as difficult; merely, Pierre seemed to have inherited his ancestors' religion ‘by the same insensible sliding process’ that he inherited their other noble personal qualities and their forests and farms. But the stress had been more on Pierre's immaturity than on the subtlety of the processes by which he behaved as he did. Post-adolescent love-extravagancies are associated with ‘subterranean sprites and gnomes’ (34), but Melville does not then reveal that these quaint monstrosities emerge from the same Unconscious whence hooded phantoms are soon to embark (49). Early in the novel various images of mental processes as gliding and sliding prefigure Melville's full portrayal of the oblique workings of the mind, but not until the first chapter of ‘Retrospective’ does he confront the theme directly: ‘In their precise tracings-out and subtile causations, the strongest and fieriest emotions of life defy all analytical insight. … The metaphysical writers confess, that the most impressive, sudden, and overwhelming event, as well as the minutest, is but the product of an infinite series of infinitely involved and untraceable foregoing occurrences. Just so with every motion of the heart’ (67). The rest of Book IV uncovers the extremely complex combination of suddenly recalled events and stories and unbidden night-thoughts which leads to Pierre's immediate conviction that Isabel is his father's daughter. Hereafter, treatment of Pierre's inward development is inseparable from the theme of the shadowiness of all human motivation, the ‘ever-elastic regions of evanescent invention’ through which the mind roams up and down (82).

Moreover, by the end of Book IV Melville has gone beyond the supersubtlety of all human psychology to assert the autonomy of those subtler elements of man, as we first see in the description of the adolescent Pierre sometimes standing before the chair portrait of his father, ‘unconsciously throwing himself open to all those ineffable hints and ambiguities, and undefined half-suggestions, which now and then people the soul's atmosphere, as thickly as in a soft, steady snow-storm, the snow-flakes people the air’ (84). The imagery suggests an evanescence of thought which the individual no more controls than he does the snow-storm, and Melville distinguishes these ‘reveries and trances’ from the ‘assured element of consciously bidden and self-propelled thought’ (84). With similar intimations of forces beyond Pierre's control, Melville refers to the ‘streams’ of Pierre's reveries over the chair portrait of his father which did not seem ‘to leave any conscious sediment in his mind; they were so light and so rapid, that they rolled their own alluvial along; and seemed to leave all Pierre's thought-channels as clean and dry as though never any alluvial stream had rolled there at all’ (85). In Book V, ‘Misgivings and Preparatives’, Fate irresistibly gives Pierre an ‘electric insight’ into ‘the vital character of his mother’ so that he now sees her as unalterably dominated by ‘hereditary forms and world-usages’ (89). As Melville says, ‘in these flashing revelations of grief's wonderful fire, we see all things as they are’ (88). Such use of images of natural phenomena to suggest the involuntary character of thought continues with added intensity after Pierre has had time to reflect on the letter from Isabel, when the thought of Lucy ‘serpent-like … overlayingly crawled in upon his other shuddering imaginings’ (104). These other thoughts, we are told, would often ‘upheave’ and absorb the thought of Lucy into themselves, ‘so that it would in that way soon disappear from his cotemporary apprehension’ (104). The serpent image and the image of upheaval imply, once again, an independent vitality in the thought, free of Pierre's conscious control. Natural imagery now becomes more complexly elaborated as Melville portrays an expansion of Pierre's interior dimensions during the mental turmoil into which his reading of the letter has plunged him: ‘Standing half-befogged upon the mountain of his Fate, all that part of the wide panorama was wrapped in clouds to him; but anon those concealings slid aside, or rather, a quick rent was made in them’ (105). Through the ‘swift cloud-rent’ Pierre catches one glimpse of Lucy's ‘expectant and angelic face’, but ‘the next instant the stormy pinions of the clouds locked themselves over it again; and all was hidden as before; and all went confused in whirling rack and vapor as before’. Yet while thus ‘for the most part wrapped from his consciousness and vision’, the condition of Lucy ‘was still more and more disentangling and defining itself from out its nether mist,9 and even beneath the general upper fog’ (105). This passage portrays a rapidly expanded mental terrain but still a chaotic and uncontrollable one.

What Melville has achieved is an extraordinary conversion of gothic sensationalism into profound psychological exploration. Isabel, Pierre's presumed half-sister, is identified either as his Unconscious or as a product of it, so that his closer involvement with her parallels his gradual opening to incursions from the Unconscious. His after-reveries on her face (41) are associated with his dawning half-admission that Grief may be more than merely a ‘ghost-story’. Without ‘one word of speech’, her face had revealed ‘glimpses of some fearful gospel’ (43). Within an hour of first seeing Isabel, Pierre felt that ‘what he had always before considered the solid land of veritable reality, was now being audaciously encroached upon by bannered armies of hooded phantoms, disembarking in his soul, as from flotillas of specter-boats’ (49). After reading Isabel's letter, Pierre ‘saw all preceding ambiguities, all mysteries ripped open as if with a keen sword, and forth trooped thickening phantoms of an infinite gloom’ (85). Prior to his first interview with her in Book VI, ‘Isabel, and the First Part of the Story of Isabel’, Pierre gives himself up to ‘long wanderings in the primeval woods of Saddle Meadows’ (109); formerly sunny and Arcadian, the landscape now mirrors his new sense of the world: in the ‘wet and misty eve the scattered, shivering pasture elms seemed standing in a world inhospitable’. The landscape also mirrors the depths and terrors Isabel has opened up in Pierre's psyche:

On both sides, in the remoter distance, and also far beyond the mild lake's further shore, rose the long, mysterious mountain masses; shaggy with pines and hemlocks, mystical with nameless, vapory exhalations, and in that dim air black with dread and gloom. At their base, profoundest forests lay entranced, and from their far owl-haunted depths of caves and rotted leaves, and unused and unregarded inland overgrowth of decaying wood—for smallest sticks of which, in other climes many a pauper was that moment perishing; from out the infinite inhumanities of those profoundest forests, came a moaning, muttering, roaring, intermitted, changeful sound: rain-shakings of the palsied trees, slidings of rocks undermined, final crashings of long-riven boughs, and devilish gibberish of the forest-ghosts. (109-110)

When Pierre at last meets Isabel at the red farmhouse, what she recounts concerns her childhood process of individuation, a process Pierre is undergoing only now, after first seeing her. She reveals that her constant psychological state is one in which the Unconscious impinges upon the Conscious: ‘Always in me, the solidest things melt into dreams, and dreams into solidities’ (117); only now has Pierre's own soul begun to be opened to the same integrative and disintegrative mental processes. But Isabel embodies the Unconscious in ways still alien from the awakening Pierre, even to the point of learning ‘new things’ from the thoughts which ‘well up’ in her and come forth on her tongue without the intervention of any conscious process, so that the speech is ‘sometimes before the thought’ (123). Bursting from the ‘sorceries’ of the interview (128), Pierre at the beginning of Book VII, ‘Intermediate between Pierre's Two Interviews with Isabel at the Farm-house’, for ‘an instant’ almost wishes for a reversion to his earlier vision of a simpler, unmysterious world and to ignorance of his own newly-opened, threatening depths: ‘he almost could have prayed Isabel back into the wonder-world from which she had so slidingly emerged’ (129). Yet the lure of these new depths is more powerful than their threats, for he again withdraws to a forest where his eye pursues ‘its ever-shifting shadowy vistas’ and where there come into his mind ‘thoughts and fancies never imbibed within the gates of towns; but only given forth by the atmosphere of primeval forests’ (139). Formerly the unconscious processes of Pierre's mind were imaged as a stream; now, indicative of his greater depths, from the ‘thoughtful river’ of his mind run ‘unending, ever-flowing’, thoughts of Isabel (141). But Pierre's process of yielding ground in his soul to the invading Unconscious continues to involve occasional checks or reversals. In the interval after his second interview with Isabel, during which he had made the most binding pledges, there comes a moment when, fain to disown his memory and mind, Pierre dashes himself against a wall and falls ‘dabbling in the vomit of his loathed identity’ (171). As the narrator warns, the human soul is ‘strange and complicate’ (176). Pierre's final resolution to champion Isabel by pretending to have married her is arrived at only by ‘nameless struggles of the soul’ (181).

Moreover, Pierre's ‘infinite magnanimities’ (177) from the outset are inextricably linked with appalling self-delusion. From the opening pages Melville has set forth, in scenes which initially baffle the reader, the chivalric artifice of Pierre's ideals and intimate relationships—a habit of mind that makes him uniquely vulnerable to the particular appeal Isabel makes. In our first glimpse of Pierre with Lucy he idealizes her as an ‘invoking angel’ while idealizing himself as a soldier marching under her ‘colors’. She participates in the role-playing, crying ‘“Bravissimo! oh, my only recruit!”’ when he fastens her flower to his bosom (4), and both of them speak in what seems an absurdly heightened rhetoric. From this depiction of Pierre as romantic cavalier Melville immediately moves to the depiction of ‘romantic filial love’, Pierre's benignly presented but ultimately unhealthy habit of treating ‘his pedastaled mother’ with a ‘strange license’ under which ‘they were wont to call each other brother and sister’ (5). Any suitor who might dare to propose marriage to this youthful-appearing widow ‘would by some peremptory unrevealed agency immediately disappear from the earth’, dispatched by her jealous chivalric protector (5). Pierre's dead father, we learn, had left him a legacy of idealistic maxims, one of which was that no one could claim to be a gentleman unless he ‘could also rightfully assume the meek, but kingly style of Christian’ (6). Thus at sixteen Pierre, playing the role of young Christian gentleman, partakes of the Holy Sacraments. In Pierre's exalted view ‘the complete polished steel of the gentleman’ was thereby ‘girded with Religion's silken sash’ (7). In this atmosphere of ideality he longs for a sister, someone whom he ‘might love, and protect, and fight for, if need be’ (7). He repeatedly images himself as would-be champion: ‘It must be a glorious thing to engage in a mortal quarrel on a sweet sister's behalf!’ (7). Predisposed toward such a self-image by both his parents, Pierre finds another source of chivalric notions in Nature herself, who in the beginning did ‘bravely’ by him (13): ‘She lifted her spangled crest of a thickly-starred night, and forth at that glimpse of their divine Captain and Lord, ten thousand mailed thoughts of heroicness started up in Pierre's soul, and glared round for some insulted good cause to defend’ (14).

For none of these chivalric impulses is there a normal outlet. There is no real likelihood that Pierre will need to fend off suitors from his mother, despite his playful-earnest role of her knight in waiting. With Lucy, Pierre's chivalric notions must be reduced merely to the courtesies of courtship, since she hardly needs his defence, what with two youthful brothers themselves overeager to fulfil their own chivalric obligations toward her. The first true appeal to his chivalry comes with his earliest glimpse of Isabel's face, on which ‘he seemed to see the fair ground where Anguish had contended with Beauty, and neither being conqueror, both had laid down on the field’ (47). The narrator's language reveals the intensity of Pierre's chivalric obsession. Beyond the bewildering allure of the beauty and the anguish of the face, Pierre is aware of a special effect, ‘the face somehow mystically appealing to his own private and individual affections; and by a silent and tyrannic call, challenging him in his deepest moral being, and summoning Truth, Love, Pity, Conscience, to the stand’ (49). Until he receives Isabel's letter, Pierre resists this appeal to his heroism, since his other chivalric obligations, his duty to his mother and his fiancée, forbid any response and since there is no reasonable course of action he can take. Her letter finally gives him the heroic good cause he has been looking for: suddenly he has the sister on whose behalf he can engage in a mortal quarrel. After the first devastating shock, the letter arouses all his would-be heroic, chivalric impulses: he will ‘comfort’, ‘stand by’, and ‘fight for’ Isabel (66).

Yet Pierre is woefully ill-equipped to set out as a Christian Knight-Champion, most obviously because the pattern of chivalric, romantic idealization has developed simultaneously with dangerous sublimation of his sexual feelings. His glide toward physical maturity, we are told at the outset, was accompanied by ambiguous feelings aroused during his reading in ‘his father's fastidiously picked and decorous library’ (6). There the ‘Spenserian nymphs had early led him into many a maze of all-bewildering beauty’ that created ‘a graceful glow on his limbs, and soft, imaginative flames in his heart’ (6). When first mentioned these nymphs seem to be summoning courtly, aesthetic impulses, but later it becomes clear that Pierre is unconsciously responding to them with the stirrings of puberty. For most of the novel, in fact, Pierre idealizes his sexual impulses, failing to recognize them for what they are. Latently incestuous, his courtly ‘lover-like adoration’ of his mother (16) is deceptively suffused with religious sentiment: the spell which wheeled mother and son in one orbit of joy seemed ‘almost to realize here below the sweet dreams of those religious enthusiasts, who paint to us a Paradise to come, when etherealized from all drosses and stains, the holiest passion of man shall unite all kindreds and climes in one circle of pure and unimpairable delight’ (16). At the time the novel opens, Pierre is still unprepared to recognize his sexual feelings, despite his engagement to Lucy. During their outing in the phaeton he alternates between mysticalness and merriment, unaware of the strength of his own sexuality, for he does not acknowledge the erotic nature of the ‘subterranean sprites and gnomes’ and ‘naiads’ that surround him (34). Lucy instinctively shrinks from him in ‘Fear and Wonder’ (35) when he bursts ‘forth in some screaming shout of joy’, the ‘striped tigers of his chestnut eyes’ leaping ‘in their lashed cages with a fierce delight’. But even after holding Lucy's hand, ‘feeling, softly feeling of its soft tinglingness’, Pierre still idealizes his sexuality, diffusing it into an exalted response to nature, so that he seems like someone ‘in linked correspondence with the summer lightnings’, by ‘sweet shock on shock, receiving intimating foretastes of the etherealest delights of earth’ (36). Later, as he fetches a portfolio from Lucy's chamber, we learn of more mental contortions which he undergoes in order to sublimate and generalize the feelings aroused in him:

He never had entered that chamber but with feelings of a wonderful reverentialness. The carpet seemed as holy ground. Every chair seemed sanctified by some departed saint, there once seated long ago. Here his book of Love was all a rubric, and said—Bow now, Pierre, bow. But this extreme loyalty to the piety of love, called from him by such glimpses of its most secret inner shrine, was not unrelieved betimes by such quickenings of all his pulses, that in fantasy he pressed the wide beauty of the world in his embracing arms; for all his world resolved itself into his heart's best love for Lucy. (39)

Thus predisposed, Pierre's mental processes twist themselves anew at the sewing circle in order to let him feel that the mysterious face he has glimpsed is somehow tyrannically challenging him ‘in his deepest moral being’ (49). Characteristically, he manages to tame and prettify the profound experience, safely Spenserizing it into a ‘delicious sadness’ so that some ‘hazy fairy swam above him in the heavenly ether, and showered down upon him the sweetest pearls of pensiveness’ (54).

One immediate aftereffect of reading Isabel's letter is that Pierre suddenly sees his father as morally corrupt, although he had always idolized him to the point of sacrilege (68), and the narrator emphasizes that the extreme of Pierre's idealization was possible only because at the age of nineteen he ‘had never yet become so thoroughly initiated into that darker, though truer aspect of things, which an entire residence in the city from the earliest period of life, almost inevitably engraves upon the mind of any keenly observant and reflective youth’ (69). To be sure, during the four years that he had possessed the chair portrait of his father, Pierre had felt ‘ever new conceits come vaporing up’ in him (83), so that the portrait seemed to speak with his father's voice: ‘I am thy father, boy. There was once a certain, oh, but too lovely young Frenchwoman, Pierre’. Then, ‘starting from these reveries and trances, Pierre would regain the assured element of consciously bidden and self-propelled thought’ (84), promising never again to fall into such midnight reveries, suppressing suspicions of his father even as he begins to diffuse his own sexual feelings. In his agonized hours following the reading of Isabel's letter, Pierre feels that ‘his whole previous moral being’ (87) has been overturned. But though he is no longer free to worship his father, he still does not apply to himself the lesson earlier intimated by the chair portrait and apparently confirmed by Isabel's letter, that ‘Youth is hot, and temptation strong’, that beneath seeming innocence sexual impulses may be stirring (83). His sense of his own immaculateness is chronic. In sublime delusion he feels Christlike, as if ‘deep in him lurked a divine unidentifiableness, that owned no earthly kith or kin’ (89). While the narrator offers us ‘hell-glimpses’ (107), reminding us that Pierre was championing ‘womanly beauty, and not womanly ugliness’, Pierre himself is asking heaven to confirm him in his ‘Christ-like feeling’ (106).

More mental contortions follow as the deluded Christian knight begins to respond to Isabel's attractiveness. Accustomed from adolescence to a certain falseness in the relationship of mother-son, and more recently exposed to the new artifice by which Mrs Glendinning had converted Lucy into her little sister, Pierre blames Fate for his bewildered feelings about Isabel: ‘Fate had done this thing for them. Fate had separated the brother and the sister, till to each other they somehow seemed so not at all. Sisters shrink not from their brother's kisses’ (142). Pierre begins ‘to seem to see the mere imaginariness of the so supposed solidest principle of human association’—an incipient discrediting of the taboo against incest—yet feels ‘that never, never would he be able to embrace Isabel with the mere brotherly embrace; while the thought of any other caress, which took hold of any domesticness, was entirely vacant from his uncontaminated soul, for it had never consciously intruded there’ (142). In this state of mind, and just because his latent incestuous feelings are now stirring, Pierre is compelled, all ignorantly, to sublimate: ‘Isabel wholly soared out of the realms of mortalness, and for him became transfigured in the highest heaven of uncorrupted Love’ (142). Even as Lucy's bedroom had represented Love's ‘secret inner shrine’ for Pierre, at his second interview with Isabel the ‘deep oaken recess of the double-casement’ seems to him the ‘vestibule of some awful shrine’ (149), though Isabel's power over him is by now more obviously erotic: Pierre feels himself (150) ‘surrounded by ten thousand sprites and gnomes, and his whole soul was swayed and tossed by supernatural tides’. (Here the narrator's word ‘soul’ merely reflects Pierre's own self-protective instinct toward sublimation.) Aware of an ‘extraordinary physical magnetism’ in Isabel, Pierre nevertheless generalizes his sexual attraction by associating it with a ‘Pantheistic master-spell, which eternally locks in mystery and in muteness the universal subject world’ (151). Reminiscent of his pledge to Lucy of ‘the immutable eternities of joyfulness’ (36), Pierre makes extravagant lover-like declarations to Isabel, wishing that his kisses on her hand ‘were on the heart itself, and dropt the seeds of eternal joy and comfort there’ (154). In egregious delusion of immaculate magnanimity, his pledges to Isabel become as extravagant as his recurrent threats to the gods: ‘we will love with the pure and perfect love of angel to an angel. If ever I fall from thee, dear Isabel, may Pierre fall from himself; fall back forever into vacant nothingness and night!’ (154). By reinforcing his sense of his own Christlikeness, calling him a ‘visible token’ of the ‘invisible angel-hoods’, and praising the ‘gospel’ of his acts (156), Isabel aids Pierre in sublimating the passion increasingly evident in his words.

Yet both Isabel and Pierre use the licence of their supposed brother-and-sister, champion-and-damsel, relationship to indulge in verbal love-making. In language that appeals to Pierre's religious-chivalric impulses, Isabel describes her reluctant surrender to him at the sewing circle: ‘Once having met thy fixed regardful glance; once having seen the full angelicalness in thee, my whole soul was undone by thee … till I knew, that utterly decay and die away I must, unless pride let me go, and I, with the one little trumpet of a pen, blew my heart's shrillest blast, and called dear Pierre to me’ (159). In his own imagination Pierre still sees himself as Christlike knight. When Isabel fears that he might be hurt by any public or secret relationship with her, he lies—denies what he has so recently learned about his father—in order to keep his heroic cause from slipping away: ‘Is Love a harm? Can Truth betray to pain? Sweet Isabel, how can hurt come in the path to God?’ (159-60). He swears by heaven that he ‘will crush the disdainful world down on its knees’ to Isabel (160). As she exultingly responds, her ‘long scornful hair’ trails out like a ‘disheveled banner’ before the would-be knight, who acknowledges ‘that irrespective, darting majesty of humanity, which can be majestical and menacing in woman as in man’ (160). (A part of Isabel's allure for Pierre is her fleeting resemblance to his mother, whose ‘stately beauty had ever somewhat martial in it’ [20].) As a culmination to the emotional self-indulgence which increases throughout this interview, Pierre and Isabel partake of what Pierre blasphemously calls ‘the real sacrament of the supper’ (162).

Miserably deluded, Pierre thinks, even after his second interview with Isabel, that he is responding to ‘the unsuppressible and unmistakable cry of the godhead through her soul’, a cry which commands him ‘to fly to her, and do his highest and most glorious duty in the world’ (174). By the time he has reached his final resolution his formula, sublimated once again, has become: ‘Lucy or God?’ (181), though soon afterward Pierre speciously claims that he and Isabel will act deceitfully for the ‘united good’ of themselves and those they deceive (190). Just after insisting that he is ‘pure’ (191) and claiming that he and Isabel reach up alike to a ‘glorious ideal’ (192), Pierre whispers his plan as ‘his mouth wet her ear’ (192). Then comes an immediate and appalling descent from the exaltation: ‘The girl moved not; was done with all her tremblings; leaned closer to him, with an inexpressible strangeness of an intense love, new and inexplicable. Over the face of Pierre there shot a terrible self-revelation; he imprinted repeated burning kisses upon her; pressed hard her hand; would not let go her sweet and awful passiveness. Then they changed; they coiled together, and entangledly stood mute’ (192). For the first time in the book Melville's deluded idealist acts—and knows that he acts—out of undisguised sexual passion.

But Pierre's capacity for evading unpleasant self-knowledge is far from exhausted. Shortly afterwards, at the Black Swan Inn, he decides that his memorial gold pieces must be spent now ‘in this sacred cause’ (196), an obvious denial that Isabel had ‘become a thing of intense and fearful love for him’ (197)—fearful precisely because of his terrible self-revelation at the dairy. Yet that sundown at the Inn Pierre burns the chair portrait of his father out of an unconscious need to free himself of the strongest visible reminder that his passion for Isabel, whatever else it is, is incestuous. In the coach next morning his ‘still imperfectly conscious, incipient, new-mingled emotion toward this mysterious being’ (206) appalls him, to the point that he feels ‘threatened by the possibility of a sin anomalous and accursed’—perhaps the unpardonable sin itself. Though he has learned much about his mother's and his father's character, he is still in the first stages of reluctantly learning about his own. Just as he had destroyed the reminder of Isabel's paternity the night before, now in the coach Pierre refuses to recognize the applicability of the strange pamphlet on ‘Chronometricals and Horologicals’ either to his own situation or to Christianity in general: he can neither admit that an absolute attempt to obey Christ is apt to involve ordinary mortals ‘in strange, unique follies and sins, unimagined before’ (213) nor that Christianity has flourished for two millennia only by systematically diluting the edicts of its founder, rather than taking them literally, as he has tried to do.

Nowhere in the book, moreover, does Pierre see that for all his efforts to be Christlike he has never been a true Christian. Despite his partaking with his mother of the Holy Sacraments, he has in fact been only nominally a Christian, drawn to the Church as a family responsibility laid down by his father, whose maxim linked gentlemanhood and Christianity. The superhuman powers Pierre invokes are ill-sortedly Christian or pagan; consistently he images his relationship with such powers as an antagonistic one: demons or gods, they are to be threatened and, especially, bargained with. The language he uses again and again threatens what he will do ‘if’ the powers do not act as he wishes. He conjures the ‘sovereign powers’ that claim all his ‘leal worshipings’ to lift the veil between him and the mysterious face; if they abandon him to ‘an unknown misery’, his faith ‘may clean depart’ and leave him ‘a railing atheist’ (41). If ‘deprived of joy’, he feels he would ‘find cause for deadly feuds with things invisible’ (41). He feels he has a ‘choice quarrel’ with the Fate which had led him to think the world was one of Joy, if in fact the night which wraps his soul after he reads Isabel's letter is genuine (65). In the interval before his first interview with Isabel he prays that heaven ‘new-string’ his soul (106), confirming in him ‘the Christ-like feeling’ he first felt on reading her letter; yet in the same speech he simultaneously invokes and threatens the ‘sovereign powers’ (106-7) if they betray his faith in them:

I cast my eternal die this day, ye powers. On my strong faith in ye Invisibles, I stake three whole felicities, and three whole lives this day. If ye forsake me now,—farewell to Faith, farewell to Truth, farewell to God; exiled for aye from God and man, I shall declare myself an equal power with both; free to make war on Night and Day, and all thoughts and things of mind and matter, which the upper and the nether firmaments do clasp! (107)

Pierre's new Christlikeness is a most ambiguous one, since it leads instantly to threats against God. Then, between the two interviews with Isabel, Pierre slides under ‘the very brow of the beetlings and the menacings of the Terror Stone’, named by him for the temple of Memnon. Not threatening the Stone, he nevertheless promulgates a series of conditions in which the ‘Mute Massiveness’ is invited to fall on him (134). When the Stone fails to act on the implied challenge, he adolescently assumes a new haughtiness and goes his ‘moody way’ as though he ‘owed thanks to none’ (135).

The threats and bargains with the gods culminate in the scene with Pierre and Isabel at the Apostles' the third night after their arrival in the city. Once again Pierre makes pledges, inviting the ‘high gods’ to join the devils against him if he deceives Isabel (272). Once again he invites instant punishment if he fails in Virtue: ‘then close in and crush me, ye stony walls, and into one gulf let all things tumble together!’ (273). Once again he warns the gods, this time to ‘look after their own combustibles’: ‘If they have put powder-casks in me—let them look to it! let them look to it!’ (273). But in a crucial difference from earlier scenes Pierre now suspects that man himself, instead of the gods, may be a ‘vile juggler and cheat’ (272). Incapable now in Isabel's presence of denying to himself her erotic appeal, he fears that ‘uttermost virtue, after all’ may prove ‘but a betraying pander to the monstrousest vice’, and finally declares that the ‘demigods trample on trash, and Virtue and Vice are trash!’ (273). Declaring that Virtue and Vice are both nothing, and having already rid himself of the chair portrait, the most tangible reminder of Isabel's link to his father, Pierre is now free to commit incest, though whether or not actual sexual intercourse occurs that night at the Apostles' remains ambiguous but hideously possible.

Up to Pierre's arrival in the city with Isabel and Delly, everything has worked together to enhance the attentive reader's sense that he is in the hands of a profound thinker and innovative craftsman who will convey him through yet more hazardous regions of psychological and aesthetic experience. Melville has not only managed to put sensational gothic plot elements to the service of an acute analysis of a tortuously complex mind; he has also managed to convert analysis into very vivid action, repeatedly portraying Pierre's psychological states and processes in extended metaphors and images, passages that are short, graphic, and frequently intense narratives in themselves.10 In these highly-charged passages, Melville combines penetrating analysis of his hero's states of mind with the enunciation of general truths, so that the record of Pierre's particular experience is continually expanding to include human experience at large.11 By the beginning of Book XVI, ‘First Night of Their Arrival in the City’, the reader wants nothing more than to follow ‘the thoughtful river’ of Pierre's mind through all the ambiguous consequences of his sublimely absolute and miserably deluded behaviour. Yet despite the brilliance of the scene on the third night at the Apostles', the wish goes mainly unfulfilled. Melville's primary concerns in the first half of the novel only intermittently engage his attention in the second half, and at times he seems lamentably unaware of the direction the first half was taking.

Symptomatic is the flaw in the first paragraph of Book XVII, ‘Young America in Literature’:

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. (244)

Earlier Melville had talked bluntly about his demands on the reader: ‘This history goes forward and goes backward, as occasion calls. Nimble center, circumference elastic you must have’ (54). He had called attention to his apparent disregard of rules in a passage that might strike the reader as ‘rather irregular sort of writing’ (25), and had announced that he followed ‘the flowing river in the cave of man’ careless whither he be led, reckless where he land (107). In these instances he had been in superb control, knowing exactly what he was doing with his stylistic absurdities in Books I and II, then knowing that his simultaneous exploration of Pierre's mind and his own might lead him into unknown winding passages (even as he kept to the outline of his plot), but confident that he could bravely follow that flowing river wherever it ran. Not recking where he landed was a way of proclaiming his determination to tell everything ‘in this book of sacred truth’ (107); he was not abandoning a point of view but asserting his determination to hold to it. The beginning of ‘Young America in Literature’ marks a drastic change in Melville's authorial purpose, a deep draining off of his control over the relationship between narrator and reader. The change is due to what happened in Melville's life between the last days of 1851 and the first days of 1852, but our concern here is with the effects on the manuscript, not the biographical causes.

After his claim to write precisely as he pleased, Melville continues with this remarkably inexact passage: ‘In the earlier chapters of this volume, it has somewhere been passingly intimated, that Pierre was not only a reader of the poets and other fine writers, but likewise—and what is a very different thing from the other—a thorough allegorical understander of them, a profound emotional sympathizer with them’ (244). On the contrary, we had been told, by Pierre himself in a moment of insight, that he had not been that sort of reader: ‘Oh, hitherto I have but piled up words; bought books, and bought some small experiences, and builded me in libraries; now I sit down and read’ (91). Furthermore, Melville had also asserted that before Pierre was enlightened by flashing revelations of Grief's wonderful fire, he had not been a thorough allegorical understander of the poets:

Fortunately for the felicity of the Dilletante in Literature, the horrible allegorical meanings of the Inferno, lie not on the surface; but unfortunately for the earnest and youthful piercers into truth and reality, those horrible meanings, when first discovered, infuse their poison into a spot previously unprovided with that sovereign antidote of a sense of uncapitulatable security, which is only the possession of the furthest advanced and profoundest souls. (169)

When he began Book XVII, Melville had simply forgotten this crucial aspect of his characterization of Pierre.12 But even in the process of crediting Pierre with being ‘a thorough allegorical understander’ of and ‘a profound emotional sympathizer’ with poets and other fine writers, Melville seems to have recognized his blunder and attempted an immediate recovery:

Not that as yet his young and immature soul had been accosted by the Wonderful Mutes, and through the vast halls of Silent Truth, had been ushered into the full, secret, eternally inviolable Sanhedrim, where the Poetic Magi discuss, in glorious gibberish, the Alpha and Omega of the Universe. But among the beautiful imaginings of the second and third degree of poets, he freely and comprehendingly ranged. (244-5)

In these rapid second thoughts Melville ends up saying quite another thing from what he had just said: in fact, he reverts to saying something very like what he had denied at the outset of the paragraph, that Pierre was no more than a normally alert reader. The bitter fun Melville has with his mockery of the rules of writing comes at the considerable cost of jeopardizing the reader's trust in the narrative voice.

Deflected into preoccupation with his own literary career, Melville in Books XVII and XVIII let absurdities intrude upon what he wrote of Pierre, as in his analysis of the phenomenon of young writers who win instant success with a book original in subject matter although not the product of a genuinely original mind. In this passage (259) Melville plainly has begun to write about the reception of his own Typee six years before, not about Pierre. From his new vantage point Melville was honest in his self-assessment, sure that Typee was, after all, original—the first eyewitness account of Polynesian life with the readability of fiction—although he had unoriginally cannibalized his source-books and employed a second or third hand style. The satire in Books XVII and XVIII is acute, but only as applied to Melville and his own critics, not to Pierre, in whose history it is distractingly out of place. Pierre, of course, has never ‘embodied’ any experiences at all in a book, much less ‘some rich and peculiar experience’ (259), although the reader is belatedly apprised of his authorship of ‘little sonnets, brief meditative poems, and moral essays’ (248). In suddenly determining to take satiric revenge upon his own reviewers and his literary competitors, Melville is indulging in a ‘lamentable rearward aggressiveness’ at least as unwarrantable and foolish as Pierre's toward the Rev. Mr Falsgrave (166). The reader was well prepared for Pierre's folly, but the narrator's own mature wisdom throughout the Saddle Meadows section, especially his cautious distance from his hero, had left the reader unprepared for authorial recklessness.

Even before the disastrous Books on literature in America (‘before’ in final placement though not necessarily so in order of composition), Melville had begun dissipating much of the accumulated tension by introducing lengthy narrative and expository passages largely or wholly irrelevant to the central concern of Pierre's commitment to Isabel. Book XV, ‘The Cousins’, which is devoted to the intense adolescent love-friendship between Pierre and Glen, might be defended as an essential part of this ruthlessly honest history of the soul in which no taboo in Melville's society can be left unviolated, and indeed the analysis of the stages in that relationship are interesting in themselves. However, the Book seems too long and distinctly anticlimactic, coming immediately after the pamphlet: it is not focused on major issues and the analysis does not impel the book forward, does not tell the reader things he needs to know or prepare him for highly significant things to come. Even the most comparable passage in the early part of the novel, the account of Aunt Dorothea's reminiscences, does not seem so relaxed, because there the reader is in suspense, actively putting things together as he absorbs and meditates upon her story rather faster than she tells it. Books XVII and XVIII have even less to do with the central issues of the first fourteen Books. By contrast, in Book XIX, ‘The Church of the Apostles’, the history of the building and its inhabitants is potentially relevant, since the Apostles can be seen as versions of Pierre, thwarted idealists, and since the building itself at least casually symbolizes the transfer of power from Christianity to something akin to Transcendentalism. Not enough is made of these points, and the ‘gamesome’ banter which Melville adopts (267) is distinctly out of keeping with the high seriousness of most of the early part of the novel. The satiric grotesquerie of these pages goes, if not for naught, at least for less than it might have gone in another novel, where other expectations had been set up. Book XX, ‘Charlie Millthorpe’, seems even more extraneous, since it begins by explaining something which had already been accepted without explanation—Pierre's being at the Apostles'. Now, after the fact, and after the intense scene between Pierre and Isabel which hints at actual physical incest, the reader is told much more than he wants to know about details which are not strictly relevant. Unlike the earlier Books (‘Presentiment and Verification’ makes a good contrast), Book XX does not significantly add to our knowledge of Pierre's motivation or to our understanding of the main themes. There is considerable verve in the portrait of Charles Millthorpe, just as there had been in the account of the Apostles, but none of the intensity the reader had come to expect. Later, the jocular account of the Apostles' eccentricities (298-301) is jarring, especially when the narrator is led into this commentary upon idealistic behaviour:

Among all the innate, hyena-like repellants to the reception of any set form of a spiritually-minded and pure archetypical faith, there is nothing so potent in its skeptical tendencies, as that inevitable perverse ridiculousness, which so often bestreaks some of the essentially finest and noblest aspirations of those men, who disgusted with the common conventional quackeries, strive, in their clogged terrestrial humanities, after some imperfectly discerned, but heavenly ideals: ideals, not only imperfectly discerned in themselves, but the path to them so little traceable, that no two minds will entirely agree upon it.

These observations, offered as if they had just occurred to the narrator, had already formed some of the darkest implications of the pamphlet.13

Throughout the second half of the book Melville continues this sort of generalizing tendency, making observations on such subjects as ‘boy-love’ and the change to love of the opposite sex (216-17), the advisability of converting ‘some well-wishers into foes’ (221-2), the advantages of simplicity (224-5), the need for ‘utter gladiatorianism’ in dealing with some reversals of fortune (226-7), the ‘dread of tautology’ (227), the nature of coach-drivers (232), and ‘the povertiresque in the social landscape’ (276-7). Earlier in the novel Melville's generalizing commentary had been a major source of power, dealing as it had with the motivation and states of mind of Pierre and the social, moral, and metaphysical problems he exemplified. In the second half the authorial commentary largely creates the impression of improvisation and redundancy, an impression emphasized when the narrator compares himself to one of the ‘strolling improvisatores of Italy’ (259) and when he carelessly concludes one Book with the mention of something ‘by way of bagatelle’ (294). The reader who has paid alert attention can only feel cheated by this casualness and laxity in authorial commentary.

Bad as these lapses are, by far the worst failure lies in Melville's altered treatment of Pierre. In the first half of the book, one of the most remarkable features had been the scrupulous and often brilliant presentation of the hero's motives and states of mind. In the last Books, Melville not only fails to provide certain contemplative scenes which were earlier implied if not directly promised (such as scenes in which Pierre thinks about the episode of the Memnon Stone after reaching the city or in which he remembers his first evening with Isabel), he also neglects to analyze sufficiently Pierre's present states of mind, especially as they involve Isabel. Pierre had vowed to cherish and protect her, to treat her as an artisan handles ‘the most exquisite, and fragile filagree of Genoa’ (189). But he fails to carry out his pledges; instead, in a few days after reaching the city he becomes almost entirely preoccupied with the book he is writing. Isabel is not allowed to participate in his labours (except much later to read aloud proofs to him) and is no longer at the centre of his thoughts. After the arrival in the city, in fact, Isabel is absent from the narrative for long periods. Apart from the scene on the third night at the Apostles' (271-4), she scarcely figures in the story at all until the reintroduction of Lucy. Henry A. Murray aptly comments: ‘Pierre, having devoured what Isabel had to give him, is withdrawing libido (interest, love) from her as a person and using it to fold, and warm, and egg round embryoes of thought and to feed a precipitant ambition’.14 Such an outcome is perhaps credible enough, considering the trauma and the ‘widely explosive’ mental development Pierre has experienced; even so, Melville appears to have seized upon Pierre's authorship, the pretext for dramatizing his own precarious literary career, as a way to avoid tracing any minute shiftings in the relationship between Pierre and Isabel.15

Markedly, what we do learn of Pierre and Isabel—sexual arousal, deceit, insincerity, and unease on his part, suspicion, jealousy, and hysteria on hers—is presented dramatically for the most part, without the earlier omniscient commentary. We are told that, on the news of his mother's death and Glen Stanly's inheritance of Saddle Meadows and rumoured courtship of Lucy, Pierre curses himself for an ‘idiot fool’ because ‘he had himself, as it were, resigned his noble birthright to a cunning kinsman for a mess of pottage, which now proved all but ashes in his mouth’ (289). We also learn that he feels that these are ‘unworthy pangs’ and resolves to hide them from Isabel (289). But otherwise Pierre's feelings for her are scarcely explored. His awareness or unawareness of the extent to which the relationship has deteriorated, his attitude toward that change, are not examined. Pierre's incestuous passion, once central to the book, becomes the subject of offhand allusion: ‘Not to speak of his being devoured by the all-exacting theme of his book, there were sinister preoccupations in him of a still subtler and more fearful sort, of which some inklings have already been given’ (308). When late in the novel we learn of Pierre that the ‘most tremendous displacing and revolutionizing thoughts were upheaving in him, with reference to Isabel’ (353), the only such thought we actually learn about is the question of whether she is truly his half-sister. The crucial information that Pierre's virtuous enthusiasm in behalf of Isabel has declined comes in an aside; his ‘transcendental persuasions’ that she was his sister, we learn, were ‘originally born, as he now seemed to feel, purely of an intense procreative enthusiasm:—an enthusiasm no longer so all-potential with him as of yore’ (353). Melville's exploration of Pierre's problems as an author tends to disguise his failure to explore Pierre's changing attitude toward Isabel, but the careful reader cannot help but be aware of it.

The more emotionally involved Melville becomes in his portrayal of Pierre as author, the more he loses his grasp on the implications of other parts of his narrative. As Pierre's suffering and degradation in his attempt to be a profound writer worsen, Melville's rhetoric starts to exalt him: ‘In the midst of the merriments of the mutations of Time, Pierre hath ringed himself in with the grief of Eternity. Pierre is a peak inflexible in the heart of Time, as the isle-peak, Piko, stands unassaultable in the midst of waves’ (304). Implicitly approving Pierre's commitment, in spite of the self-destructiveness of his attempt to write a great book, Melville speaks of the ‘devouring profundities’ that have opened up in his hero: ‘would he, he could not now be entertainingly and profitably shallow in some pellucid and merry romance’ (305). In the next passage on Pierre as author, it is in his ‘deepest, highest part’ that he is ‘utterly without sympathy from any thing divine, human, brute, or vegetable’ (338). The mental distance between author and character diminishes appreciably: ‘the deeper and the deeper’ that he dives, Pierre perceives the ‘everlasting elusiveness of Truth’ (339), an elusiveness that Melville as narrator had postulated earlier (at page 165 and page 285). Pierre's scorn of the critics now is clearly Melville's: ‘beforehand he felt the pyramidical scorn of the genuine loftiness for the whole infinite company of infinitesimal critics’ (339). As the distance between author and hero narrows, the hero is increasingly exalted, and Melville speaks of Pierre in the same terms as Pierre sees himself. Pierre begins to feel ‘that in him, the thews of a Titan were forestallingly cut by the scissors of Fate’ (339); Melville comments: ‘Against the breaking heart, and the bursting head; against all the dismal lassitude, and deathful faintness and sleeplessness, and whirlingness, and craziness, still he like a demigod bore up’ (339). Shortly afterwards Melville writes that the ‘very blood’ in Pierre's body ‘had in vain rebelled against his Titanic soul’ (341). In focusing on his hero as author, Melville loses sight of Pierre the young man attempting to be Christlike but undone by human flaws. Now he portrays Pierre the embattled demi-god, whose degradation is an inevitable part of his Titanic greatness: ‘gifted with loftiness’ he is ‘dragged down to the mud’ (339), even literally (341). Pierre is identified with Enceladus, ‘the most potent of all the giants’, one with ‘unconquerable front’ and ‘unabasable face’ (345). Melville approves the ‘reckless sky-assaulting mood’ of both Enceladus and Pierre: ‘For it is according to eternal fitness, that the precipitated Titan should still seek to regain his paternal birthright even by fierce escalade. Wherefore whoso storms the sky gives best proof he came from thither! But whatso crawls contented in the moat before that crystal fort, shows it was born within that slime, and there forever will abide’ (347).

But Pierre's increased stature as ‘deep-diving’ author and admirable ‘sky-assaulting’ demigod works against the logic of much of the novel's development. For despite Melville's preoccupation with the hardship and misery of Pierre's attempt to write profoundly, the last Books still bring to a climax the disaster entailed in his attempt to be Christlike. A number of events forcefully recall the pamphlet's warnings of calamity for the chronometrical idealist. Lucy writes to Pierre that she intends to join him, that she is commanded by God (311), and that in her ‘long swoon’ (after Pierre told her he was married) ‘heaven’ was preparing her for a ‘superhuman office’, wholly estranging her from ‘this earth’ and fitting her ‘for a celestial mission in terrestrial elements’ (310). Pierre is ‘sacrificing’ himself, she writes, and she is hastening to ‘re-tie’ herself to him (309). Obeying this impulse, she arrives at the Apostles' imitating Pierre's chronometrical self-sacrifice, thereby compounding the possibilities for disaster. In these last Books we are reminded more than once that Pierre is sexually attracted to Isabel, that he may have committed incest with her (308, 337, 351). But after the arrival of Lucy's letter, his relationship with Isabel is seen to deteriorate rapidly and his relationship with Lucy becomes dangerously ambiguous. In the final pages, Pierre bitterly rejects both Isabel and Lucy, and murders Glen; in his prison-cell Lucy dies on hearing Isabel call herself Pierre's sister; Pierre and Isabel commit suicide. Melville does not comment directly on much of the action in the last four Books of the novel, but these events clearly appear to illustrate the pamphlet's lesson that ‘strange, unique follies and sins’ are to be expected from one, like Pierre, attempting ‘to live in this world according to the strict letter of the chronometricals’ (213).

Yet for all Pierre's status as a profound, deep-diving author, he never consciously understands the relevance of the pamphlet to his life, though he has glimmerings of understanding (and Melville says that unconsciously he understood its application by the end of his life). He does not recognize the danger of Lucy's imitation of his sacrifice of self for another, in spite of his own experience. He reads Lucy's letter and is certain that ‘whatever her enigmatical delusion’ she ‘remained transparently immaculate’ in her heart (317), without even recognizing the possibility of a sexual motive in her decision to join him, as in his own deluded resolve to protect Isabel by living with her. He naively admires Lucy as ‘an angel’ (311), unmindful of the insidious sexual element in his earlier worship of Isabel as ‘angel’. He later feels that ‘some strange heavenly influence was near him, to keep him from some uttermost harm’ (337-8), once Lucy is ensconced at the Apostles', though to Isabel's ‘covertly watchful eye’ he ‘would seem to look upon Lucy with an expression illy befitting their singular and so-supposed merely cousinly relation’ (337). Even in the death-cell he sees his predicament as merely the result of his refusal to disown and portion off Isabel (360), just as earlier he tries to accept his grief at the news of his mother's death as a part of the cost at which ‘the more exalted virtues are gained’ (286). After belatedly recognizing the incestuous nature of his attraction to Isabel, Pierre copes with the knowledge by shutting it out of his consciousness and continuing to deceive himself about his motives. In earlier Books Melville frequently comments on and analyzes Pierre's lack of awareness and his self-deception; now in the last four Books such commentary is notably lacking. Instead, Melville exalts his hero as consumed with devouring profundities, the result of his recent momentous experiences, even while Pierre is revealing a lack of profundity, a lack of perception, and an inability to face the truth of what he has actually experienced—limitations that are as dangerous as ever. While earlier Melville had commented incisively on Pierre's ‘strange oversights and inconsistencies’, he now fails to recognize a major contradiction in his characterization. He also forgets the origin of Pierre's book. Pierre announces to Isabel that he will ‘gospelize the world anew’ (273), but his new gospel is delusive, merely the result of his inability to accept himself as anything less than immaculate. Rather than recognizing that he is no longer virtuous, he proclaims that ‘Virtue and Vice are trash!’ (273). Melville makes no attempt to reconcile Pierre's initial evasion of truth as an author with his later supposed profundity. Nor does he make any attempt to explain the incongruity of Pierre's writing a blasphemous new gospel yet feeling protected by ‘some strange heavenly influence’ when Lucy joins him, though the incongruity makes Pierre seem more a simpleton than a man of profundity.

Still other parts of the novel are in conflict with the ending. In Pierre Melville sets out to demonstrate, among other things, that chronometrical altruism leads inevitably to catastrophe. His self-renouncing hero, as the pamphlet predicts, arrays ‘men's earthly time-keepers against him’ (212), falls into a ‘fatal despair of becoming all good’ (215), and works himself ‘woe and death’ (212). Yet near the end of this progression Melville endorses his hero's ‘Titanism’. Thus, in Pierre Melville is sceptical of a world-rejecting Christian ethic because it destroys the individual who holds to it, but finally advocates a world-rejecting Titanism equally destructive of the individual who holds to it. Through many Books he prepares the reader to expect a catastrophic ending, a disaster that will be the inevitable result of Pierre's chronometrical sacrifice for Isabel and of his being merely human. But when the disastrous end comes, Pierre's state of mind is a ‘reckless sky-assaulting mood’ that Melville admires as evidence of demi-godliness. As he goes out to meet Glen and Fred, Pierre proclaims: ‘“I defy all world's bread and breath. Here I step out before the drawn-up worlds in widest space, and challenge one and all of them to battle!”’ (357). In the prison-cell after the murder of Glen, Pierre is like Enceladus with the mountain thrown down upon him: ‘The cumbersome stone ceiling almost rested on his brow; so that the long tiers of massive cell-galleries above seemed partly piled on him’; Pierre's ‘immortal, immovable, bleached cheek was dry’ (360). His defiance in the prison-cell is again Enceladus-like, again implicitly approved, it would seem, by Melville: ‘Well, be it hell. I will mold a trumpet of the flames, and, with my breath of flame, breathe back my defiance!’ (360). In a sudden reversal, the chivalric posturing (‘challenge one and all of them to battle’, ‘mold a trumpet of the flames’, ‘breathe back my defiance’), earlier indicative of Pierre's adolescent delusions, is now associated with a ‘heaven-aspiring’ nobility (347).

These conflicting attitudes toward Pierre's behaviour are not final, meaningful ambiguities Melville has carefully worked towards, but abrupt, confusing contradictions, the ultimate results of his excessively personal sympathy for Pierre's frustrations as an author. The decision to make the hero an author, whenever it was made, led to some powerful writing in the second half of Pierre, particularly in the Enceladus vision. It also deprived Melville of a full sense of what he was doing, in the second half and in the novel as a whole. ‘Two books are being writ’, said Melville (304), referring to the bungled one Pierre is putting on paper to offer to the world's eyes and the ‘larger, and the infinitely better’ one ‘for Pierre's own private shelf’, the one being written in his soul as the other is written on paper. In Pierre itself two books were also written, the one up through Book XIV (and intermittently thereafter) which examined the growth of a deluded but idealistic soul when confronted with the world's conventionality, and the later one which expressed Melville's sometimes sardonic, sometimes embittered reflections on his own career. There was no successful fusion of the two. As the new obsession drained off Melville's psychic and creative energies, the original purpose was blighted. Under the circumstances, it may be wrong to think of what Pierre might have been: behind Melville there was no educated literary milieu, no available models, no shoptalk with other literary masters, no rigorously critical friend, no one to assure him of ultimate glory—nothing, in short, to help him hold to the pervading idea that impelled the first half of the book. Yet he had accomplished so much in this book that one becomes anguished as Melville's genius goes tragically to waste. The great epic of metaphysical whaling came tormentingly close to being succeeded within a few months by a Kraken-book, one of the finest psychological novels in world literature rather than merely the best psychological novel that had yet been written in English.


  1. When he wrote this letter to Hawthorne, Melville had just begun work on Pierre or else was at the point of beginning it. The fullest timetable of the composition of the book is in Hershel Parker, ‘Why Pierre Went Wrong’, Studies in the Novel, vol. 8 (Spring 1976) 7-23.

  2. Furthermore, ways of conceiving and organizing passages recur, as in Book IV, where Melville as narrator announces the ultimate futility of ‘all analytical insight’ (67) and instead resorts to subtler conjurations to convey his meaning, just as he has Ishmael do in ‘The Whiteness of the Whale’.

  3. ‘Melville's Pierre’, New England Quarterly, vol. 3 (April 1930) 195-234.

  4. ‘Historical Note’, p. 407, in Pierre, ed. Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker, and G. Thomas Tanselle (Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern University Press and the Newberry Library 1971). Page references are to this edition. The ‘Historical Note’ is by Leon Howard (365-79) and Hershel Parker (379-407).

  5. See ‘Why Pierre Went Wrong’, cited in footnote one, and Hershel Parker's ‘Contract: Pierre, by Herman Melville’, Proof, vol. 5 (1977). Briefly, after several weeks' intense work on the manuscript, Melville went to New York City in the last days of 1851 to arrange a contract with the Harpers for publication of Pierre, then seen as a shortish book of around 360 pages, not the much longer book of some 500 pages which the Harpers eventually published. Not only did the Harpers fail to give Melville an advance, they also insisted upon less favourable terms than ever before. Distressed by his contract negotiations, and further exacerbated by scathing reviews of Moby-Dick which were appearing in the January periodicals, Melville immediately began writing his own literary frustrations into the manuscript. Before he left New York City (apparently in the third week of January 1852), Melville had enlarged the book beyond the size he had stipulated to the publisher and had instructed his lawyer-brother Allan Melville to alter the contract accordingly. Allan's letter to the Harpers on 21 January 1852 establishes the rapidity with which Melville's conception of the book changed and locates that change as occurring between the very end of 1851 and the first week or so of 1852.

  6. ‘Historical Note’, pp. 366 and 372.

  7. Melville had recently concluded in fact that ‘There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness is the true method’ (Moby-Dick, chapter 82, ‘The Honor and Glory of Whaling’).

  8. In ‘Retrospective’ Pierre may be portrayed as rather more infantile than a lad of twelve or more should be, for instance. Some apparent awkwardnesses, such as the uncertain age of Isabel, may well be deliberate ambiguities.

  9. The word ‘nether’ is Parker's recent emendation for the first edition's ‘nearer’. The emendation will be incorporated in subsequent printings of the Northwestern-Newberry edition.

  10. Page 65 provides a clear example: ‘now, for the first time, Pierre, Truth rolls a black billow through thy soul! Ah, miserable thou, to whom Truth, in her first tides, bears nothing but wrecks!’ The passage continues: ‘as the mariner, shipwrecked and cast on the beach, has much ado to escape the recoil of the wave that hurled him there; so Pierre long struggled, and struggled, to escape the recoil of that anguish, which had dashed him out of itself, upon the beach of his swoon’. See also the accounts of the ‘shrine in the fresh-foliaged heart of Pierre’ (68); the ‘choice fountain, in the filial breast of a tender-hearted and intellectually appreciative child’ (68); the ‘charred landscape’ within Pierre (86); the ‘billow’ that had ‘so profoundly whelmed Pierre’ (104); the things ‘fœtally forming’ in Pierre (106); the ‘electric fluid’ in which Isabel seems to swim (151-2); the ‘Hyperborean regions’ into which strongest minds are led (165); and the ‘vulnerable god’ and ‘self-upbraiding sailor’ (180-1).

  11. See, for example, the passages explaining that ‘From without, no wonderful effect is wrought within ourselves, unless some interior, responding wonder meets it’ (51); that ‘in the warm halls of the heart one single, untestified memory's spark shall suffice to enkindle … a blaze of evidence’ (71); that the ‘inestimable compensation of the heavier woes’ is ‘a saddened truth’ (88); that ‘when suddenly encountering the shock of new and unanswerable relevations … man, at first, ever seeks to shun all conscious definitiveness in his thoughts and purposes’ (92); that the soul of man ‘can not, and does never intelligently confront the totality of its wretchedness’ when ‘on all sides assailed by prospects of disaster’ (104); that the ‘intensest light of reason and revelation combined, can not shed such blazonings upon the deeper truths in man, as will sometimes proceed from his own profoundest gloom’ (169); that ‘on the threshold of any wholly new and momentous devoted enterprise, the thousand ulterior intricacies and emperilings to which it must conduct … are mostly withheld from sight’ (175); and that ‘There is a dark, mad mystery in some human hearts’ (180).

  12. Also, the section of ‘Young America in Literature’ (250-1) on the flirtatious young ladies who entreat Pierre to ‘grace their Albums with some nice little song’ (and who live within easy walking or riding range, judging by the way his servants deliver the albums back to their owners) seems out of keeping with the portrayal of the maidens of Saddle Meadows in Book III (p. 46, especially). Until Book XVII there is no hint that Pierre has been sought out by any of the local girls, or that he has had social exchanges of any significance with any of them besides Lucy Tartan (who resides only part of the year in Saddle Meadows). Perhaps an even clearer example of Melville's forgetting his earlier characterization is in Book XXI, ‘Plinlimmon’, where he declares that a ‘varied scope of reading, little suspected by his friends, and randomly acquired by a random but lynx-eyed mind’ in the course of ‘multifarious, incidental, bibliographic encounterings’ as an ‘inquirer after Truth’ had ‘poured one considerable contributary stream into that bottomless spring of original thought which the occasion and time had caused to burst out’ in Pierre (283). But earlier Pierre's reading was said to have brought him ‘into many a maze of all-bewildering beauty’, not Truth (6). These examples are conspicuous; probably some other improvised passages are consistent enough with the rest of the book to escape notice.

  13. There is always the possibility that this passage was written before the pamphlet and left uncancelled; similar redundancies were created by late additions in Typee. However, Melville's forgetting and improvising elsewhere in the second half of Pierre tends to cast doubt on this possibility.

  14. Pierre (New York: Hendricks House, Inc. 1949) p. lxxxiii.

  15. Melville's trip to New York probably coincided with his reaching a point beyond which it would have been difficult to proceed with a cautious enough development of the Pierre-Isabel relationship, for the inhibiting sexual mores of the time would hardly have allowed him to trace all the stages of an incestuous passion and still have his book published. Whatever comments the Harpers may have made on his work-in-progress, for practical purposes he had written himself into an impasse by the time he established Pierre's menage at the Apostles' and made his ambiguous suggestion that incestuous lust may have been consummated. The impasse would have encouraged his urge to explore his new preoccupation with authorship. It would also have encouraged the introduction of another character to facilitate some exploration of Pierre's relationship with Isabel without intensifying the suggestion of its incestuous nature. Melville's choice of Lucy as this agent had the further advantage of providing, through the involvement of Fred Tartan and Glendinning Stanly, the means of a tragic outcome.

Steve Gowler (essay date 1981)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5876

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 ruminations.2

Pierre contains numerous thematic vectors which could be traced in isolation: the silence of God, the plight of the artist, the struggle of the idealist against social conventions, the destructiveness of pride, the conflict between sensuality and spirituality, the insulting indifference of Fate, the cruelty of the city, etc. However, it is the coalescence of themes like these that produces Pierre's powerful statement of the absurdity of the human condition.3 The meaning of Pierre is that meaning itself is ephemeral, devoid of discernible logic, beyond guarantee. Pierre portrays a young man of talent who sincerely desires some ordering principle, some defense against the onslaught of evil, but who is undermined in every attempt to construct a hedge of meaning.

Nathalia Wright has said that in Pierre Melville “came close to writing an anatomy of sin.”4 Pierre's plight is exaggerated, yet, in a sense, universal. Sin, suffering, and death inevitably intrude upon the lives of individuals and communities, raising disturbing questions about life's value and meaning. For most people, everyday reality has been so carefully constructed and is so massively reinforced by habit, tradition, ethos, and institutions that evil only infrequently subverts one's will to live, work, and love.5 With Pierre Melville provides a test case, an example of an individual in close proximity to meaning structures which have proved effective for others, but which fail to supply him with the solace of meaning or an alternative to suicide.

Attempts to withstand the horrors of evil through the construction or appropriation of meaning structures are sometimes called “theodicies.” The term “theodicy,” a combination of the Greek words “theos” (God) and “diké” (justice), customarily refers to the philosophical or theological justification of God in the face of evil. Often theodicy is seen as the academic equivalent of Milton's attempt to “justify the ways of God to men.” But theodicy has accumulated more comprehensive connotations in this century. As sociologist Peter Berger points out, “the illiterate peasant who comments upon the death of a child by referring to the will of God is engaging in theodicy as much as the learned theologian who writes a treatise to demonstrate that the suffering of the innocent does not negate the conception of a God both all-good and all-powerful.”6 Here the term will be used in this broader sense as an attempt rationally and emotionally to circumvent despair, or, more specifically, as an attempt to explain and legitimate the continuation of life and action in spite of the jolting experience of evil and suffering. Pierre may be said to inhabit the realm of the absurd because it systematically depicts the failure of all available theodicies—secular as well as Christian—to provide the hero with a frame of meaning sturdy enough to withstand his increasing consciousness of evil. By Melville's time, Enlightenment scepticism had overturned the grand religio-philosophical attempts to reconcile the simultaneous existence of evil and of a good, powerful God. Thus, in this essay I will take up non-philosophical, practical, socially-available theodicies which were still operative for many people in Melville's day. In section I, I will deal with those arising out of the Biblical tradition, and in section II with those deriving from romanticism.


Although Pierre is allegedly a Christian, the Christianity found in his story is too enervated to serve as the sustaining element of his life. The two most prominent symbols of Christianity—the stammering clergyman Falsgrave, whose religious zeal was long before quenched by his desire to win the approbation of Saddle-Meadows' elite, and the husk of a church which houses a motley band of Kantian “apostles” in the city—both suggest that Christianity is a dessicated, worn-out institution irrelevant to present issues of vital importance.7 The Church's inability to make sense of Pierre's situation dawns vividly upon the hero as he travels to the city:

The imperishable monument of his holy Catholic Church; the imperishable record of his Holy Bible; the imperishable intuition of the innate truth of Christianity;—these were the indestructible anchors which still held the priest to his firm Faith's rock, when the sudden storm raised by the Evil One assailed him. But Pierre—where could he find the Church, the monument, the Bible, which unequivocally said to him—“Go on; thou art in the Right; I endorse thee all over; go on.”8

Prior to Pierre's departure from Saddle-Meadows, there are scattered indications that Christianity might furnish the hero with a network of meaning capable of accommodating his subsequent sin and suffering. An integral part of Pierre's heritage, Christianity was, in fact, a sine qua non of the Glendinning ideal of gentlemanliness. Pierre aligned himself with this family tradition by joining his mother in partaking of the Sacrament when he was sixteen. But Pierre's faith was an inheritance rather than a product of his own spirit. Christianity's power, if it ever existed, belonged to a former time, in this case a past time which was becoming increasingly unattractive to Pierre. Nevertheless, for a time, a genuine Christian idealism appears to motivate Pierre's decision to champion Isabel's cause while simultaneously sparing his father's honor and his mother's feelings. In a nocturnal confrontation with Falsgrave, Pierre seals his decision by suggesting that the clergyman's faith is specious and by invoking the true Christian spirit. Convinced that he is imbued with a unique sensitivity to the divine (“Pierre felt that deep in him lurked a divine unidentifiableness, that owned no earthly kith or kin” [p. 89]), Pierre embarks on a mission beyond the capacity of an ordinary man.

Thus, early in Pierre, the protagonist is apparently wholeheartedly devoted to the Christian ideal. However, he is also appallingly naive and inconsistent in his expression of faith. Despite his ostensible adoption of the Christian way, none of the Biblical theodicies shield him from the devastating effects of evil. In the first place, Pierre does not even entertain the possibility of a theodicy of retribution whereby good and evil are appropriately rewarded or punished by a just God, if not immediately, then in a life to come. The fact that Pierre never demonstrates a belief in life after death means that a retribution theodicy could only be salvaged if there were some evidence of a coherent distribution of justice in this life. Such a theodicy is extremely tenuous since it is subject to empirical falsification. Further, Pierre is so overwhelmed by his discovery of the anguishing reality of evil that a future harmony which might lend retroactive significance to his suffering is unimaginable.9 The narrator comments explicitly on Pierre's doubt that things might be made understandable at some future date:

By infallible presentiment he saw, that not always doth life's beginning gloom conclude in gladness; that wedding-bells peal not ever in the last scene of life's fifth act; that while the countless tribes of common novels laboriously spin vails of mystery, only to complacently clear them up at last; and while the countless tribe of common dramas do but repeat the same; yet the profounder emanations of the human mind, intended to illustrate all that can be humanly known of human life; these never unravel their own intricacies, and have no proper endings; but in imperfect, unanticipated, and disappointing sequels (as mutilated stumps), hurry to abrupt intermergings with the eternal tides of time and fate. (p. 141)

Even some of the Biblical writers recognized the problems of a theodicy of retribution. Job arose out of a counter-tradition which passionately objected to the idea that absolute justice holds sway in this world. Job's flirtation with blasphemy produces a theodicy totally unlike that of the retributionists. For Job, meaning arises from the fact that his tenacious faith in the integrity of his life and in the inequity of his suffering earned him an audience with God. Even though God does not answer the question Job asked, the very fact that He responds in majesty renders all human confusion trivial but understandable. Pierre himself takes a Job-like stance when, in an audacious prayer, he challenges God to provide him with the strength to see his mission through to the end. His request ends in a tone of threatening defiance: “If ye forsake me now,—farewell to Faith, farewell to Truth, farewell to God …” (p. 107). But unlike Job's, Pierre's bold challenge provokes no response. No answering whirlwind greets Pierre, only silence, deafening in its profundity and absoluteness. The narrator, Pierre's keenest, most sympathetic observer, remarks: “Silence is at once the most harmless and the most awful thing in all nature. It speaks of the Reserved Forces of Fate. Silence is the only Voice of our God” (p. 204).

Christology is the strongest Christian theodicy. If Christ suffered as both God and man, evil and suffering no longer need be seen as discrepancies or injustices or intrusions; rather, they can be assimilated as unfortunate but essential aspects of the universe. God now needs no justification since even He is not immune to the pain and degradation of life's negativities.10 Though this theodicy does not explain the “why” of evil, it does provide a powerful means of overcoming evil's paralyzing effects by allowing the individual to view God as a concerned co-sufferer instead of a capricious enemy. However, we have no indication that Pierre's suffering is alleviated by a consciousness of God as fellow-sufferer. In fact, Pierre's suffering is intensified by a radical aloneness; he shares his burden with no one.

Christological theodicy fails Pierre because he views Christ as exemplar only, never as savior. A brother-like fondness for Christ is merely Pierre's first tentative step toward Prometheanism. For Pierre, Christ provides no clue to the nature of the universe. Pierre is interested only in the strength of personality and radical devotion to calling which set Christ apart from the masses. Founded on a private, highly idiosyncratic interpretation of scripture and tradition, Pierre's strange version of Christianity is expressed through threats to God, gross inconsiderateness, and unabashed pride. Brian Higgins and Hershel Parker have commented upon Pierre's so-called “Christianity”:

Nowhere in the book, moreover, does Pierre see that for all his efforts to be Christlike he has never been a true Christian. Despite his partaking with his mother of the Holy Sacrament, he has in fact been only nominally a Christian, drawn to the Church as a family responsibility laid down by his father, whose maxim linked gentlemanhood and Christianity. The superhuman powers Pierre invokes are ill-sortedly Christian or pagan; consistently he images his relationship with such powers as an antagonistic one: demons or gods, they are to be threatened and, especially, bargained with.11

Clearly Pierre's Christianity is founded on a suspect, even heretical, theology. Yet the failure of faith is not exclusively Pierre's problem. Once Pierre moves to the city, references to Christianity cease, suggesting that the Church and her faith belong to the old ways of the country only. Pierre rejects Christian faith as an impotent holdover from a past which grows more disreputable the more he learns of it.


Pierre's break with his heritage dimly echoes the intellectual rumblings of the Aufklärung. Just as the most perceptive thinkers of the eighteenth century had recognized the inability of Christianity, in its traditional formulations, to answer the questions posed by their experience, so Melville, too, endured a crisis of faith. In a sense, Pierre is Melville's proxy as he looks outside his inherited faith for meaningful structures of existence. Melville was painfully aware of the fact that he lived in a post-Enlightenment world in which the hypothesis of a personal God who intervenes in the histories of individuals and societies was no longer tenable. The last thoroughgoing attempt at philosophical theodicy, Leibniz's grand exercise in monism, had been unceremoniously demolished by Voltaire, Kant, and others who made it abundantly clear that human experience denied, with absolute finality, that ours is “the best of all possible worlds.”

The task of theodicy had been reformulated by the end of the eighteenth century. The idea of a benevolent God who needed to be justified in the face of the world's evil gave way to the idea of a distant and uninterested deity whom many held culpable for his indifference. For the majority of these thinkers, God's assumed indifference to the problems of humankind elicited a retaliatory indifference toward things divine. “To each realm its own” was the tacit supposition of most thinkers, with the proprietary rights to Christ the only matter to be settled. A God-man was unthinkable in the new scheme, so a de-hybridization of Christ was accomplished by appropriating him entirely into the human realm sans miracles.

This tidy solution of the God-problem left the evil-problem untouched. In Romanticism, which was constructed on the ruins of the old world order, men like Hegel, Goethe, and Kant tried to devise systems which could account for moral and historical fluctuations without relying on a deus ex machina. They, and their artistic counterparts, had somehow to incorporate evil and suffering meaningfully into a plot deprived of a divine whipping boy.

M. H. Abrams, in his Natural Supernaturalism, speaks at length about the theoretical treatment of evil in the early Romantic period. Simply put, the Romantics believed that individuals, and by extension all of humanity, are involved in a process of growth and education in which suffering and sin are necessary milestones on the journey toward maturity. Pain and sundry other evils serve to prick, sensitize, and heighten the consciousness of individuals-in-formation. Rather than the Biblical Heilsgeschichte, or salvation history, the Romantics promulgated a Bildungsgeschichte, or formation history, a pattern of progress toward maturity in this world which accepts evil as its necessary concomitant.12 In Abrams' words, “most Romantic versions of the educational journey, as we have seen, incorporate a displaced theodicy, in which error and suffering are justified as indispensable to the self-formation and self-realization of the mature individual, in a span of reference coterminous with his life in the world” (p. 244).

Melville had read widely in the works of the Romantics, and he was acutely aware of the various ways Romantic doctrines were being popularly translated by the transcendentalists and sentimentalists of his own day.13 In fact, in Pierre Melville utilized many of the conventions of these traditions as well as the most characteristic Romantic narrative pattern, the Bildungsroman.14 But just as he did with the Christian tradition, Melville portrays Romantic theodicies as failing to make sense of Pierre's life. Pierre blatantly parodies Romantic symbols and structures, gothic plot conventions, sentimental dialogue, and transcendental philosophy.15Pierre stands not as a recommendation, but as a rejection of the Romantic synthesis.

For the Romantics, nature is the individual's companion and mentor in the educational process. Abrams notes that “Wordsworth's argument, like Milton's, is a theodicy which locates the justification for human suffering in the restoration of a lost paradise” (p. 95). This Romantic paradise is not given from above, but is the result of the union of mind and nature. Pierre appears to live in such an integrated human-nature paradise when his story opens. The narrator composes psalms to express Pierre's relationship to the landscape: “Oh, praised be the beauty of this earth; the beauty, and the bloom, and the mirthfulness thereof” (p. 32). Pierre's singular life of love, security, and unity with his natural and social environments “seemed almost to realize here below the sweet dreams of those religious enthusiasts, who paint to us a Paradise to come” (p. 16).

But Saddle-Meadows as Paradise is only a vision of Pierre's dreaming, pre-conscious state, that period before Isabel appears with her shocking retinue of evil and suffering. After Pierre's “fall,” nature offers no solace; in fact, Saddle-Meadows, with its unavoidable associations with a soured past, harbors so many terrors for Pierre that he flees to the city—precisely the opposite route of Wordsworth's escape to the country “From the vast city, where I long had pined / A discontented sojourner: now free” (The Prelude, Bk. I, ll. 7-8).

Pierre fares no better in the city. It becomes merely the harsh backdrop of his final days. Janis Stout calls Pierre “one of the strongest depictions of the Evil City in all American fiction.”16 However, the city is never set in opposition to the morally superior country left behind. Instead, the city, with its horrible loneliness, failed communication, and pervasive alienation, only completes a portrait of evil begun at Saddle-Meadows. Stout lists some of the ways Melville presents a tainted view of nature:

He establishes an association of the country with a warlike aristocracy. … More devastating is the light thrown on Pierre's country nurture by later events: the ominous overtures of incest in his relationship with his mother become more obvious as the incest motif with Isabel develops; concealed threats appear in the landscape itself; and Pierre comes to realize the fatuousness of his early literary effusions, which the narrator had pointedly linked to rural sensibility. (p. 165)

Moral country/evil city is an illusory dichotomy attributable simply to the fact that the natural landscape is better able to camouflage evil. Beneath the surface, however, country and city rest on a common dehumanizing base.

The narrator twice informs the reader, the second time with special emphasis, that “it had been the choice fate of Pierre to have been born and bred in the country” (pp. 5, 13) and that “Nature intended a rare and original development in Pierre” (p. 13). Subtly ironic, these words prove true in a way which belies their benevolent tone. Pierre's natural milieu wears a false face. Beneath its placid surface lie the seeds of Pierre's destruction. His experience directly contradicts the Emersonian idea that nature is the rich depository of commodity, beauty, discipline, and language, an expression of spirit which is both text and interpreter of the universe's essence and meaning. While he dreams of Enceladus, Pierre comes to the frightening realization that “say what some poets will, Nature is not so much her own ever-sweet interpreter, as the mere supplier of that cunning alphabet, whereby selecting and combining as he pleases, each man reads his own peculiar lesson according to his own peculiar mind and mood” (p. 342).

“To believe your own thought, to believe what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,—that is genius. … Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. … Society everywhere is conspiring against the manhood of every one of its members. … Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist.” These maxims from Emerson's “Self-Reliance” embody the transcendentalist version of the Romantic notion of the surpassing excellence of the private life. Abrams speaks of the “theodicy of the private life” in addition to the “theodicy of the landscape.” The growth and nurture of the individual soul “justifies sorrow and suffering as the necessary condition for achieving wisdom, resignation, and power of insight which are attributes of maturity” (Abrams, p. 132).

Pierre's awareness of his unique self-being and his desire to devote himself unreservedly to his own psychological and emotional development are mentioned repeatedly. The narrator speaks of Pierre's “singularly developed character and most singular life-career” (p. 12). Lucy “cherished a notion that Pierre bore a charmed life” (p. 22). Pierre himself “felt that deep in him lurked a divine unidentifiableness, that owned no earthly kith or kin” (p. 89). Pierre consistently acts and thinks as a self-reliant man. Giving his spirit its head, he accepts the dictates of his heart (“The heart! the heart! ’tis God's anointed; let me pursue the heart!” [p. 91]); he thrusts himself into actions which insure public censure; he breaks with family and society at large when they threaten his mission. He is the consummate nonconformist. But close adherence to Emerson's maxims results in despair, not transcendental meaning. The theodicy of the private life fails Pierre because he realizes he is not an independent agent and because his exclusive attention to his own desires and development disintegrates into narcissism.

Even before quitting Saddle-Meadows, Pierre glimpses a sobering truth which would undermine any theodicy of personal progress: “Here, in imperfect inklings, tinglings, presentiments, Pierre began to feel—what all mature men, who are Magians, sooner or later know, and more or less assuredly—that not always in our actions, are we our own factors” (p. 51). In “Self-Reliance” Emerson warned that one should not court Chance, but should deal with Cause and Effect, the “chancellors of God.” This is an impossible admonition for Pierre because, as the narrator informs the reader, he believed cause and effect are inscrutable, not only in the realm of physics, but also in the kingdom of the heart:

Why this cheek kindles with a noble enthusiasm; why that lip curls in scorn; these are things not wholly imputable to the immediate apparent cause, which is only one link in the chain; but to a long line of dependencies whose further part is lost in the mid-regions of the impalpable air. (p. 67)

A theodicy of the private life is dependent upon the idea of free will; suffering can be interpreted as meaningful in a scheme of growth, development, and self-realization only if it is the result of a free decision-making process. If free choices succeed one another in a process of trial and error, even when the errors are genuinely and horribly painful, the whole process can be justified as an exercise in character-building. But if there is no connection between the free choices of the individual and the pain suffered, if the evil appears gratuitous, then a theodicy of the private life crumbles. As evil tightens its grasp on Pierre, he becomes less and less able to extricate himself by some free and self-reliant act. The futility of Pierre's situation is starkly summarized by the narrator: “Pierre was not arguing Fixed Fate and Free Will, now; Fixed Fate and Free Will were arguing him, and Fixed Fate got the better in the debate” (p. 182).17

Narcissism, as well as fate and chance, jeopardizes the theodicy of the private life. Pierre is so taken with his own talents and enthusiasm for duty that finally all of his actions result from motives which are perversely selfish. Pierre's ability to distinguish between the self and non-self breaks down; the world becomes an extension of himself. He tolerates no relationship which might perpetually remind him of his existence alongside others. Each woman with whom he desires a relationship is assigned a sibling equality; anything more (a mother) or less (an object of sensual desire) must be rejected as a serious threat to his carefully cultivated solipsism. Because he discounts everything but his own fluctuating desires, Pierre cannot find meaning even in love. His narcissistic sterility is evident in his abhorrence at the thought of consummating his love for Lucy and in his habit of flirting with members of his real or imagined family—his mother and Isabel—with whom sexual contact is unthinkable.

The private life also fails Pierre in its denial of the healing effects of community. Pierre breaks with every person and tradition that might provide him with a context of meaning as he attempts to deal with his perception of the depravity of the world. Even if community does not offer genuine love, it still yields a fresh perspective, a corrective to the necessarily limited point of view of the individual. Pierre turns inward and declares with frightening finality that he intends to live without the normal benefits of society. Unlike Ishmael, who could look back on his mixed experience aboard the Pequod and find refreshing intervals of shared purpose, Pierre, in an act of self-destructive pride, systematically severs his ties with family, fiancee, friends, and God.

The Romantic theodicies, then, fail Pierre as abysmally as those of Christianity. One after the other, traditional structures of meaning are shown to be inaccessible or irrelevant or impotent for Pierre. This record of empty theodicies bears some interesting affinities to a debunking work of the previous century, Voltaire's Candide. Helen Hauser contends that “the explicit moral of the book [Pierre] is very similar to that of Candide, a work which it resembles in some other particulars—cultivate your own garden, and do not seek to do the impossible.”18 Hauser's recognition of the similarity of the two works is instructive, but she goes too far when she suggests that they have similar morals. Pierre has no consoling coda of pleasant gardens; it ends in a body-strewn jail cell. In fact, Pierre explicitly rejects the notion that tending to one's own work is redeeming. Pierre's work as an author pushes him even more deeply into despair. It accelerates his awareness of the unendurable ubiquity of evil. Ishmael gained salvation by artistically arranging and rearranging his checkered history until discrepancies dissolved and a meaningful pattern emerged. Pierre is not so lucky; even art fails him in his quest for meaning.

Worse yet, Pierre is denied the terrifying, but quickening, meaning of defiant rebellion which is vouchsafed to Ahab. The minimal theodicy of rebellion is in some strange way the most satisfying, in that it represents the final, desperate attempt to retain one's humanity over against a universe which is perceived as hostile. In this theodicy suffering is welcomed as a sign of conflict with a superior foe, a black badge of courage which distinguishes its wearer as one who says “No! in thunder.” But Pierre's “No!” does not thunder because it is uttered in an acoustical and metaphysical void. He has no Moby-Dick to ennoble his defiance. The final absurdity of Pierre is that the hero is forced to take his own life because the universe is left as blank and unaffected by his murderous passion as it was by his earlier idealism and docility.

By systematically demonstrating the impotence of common, socially and traditionally available theodicies, Melville's work represents more than the anatomy of an ultimately tormented soul; it also serves as an indictment of life itself by portraying existence as a crucible of pain and evil which lacks any inherent means of amelioration. But this does not stand as Melville's final word. He did not accompany Pierre in suicide; he lived to write more fiction and poetry. Apparently he finally attained a degree of peace in his own life, but it came only after the struggle, after the jolting realization that life carries no guarantee of meaning. Pierre stands as a bleak picture of the breakdown of inherited structures of meaning, a sobering reminder of the inscrutability of life.


  1. Melville's novels can be grouped thematically in various ways. Some scholars see Pierre as sui generis, a land-locked anomaly lying between the earlier sea trilogies and his final two novels, which return to a shipboard setting. I find a more helpful grouping the one suggested by Edward Wagenknecht in Cavalcade of the American Novel (New York: Henry Holt, 1952), pp. 59-72. He divides the works through Pierre into “romances of experience” (Typee, Omoo, Redburn, and White-Jacket) and “romances of imagination” (Mardi, Moby-Dick, and Pierre). George C. Homans, in “The Dark Angel: The Tragedy of Herman Melville,” The New England Quarterly, 5 (1932), 699, advocates a scheme much like Wagenknecht's and maintains that Mardi, Moby-Dick, and Pierre “show a regularly developed action … completed with the catastrophe in the last.”

  2. This essay presupposes a close relationship between protagonist, narrator, and author. Even when describing Pierre's wildest actions and decisions, the narrator remains sympathetic and never adopts a condescending tone. The rhetorical evidence for an intimate relationship between Pierre and the narrator has led Raymond J. Nelson, in “The Art of Herman Melville: The Author of Pierre,Yale Review, 59 (1970), 209, to posit Pierre himself as the narrator, and the book Pierre as the autobiographical work which we find the hero writing in the city. We can also assume some identification between Pierre and Melville because of their many biographical similarities. In his introduction to the Hendricks House edition of Pierre (New York, 1949), Henry A. Murray notes that “scarcely anyone denies that Pierre is, in some sense and in some degree, autobiographical” (p. xxi).

  3. The idea that Pierre is a work of nihilism or absurdity has been suggested by many scholars. Joyce Carol Oates, in The Edge of Impossibility (Greenwich: Fawcett, 1972), p. 75, views Pierre as an important milestone in Melville's “apparent drift into nihilism.” Margaret S. McCroskery, in “Melville's Pierre: The Inner Voyage,” Studies in the Humanities, 2 (1971), 8, calls Pierre a “vanguard of the philosophy of the absurd” and a work which describes “the collapse of life-sustaining myths.” Murray states that “the pervasive moral of the book … is that there is no moral” (p. xvi). Nina Baym, in her recent “Melville's Quarrel with Fiction,” PMLA [Publications of the Modern Language Association of America], 94 (1979), 909, aligns herself with those who believe Melville's writings betray a “sense of the absurdity of the universe, the meaninglessness of language, and, hence, the absurdity of writing.” Robert Milder calls Pierre “a deliberate reductio ad absurdum of all metaphysics, all ethics, and all psychology” in his “Melville's ‘Intentions’ in Pierre,Studies in the Novel, 6 (1974), 186.

  4. Nathalia Wright, “Pierre: Herman Melville's Inferno,American Literature, 32 (1960), 180.

  5. The sociological theory lying behind this statement is derived from Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann's The Social Construction of Reality (Garden City: Anchor Books, 1967).

    The thesis of the present essay is akin to that of T. Walter Herbert's Moby-Dick and Calvinism: A World Dismantled (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1977), a work which details Melville's reworking of his inherited theological meaning-structures in Moby-Dick. Herbert, too, uses Berger and Luckmann's “sociology of knowledge” in order to help shape his argument (see pp. 3-5).

  6. Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy (Garden City, N. Y.: Anchor Books, 1969), p. 53.

  7. Another seemingly obvious negative comment on Christianity is Plinlimmon's pamphlet. I omit it from my discussion because of its equivocal meaning and role in the book. On the surface it seems to reinforce the idea of the impracticality of Christianity; however, its strong satirical tone and the unsavory appearance and personality of its author make it something less than a straight-forward argument against Christianity. For a cogent analysis of the pamphlet as satire see Brian Higgins, “Plinlimmon and the Pamphlet Again,” Studies in the Novel, 4 (1972), 27-38.

  8. Herman Melville, Pierre, ed. Harrison Hayford et al. (Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern Univ. Press and the Newberry Library, 1971), p. 205. All further references to Pierre will appear in the text and will be taken from this edition.

  9. One of the most eloquent rejections of the theodicy of deferred justice is found in The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan challenges Alyosha with these words: “I must have justice, or I will destroy myself. And not justice in some remote infinite time and space, but here on earth. Justice that I can see myself. … I don’t want harmony. From love for humanity I don’t want it. … [T]oo high a price is asked for harmony; it’s beyond our means to pay so much. And so I give back my entrance ticket …” Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Constance Garnett (New York: Signet Classic, 1957), pp. 225-226.

  10. The curious nature of a Christological theodicy has been powerfully summarized by Albert Camus in The Rebel, trans. Anthony Bower (New York: Vintage, 1956), p. 34:

    In that Christ had suffered, and had suffered voluntarily, suffering was no longer unjust and all pain was necessary. In one sense, Christianity's bitter intuition and legitimate pessimism concerning human behavior is based on the assumption that over-all injustice is as satisfying to man as total justice.… If everything, without exception, in heaven and earth is doomed to pain and suffering, then a strange form of happiness is possible.

  11. Brian Higgins and Hershel Parker, “The Flawed Grandeur of Melville's Pierre,” in New Perspectives on Melville, ed. Faith Pullin (Kent State Univ. Press, 1978), p. 180.

  12. This comparison of Heilsgeschichte with Bildungsgeschichte is taken from M. H. Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism (New York: Norton, 1971), p. 188. All further references to this work appear in the text.

  13. See William Braswell, Melville's Religious Thought (New York: Pageant Books, 1959) for a good discussion of Melville's reading.

  14. Pierre's structural similarities to the Bildungsroman have been widely recognized in recent years. Joel Thomas, in “Melville's Use of Mysticism,” Philological Quarterly, 57 (1974), 422, notes Pierre's “affinities with the Bildungsroman.” Leon Howard and Hershel Parker, in their “Historical Note” in the Northwestern-Newberry edition of Pierre, say: “There is a great deal of Carlyle's Bildungsroman in the latter part of Pierre, as there had been in Moby-Dick, but none in the early part when Melville was firmly in control of his intentions” (p. 370). Robert Milder contends that the central idea of Pierre is the problem of knowledge in both its external and internal aspects and that this problem is explored “through the vehicle of a bildungsroman” (p. 186). Nina Baym calls Pierre “a domestic romance and bildungsroman” which Melville put to his own, unique use (p. 909).

  15. That Pierre is a parody of romantic conventions has been discussed by too many scholars to mention. See Raymond Nelson, p. 203, for a catalogue of specific targets of parody.

  16. Janis Stout, “The Encroaching Sodom: Melville's Urban Fiction,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 17 (1975), 169. All further references to this work appear in the text.

  17. Pierre promotes neither strict determinism nor predestination. Fate and free will are both aspects of human life according to Melville. R. E. Watters, in “Melville's Metaphysics of Evil,” University of Toronto Quarterly, 9 (1947), 177, maintains that Melville's belief in both fate and free will, along with his inability to find any final purpose in the universe, resulted in a loose type of necessarianism. Though he never worked out a tight, systematic discussion of his position on freedom and fate, we can assume that these words of Ishmael reflect the interaction of the concepts as Melville saw it:

    … chance, free will, and necessity—no wise incompatible—all interweavingly working together. The straight warp of necessity, not to be swerved from its ultimate course—its every alternating vibration, indeed, only tending to that; free will still free to ply her shuttle between given threads; and chance, though restrained in its play within the right lines of necessity, and sideways in its motions modified by free will, though thus prescribed to by both, chance by turns rules either, and has the last featuring blow at events. Moby-Dick (New York: Norton Critical Edition, 1977), p. 185.

  18. Helen Hauser, “Spinozan Philosophy in Pierre,American Literature 49 (1977), 51.

Paul Lewis (essay date 1983)

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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.

Melville, Moby-Dick

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 Melville's Pierre; or, the Ambiguities (1852) and the history of extreme responses to the novel. Although it has been widely regarded as a flawed, uncontrolled, and incongruous work, it is now possible to see Pierre as a valid analysis of the challenges and dangers of incongruity. The irony of Pierre criticism is that readers have often failed to understand the novel because they brought to the work the very ineptitude in dealing creatively with the incongruous that Melville's unamused hero brings to his life, in this way illustrating the importance of Melville's novel by reviling it.

In the past decade empirical psychologists have come to see the role of incongruity as a starting point for experiences of humor, fear, and creativity. An incongruous event (that is, one that contradicts our sense of the normal) can seem threatening, or amusing, or confusing, or all three in various sequences depending on the context in which it occurs, the nature of the event, and our ability to cope with its unexpected significance.1 Such occurrences inevitably stimulate a higher level of arousal or tension, as the person affected attempts to deal with what is happening. If the occurrence seems threatening, fearful and defensive reactions may result. If the occurrence seems playful, smiling and laughing may result. And if the occurrence seems primarily puzzling, problem solving will be initiated.

The complexity of our response to the incongruous is easiest to see in the behavior of children, perhaps because they are most actively involved in the work of forming a world view.2 Consider a two-year-old girl trying to figure out a Jack-in-the-box for the first time. Like other toys it is brightly colored, so she approaches it in a playful spirit. As she turns the crank and music surrounds her, she smiles in delight. But when Jack springs up the child's muscles tense, she lurches back, and starts to tremble. Between fear and humor, this is the crucial moment of incongruity. Because the child is startled, because nothing like this has ever happened to her, she may run away in terror, instinctively hoping to drive Jack's dreadful pop from her mind. Because the child is intrigued, she may stay to experiment with the toy, bobbing her own head in imitation of Jack's, laughing, and continuing to turn the crank as before. In the end, through this process of reality-assimilation, she may come to understand the toy, removing it from the category of the incongruous to that of the familiar.

As this example suggests, incongruous moments are important because, if richly experienced, they can challenge and expand our sense of the normal. If making a world out of fragments of perception is the business of consciousness, the incongruous is what keeps this process alive and growing. Only through an awareness of our inability to understand something are we motivated to stop and question ourselves. A seemingly odd but actually healthy combination of emotions can open us to the unknown. If we only laugh at the incongruous, we may dismiss it too lightly. If we only fear the incongruous, we may avoid or deny it. But if we can combine the relaxation of humor with the concentration of fear, we may be able to absorb and digest what we were not expecting and cannot easily assimilate. Opposing this rich and complex response to incongruity is a counterforce of denial, the measure of a person's inflexibility. We like to believe that we are at the center of a coherent world, that our experiences form a consistent whole. Because the incongruous presents an opportunity for self-expansion, it can threaten this sense of identity and control. But when we resist the incongruous, when we deny it, we remain locked into inappropriate and inadequate ideas and emotions.

As a stimulus, then, the incongruous is rich in potential especially when it seems most threatening or absurd. Appropriately, as the controlling force of a literary text, the incongruous can frustrate aesthetic and moral norms and all too often inspire a harsh or limited critical response. Just as we resist the recognition of ideas and events that contradict our sense of the normal or possible, so works that uncompromisingly present us with incongruities are often greeted with the contempt of readers who are unwilling or unable to open themselves to the unexpected or the inexplicable. This can be a problem for almost any narrative, insofar as all narratives originate in some form of action-generating conflict, difficulty, or incongruity. But this is especially true of initial responses to texts that not only begin in incongruity but also wallow in it, using and abusing literary conventions to expose the limitations of accepted ideas.3 The ridicule and mockery such texts often receive is too complacent not to be an instrument of self-satisfied repression.

Infamous in the history of such limited critical responses to incongruous texts is the case of Herman Melville's Pierre, a masterpiece of frustration. One need hardly demonstrate the presence of incongruities in Pierre, as this has been the universally accepted starting point for critics, various interpretations focusing on different patterns or groups of incongruities. It is impossible not to see ideational and emotional worlds colliding in this tale of sinful idealism, pastoral corruption, and expedient virtue. Ideas and relationships, even individual human identities, are protean in Pierre, as mothers become sisters, brothers husbands, madmen writers, and philosophers fools. In Pierre, Melville brings his white whale into drawing rooms and onto city streets, takes Moby Dick for country rides and to elegant breakfasts. Just as Ishmael is baffled by an unknowable monster/deity, so, in Pierre it is impossible to arrive at any single view of the events and characters. Through a confusing world Melville follows a protagonist hell-bent on quickly labeling and understanding everything he sees. But Pierre is not simply a novel of incongruities; it is a novel about the psychology of the incongruous.

It is ironic that Pierre, a work about a person destroyed by his inability to accept the incongruous as a life principle, has often been misread or abused by critics unable to accept incongruity as a principle in art. This critical failure is seen most clearly in contemporary reviews of the novel, although the nineteenth-century emphasis on the formal and philosophic confusion of the work, as I will show later, continues to color modern readings. From the start critics have concentrated on why Pierre the novel fails, themselves failing to see that a far more interesting and valid question is why Pierre the character fails.

The defensive, almost knee-jerk nature of the initial responses of Melville's contemporaries to Pierre is obvious in their moral outrage, in their repudiation of thematic complexity, and in their failure to see anything funny about this hilariously painful book. Any novel published in 1852 that allowed its hero to contemplate incest would have earned the violent condemnation of most book reviewers. It is not surprising, then, in retrospect, to find Pierre reviled within months of its publication for its “exceeding sinfulness.”4 What is revealing is the obvious nausea of Melville's contemporaries, a nausea based on their unwillingness to ponder the questions raised by the book's incongruities. The tone of the reviewer for the Athenaeum is typical: “We take up novels to be amused—not bewildered—in search of pleasure for the mind—not in pursuit of cloudy metaphysics.” Typical also is the reviewer writing in the Literary World who snarled that “Mother and son, brother and sister are sacred facts not to be disturbed by any sacrilegious speculations” and asked rhetorically why Melville allowed his mind to “run riot amid remote analogies, where the chain of associations is invisible to mortal minds?” Most revealing, perhaps, is the self-limiting response of George Washington Peck writing in the American Whig Review, who concluded his long and vicious attack as follows: “We have dwelt long enough upon these ‘Ambiguities.’ We fear that if we were to continue much longer, we should become ambiguous ourselves. … Mr. Melville is a man wholly unfitted for the task of writing wholesome fictions.” What Melville clearly perceived is that such wholesomeness is a veil for self-righteous hypocrisy and that accepted intellectual “chains of association” are mind-forged manacles of convention.

The same critics who regarded Pierre with nausea and contempt and who scorned Melville's moral and metaphysical questioning often failed to appreciate the cruel humor of the book. Those who were aware of this comic line often saw it as a product of the author's insanity or lack of control. One reviewer who noted Melville's parodic intention in the opening chapters absurdly burlesqued Melville's already satirical style:

We have listened to its outbreathing of sweet-swarming sounds, and their melodious, mournful, wonderful, and unintelligible melodiousness has “dropped like pendulous, glittering icicles,” with soft-ringing silveriness, upon our never-to-be-delighted-sufficiently organs of hearing; and, in the insignificant significancies of that deftly-stealing and wonderfully-serpentining melodiousness, we have found an infinite, unbounded, inexpressible mysteriousness of nothingness.

This attempt to hoist Melville on his own petard ends by hoisting the hoister, a critic too comfortable in his world view to laugh at it. Like the toddler fleeing from the Jack-in-the-box, Melville's contemporaries turned the crank of Pierre until its incongruities popped up; and then, unable to laugh at and ponder them, they fled in righteous horror.

The irony is that what Melville's contemporaries did with Pierre the novel, Pierre the character does with life itself. Repeatedly Melville's adolescent hero reveals his immaturity by failing to accommodate startling experiences, failing to learn from them. An anti-Bildungsroman, Pierre defines maturity inversely by showing us a character's inability to grow. With unsettling precision Melville traces this inability to its elements: a lack of humor and, in spite of Pierre's obvious intellectual depth, an unwillingness to entertain profound questions for long. The tension between our sense of how Pierre ought to respond to his experiences and how he actually does respond creates an unbearable fascination.

Pierre's reluctance to acknowledge the incongruous and his inability to see humor in those incongruities that briefly penetrate his defenses reduce him to what might be called an anti-comedic pattern of response. In a fascinating study Seymour Fisher and Rhoda L. Fisher demonstrate that a common personality trait of professional comedians is a lack of faith in conventional answers and ideals:

The comic, in opening wide the door to surprise, intimates that anything is possible. He dramatizes the likelihood of the unpredictable. He conveys the view that we are surrounded by forces that are bound to lead us into unexpected trajectories. … He knows that inevitably the individual will be starkly surprised by the course of events. Comedy prepares the audience for novel intrusion by showing that customary and usually dependable rules are illusory. … In effect, the comic prepares his audience for chaos and half convinces it that the chaos can be fun.5

In Pierre, Melville follows the circular doom of a man who is unwilling or unable to cope with facts, ideas, or emotions that challenge his sense of reality. Unlike the comedians the Fishers studied who expect and celebrate the incongruous, Pierre recoils in horror from the unknown, the surprising, the mysterious.

Pierre's development is characterized by its dynamic stagnation, its psychic plus ça change. Buffeted by the incongruous way in which his ideals fail repeatedly to apply to his experiences, and unable to question the value of such ideals, Pierre moves from one useless absolute to another. His substitution of ideal Christianity for family pride and secular love, of absolute truth for ideal Christianity, and later of Satanic defiance for absolute truth is an evasion of any serious consideration of the confusion around him and the conflicts within, a way of remaining unchanged in the face of the incongruous. “I am Pierre and here I stand,” he seems to shriek, unaware of the complexity of his identity and the quicksand into which he is sinking.

We first see Pierre as the chivalric, late adolescent suitor of the virginal Lucy Tartan. Projecting his passion onto the landscape, Pierre regards the whole earth as a “love-token”6 and his Lucy as an angel belonging to “the regions of an infinite day” (p. 4). The problem with this rarefied view of love is that it cannot be reconciled with what Melville calls “uncelestial traits,” our liability to the demands of the flesh. The fool of love, Pierre is the victim of a world view which defines his projected marriage with Lucy as an act of blasphemy: “I to wed this heavenly fleece? … I am of heavy earth, and she of airy light. By heaven, but marriage is an impious thing!” (p. 58).

Until circumstances force Pierre to abandon Lucy and his first notions about love, he refuses to allow his awareness of the incompatibility of heavenly and earthly love to alter his idealism. Unlike the narrator, who has his tongue planted in his cheek throughout the early chapters,7 Pierre fails to see how funny the angelic view of love is. When Pierre gazes into Lucy's eyes, he sees “waves of infinite glee” (p. 35). But when the narrator discusses this experience, grotesque imagery and exaggerated assertions explode the ideal in laughter:

There are not so many fishes in the sea, as there are sweet images in lovers' eyes. In those miraculous translucencies swim the strange eye-fish with wings, that sometimes leap out, instinct with joy; moist fish-wings wet the lover's cheek. (p. 33)

All things that are sweet to see, or taste, or feel, or hear, all these things were made by Love; and none other things were made by Love. Love made not the Arctic zones, but Love is ever reclaiming them. Say, are not the fierce things of this earth daily, hourly going out? … Oh, Love is busy everywhere. (p. 34)

As the tone of these passages suggests, the problem with elevating a single principle or emotion to the level of supreme importance is that it will not be able to explain the many quirks and irregularities of life.

Pierre's addiction to the absolute (i.e., to undiluted emotions, pure morality, and clear abstractions) is a consequence of his aristocratic but unfortunate upbringing as a Glendinning male. The family fiction, inherited by virtue of a perverse psychic primogeniture, is that all of the Glendinning males have been perfect. His majestic grandfather, a hero of the Revolutionary War, lives in Pierre's mind as a “pure, cheerful, childlike, blue-eyed, divine old man; in whose meek, majestic soul, the lion and the lamb embraced—fit image of his God” (p. 30). His father, who died when Pierre was a toddler, is always spoken of as a gentleman and a Christian. Pierre's mother's remark early in the novel illustrates this paternal adulation: “God bless you, my dear son!—always think of him and you can never err; yes, always think of your dear perfect Father, Pierre” (p. 19). It is no wonder that when this son and grandson of supposed saints falls in love he should regard his relationship as a seraphic encounter.

Melville uses Pierre's relationship with his mother to separate the reader at the outset from Pierre's point of view. The first description of Mrs. Glendinning reveals both her attractions and her faults:

Pierre was the only son of an affluent, and haughty widow; a lady who externally furnished a singular example of the preservative and beautifying influences of unfluctuating rank, health, and wealth, when joined to a fine mind of medium culture, uncankered by any inconsolable grief, and never worn by sordid cares. (p. 4)

Alluring as she is, Mrs. Glendinning is also vain, proud, conventional, and controlling, a “widow Bloom” (p. 5) with moral cankers. Pierre, however, at this point sees only her blossom, as eventually he will see only her pride and rigidity. Calling her “Sister Mary,” he wallows unaware in an ambiguously “romantic filial love” (p. 5). She is his first angel for whom he feels (or thinks he feels) only a sweet and religious respect. But Melville explodes this simplistic domesticity by contrasting cloyingly incestuous scenes at the dressing mirror and dining table with inappropriate idealizations:

In a detached and individual way, it [Pierre's relationship with his mother] seemed almost to realize here below the sweet dreams of those religious enthusiasts, who paint to us a Paradise to come, when etherialized from all drosses and stains, the holiest passion of man shall unite all kindreds and climes in one circle of pure and unimpairable delight. (p. 16)

If these are angels, Melville implies, God keep us from heaven.

Pierre's downfall can be seen as illustrating the necessity of coming to accept the fallibility of parents, their capacity for good and evil, inspiration and corruption.8 It is certainly true that Pierre is eventually tormented by the realizations that his father was immoral and his mother cruel and inflexible. But the thematic unity of the novel becomes clearer if we think of Pierre's response to this unavoidable adolescent hurdle as one among several instances of his inability to cope with the incongruous. From this vantage point, Pierre's reactions to the “mystery of Isabel” is only the most fully developed episode in his repetitive emotional and intellectual collapse.

Pierre's response to Isabel's unexpected appearance in Saddle Meadows and to her claim that she is his illegitimate half sister reveals his unusual lack of preparation for such a shock. Although this response is divided into three stages (his response to her face, letter, and finally to her life story) and occupies about one-eighth of the book, it is distressingly circular, reflecting Melville's intuitive sense that being neurotic means doing the same things over and over again. Up to the moment of his first glance of Isabel, his life seemed to him a “perfect … scroll,” a “sweetly-writ manuscript” (p. 7), but the shock of her sexuality and anguish unnerves him. Even before he receives her letter of appeal he is terrified and saddened by the mysterious sorrow of Isabel's face. Prior to this time Pierre's pensive interludes were always superficial, mixed with reverie, sweet sadness, and “delicious poetic presentiments” (p. 41). Now he is confronted with a mystery that threatens to overwhelm him largely because he refuses to fully engage it: “What, who art thou? Oh! wretched vagueness—too familiar to me, a yet inexplicable,—unknown, utterly unknown! I seem to founder in this perplexity” (p. 41). What Pierre most dreads, foundering in perplexity, is the stuff of human progress and development.9

Unable to laugh at Isabel and at himself—at the absurd collision of his inflated ideals and deflating counterappearances—Pierre is unwilling to think about what is happening. Afraid that he will become a “railing atheist,” he withdraws from the incongruous and feverishly represses his memory of Isabel's face: “But ’tis gone—gone—entirely gone; and I thank God, and I feel joy again; joy, which I also feel to be my right as man; deprived of joy, I feel I should find cause for deadly feuds with things invisible” (p. 41). What Pierre does not realize, what he will never realize, is that simply deciding that you are happy or that you have understood your situation is inadequate. Such denial is a sign of desperation; the incongruous requires much more.

All of this emotional upheaval serves as a dress rehearsal for Pierre's full-blown reaction to Isabel's repulsive allure. When Isabel's letter reaches Pierre, we see his fatal addiction to moral absolutism at work. His “good angel” urges him to ignore self-interest and read the letter. His “bad angel” urges him to destroy the letter and be happy. But the contest is short and as he opens the envelope he feels “every vein in him pulsed to some heavenly swell” (p. 63). In spite of his conflicting feelings and in the face of Isabel's odd behavior, Pierre is already fitting the dark beauty into his ideal-mad world view as yet another angel—this one of pain and passion. His unwillingness to accept the fact that he is bewildered, or even confused, forces him to reach a familiar set of conclusions, conclusions that are both dubious and deadly.

The letter itself is rich enough and contradictory enough to inspire a wide range of emotions and ideas, a range of responses that Pierre is conspicuously incapable of achieving. Although it is bereft of factual evidence, the letter appeals to Pierre's moral sense, to his sense of guilt, and to his sense of familial pride. Like all of Isabel's acts, the letter is innocent but manipulative, childlike but passionate, self-sacrificing but self-absorbed. Her message is divided against itself, as the following passage shows: “No, I shall not, I will not implore thee.—Oh, my brother, my dear, dear Pierre,—help me, fly to me; see, I perish without thee;—pity, pity,—here I freeze in the wide, wide world;—no father, no mother, no sister, no brother, no living thing in the fair form of humanity, that holds me dear” (p. 64). What is extraordinary but also revealing is that for Pierre this melodramatic effusion is an emotional and intellectual dagger; it leaves him bleeding internally from a wound that never quite heals. His fear is understandable; he can feel his old world of parental respect careening out of its orbit. Humor would help him relax and reconsider, but he has no access to such profound laughter. He cannot, for instance, think to himself, following the passage just quoted, “I’m so glad she decided not to implore me!”

Pierre's inability to laugh here leaves him unable to speculate about what is, to say the least, a complex revelation, if it is a revelation at all. The amazing thing about Pierre's response to the letter is that, although it is the single most important event in his long and tortured decline, it occurs in just one paragraph. Struggling “to escape the recoil of anguish” (p. 65), Pierre vows to embrace “nothing but Truth … and do what my deepest angel dictates” (p. 65). Very briefly Pierre considers alternative explanations of Isabel's letter, that the whole episode is “some accursed dream” or that the letter itself is “a base and malicious forgery” (p. 65). However valid these conjectures may be (remember that Pierre has been in a walking dream since first seeing Isabel and that the letter offers no evidence whatsoever), Pierre finds it impossible to investigate them. As soon as these possibilities occur to him, he rejects them, preferring to curse his fate and to conclude that “This letter is not a forgery” (p. 66). With the logic of a child he babbles to himself: “Nothing but Truth can move me so” (p. 66). Fearing most of all the loss of a coherent identity, a position from which he can think, act, and emote, Pierre, by the end of the paragraph, is labelling himself Isabel's “Leapingly-acknowledging brother” (p. 66).

This leaping acknowledgment is an evasion of the problem solving and creativity called for by the incongruous. Pierre is devastated by the allegation that his father had an illegitimate child, devastated because this contradicts the view that his father was a saint on earth. The incongruity here has to do with the apparently irreconcilable belief in human perfection and the suggestion (accepted as a fact) that even the seemingly best of men are corrupt. Though disconcerting, this knot of ideas might lead in any number of interesting philosophic, psychological, and practical directions. Pierre has every reason to reject or at least defer accepting the view of his father suggested by the letter. But even after he accepts this revised family history, he might delay projecting it onto the world. Pierre immediately concludes that if his father was an imperfect Christian, Christianity as practiced by most people is a system of hypocritical vice. The implication for Pierre is that he must now become the perfect Christian. Although Pierre ignores them, there are many more open or speculative responses to this new “fact.”

Pierre might reason that if his parents were not angels, angelic natures are not possible for human beings. Therefore, Isabel is no angel, Lucy is no angel, and even Pierre is flawed. Or he might suspect that it is impossible to understand human experience, that ultimate questions are a waste of time. Or he might simply decide to keep living and thinking until a coherent position evolves. But you cannot leap to action and assertion if you pause to think. And if such a pause terrifies you because it leaves your sense of who you are in suspension, then any conclusion, however poorly it fits all the discrepant pieces together, will be better than none.

Just as Pierre's sense of mystery should be expanding to allow him to cope with these new ideas and facts, it shrivels. Throughout his childhood Pierre's ideal image of his father had been poetically tinged by the mysteries of a portrait of Pierre Sr. smiling in an arch and unsettling way. This portrait, Pierre learned as a young boy, was painted at a time when Pierre's father was thought to be involved with a French woman. Also, Pierre has always wondered about his father's death, about the way the dying man called out for a daughter to hold his hand. These details, combined with Isabel's resemblance to the roguish portrait, destroy even the pleasant sense of doubt Pierre had allowed himself to feel: “Pierre saw all preceding ambiguities, all mysteries ripped open as if with a keen sword” (p. 85). Refusing the “sordid scrutiny of small pros and cons” (p. 88), Pierre rejects his father and determines to fly to Isabel's side.

Like his earlier responses to the face and the letter and his later responses to other murky situations, Pierre's response to Isabel's story is a desperate denial and reduction of the incongruous. The tale of Isabel's youth is a Gothic set piece full of the heart-rending treatment she received at the hands of cruel or indifferent caretakers and from the inmates of an insane asylum. It is a tale of desperation and neglect, a Dickensian childhood without affection or belonging. Whether or not she is actually Pierre's half sister, what this bewildered and lonely young woman needs is protection and warmth, an effective helper and friend. What she gets is the ruin that results from Pierre's inability to treat her mysterious past as a mystery.

Melville divides Isabel's story into two parts, not because it is too long to tell in one sitting, but because he wants to concentrate on Pierre's reactions to the tale, not on the stimulus but the response. Book VII, “Intermediate between Pierre's Two Interviews with Isabel at the Farmhouse,” shows us that Pierre reacts to Isabel's “enigmatical story” by beating “away all thoughts” (p. 129). After a sleepless night, Pierre plunges deep into a nearby wood, suggestive of the impending pathlessness of his life. Although Pierre has already resolved to follow “the inflexible rule of holy right” (p. 106), the narrator reminds us that the moral values of Pierre's new loyalty to Isabel are complex. Isabel is beautiful, but “How, if accosted in some squalid lane, a humped, and crippled, hideous girl should have snatched his garment's hem, with—‘Save me, Pierre—love me, own me, brother; I am thy sister!’” (p. 107). It is just this sense of the mixed and mangled nature of man, of his own self, that Pierre finds it impossible to laugh at or accept. In the woods on the morning after the first part of Isabel's story, Pierre creeps under an enormous boulder and calls for his own death if he cannot live a morally perfect life. But the universe ignores his outcry; the boulder remains in place as only a bird lands on the rock and chirps down at the posturing youth.10

The seeds of Pierre's doom, germinating from the opening pages, take root in the interval between Isabel's narratives. The more Pierre resists the incongruous, the more it will torment and terrify him. Thus, at the very moment when he concludes that he is Isabel's brother, he senses unconsciously, disturbingly, that this may not be true, that her tale is incomplete, and that he is attracted to her with more than a brotherly love. Determined not to see his life as a set of “mysteries interpierced with mysteries” (p. 142), he reaffirms his habitual but by now idiotic belief in “uncorrupted Love” (p. 142). A smirking angel, Pierre hovers at the brink of yet another incestuous relationship.

Over this brink and into confusion Pierre tumbles when he arrives at the unprecedented idea of protecting his mother's pride, his family's honor, and Isabel by pretending to marry the girl and by actually eloping with her to a nearby city. On the practical level this plan is reckless: a penniless outcast, Pierre will not be able to keep Isabel from the poverty that has oppressed her. Apparently guilty of deceit and disloyalty himself (for abandoning Lucy and lying to his mother), Pierre cannot leave his family honor unbesmirched. But on the emotional level this plan is even worse because it leaves Pierre adrift. What more exquisite torture could a young man embrace than to live with a voluptuous and yielding woman whom it might or might not be a sin to touch? Pierre acts as though it would be worse to admit that he simply does not know what to make of Isabel, but the more he insists on maintaining a clear position, a coherent identity, the more he is endangered by the mysteries he denies.

The rest of Pierre's experiences extend and repeat the pattern we have been following, a circular process that begins with the disruption of Pierre's tenuous sense of absolute order and then moves too quickly to Pierre's reimposition of another set of inappropriate ideals. Attempts to define or deny the presence of thematic unity in Pierre often begin by asking whether Melville is writing to endorse either the absolutist (chronometrical) morality of Christ or the relative (horological) virtue of Plotinus Plinlimmon, the author of a pamphlet Pierre finds but then loses, as he always loses sight of ideas that challenge his world view. At times Melville seems to propose a synthesis of these competing value systems; at other times he seems to imply that man's divided nature (the supreme human incongruity of our middle state) makes such a synthesis a tragic impossibility.11 In Pierre, however, Melville is far less interested in the answer to this question than in the psychology of questioning. When Melville's critics ask whether Melville is loyal to Christ or to Plinlimmon, they are asking in a calm way the same question that Pierre, “dabbling in the vomit of his loathed identity” (p. 171), asks about his decision to abandon his fiancée and elope with Isabel: “Then, for the time, all minor things were whelmed in him; his mother, Isabel, the whole wide world; and only one thing remained to him;—this all-including query—Lucy or God?” (p. 181).

What gives Pierre its thematic unity is not the advocacy of a coherent and universal morality but the intensity of its concentration on a single human experience: the incongruous moment. The critics who have seen a great rift in the novel at the point at which Pierre moves away from Saddle Meadows and becomes a writer have followed not Pierre's psychological development, the center of the work, but shifts in such things as plot, setting, and narrative tone.12 But Pierre the writer is not very different from Pierre the son, Pierre the lover, or Pierre the brother. For Pierre, writing is just another way to take a stand, to broadcast the purity of his identity, or, as he puts it, “to gospelize the world anew” (p. 273). Those who argue that Melville's despair as a writer around the time when he was working on Pierre forced him to confuse his own dilemma with that of his protagonist mistake inspiration for obsession, Melville's use of his own experiences for a surrender to them. It is true, as Hershel Parker demonstrates, that Melville draws on his own frustrations as a writer in the chapters dealing with Pierre's ill-fated literary career.13 With some exceptions, however, this use of autobiographical materials is blended into the pattern, not of earlier references to Pierre as a writer, but of Pierre's general mind set. The inserted prose essays on an American literary scene divided between absolute integrity and expedient Philistinism provide an external parallel to Pierre's situation, and his uncompromising way of dealing with this scene recreates his earlier responses to other social conventions.

It is true, as several critics have noted, that there are many similarities between the book Pierre attempts to write and the one Melville succeeded in writing in Pierre.14 Both are about young writers. Both deal with moral issues, examining the validity of the distinction between virtue and vice, the nature of Christian worship as a guide to action, and the possibility of achieving moral perfection. The differences between the two works, however, as seen in Melville's descriptions of Pierre as a writer and in the passages quoted from Pierre's book, are more significant. According to Melville, Pierre is attempting to write a mature book in an immature way. A “life amateur,” Pierre allows his rage to warp his prose into a cry of despair and anger. The crucial difference is one of tone and distance. Like Pierre, Melville is enraged at the social hypocrisy of little sinners, but, unlike Pierre, Melville does not see himself as the apostle of absolute truth. To put it another way, the differences between Melville and Pierre are similar to the differences between Ishmael and Ahab, as is clear in the following passage describing Pierre as a writer:

Ten million things were as yet uncovered to Pierre. The old mummy lies buried in cloth on cloth; it takes time to unwrap this Egyptian king. Yet now, forsooth, because Pierre began to see through the first superficiality of the world, he fondly weens he has come to the unlayered substance. But, far as any geologist has yet gone down into the world, it is found to consist of nothing but surface stratified on surface. (pp. 284-85)

For Melville, the awareness of the limits of human intelligence is both a curse and a salvation; for Pierre, the repression of this awareness is fatal.

The scraps from Pierre's manuscript that we are shown support the narrator's assertion that Pierre has plagiarized “from his own experiences to fill out the mood of his” author-hero, Vivia. Like Pierre, Vivia embraces a deep mournfulness and eschews all “humorous or indifferent disguises” (p. 302), that is, he decides to be always serious, always engaged by the injustice of the human condition. In all earnestness, Vivia, speaking for Pierre, scorns philosophy, acknowledges the reality of pain, denounces the body as a kind of jail, and reviles humor: “oh God, that men that call themselves men should still insist on a laugh! I hate the world, and could trample all lungs of mankind as grapes … to think of the woe and the cant,—to think of the Truth and the Lie! Oh! blessed be the twenty-first day of December, and cursed the twenty-first day of June!” (p. 303). What makes Pierre a more mature work than Vivia would have been is Melville's conviction that if you reject humor and embrace a single position, your caricatured self-reduction makes you a joke. So, when the vileness of the human body arises as a topic in Pierre, it is treated with the bantering seriousness that runs through the novel, not with Pierre's, or Vivia's deadpan rage:

Love me, love my dog, is only an adage for the old country-women who affectionately kiss their cows. The gods love the soul of a man; often, they will frankly accost it; but they abominate his body; and will forever cut it dead, both here and hereafter. So, if thou wouldst go to the gods, leave thy dog of a body behind thee. And most impotently thou strivest with thy purifying cold baths … to prepare it as a meet offering for their altar. (p. 299)

Even without the final pun that implies that human meat will never please the gods, this passage approaches Melville's obviously intense unease over the mind/body problem with a smile. In this way, it is possible to find darkly comic passages that comment on each of the problems that Pierre finds it impossible to laugh at or think about: God's silence (p. 204) and indifference (p. 139), the pain of poverty (pp. 267-68), and the comparative evil of great and small sinners (Satan and “yonder habadasher,” pp. 177-78). And, of course, all of Pierre's rhetorically charged utterances (for instance, his “Guide me, gird me, guard me” speech on page 106) are at least in part jokes Melville enjoys at the expense of a character whose life and death are laughably sad.

A funny thing happens to Pierre on the way to his suicide: he has yet another humorless and ineffective revelation, this one teaching him that he has been a fool. Desperately pursuing clarity, Pierre has been tormented by the incongruities he has denied. The family he sought to protect is blasted when his mother dies in despair, leaving the Glendinning estate to a detested cousin. His efforts to live purely have been polluted by his lust for Isabel, and the moral significance of this lust keeps seeming to shift: is she his sister or not? Some occurrences support her story; some raise doubts—it is impossible to know for sure. And in the middle of all this and of Pierre's failing literary work, Lucy shows up at Pierre and Isabel's slum apartment. Another sordid angel, she comes ostensibly to help the perfect Pierre but in reality to compete for his love. The domestic scene is hilariously unpleasant. When Lucy volunteers to earn money by painting portraits, Isabel volunteers to sell her hair and teeth. And so it goes.

Finally rejecting both of his love-starved women, Pierre races toward his own annihilation:

“For ye two, my most undiluted prayer is now, that from your here unseen and frozen chairs ye may never stir alive;—the fool of Truth, the fool of Virtue, the fool of Fate, now quits ye forever!” (p. 358)

The situation leading directly up to this speech is complex. Building toward an eruption, Pierre's misfortunes have just belched up two farcical letters of denunciation. The first letter, from Steel, Flint, and Asbestos, the outraged publishers of Pierre's aborted romance, lambastes Pierre as a swindler and vile atheist, bemoaning his substitution of a “blasphemous rhapsody” for the contracted “popular novel” (p. 356). The second letter, from the outraged Glen Stanley and Fred Tartan (Lucy's new suitor and brother) is so puffed up as to be comic: “Separately, and together, we brand thee, in thy every lung-cell, a liar;—liar, because that is the scornfullest and loathsomest title for a man; which in itself is the compend of all infamous things” (p. 357). Of course these letters remind us and Pierre of his complete failure as a social and economic being, but Melville has the contemptuous letter writers exaggerate to the point of foaming absurdity. Pierre should be laughing as he cries. Instead, true to his addiction to the absolute, he sees these rejections as yet two more “indices to all immensities,” that is, as yet additional signs of the injustice of the universe.

On the morning of his final rejection of Lucy and Isabel, on his way to face his enemies, Pierre passes first Isabel, who shrieks and sits petrified, “glazed with an icy varnish” and then Lucy, who is sitting at her easel putting the finishing touches to a portrait. When Pierre stops to look at her work, he sees that it is a representation of himself as a skeleton. At this point—with the ludicrous percolating about him—Pierre has many emotional options. He might stop and say something like, “Oh, so that’s what she thinks of me—hardly flattering,” or “perhaps I have been losing too much weight lately,” or “Well, boney hands do the devil's work.” Instead of laughing, he gives the “fool of Truth” speech and rushes out to his doom.

What makes this speech so unsettling is that Pierre is foolish even in what he believes to be his moment of self-knowledge. There are more ways to be a fool than Pierre can see even now. As he insists, he has been destroyed by his foolish allegiance to absolute Truth and absolute Virtue in a world of subjective views and relative norms. What Pierre does not see is that he has also been destroyed by his failure to be either a low fool or a high fool. A low fool, that is someone who can see only the humorous side of experience, would never have been gripped by the tragic compulsion to identify evil and resist it. If the “whole world's a trick,” as Charlie Millthorpe, the low fool in Pierre insists, then all we need to do is play along. As Charlie says, “Know the trick of it, all's right; don’t know, all's wrong. Ha! Ha!” (p. 319). There is a higher folly as well, achieved by the narrator of Pierre but by none of the characters. This is the folly of Lear's fool and Beckett's tramps, of William Beckford and Edgar Allan Poe, of Charlie Chaplin and W. C. Fields, of Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner, of Kurt Vonnegut and Nathanael West, of Alfred Hitchcock and Woody Allen, a folly that embraces the incongruous, allowing the mind to deal with it.

Readers have often observed that the narrator of Pierre is conspicuous for not providing an objective and consistent view. Instead, the perspective shifts abruptly from hysterical hyperbole to mock-tragic rage, from bitter condemnation to apparent support. Frequently the narrator attacks Pierre as an “infatuate”: “Well may’st thou distrust thyself, and curse thyself … Oh! fool, blind fool, and a million times an ass! Go, go, thou poor and feeble one! High deeds are not for such blind grubs as thou” (p. 171). But just as often the narrator praises Pierre's nobility, as in the comparison between Pierre and the valiant if impotent Enceladus: “Wherefore whoso storms the sky gives best proof he came from thither! But whatso crawls contented in the moat before the crystal fort, shows it was born within that slime, and there forever will abide” (p. 347). It is not necessary (or possible) to demonstrate that every shift in narrative tone in this sprawling work develops a meaningful incongruity to see that this narrator is appropriately no more contradictory than the characters and ideas he discusses.

Pierre would be a far less unresolved novel if Melville, in exposing his protagonist's way of responding to life's oddities, contrasted Pierre's failure with a successful pattern of response. Such an alternative—embodied in a character or group of characters—would, however, undermine Melville's focus on the destructive consequences of arriving too quickly at intellectual and emotional conviction. Indeed, part of what can make Pierre unpleasant to read is that everyone in the book, the absolutists and the relativists, is unappealing. If Pierre, Lucy, and Isabel are constantly assuming ludicrously ideal postures of selfish sacrifice and beastly divinity, Mrs. Glendinning, the Rev. Mr. Falsgrave, Charlie Millthorpe, and Plotinus Plinlimmon are cold, evasive, superficial, or uncaring. True to his incongruous vision, Melville provides us with no resting place, no conclusion, only with a sense that all is not what we would have expected or can easily explain.15

Melville's interest in incongruity might be traced to any number of tensions in his personal or professional life, but one intellectual context seems preeminent.16 If one impulse of romanticism is the yearning for an imaginative recovery of the numinous, another impulse, the basis of what has been called dark romanticism, insists on the impossibility of achieving satisfaction in this quest.17 In the United States, where transcendentalists affirmed the congruence (Emerson's word was correspondence) between God, nature, and man at his best, serious writers of fiction before the Civil War often seem to be offering examples aimed at refuting this picture of the universe as a plant with God as root and man's mind and nature as corresponding offshoots. By focusing on the demonic, on the obsessive, and on the corrupt, Melville's contemporaries and immediate forebears—Hawthorne, Poe, and Brown—point to the thorns on Emerson's universal plant, to the diseases and imperfections that block correspondence. In both Moby-Dick and Pierre, Melville exposes the folly of trying to get at the root of things. Ahab and Ishmael are failing transcendentalists: Ahab, who controls his world but brings it to ruin, is a savage portrait of the Emersonian great man; Ishmael, after seemingly endless meditation and study, settles for “attainable felicity.”

It is possible to see Pierre as an anti-Walden, a work in which transcendental yearning is the cause and not the cure of desperation.18 Thoreau, seeking connections between the mundane and the ideal, casts his fishing lines down to earth and up toward heaven and, leaping in meditative reverie, catches two fish at once. Melville, who presented his own view of such a fishing expedition in Moby-Dick, allows Pierre to place the details of his life within various higher frameworks only to discover the lack of any but the most illusory alignment. For Melville the quest for ultimate meaning is doomed from the outset by the threefold evils of man's imperfection, God's silence, and nature's mystery. Emerson and Thoreau argue that an awareness of meaning blossoms in a life of careful observation and detailed thought, inspiration coming as the product of discipline. Using Pierre as a counterexample, Melville insists that the belief in such meaning can be sustained only by someone who is incapable of effective observation and thought. The less we think and see, Melville jeers, the easier it is to believe in absolute truths. For Emerson and Thoreau the undeveloped man has a mind cluttered with unconnected (that is, incongruous) ideas. For Melville, man is an incongruity in an incongruous world.

We often compare novel reading with the experience of entering another world, a world that may be more or less like our own but which has a clear set of operative norms. One of the joys of reading novels is this comfortable illusion that we are participating in the novelist's vision, that we are, to use a current phrase, entering the world according to Jane Austen, or Thomas Hardy, or, for that matter, John Irving. Novelists seeking to support this participation are careful to introduce us quickly to the rules and values that shape their fictions and that remain operative in the confrontation with, indeed are defined by how well they contain, the unexpected and the deviant. We are brought to an awareness of these controlling limits through the guidance of sympathetic characters, a clear narrative tone, and a sequence of meaningful events and emotions. Melville was one of the first novelists to realize that, in this sense, life is rarely like a good book. The easy-chair contentment that accompanies much novel reading, the sense of temporary absorption in another view of life, is exactly what Melville not only avoids but savagely frustrates in Pierre. In the absence of a consistent narrative perspective, of sympathetic characters, of meaningful events, the reader of Pierre is set adrift, like Pierre himself, in search of guiding principles.

Pierre's failure to achieve the balance, or sanity, or distance that humor can provide sours the novel, making its greatest joys bittersweet frustrations. All of the humor in the book is depressing, but, then, so is much of the humor that is most useful in life.19 Because it is uncompromisingly true to the chaos of incongruous moments, Pierre has been attacked for what is seen as a lack of novelistic order and a distorted depiction of humanity. For Melville, such moments are not fleeting or aberrant; they express the undesirable truth that we will never understand the world in which we live. Offensive to all forms of piety and philosophic contentment, Pierre is heroic in its unflinching portrayal of the mind-boggling disorder of life.


  1. For an overview of contemporary humor theory, see Anthony J. Chapman and Hugh C. Foot, eds., Humour and Laughter: Theory Research and Application (London: J. Wiley & Sons, 1976) and It’s A Funny Thing, Humour: International Conference on Humour and Laughter (Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1977). I am drawing on Mary K. Rothbart's essay in Humour and Laughter, “Incongruity, Problem-Solving and Laughter,” rather heavily in this paragraph.

  2. For an extended discussion of humor in childhood, see Paul E. McGhee, Humor: Its Origin and Development (San Francisco: W. H. Freeman, 1979).

  3. Literary texts that inspire both humor and fear are frequently discussed as examples of the grotesque, and defensive reader responses to such works have been probed by such critics of the grotesque as Wolfgang Kayser, Philip Thomson, and Michael Steig. In spite of some unavoidable overlapping, I am using the term “incongruous text” to emphasize the element of problem solving and to escape the element of physical abnormality that is a definitive characteristic of the grotesque.

  4. This review and the succeeding ones quoted are included in Watson G. Branch, ed., Melville: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974), pp. 292-322. For a review of criticism on Pierre, see Hugh W. Hetherington, Melville's Reviewers, British and American: 1846-1891 (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1961), pp. 227-46.

  5. Pretend the World is Funny and Forever: A Psychological Analysis of Comedians, Clowns, and Actors (Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1981), p. 89.

  6. Herman Melville, Pierre, or the Ambiguities (Chicago: Northwestern Univ. Press, 1971), p. 8. All references to Pierre are to this edition and will be cited parenthetically in the text.

  7. There are three book-length studies of Melville's use of humor: Jane Mushabac, Melville's Humor (Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1981); Joseph Flibbert, Melville and the Art of the Burlesque (Amsterdam: Rodopi N.V., 1974); Edward H. Rosenberry, Melville and the Comic Spirit (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1955). For a discussion of humor in the early chapters of Pierre, see William Braswell, “The Satirical Temper of Melville's Pierre,American Literature, 7 (1935), 424-38. An interesting overview of Melville's sense of the grotesque can be found in Richard M. Cook, “Evolving the Inscrutable: The Grotesque in Melville's Fiction,” American Literature, 49 (1978), 544-49.

  8. Arguing that Pierre's decline “squares with the demands of psychological realism,” William Ellery Sedgwick, in Herman Melville: The Tragedy of Mind (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1944), p. 142, notes that when Pierre throws his “lot in with Isabel, he spurns the props which surrounded him in adolescence.” Sedgwick does not, however, see Pierre's behavior here as a part of a general pattern of response.

  9. On the relation between incongruity, problem solving, and creativity, see Arthur Koestler's fascinating study, The Act of Creation (London: Hutchinson, 1964). For a summary of earlier theories of humor and their relation to modern insights, see the first section of this study, “The Jester,” pp. 27-97.

  10. Pierre's experience in the Terror Stone scene illustrates several of the most important differences between Pierre and Moby-Dick. Like Ahab, Pierre is constantly calling on God or the universe to appear before him and account for the nature of man's life. But whereas Ahab actually does fight his monstrous whale, Pierre is left waiting endlessly. Because there is no opponent worthy of Pierre's rage, because he refuses to see that he is his own worst enemy, Pierre reduces Ahab's heroic struggle to the level of ranting. By moving from external to internal conflict, Melville uses Moby-Dick to develop a metaphysics of the incongruous and Pierre to develop a psychology of incongruity.

  11. In “Coherence and Ambivalence in Melville's Pierre,American Literature, 48 (1976), 302-11, Carol Colclough Strickland discusses the lack of a clear morality in Pierre. Finding the novel unfortunately pathetic rather than satiric, Strickland concludes that Pierre “portrays the catastrophe of perpetual vacillation between resistance and resignation while never resolving its own vacillations” (p. 311).

  12. A representative version of what has become a commonplace of Pierre criticism is offered by F. O. Matthiessen in American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1970), pp. 480-81: “Melville insisted on that universality also in Pierre. … Yet he encountered great difficulty in objectifying his own sufferings. Especially when Pierre started to be an author, Melville could not keep the boy of nineteen separate from himself at thirty-two, from the man who, to judge from the texture of its thought and writing, was not only discouraged but nearly exhausted. … What Eliot has remarked about Hamlet might be applied to Pierre, that it gives the impression of being full of some ‘intractable’ stuff which its writer could not ‘manipulate into art.’”

  13. “Why Pierre Went Wrong,” Studies in the Novel, 8 (1976), 7-23. See also Brian Higgins and Hershel Parker, “The Flawed Grandeur of Melville's Pierre” in New Perspectives on Melville, ed. Faith Pullin (Kent: Kent State Univ. Press, 1978), pp. 162-96, and Robert Milder, “Melville's ‘Intentions’ in Pierre,Studies in the Novel, 6 (1974), 186-99.

  14. See, for instance, Edward H. Rosenberry's comment in Melville and the Comic Spirit (p. 149), that “Pierre is a Chinese puzzle about a man writing a bitter book about a man writing a bitter book. In the resultant mirror image the mood of Hamlet becomes the mood of Pierre the book as well as Pierre the man. The final effect is self-mockery, a spectacle that must embarrass any but the most morbid reader.”

    In “The Art of Herman Melville: The Author of Pierre,Yale Review, 59 (Winter 1970), 197-214, Raymond J. Nelson defends Pierre from the familiar criticisms by arguing that Pierre is meant to be read as the actual book Pierre is trying to write at the Apostles. By way of this assumption, Nelson is able to explain many oddities of style and characterization, but this reading does not explain how Pierre could write a satire about himself. Even in his final self-hatred, Pierre lacks both the distance and humor that are preconditions of self-parody.

  15. See Melville's extended treatment of “common” and “profound” novels in Pierre (pp. 141-42).

  16. Psychoanalytic explanations of Melville's unconscious motivations have been offered by Dr. Henry A. Murray in his introduction to the Hendricks House edition of Pierre (New York, 1962) and by Charles J. Haberstroh, Jr. in Melville and Male Identity (Rutherford, N.J.: Associated Univ. Presses, 1980). Underestimating Melville's criticism of Pierre, Murray sees “the incongruities and failure of integration of Pierre” resulting from Melville's “inability to draw autobiographical materials together” (pp. xxiv-xxv). For Haberstroh, the novel is divided by “the tension between his [Melville's] hopeless and introverted sense of himself as a lost boy, and the desire to fulfill the extroverted traditions of male status, success, and assertiveness with which he grew up” (p. 29). See pages 108-11 for Haberstroh's fascinating discussion of the relation between Pierre, the narrator, and Melville.

    A more fruitful psychological explanation of the apparent contradictions in Pierre might emerge from a comparative analysis of Melville, Pierre (the character), and the typical comedian described by the Fishers in Pretend the World is Funny and Forever. According to the Fishers, the professional comic is often someone whose sense of the incongruous nature of life originates in childhood when the not-yet-mature boy or girl is forced to assume inappropriate responsibilities. The resulting confusion about the parent/child or the adult/child distinction can engender a feeling that life is unpredictable, quirky, odd. It is possible to speculate that Melville's sometimes humorous sense of the “ungraspable phantom of life” originated in the burdens placed upon him by the untimely death of his father, and that in the pampered Pierre, whose mother's wealth and pride are both sheltering and infantalizing, Melville set out to create a foil for himself, a character so unprepared for life that he confuses lust with love, self-serving with idealism, and confusion with self-dissolution.

  17. For a general treatment of Melville and American transcendentalism, see Matthiessen, American Renaissance, pp. 184-86, and Hershel Parker, “Melville's Satire of Emerson and Thoreau: An Evaluation of the Evidence” in Studies in the Minor and Later Works of Melville, ed. Ramona E. Hull (Hartford, Conn.: Transcendental Books, 1970), pp. 61-67. For a discussion of Melville's relation to dark romanticism, see Robert D. Hume, “Exuberant Gloom, Existential Agony, and Heroic Despair: Three Varieties of Negative Romanticism,” in The Gothic Imagination: Essays in Dark Romanticism, ed. G. R. Thompson (Pullman: Washington State Univ. Press, 1974), pp. 109-27.

  18. No possibility of direct influence exists here. Walden was published two years after Pierre appeared, and Thoreau was not interested in contemporary fiction. But it is impossible not to see these two works as opposing extremes on the same cultural continuum.

  19. Melville's characteristic mingling of humor and fear is similar to Shakespeare's use of comic conventions within the great tragedies, although Shakespeare typically subverts comic expectations to intensify tragic effects while Melville holds comedy and tragedy in unresolved suspension. Fascinating discussions of this generic cross-fertilization can be found in G. Wilson Knight, “King Lear and the Comedy of the Grotesque,” in The Wheel of Fire, 4th ed. (London: Methuen, 1949), pp. 160-76, and Susan Snyder, The Comic Matrix of Shakespeare's Tragedies (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1979).

Wai-chee Dimock (essay date 1984)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6706

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” Pierre—or is it an epistemological category, as it is in Pierre's vow to “know nothing but Truth”?1 The book's drama, it seems to me, stems precisely from the interplay and interfusion of these two issues—epistemology on the one hand, psychology on the other—“knowledge” being, in both instances, the operative term. And the result, I will try to argue, is a book that undermines both psychology and epistemology.

The universal desire for knowledge in Pierre points to another important fact in the book, what we might call its climate of secrecy. Characters cannot help wanting to know, for they are surrounded by taunting secrets. Just as the desire for knowledge reigns as the natural desire in the book, secrecy reigns as the natural condition. The book's psychodrama consists, in fact, of a succession of secrets as well as a succession of “knowers”—since Pierre allies himself with different partners at different points. Each of the women tries to become Pierre's co-conspirator, for the advantage she enjoys over her rivals is measured precisely by her part in a secret, by the degree to which she is “in the know.”

Lucy is the first to put in her request:

“[C]ould I ever think, that thy heart hath yet one private nook or corner from me;—fatal disenchanting day for me, my Pierre, would that be. I tell thee, Pierre—and ’tis Love's own self that now speaks through me—only in unbounded confidence and interchangings of all subtlest secrets, can Love possibly endure. Love's self is a secret, and so feeds on secrets, Pierre. Did I only know of thee, what the whole common world may know—what then were Pierre to me?—Thou must be wholly a disclosed secret to me; Love is vain and proud; and when I walk the streets, and meet thy friends, I must still be laughing and hugging to myself the thought,—They know him not;—I only know my Pierre;—none else beneath the circuit of yon sun. Then, swear to me, dear Pierre, that thou wilt never keep a secret from me—no, never, never;—swear!” (p. 37)

Lucy's plea fails, but it is not to be lightly dismissed, for it defines not only what Lucy wants but also what each of the women subsequently wants. Lucy has interesting double standards about secrecy. Between Pierre and herself she will have no secrets at all: Pierre “must be wholly a disclosed secret” without “one privated nook or corner.” She is not against secrecy on principle, however, and indeed she demands it, for secrecy alone ensures the value of that “unbounded confidence” between Pierre and herself. Common knowledge is no knowledge, and Lucy has only scorn for “what the whole common world may know.” She takes pleasure not only in saying, “I know my Pierre,” but also in saying, “They know him not.”

To describe the unique privilege of knowing what no one else knows, Lucy chooses the word “confidence”—a word she uses not only in the sense of “confiding” (between lovers), but also in the sense of “confidentiality” (with regard to everyone else). “Confidence,” for most Melville readers, invariably brings to mind The Confidence-Man. The coincidence, I believe, is hardly fortuitous. Lucy does not specifically recommend “conning” as a part of confidence, although we do know, as the plot unfolds, that deception is unavoidable as a means of secrecy. “Confidence,” then, embraces a number of meanings. Primarily it means: to confide (and, at the other end, to receive knowledge, to be confided in), but it can also mean: to keep a secret, to be confident, and, not the least, to con. Unknown to the petitioners and practitioners, “confidence” is already accruing sinister meanings and inscribing strange patterns of its own. Something else is at work in Pierre other than the human characters, and in this regard it is possible to think of Pierre as a prelude to The Confidence-Man, for even in Pierre, Melville is erecting a structure—built on the various senses of the word “confidence”—with a sardonic irony strikingly anticipatory of the later book. I have chosen the phrase “confidence game” to describe the quests for knowledge in the book, for provocative purposes—obviously—but also because the phrase reflects both the structure and the ambiguity I find central to Pierre.

The confidence game begins with the “perfect confidence” between Pierre and Mrs. Glendinning:

In the playfulness of their unclouded love, and with that strange license which a perfect confidence and mutual understanding at all points, had long bred between them, they were wont to call each other brother and sister. Both in public and private this was their usage; nor when thrown among strangers, was this mode of address ever suspected for a sportful assumption; since the amaranthineness of Mrs. Glendinning fully sustained this youthful pretension. (p. 5)

Melville is supposedly talking about the “mutual understanding” between mother and son, and yet the only discernible “understanding” between them—either in this passage or indeed anywhere else in the book—seems to consist solely in the pretense they keep up. For lack of other evidence one must equate their “confidence” with their game of make-believe. This is not much of a confidence game, to be sure, although it does play a trick on innocent “strangers,” to whom this “mode of address [is never] suspected for a sportful assumption.”

Mrs. Glendinning is not destined to remain forever in Pierre's confidence, however, and she loses the privilege of knowing him at precisely the moment when Pierre first sets eyes on Isabel. The mother notices her son's strange transport and questions him directly, but to no avail. Later, when Pierre looks back on the incident, he sees that he has managed to “parry, nay, to evade, and in effect, to return something alarmingly like a fib, to an explicit question put to him by his mother,” and he worries that he has become a “falsifyer—ay, a falsifyer and nothing else—to his own dearly-beloved, and confiding mother” (p. 51). Still, Pierre has no wish to make amends, and indeed, once he has taken his first step, he will never again be able to confide in his mother. No longer his accomplice in secrecy, she is about to become his first rejected confidante. This turn of events is not lost upon Mrs. Glendinning, and her immediate response is a demand for “confidence” from her son:

“I feel, I know, that thou art deceiving me;—perhaps I erred in seeking to wrest thy secret from thee; but believe me, my son, I never thought thou hadst any secret thing from me, except thy first love for Lucy—and that, my own womanhood tells me, was most pardonable and right. But now, what can it be? Pierre, Pierre! consider well before thou determinest upon withholding confidence from me. I am thy mother. It may prove a fatal thing. Can that be good and virtuous, Pierre, which shrinks from a mother's knowledge? Let us not loose hands so, Pierre; thy confidence from me, mine goes from thee. …” (pp. 95-96)

In effect Mrs. Glendinning is making the same plea that Lucy has made earlier: that Pierre should never have “any secret thing from her,” that he should never shrink “from a mother's knowledge.” Ironically, on this occasion Pierre is giving her a species of “confidence”: not the kind that she wants, to be sure, but the kind which makes him a “falsifyer.” At the rupture between mother and son, one kind of confidence replaces another as Pierre withdraws his “perfect confidence” to become a “confidence man,” embarked on what he calls an act of “pious imposture” (p. 173).

Mrs. Glendinning is the necessary casualty in the treacherous ambiguity of “confidence.” The other casualty is, of course, Lucy, but at this point she is oddly invisible. Lucy's absence is worth noting since it gives us some inkling of the governing principle behind the plot. The battle of succession is a battle between two contenders, Mrs. Glendinning and Isabel, and structural purity dictates Lucy's absence. Thus for over a hundred pages, between the arrival of Isabel's letter and Pierre's decision to “marry” her (pp. 61-183), Lucy is neither heard from nor permitted to appear on the scene. With Mrs. Glendinning's defeat, Lucy is left somewhere in limbo, but she is not quite vanquished yet (her non-participation saves her from that). Her future return is virtually guaranteed by the book's configuration of principals, and, like her absence, attests to the centrality of structure in Pierre.

With the ousting of Mrs. Glendinning and the triumph of Isabel, the confidence game moves to a new phase. Once again, several senses of “confidence” come into play. Fond unreserve between the lovers, strict confidentiality toward the outside world, “pious imposture”—all these ingredients go into the making of Pierre's and Isabel's fictitious marriage. This is a more serious confidence game than the previous “sportful assumption” between mother and son. Like its predecessor, it too admits only two people. For the moment Isabel enjoys Pierre's exclusive “continual domestic confidence” (p. 192), but, with some justice, she is already worried about the day, as she tells Pierre, when “thou art minded to play deceivingly with me” (p. 189).

Isabel's fears are quickly realized in the final stage of the confidence game, when her nemesis appears, predictably enough, in the form of Lucy Tartan. Lucy's reemergence (in Book 23) completes Pierre's structural symmetry, and it also puts the reigning confidante instantly on the defensive. When Isabel learns that Lucy is coming to stay, her immediate reaction is: “Either thou hast told thy secret, or she is not worth the commonest love of man! Speak Pierre—which?” To which Pierre replies, quite truthfully, that “the secret is still a secret” (p. 313). True enough, Lucy has no factual knowledge of the secret, but as she seems to have realized by now, there is more than one way of “knowing.” Her new strategy is to disclaim any desire for knowledge. Lucy no longer makes the mistake of demanding confidence, as she once did. On the contrary, she now sweetly assures Pierre that she has no desire to know: “I will ask of thee nothing, Pierre; thou shalt tell me no secret. Very right wert thou, Pierre, when, in that ride to the hills, thou wouldst not swear the fond, foolish oath I demanded. Very right, very right; now I see it. … I solemnly vow, never to seek from thee any slightest thing which thou wouldst not willingly have me know” (p. 309). Lucy is being disingenuous, of course (and indeed, in the same breath, she also admits, “Yet something of thy secret I, as a seer, suspect” [p. 309]). In any case, she has managed to “slid[e] between” Pierre and Isabel, as the latter becomes “alive to some untraceable displacing agency” (pp. 337-38).

For all intents and purposes, Lucy has penetrated Pierre's and Isabel's secret. She must now, in her turn, introduce a new secret, one from which Isabel will be excluded. In this respect she is aided by a peculiar circumstance in the past. Either out of regard for Isabel's feelings, or for reasons considerably less admirable, Pierre has withheld from her one bit of knowledge—the fact that he has been engaged to Lucy. Intuitively Lucy senses this fact and uses it. Isabel is not the only one privileged with a secret, she points out. There is yet another secret, between Lucy herself and Pierre—“for thus far I am sure thou thyself hast never disclosed it to her what I once was to thee” (pp. 309-10). The important point for Lucy, we might notice, is not her former engagement to Pierre, but the fact that this engagement has “never [been] disclosed,” that Isabel is ignorant of it. And Lucy means to keep Isabel ignorant. Her plan is to come to Pierre, but henceforth the two would assume perpetual “disguises”: “Let it seem, as though I were some nun-like cousin immovably vowed to dwell with thee in thy strange exile” (p. 310). Lucy does not say that they will be deceiving Isabel (she settles for the euphemism “let it seem”), but deception clearly lies at the heart of her proposition, as it does in all the other bonds of confidence in the book. Oddly, for this deceitful conduct Lucy envisions the most extravagant celestial reward: “Our mortal lives, oh, my heavenly Pierre, shall henceforth be one mute wooing of each other; with no declaration, no bridal; till we meet in the pure realms of God's final blessedness for us … when, there, thy sweet heart, shall be openly and unreservedly mine” (p. 310). This is a very large claim to make on a married man, but Lucy is confident of it, presumably because the self-denying deception in this life entitles her to an eternity of flaunting conjugality.

The confidence game has run its course as Lucy, the former outsider, now comes to be in the know. And yet this structural completion leaves a great many questions unanswered. How does Lucy come to suspect Pierre's and Isabel's secret? What is it in her that makes her such a shrewd “seer,” as she calls herself? And what are her reasons, anyway, for coming to Pierre? Is she innocent, guileless, angelical, as Pierre thinks, or is she possessive and calculating? We have no answers for these questions—just as we have no answers for similar questions about Lucy's predecessor, Isabel. Why does Isabel write to Pierre and reveal herself to him? What are her motives, and what does she want from him? Why does she acquiesce in the mock marriage? To ask these questions at all is to realize the huge gaps in Melville's domestic drama. Melville seems simply uninterested in the motives—and indeed, in the personalities—of his women characters.2 It is only right, then, that we should ask what does interest him. If the women do not function as psychological presences, how do they in fact function? How important are they to the outcome of the confidence game? And furthermore, what gives this game its predictable shape and its particular flavor?

Just as there are strange negligences in the characterization of the women, there are also strange rigidities in the shape of the confidence game. There is no question of degree in the game, no question of texture, and no question of process. Melville seems to have no patience with the nitty-gritty of human attachments. New alliances become accomplished facts almost as soon as we first hear about them. Lucy has no trouble winning Pierre to her secret, just as Isabel, at an earlier stage, has no trouble winning Pierre to hers. In both cases the success is instantaneous and, it would seem, unearned. Why is Mrs. Glendinning defeated in a moment, and why does Isabel cease to intrigue Pierre even before Lucy's appearance on the scene?3 These questions, once again, cannot be adequately answered, for there is something oddly preordained in the succession of confidantes—the logic of the succession being, in a rather chilling way, not a human logic at all.

Within the undeviating structure of the confidence game, the women function as abstract maneuverable parts. Thus, during the period of Isabel's ascendancy, “for the real Lucy [Pierre], in his scheming thoughts, had substituted but a sign—some empty x—and in the ultimate solution of the problem, that empty x still figured; not the real Lucy” (p. 181). Pierre's ability to reduce Lucy to a mathematical integer says something about him, but it also says something about the emotional logic of the book: a logic with the simplicity of a geometric equation. That equation, to put it most crudely, goes something like this: to those who seek, confidence will be given; from those who have, confidence will be taken away. The crucial factor in the confidence game is one's position, of which there are three well-defined ones: the aspirant, the incumbent, and the rejected, forming a clear linear progression.4 The movement of any character from one position to another becomes something of a mechanical certainty. Mrs. Glendinning and Isabel are both casualties in the confidence game, not because they resemble each other, but because they both happen to occupy, at different points, the position of the incumbent. Their position alone makes their fate analogous.

One can argue, without too much exaggeration, that Pierre is a story centered, not on human personalities, but on “confidence” and its attendant structure.5 Different characters serve as practitioners in confidence at different points, but it is “confidence,” and not they, that dictates the plot and shapes the novel. “Confidence” lies at the heart of Pierre; its trajectory, its mode of operation, the shifting partnerships it engenders—these make up the scaffolding of the book. There are “stirring passions at work,” to be sure, but these passions, too, seem to be exclusively passions for confidence.6 The book that results is a book that is very much a skeleton of itself, a book strangely intent and mechanical. It is structure, and not texture, that makes the book what it is, just as it is characters-as-integers, and not characters-as-personalities, that carry on the evolving drama. In short, Pierre is a psychological novel that rejects, for the most part, psychological representation; it is a book of intimate ties that undermines the content of those ties; it is a book that begins with “stirring passions” and ends with a dispassionate structure.

Why is Melville impatient with human attachments? From the internal evidence of the novel, we can say only that he does not believe in them. In this regard he is working directly against the characters, who do believe in intimate ties, and who believe, furthermore, that they can seal these ties with confidence. The characters are mistaken, of course—or, we might say, they are conned—since none of the relations in the book turns out the way they think. To take an example we have already considered, the “perfect confidence” between Mrs. Glendinning and Pierre comes to nothing, as we might expect, but their mode of rupture is especially ironic and seems to reflect Melville's malicious cynicism toward human intimacy.

During that crisis, Mrs. Glendinning asks Pierre a seemingly trivial question—whether she should ring the bell to summon Dates. In effect, of course, she is giving Pierre the last chance to confide in her, and Pierre knows it:

But though he knew all the significance of his mother's attitude, as she stood before him, intently eying him, with one hand upon the bell-cord; and though he felt that the same opening of the door that should now admit Dates, could not but give eternal exit to all confidence between him and his mother; and though he felt, too, that this was his mother's latent thought; nevertheless, he was girded up in his well-considered resolutions.

“Pierre, Pierre! shall I touch the bell?”

“Mother, stay!—yes do, sister.”

The bell was rung. … (p. 96)

The two words—“mother” and “sister”—present in close succession in Pierre's reply, rather heavy-handedly draw attention to the significance in Pierre's mode of address. Mrs. Glendinning remains “mother” as long as Pierre still thinks of confiding in her. Once he has made up his mind to “give eternal exit to all confidence” between them, however, she becomes “sister.” In other words, their former term of endearment now serves as the signal for an irrevocable break. If Pierre once told a fond lie in calling his mother “sister,” now, in reverting to the old habit, he is telling another kind of lie—a lie that repudiates rather than endears. The glaring falseness of the intimacy on this occasion cruelly parodies its former illusoriness. Confidence is, after all, a treacherous ideal; it works deviously and—unfortunately for its adherents—not always in the way they fancy.

Eventually all the bonds of confidence in the book turn out to be illusory. Presumably the women want to know Pierre because they love him, and yet love is hardly an expressible passion in the book. What prevails instead is a passion for knowledge, a passion so insistent and so final that it seems not so much a metaphor for love as a displacement of it. In other words, knowledge becomes, not a means to love, but an end in itself, and as an end it amounts merely to a mechanical compulsion. For if “knowing” can (at least in it biblical sense) mean consummation, in Pierre it is nonconsummation that poisons all the relations. After the deceit and intrigue of the book, none of the relations comes to fruition.7 The women are really fighting a losing battle, a battle drained of its meaning from the very beginning and in its very definition of terms. In Pierre then, structure at once dictates the course of passion and usurps its place; for passion, like the human attachments it engenders, has lost its content and ground of being.

This brings us to the other side of “knowing.” If knowledge fails as a means of intimacy, how successful is it as an epistemological exercise? Do any of the women “know” Pierre in this alternate sense of the word? Mrs. Glendinning assuredly does not, and Pierre has a rather shrewd insight into why she fails: “Me she loveth with pride's love; in me she thinks she seeth her own curled and haughty beauty; before my glass she stands,—pride's priestess—and to her mirrored image, not to me, she offers up her offering of kisses (p. 90). Perhaps Pierre exaggerates his mother's egotism, but he is certainly right to suspect that the Pierre she loves is in fact only an “image” of her own making. And her image of him is that of a “fine, proud, loving, docile, vigorous boy” (p. 20), a fitting complement to her own self-image as a proud, loving, idolized mother. This “Pierre” is the only one she knows—or accepts—and when Pierre deviates from that image, she understandably refuses to recognize the strange apparition “who was once Pierre Glendinning” (p. 185).

Image-making is, unfortunately, not confined to Mrs. Glendinning. Lucy and Isabel, too, make images, for each “knows” Pierre in her own way. He is Lucy's “shepherd-king” (p. 36), Isabel's brother-champion, and finally, the “noble and angelical Pierre” Lucy expects to marry in the “pure realms of God's final blessedness” (pp. 309-10). “Knowing” Pierre means creating Pierre in a certain image, and each of the women knows Pierre only to that extent. Her “knowledge” is an epistemological illusion and evaporates as soon as Pierre trades images, as soon as he repudiates one identity to embrace a new one, tendered by another woman.

One side of the confidence game has proved itself completely futile. It is time now to consider the other side, for Pierre, too, has his own quest for knowledge to conduct. It is instructive to see how he fares against the women's poor showings. What does Pierre want to know, and how much does he end up knowing? On the surface of it, Pierre's passion seems no different from the women's. He, too, is driven by a desire to know, and the women appear, at least initially, to be the objects of his inquisitions. In the days of Isabel's ascendancy, for instance, she has seemed “inscrutable” (p. 129) and “unravelable” (p. 141), commanding “all the bewitchingness of the mysterious vault of night” (p. 142). Isabel seems to embody all that is unknown—all that is yet to be known—and Pierre is bewitched by her, although he has no trouble resisting Lucy, at that point too easily fathomable, too “fond, all-understood” (p. 129). By Book 26, however, Isabel's mystery has fallen into that class of “mysticisms and mysteries” of which Pierre has grown “uncompromisingly skeptical” (p. 354). A fresh mystery is called for to whet Pierre's appetite for knowledge, and Lucy supplies it. Her “inconceivable conduct,” “enigmatical” resolve, “inexplicable motive,” and “inscrutable divineness” all attest to her new-found allure for the “amazed” and “confounded” Pierre (pp. 315, 317).

A woman captivates Pierre to the degree that she mystifies him. And yet, Pierre does not primarily want to know her—at least not in the sense that the women want to know him—for the mystery that engrosses him is finally not her own. Beyond Isabel's mystery, even more important to Pierre is the fact that she “begat in him a certain condition of his being” (p. 53), that she “seemest to know somewhat of me, that I know not of myself” (p. 41). From her he hopes to wrest some explanation for his own “strange integral feeling”: “Explain thou this strange integral feeling in me myself, he thought—turning upon the fancied face—and I will then renounce all other wonders, to gaze wonderingly at thee. But thou hast evoked in me profounder spells than the evoking one, thou face!” (pp. 51-52). Similarly, confronted with Lucy's surprising move, Pierre is elated by the thought that “the girl whose rare merits his intuitive soul had once so clearly and passionately discerned” should now acquit herself so well (p. 311). In other words, Lucy, like Isabel before her, fascinates precisely because she awakens Pierre to a new understanding of his own “intuitive soul.” From her “inconceivable conduct” he derives a mystical knowledge: “there is a mysterious, inscrutable divineness in the world—a God—a Being positively present everywhere;—nay, He is now in this room; the air did part when I here sat down. I displaced the Spirit then—condensed it a little off from this spot” (p. 317).

There is something narcissistic in Pierre's attachment to the women, for the mystery that most obsesses him and the knowledge that he most eagerly seeks is the truth about himself. This mystery makes a rather graphic appearance when, upon reading Lucy's letter, Pierre “ran shuddering through hideous galleries of despair, in pursuit of some vague, white shape, and lo! two unfathomable dark eyes met his, and Isabel stood mutely and mournfully, yet all-ravishing before him” (p. 312). The “unfathomable,” “vague, white shape” distinctly recalls the language of Moby-Dick, and indeed Pierre, like Ahab, is pursuing an “ungraspable phantom of life.” This phantom, Henry A. Murray points out, lies—not without—but within Pierre himself.8 It is the phantom of his own selfhood and, as the passage seems to suggest, it is compounded of both Lucy and Isabel, the “vague, white shape” of the one fusing into the “unfathomable dark eyes” of the other. Like Yillah and Hautia in Mardi, Lucy and Isabel are opposites, but at some level they too eventually merge and become one.9 As vehicles for Pierre's self-realization, the two are analogous rather than antithetical, for both are elusive and eventually delusory.

Pierre's attempts at confidence are invariably attempts at self-confidence, a narcissistic variation on the women's endeavor, but no different, in essence, from theirs. The two versions of the confidence game, in fact, form a rather close parallel. If the women need to fabricate a “Pierre” in order to “know” Pierre, so Pierre, too, needs to fabricate a self in order to “know” himself. Pierre is a “self-made man”—of sorts—and there is something of the Emersonian bravado in his boast: “Henceforth, cast-out Pierre hath no paternity, and no past” (p. 199). And yet, a self that can be endlessly made over is also inescapably artificial. Docile son and solicitous brother, gallant champion and “grand victim” (p. 179), privileged scion and penniless genius—these are some of the indentities Pierre embraces, but they add up to no stable selfhood. There is something fictitious in the identities Pierre assumes, a fictitiousness that might have stemmed, as Melville suggests, from the “conversational conversion of a mother into a sister,” which has long “habituated [Pierre] to a certain fictitiousness in one of the closest domestic relations of life” (p. 177). In any case, fictitiousness is a curse Pierre can rarely shake off. For the rest of the book, he is doomed to play, not just one part at a time, but a part within a part—not only as his mother's son but also as her brother, not only as Isabel's brother but also as her husband, and not only as Lucy's ex-fiancé but also as her cousin—the fake identities over-shadowing and commingling with the “real” ones to such an extent that the latter themselves become all but meaningless.

The final difficulty, then, lies not so much in telling the real identities from the fake ones, but in demonstrating the “realness” of any identity at all. Knowing himself proves to be as much a losing battle for Pierre as knowing Pierre is for the women, because the “self” simply affords no ground for certitude. It is, in fact, nothing but layer upon layer of imposition and supposition, harnessed to no solid core of being. The central image in the book is therefore the image of an appalling and parodic inner void:

Yet now, forsooth, because Pierre began to see through the first superficiality of the world, he fondly weens he has come to the unlayered substance. But, far as any geologist has yet gone down into the world, it is found to consist of nothing but surface stratified on surface. To the axis, the world being nothing but superinduced superficies. By vast pains we mine into the pyramid; by horrible gropings we come to the central room; with joy we espy the sarcophagus; but we lift the lid—and no body is there!—appallingly vacant as vast is the soul of a man! (p. 285)

For Melville, the self is unknowable, not because we do not try hard enough, but because there is nothing there to be known. Any attempt to know Pierre, whether by the women or by Pierre himself, is inherently doomed, for there is no “Pierre” to speak of, the only knowable Pierre being one fabricated for the occasion. All attempts to know oneself are vain exercises, and the point comes home to us when Pierre chances upon the imported portrait of a (possible fictitious) stranger, a stranger who might just as easily be Isabel's father. The very objective ground that anchors the self is now swept away. Since Pierre will never know who Isabel is, he will never know who he is. Just as she is “wife or sister, saint or fiend” (p. 360), so Pierre, too, is “husband or brother, hero or fool”—the tragedy residing precisely in that eternal “or.”

Characters in Pierre compute their advantage by measuring what they know against what others know (or do not know). And yet this faith in knowledge, according to Melville, is a misguided faith—a false confidence, we might say. The little that we do know is partial, transient, and perhaps irrelevant. In one of his bitterest invectives against knowledge, Melville observes: “knowing his fatal condition does not one whit enable [Pierre] to change or better his condition. … For in tremendous extremities human souls are like drowning men, well enough they know they are in peril; well enough they know the causes of that peril;—nevertheless, the sea is the sea, and these drowning men do drown” (p. 303). Rather than being the key to our experience, knowledge is extraneous, a moot point. And it is not even just useless; it is downright cruel and mocking, for drowning must come all the more painfully to the drowning man because he knows it. One does not attain knowledge, then; one merely succumbs to it as one succumbs—in another striking metaphor of Melville's—to “the irruptions of those barbarous hordes which Truth ever nourishes in the loins of her frozen, yet teeming North” (p. 167). Any human faith in knowledge is a fatuous faith, for knowledge governs one and victimizes one, but rarely puts itself at one's service.

And after all the quests for knowledge, what happens when the reverse happens, when, instead of knowing, one is being known by someone else? Isabel, we have seen, anguishes over what Lucy may know, and even Pierre, for all his initial delight at being known, eventually finds the prospect insufferable. “Being known” is the underside of knowing, and not surprisingly it shadows forth many of its latent horrors. As Pierre progresses, knowledge appears increasingly in this externalized and menacing mode: as a threat rather than as an asset, as an alien imposition rather than as an experiential state of being. The darkening course of knowledge is marked by the sequence of two remarkably haunting faces, one appearing near the beginning, and the other toward the end of the book: “The face!—the face!—… Thou seemest to know somewhat of me, that I know not of myself,—what is it then? If thou hast a secret in thy eyes of mournful mystery, out with it” (p. 41).

the face seemed to leer upon Pierre. And now it said to him—Ass! ass! ass! This expression was insufferable. … What was most terrible was the idea that by some magical means or other the face had got hold of his secret. “Ay,” shuddered Pierre, “the face knows that Isabel is not my wife! And that seems the reason it leers.” (p. 293)

The first face—Isabel's—is plaintive and alluring. It does not threaten, and it seems to promise some invaluable knowledge. Pierre's romantic hopes, however, turn out to be mistaken, for Isabel does not, in fact, know Pierre, and she tells him no hoped-for secrets. The face that is truly knowledgeable turns out to be Plinlimmon's. The trace of intelligence in such a man—a stranger, no kin of Pierre's, and not especially well-disposed toward him—cannot inspire anything but fear and loathing. The striking contrast between Isabel's face and Plinlimmon's marks the growing tyranny of knowledge and its evolution from enticement to terror. Plinlimmon's face revises Isabel's and parodies it. Indeed, there is nothing in common between Isabel's dark features and Plinlimmon's “ivory brow,” his “steady observant blue-eyed countenance” “so clear and so mild” (pp. 291, 293). The only other character in the book that actually looks like Plinlimmon is Lucy, and this is where the true parallel lies. Lucy is to Isabel what Plinlimmon is to Pierre—alien presences with nonbenevolent knowing gaze. Ironically, knowledge can never be grasped as experiential reality; it comes to us only as alienated knowledge, only as encroaching threats from without.

If Pierre is indeed a psychological novel, as several critics have eloquently argued, in the long run it also undermines itself by destroying the premises of psychological inquiry.10 In the course of the book Melville explodes the myth of selfhood, even as he reduces human relations to a mechanical structure of succession and displacement. Melville's psychology has, after all, much in common with his metaphysics. From Moby-Dick to Pierre, the question has changed from “How do I know the world?” to “How do I know Pierre?”—but the operating term, to “know,” remains unchanged. Melville's psychology and epistemology both require the groundings of a sturdy selfhood, but since the self in Pierre is now “vacant,” all attempts at knowledge—whether the women's attempt to know Pierre, or Pierre's attempt to know himself—degenerate into an empty confidence game, a game in which the trajectory of knowledge seems more important than the human actors, and in which the confidence man and confidence women are their own victims. Isabel's last words, in this context, have an especially poignant ambiguity. “All's o’er, and ye know him not!” she says at the end of the book. Possibly these words are addressed to Fred and Millthorpe, impotent witnesses, or they may be addressed to the reader, just as they may be addressed to Isabel herself—or even to the dying Pierre. “Pierre” is not to be known, not by idle spectators and readers, and not by the women, and most certainly not by Pierre himself, for as Melville seems to have warned us in the title, Pierre is “The Ambiguities.”


  1. Pierre, or, The Ambiguities (Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern Univ. Press and the Newberry Library, 1971), p. 65. All further references to this edition will be included in the text.

  2. For this reason, the women lend themselves especially to generalizations. An obvious generalization, for instance, identifies Lucy and Isabel as the light and dark ladies of the Gothic romance. But even sophisticated generalizations—such as Henry Murray's identifying Isabel with the Jungian Anima—attest to the simplicity of her being.

  3. Hershel Parker and Brian Higgins have offered an interesting discussion of the abrupt termination of Isabel's influence. Parker and Higgins see a disjunction between the psychological drama in the first half of the book (of which Pierre's passion for Isabel plays an important part) and that of Pierre as a profound writer in the second half. Parker attributes this change in direction to a business trip Melville made to New York from December 1851 to January 1852. Disappointed over his contract with the Harpers and bitterly aggrieved by several newly-published, damning reviews of Moby-Dick, Melville jumped to his revenge, notably in Books 17 and 18, in which he satirizes Pierre's reading public in the form of “Miss Angelica Amabilia of Ambleside” and “Captain Kidd Monthly.” See Brian Higgins and Hershel Parker, “The Flawed Grandeur of Melville's Pierre,” in New Perspectives on Melville, ed. Faith Pullin (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univ. Press, 1978), pp. 162-96; also see Hershel Parker, “Why Pierre Went Wrong,” Studies in the Novel, 8 (1976), 7-26. Parker and Higgins are right to point to the abrupt collapse of intimacy between Pierre and Isabel. However, as I will try to argue, the collapsibility of intimacy is not limited to Pierre and Isabel alone.

  4. My positional analysis is inspired by Jacques Lacan's discussion of the three positions in Poe's “Purloined Letter.” See “Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter,’” Yale French Studies, 48 (1976), 38-72.

  5. In my sense of an underlying structure in Pierre, I am implicitly arguing against Hershel Parker's contention that Melville changed his course in the middle of the book. I do see Books 17 and 18 as digressions from the rest of Pierre—for the biographical reasons that Parker convincingly demonstrates—but I do not see the entire second half of the novel as being independent of the first half.

  6. In a letter to Bentley (April 1852), Melville characterized Pierre as a “regular romance, with a mysterious plot to it, & stirring passions at work.” See The Letters of Herman Melville, ed. Merrell R. Davis and William H. Gilman (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1960), p. 150.

  7. It is possible to argue, of course, that Pierre and Isabel did consummate their relations in Book 19. But such a reading seems almost too sanguine to me. Melville plays with the idea of sexual consummation, but I think he makes a darker plot by leaving even that event uncertain.

  8. Henry A. Murray, Introd., Pierre (New York: Hendricks House, 1949), p. lxxxiii.

  9. For the kinship between Hautia and Yillah, see Mardi (Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern Univ. Press and the Newberry Library, 1970), p. 643.

  10. For discussions of Pierre as a psychological novel, see the aforementioned articles by Hershel Parker and Brian Higgins, as well as Richard Brodhead's chapter on Pierre in Hawthorne, Melville, and the Novel (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1976).

Richard Gray (essay date 1984)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6952

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 produce something that would, as he put it, pay ‘the bill of the baker’,1 and in the early stages at least he appears to have been convinced that his new novel would do exactly that. At the beginning of 1852, for example, he wrote to Sophia Hawthorne to assure her that his next book would be, not ‘a bowl of salt water’ like his whaling story but ‘a rural bowl of milk’—more suited, the implication was, not only to the delicate sensibilities of Sophia herself but to a larger, novel-reading public that was predominantly female. While only a few weeks later, in a letter to his English publisher, he was even more openly confident. Pierre, he insisted, was ‘very much more calculated for popularity … being a regular romance, with a mysterious plot to it, stirring passions at work, and withall, representing a new and elevated aspect of American life’.2

Such declarations of confidence can hardly be read without a sense of irony now. For, far from improving Melville's standing as a professional writer, Pierre served to worsen it radically. Reviewers received his new, domestic romance with greater and more concerted hostility than any of his previous efforts: ‘a gigantic blunder’, declared one, ‘an objectionable tale, clumsily told’, insisted another, while a third simply dismissed it as ‘the craziest fiction extant’.3 And any hopes Melville might have had concerning its appeal with a wider reading public were soon to be disappointed: only 283 copies were sold within the first eight months of publication and over the next few years it proved considerably less popular than even Moby-Dick or Mardi. The sense of irony does not spring entirely from this, however. It stems also from the fact that any reader of the book is likely to be struck by the discrepancy, the sheer size of the gap, between what Melville apparently intended to do and what in fact he did. Pierre is most emphatically not ‘a rural bowl of milk’: on the contrary, it is one of the darkest, bleakest, and bitterest of Melville's narratives, a story that follows ‘the endless, winding way’ of its hero's life and its narrator's thoughts to a conclusion that is little short of nihilistic. Melville may have set out to write something that would appeal to the contemporary taste for domestic melodrama and genteel sentiment. What he ended up with, however, was something quite different: a book so thoroughgoing in its scepticism that it examines its own raison d’être, its own claims and assumptions and, in this respect as well as in the subversive nature of its techniques, the self-reflexive character of its idiom, seems to anticipate the post-modernist novel.

The self-reflexive, self-referential nature of Pierre is perhaps less surprising when one remembers the autobiographical basis of much of the book. One critic has suggested that Pierre represents an act of psychic withdrawal after the great, creative venture of Moby-Dick, another has described it as ‘a Freudian exercise in psychic recovery’4; and, however much one may quarrel with the further implications of these remarks—the way they tend to confuse the psychological origins of the story with the story itself—they do point to certain things that are worth emphasizing and examining. First, and most obviously, they point to the fact that just as Pierre we are told, ‘dropped his angle into the well of childhood, to find what fish might be there’,5 so Melville, his creator, has done exactly the same: as Henry Murray has shown, there are ‘highly probable originals’6 in Melville's life for most of the incidents, places, and people that appear in Pierre's story. The biographical detail is transposed in some cases and embellished in others; nevertheless, while writing about Pierre, Melville must have had the sense of looking at himself as if through a glass darkly—or rather, to use an image that recurs throughout the book, as though in a slightly distorting mirror. Beyond that, they also point to, or to be more accurate hint at, the centripetal structure, the inwardness of the story. Melville makes his hero a writer, writing a book that sounds very much like—and sometimes even echoes—the one in which he appears; a writer, moreover, who sets out to write something popular, using as his vehicle a thinly fictionalized version of his life, and then discovers that he cannot or will not do so. ‘Who shall tell all the thoughts and feelings of Pierre’, Melville asks,

when at last the idea obtruded, that the wiser and profounder he should grow, the more and the more he lessened his chances for bread. …7

The question occurs towards the end of the narrative, by which time Melville must have recognized that his own chances for bread had radically diminished. And in reading it the reader is likely to feel, not for the first time, that he has been caught in a Chinese box of fictions, a book in which everything comments on its own origins, making, and development.

This Chinese box aspect, this sense of an artifice that calls attention to its own artificiality is perhaps most obvious at the beginning of Pierre. It can hardly escape the notice of even the most inattentive reader that, when we first encounter the protagonist, he is living in a world of fiction. The opening paragraph, for example, offers us what is effectively a parody of the language of conventional, pastoral romance.

There are some strange summer mornings in the country, when he who is but a sojourner from the city shall early walk forth into the fields, and be wonder-smitten with the trance-like aspect of the green and golden world. Not a flower stirs; the trees forget to wave; and all Nature, as if suddenly become conscious of her own profound mystery, and feeling no refuge from it but silence, sinks into this wonderful and indescribable repose.8

That ‘indescribable’ might just be a touch of Melvillean irony, and the reference to silence may perhaps anticipate the narrator's later claim that Silence is the only Voice of our God: but, on the whole, this passage, with its references to the ‘sojourner from the city’, its clichés of thought and expression (‘wonder-smitten’, ‘green and golden world’), its histrionic rhythms (‘Not a flower stirs; the trees forget to wave …’), and its utter self-consciousness (a self-consciousness which is then, interestingly enough, projected on to the subject)—in all this, the passage seems to be insisting on its status as a conventional pattern, an invented object. This, we infer, is a world of appearances, masks and mirrors: an inference justified not only by the frequent references to masquerades and reflections in subsequent pages but, more simply, by the narrator's preference for the word ‘seems’.

The sense that we are being introduced to a sort of pseudoreality, a counterfeit realm, is nurtured in a variety of ways, and not least by the characters' taste for theatricality. It is not just that Pierre and his mother, and Pierre and his beloved Lucy Tartan, address each other in heightened terms, although they certainly do this—terms borrowed from Romeo and Juliet, say, or some other familiar text. Nor is it just that Pierre tends to see ‘the illuminated scroll of his life’ through the spectacles of the books he has read. It is that both the protagonist and those around him actually call attention to the artificial nature of their conversations (Pierre, for instance, concludes one flight of wit with his beloved by declaring, ‘Very prettily conceited, Lucy’) and seem intent on turning most of their actions and relationships into a kind of sport, a game: ‘playful’, for instance, is another word that recurs throughout those opening pages, most notably in the sections dealing with Pierre and his mother—who in their ‘playfulness’, we are told, introduced ‘a certain fictitiousness’ into ‘one of the closest domestic relations of life’ by referring to each other as ‘brother’ and ‘sister’. Nor is the narrator himself immune from this tendency. For not only does he, like the characters, use an elaborately foregrounded, ‘high profile’ language, full of awkward neologisms (‘amaranthiness’, ‘tinglingness’, and ‘preambilically’ are just three random examples) and elaborate conceits (‘the striped tigers of his chestnut eyes leaped in their lashed cages’); he is also inclined to remind us, in case we have forgotten, that he is the narrator, bound to go backward and forward in time ‘as occasion calls’ and compelled ‘by immemorial usage’ to do such things as provide a scrupulously conventional ‘inventory’ of Lucy's charms when she first appears. ‘Is human life in its most human dimension a work of fiction?’ asks Ortega y Gasset in History as a System; ‘Is man a sort of novelist of himself who conceives the fanciful figure of a personage with its unreal occupations and then, for the sake of converting it into a reality, does all the things he does … ?’9 A similar question seems to be asked by Melville at the beginning of the novel, via both the characters and the narrator; and the answer, for the moment at least, appears to be ‘yes’.

Then into this dream kingdom comes another apparition: the ‘mysterious, haunting face’ of Isabel. To some extent, Isabel is like a figure out of Poe: associated with another realm of ghosts and the sea, endowed with ‘a death-like beauty’ principally focussed in her large eyes, her musical voice, and the ‘flowing glossiness of her long and unimprisoned hair’, she is a mixture of the Madonna and La Belle Dame Sans Merci. More relevant to the present context, however, is the opportunity she clearly offers Pierre of moral and imaginative liberation: for she is, as one critic has put it, ‘the eternally baffling object of human speculation, and … also speculation itself’10—or, to put it another way, she suggests at once Otherness, the world beyond the mask and the mirror, and the Muse, that creative force that might just make a glimpse of Otherness possible. Certainly, it is in these large terms that Pierre sees her. After receiving her letter, for example, he believes that now at last he will be able to ‘tear all veils’, ‘strike through’ masks, ‘see … hidden things’, and leave his father's house (which is, surely, at once a fictive house and the house of fiction) for ‘boundless expansion’ and the ‘infinite air’. And shortly after this—in a passage which curiously anticipates Camus's description of the moment when ‘the stage sets collapse’ and the feeling of the absurd rushes in on an individual—Pierre, we are told, felt ‘on all sides, the physical world of solid objects now slidingly displaced … from around him, and … floated into an ether of visions’.11

But, and it is a large but, there are things that Pierre does not see or, if he does see, chooses not to acknowledge. Isabel, in so far as she appears to open the door to another realm of experience and indeed to suggest that realm, does not belong to the world of words, articulate speech and intelligible action. The first thing we hear from her is a primal scream, a shriek to ‘split its way clear through [Pierre's] heart, and leave a yawning gap there’; and most of her life, we discover later, has apparently been spent in mysterious, anonymous places that she either cannot or will not name, places where she felt ‘all visible sights and audible sounds growing stranger and stranger’ to her. Of course, she has been drawn into contact of a kind with people—compelled, she reveals, by the desire to understand what words like ‘father’ and ‘dead’ signify; of course, too, she learns to read and communicate—specifically, so as to decipher ‘the talismanic word’ inscribed on a handkerchief that once belonged to her (and Pierre's) father; and, of course, finally she tells her story, her ‘vague tale of terribleness’—or, as she puts it, enables her brother to read ‘in the one poor book of Isabel’. To say all this, however, is to leave certain quite crucial things out of account. Isabel tells her story, admittedly, but sensing that it is full of ‘wonders that are unimaginable and unspeakable’, she relies for much of the telling on ‘the utter unintelligibleness, but the infinite significancies of the sounds of the guitar’ that is her constant companion. She lives in the world now, certainly, but she longs for nothing so much as to leave it, to withdraw into non-being: ‘I pray for peace’, she declares,

for motionlessness—for the feeling of myself as of some plant, absorbing life without seeking it, and existing without individual sensation. I feel that there can be no perfect peace in individualness … I feel I am in exile here.12

And Pierre responds to her, it may be, but what he responds to is her image: at first, ‘the vague impression that somewhere he had seen traits of the likeness of [her] face before’ and then, later, the conviction that in her he can discern a reflection of his father as depicted in the chair portrait. The cruel paradox is that Isabel's value lies precisely in her qualities of motionlessness and worldlessness, those aspects of her that lie beyond conceptualization and verbalization, and that she cannot explain herself, or indeed be explained by others, in anything other than a fiction—or, to use the stronger terms favoured by Melville, without jugglery or imposture. At one point in the novel, when he is trying to decide what to do about Lucy now that he has committed himself to Isabel, Pierre is compared by the narrator to ‘an algebraist’: ‘for the real Lucy’, we are told.

he, in his scheming thoughts, had substituted but a sign—some empty x—and in the ultimate solution of the problem, that empty x still figures; not the real Lucy.13

In a bitterly ironic way this, as it turns out, sums up what happens to Isabel as she tries to describe herself, to Pierre as he charts the rest of his course, and to Melville himself as—becoming more and more convinced that ‘this world is a lie’ and that even ‘the truest book in the world is a lie’—he attempts to tell their tale.

‘I am a nothing. It is all a dream—we dream that we dreamed we dream.’14 Pierre makes this declaration of unbelief, couched in what are for him characteristically Romantic terms, towards the end of the novel. Long before this, however, it is clear that in committing himself to Isabel Pierre is not, as he purports to believe, committing himself to Truth but to a further if different level of illusion. Quite apart from his tendency to respond to Isabel's image, the shadowy reflections that he catches from her, there is the fact that he continues to judge people and make decisions in the most obviously fictive terms. It was not, after all, a critic or even the narrator of the book who first directed attention to the parallel between Pierre and Hamlet; Pierre himself invites this comparison and then, spurred on by what he sees as the negative example of Hamlet's indecision, decides to act at once. The sense of artifice continues, fed by references not only to Shakespeare but to Dante, and perhaps most effectively underlined by Pierre's unwillingness to acknowledge the true nature or at least the full scope of his motives, and by his continued reliance on false—which is to say, at once deceiving and self-deceiving—names. Isabel is his sister; and yet the fact that they have only known each other as adults makes her seem something other than a sister. She is also mysterious and powerfully attractive, prompting feelings that are rather more than simply fraternal. ‘Now Pierre’, we are told,

began to see mysteries interpierced with mysteries and mysteries eluding mysteries; and began to seem to see the mere imaginariness of the so supposed solidest principle of human association.15

The brother-sister relationship has been rendered purely fictive, a matter of names and shadows; and Pierre responds to this, not by asserting a truth, but by elaborating an alternative fiction, the pretence that he and Isabel have been secretly married. Perhaps, the narrative suggests, Pierre is prompted to adopt this course, ‘the nominal conversion of a sister into a wife’, by his ‘previous conversational conversion of a mother into a sister’. The point is well taken: here as before, the implication is, Pierre is playing with words, constructing an artifice that enables him both to conceal and to express incestuous feelings. He has devised a new set of signs, another opaque vocabulary, with which to misinterpret things.

It is worth stressing the fact that at the very moment when Pierre, inspired by his devotion to Isabel, commits himself openly and wholeheartedly to what he calls ‘the inflexible rule of holy right’, the narrator does the same. ‘I shall follow the endless, winding way’, the narrator tells us, ‘the flowing river in the cave of man’16: this, only two paragraphs after Pierre has declared that he will pursue the ‘path’ of Truth. The parallel is useful, I believe, in the sense that it highlights at least two things. In the first place, it helps to emphasize the fact that Pierre—unlike, say, Ishmael in Moby-Dick—is not the narrator of his own story. He writes a book eventually, but the book he writes is not the one we read: on the contrary, it is the book we read about—within the book that an anonymous, third-person narrator writes. The distinction is significant; for it means that whereas Ishmael (along with all Melville's other, earlier, first-person narrators) can be said in the end to stand outside his experience, discover some at least of its objective truth, and be liberated by that discovery, Pierre remains trapped like a fly in amber within the fiction that bears his name. And, in the second place, it anticipates the discovery, made eventually by author, narrator, and reader alike that the quest for Truth that Pierre the book embodies is just as abortive as the one upon which Pierre the character embarks. In this respect, something that Mary McCarthy said once about Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire seems relevant: when we read Pale Fire, she explained,

a novel on several levels is revealed, and those ‘levels’ are not the customary ‘levels of meaning’ of modernist criticism but planes in fictive space.… Each plane or level in its shadow box proves to be a false bottom; there is an infinite regression, for the book is a book of mirrors.17

Part of this sense that Pierre is, to use McCarthy's phrase, ‘a book of mirrors’ is due to something I have mentioned in passing already: which is the sheer obtrusiveness of the narrator, the feeling that he is always there mediating, shaping, and in the process distorting experience. Sometimes, as in the example quoted earlier, he insists on reminding us of the rules he feels compelled to obey, the conventional forms through which he and other storytellers have habitually filtered experience. At others, he emphasizes the opposite: the sheer arbitrariness of the structures he has adopted, the random nature of his fictional devices. Book XVII, for example, begins in this fashion:

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.18

Elsewhere, in the same vein, the reader is advised that he can ‘skip’ certain chapters if he prefers to, and that he must not expect a consistent portrait of Pierre but catch ‘his phases as he revolves’. Whether the emphasis is on the conventional or the arbitrary, however, the effect remains the same: to focus attention on the making of the text and, by extension, on the conversion of objective experience into (to adopt Borges's useful phrase) ‘a mere labyrinth of letters’.19

But it is not just that the narrator is conspicuously there, reminding us of his presence; he is reminding us too, and continually, of the sheer hopelessness of his task. It is idle, he admits to us, to attempt to penetrate into the heart and ‘inmost life’ of Pierre or indeed anyone since ‘in their precise tracings-out and subtile causations, the strongest and fiercest emotions of life defy all analytical insight.’ Equally, it is pointless to try to tell anyone anything,

for—absurd as it may seem—men are only made to comprehend things which they comprehended before (though but in embryo, as it were). Things new it is impossible to make them comprehend, by merely talking to them about it.20

In effect, the lines of communication between author and subject and those between author and reader are all irremediably blocked: things remain resistant to explanation and there is a ‘universal lurking insincerity’ in ‘even the greatest and purest written thoughts’. And because of this one measure of a book's authenticity, or rather its relative lack of inauthenticity, becomes the extent to which it does not even attempt to explain, does not try to contain, does not pretend that it has rendered a coherent and conclusive vision of life. As the narrator puts it:

while the countless tribes of common novels laboriously spin veils of mystery, only to complacently clear them up at last … yet the profounder emanations of the human mind … never unravel their own intricacies, and have no proper endings: but in imperfect, unanticipated, and disappointing sequels (as mutilated stumps), hurry to abrupt intermergings with the eternal tides of time and fate.21

The implication of what Melville was getting his narrator to say, in passages like the one I have just quoted, were (as Melville was well aware) at once dispiriting and slightly terrifying. There is, it gradually emerges from the story of Pierre, a vacuum at the heart of things, a central emptiness, a hollowness, a silence—and ‘how can a man get a Voice out of Silence?’ Self-evidently, he cannot. There are, in fact, only two responsible courses of action open to him. Either he can pursue a state of non-being: that condition of quietness, apartness, and passivity that Isabel sometimes desires—and that, as Pierre observes him, the inscrutable ‘mystic-mild’ Plotinus Plinlimmon seems to have achieved.22 Or, alternatively, he can choose to join the ‘guild of self-imposters’, comforting himself with the knowledge that, while his forgeries and impostures do little real good, they will, if performed in the right spirit—which is to say, a self-reflexive, self-conscious one—do little significant harm either. ‘There is infinite nonsense in the world on all … matters’, proclaims the narrator,

hence blame me not if I contribute my mite. It is impossible to talk or to write without throwing oneself hopelessly open; the Invulnerable Knight wears his visor down. Still, it is pleasant to chat ere we go to our beds; and speech is further incited, when like strolling improvisatores of Italy, we are paid for our breath.23

The casual, jokily resigned attitude that the narrator adopts here is by no means sustained throughout the book: as any reader of Pierre will verify, the tone fluctuates violently between irony and anger (‘Oh what a vile cheat and juggler man is!’), exhausted acceptance and pure, blind rage (God is referred to at one point as ‘the eminent Juggularius’), absurd humour and apocalyptic nihilism. Throughout the changes of tone, however, the essential thrust remains the same: what we are reading, the narrator reminds us, is a ‘knavish pack of cards’,24 a game, a fabrication. Nor does he depend simply on telling us this; the form of the narrative, which is parodic and discontinuous, serves to remind us of it on almost every page. The literary allusions and references, for example, are quite startling in their number, breadth, and complexity, including in the opening pages not only the Shakespeare mentioned earlier but Sir Thomas Browne, De Quincey, Disraeli, Milton, and the English Romantic poets. There are deeper, more sustained parallels not only with the novel of romantic sensibility but also with Gothic romance and Jacobean drama; the style offers pastiches of a number of writers—Carlyleian twists of syntax, for instance, mingle with Biblical rhythms, while passages that recall Emerson collide with others reminiscent of Shelley; and the characters issue as much out of literature as life—with, at one end of the spectrum, Pierre reminding us of the traditional Byronic hero and, at the other, numerous minor characters recalling the porters, tinkers, and constables of Shakespeare. Given the sheer abundance and consistency of such allusiveness, and setting aside the obvious point that Melville was hardly a crowd-follower, it is difficult to see how all this can be dismissed (as it has been by some critics25) as an example of an author being lamely derivative. Melville knew what he was doing. Pastiche, as he was neither the first nor the last to realize, can be a useful tool in the hands of someone bent on creating a realm of surfaces, an insistently figurative, self-evidently artificial world in which books, whether by choice (as in earlier examples of this genre) or by necessity (as in Pierre and later examples) refer to nothing except themselves.

So, even after swearing themselves to the cause of Truth, both Pierre and his narrator remain trapped in a spider's web of words. As the narrative edges forward—one, brief section rapidly replacing another, reaching nervously in various directions and towards different points in time—the sense of inwardness, of being imprisoned in a labyrinth, grows stronger and ever more inescapable. Pierre begins writing a book in which, the narrator tells us, ‘he seems to have directly plagiarized from his own experiences, to fill out the mood of his apparent author-hero’.26 The parallel with Melville, borrowing from his own experiences to fill out the mood of his author-hero, is so obvious as to be hardly worth mentioning; and perhaps more interesting here is the fact that the use of the word ‘plagiarized’ alerts us to the fictional nature of Pierre's raw material. Pierre's life is fictive, not just because Melville has invented it, but also to the extent that (as we have seen) there is ‘a certain fictitiousness’ in all Pierre's relationships—and, in addition, in the sense that his entire story, from its sentimental beginnings to its Gothic conclusion, offers us a series of parodic masks; the book that he writes could consequently be described as a fiction of a fiction compounded of fictions. Not content with such dizzying involutions, our storyteller at this point takes us within the story he tells too. ‘Let us peep over the shoulder of Pierre, he suggests, and see what he is writing there … Here … is the last sheet from his hand, the frenzied ink not yet entirely dry.’27 At such moments, narrator and reader exist within the interior of the narrative as minor, choric characters; as a corollary of this, they, or rather we, share in the prevalent mood of narcissism—as we watch ourselves watching Melville/Pierre watching himself.

In this connection, it is worth mentioning the shadowy references to incest and incestuous feelings that run through the book and that reach their climax in the story of Pierre's ‘marriage’ to Isabel. It is not enough, I think, to explain these in terms of the book's parodic framework. Certainly, the tradition of the sentimental novel permitted veiled hints at such deliciously shocking matters, and the motif of incest fits in well with Melville's tendency, towards the end of the book, to present Pierre as a reflection of the Promethean Christ figure of Romantic myth. The fact that this is so, however, does not exclude the further possibility that, in playing upon the idea of incest, Melville was hoping to remind the reader of his young author-hero's narcissism and the solipsistic thrust of the narrative. Like many a young American hero, Pierre discovers that his father has failed him, that the ‘niched pillar … which supported the entire … temple of his moral life’28 has been broken; he therefore sets out to rebuild the temple by accepting the moral responsibilities which, he feels, his father has abrogated—to assume the place vacated by Mr. Glendinning and so, in effect, become his own father. All he ends by doing, however, is embracing his own image, a projection of infantile obsessions. As far as the later course of his life goes, in fact, the young American hero he most resembles—or, to be more accurate, anticipates—is Quentin Compson in William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. For both Pierre and Quentin end by retreating from the sound and the fury of things into a preoccupation with a ‘lost sister’ that at once encapsulates and exacerbates their narcissism. In both cases, it hardly matters whether or not the physical act of incest occurs since the main point is the simple fact of the attraction and its sources29; and in both cases, of course, a further retreat is made into suicide—self-absorption and self-enclosure leading inevitably, it seems, to self-destruction. Even this particular parallel should not be pushed too far, however. For whatever the darkness of the first three sections of The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner does try to locate an alternative vision in the fourth; Quentin's way is not, apparently, the only one. By contrast, as I have tried to suggest, Pierre's psychological and sexual inversion is a mocking reflection of Melville's own sense (by turns bitter, ironic, and desperate) that he has been caught in a hall of mirrors: in this respect, the book is as much of a prison for the author as it is for the hero.

By the end of the book, of course, Pierre is (if one can use the phrase in this context) quite literally in prison, in ‘a low dungeon’ where ‘the long tiers of massive cell-galleries above [seem] partly piled on him’. The sense of being trapped in a fiction continues: ‘Here then, is the untimely, timely end’, Pierre declares to himself,

—Life's last chapter well stitched into the middle; Nor book, nor author of the book, hath any sequel, though each hath its last lettering!30

More important for our present purposes, however, Pierre feels oppressed at this juncture, not so much by laws or by people, as by ‘the stone cheeks of the walls’ in his ‘granite hell’. As several critics have observed, references to rocks, stones, and stony structures run throughout Pierre.31 The book is, after all, dedicated to ‘Greylock's Most Excellent Majesty’, the highest mountain in Massachusetts, which Melville could see from his writing desk; the Mount of Titans (based on Mount Greylock) and the Memnon Stone (modelled on Balance Rock, near Pittsfield) perform important functions within the narrative; and both the rural and the urban environments the characters inhabit are described principally in terms of their stoniness. It is not difficult, I think, to see the purpose of all this: rock, in this novel, becomes the central image of the material, it replaces the whale as an emblem of being—all that Wallace Stevens would later term ‘things as they are’. Nor is it difficult to see what the crucial property of rock in Pierre (the pun on ‘pierre’, the French word for ‘stone’, may or may not be intentional) is; rock, Melville insists, is utterly impenetrable and uninterpretable, offering nothing more than a series of blank surfaces. Admittedly, attempts may be made from time to time to name an especially noticeable configuration of rocks; we are told, for instance, that ‘a singular height’ not far from Pierre's ancestral home has been variously (and somewhat confusingly) termed The Delectable Mountain and the Mount of the Titans—and that the Memnon Stone was thus ‘fancifully christened’ by Pierre himself (although very few people, the narrator adds, would either know it by this name or indeed consider it worth naming). Admittedly, too, something, some hieroglyphic or message may be inscribed on a particular rock: like the ‘half-obliterate initials—“S. ye W”’ that Pierre finds ‘rudely hammered’ on the Memnon Stone and never satisfactorily deciphers. Such things, however, remain no more than surface scratchings, doomed efforts to name the unnameable and know the unknowable. For,

Say what some poets will, Nature is not so much her own ever-sweet interpreter, as the mere supplier of that cunning alphabet, whereby selecting and combining as he pleases, each man reads his own peculiar lesson according to his own peculiar mind and mood.32

Which brings us back to Pierre, in his ‘granite hell’. By the end of the novel, Pierre's attempts to name and to know the world have ceased—just as, indeed, those of Melville are about to—and he finds himself at once overpowered and mocked by the brute materiality of the world. The rocks and mountains which he christened and on which he tried to scratch some messages have now narrowed to a set of prison walls; and while he may feel like Ahab, that he would like to thrust through those walls he clearly believes that he cannot. The final paragraph, describing the tableau of Pierre and Isabel dead in one another's arms, is worth quoting here:

‘All's o’er, and ye know him not!’ came gasping from the wall; and from the fingers of Isabel dropped an empty vial—as it had been a run-out sand-glass—and shivered upon the floor; and her whole form sloped sideways, and she fell upon Pierre's heart, and her long hair ran over him, and arbored him in ebon vines.33

The ambiguity of those first words is surely intentional. For while most readers will assume, quite reasonably, that it is Isabel who speaks here, addressing her words to Frederic Tartan and Charlie Millthorpe, the very strangeness of the phrase ‘came gasping from the wall’ (combined, perhaps, with the feeling that it was never incumbent on Tartan or even Millthorpe really to know Pierre) suggests other, admittedly tentative possibilities. It could be Pierre himself, talking to the other characters, or indeed to the narrator and the reader; it would not, after all, be the first time he had referred to himself in the third person. Or, for that matter, bearing in mind the references to rocks, stones, and walls that run through the novel, it could be the visible objects of the world, addressing themselves mockingly to Melville, reminding him that for all his attempts at naming them they remain unidentified and anonymous.

‘“All's o’er, and ye know him not!”’: by the time Melville finished Pierre, there was really only one major distinction to be made between him and his young author-hero. Locked in a fictional jailhouse just as Pierre was, mocked in just the same way by the blankness of its walls, Melville at least knew, to his own profound dissatisfaction, what the alternatives were: either silence or artifice, stillness or imposture. One could either sit staring at those walls and, in a gesture of total passivity, try to assume something of their blankness and impenetrability. Or one could attempt to break through them, in the certain knowledge that all one would find beneath their immediate surface would be another surface—and then, after that, another.34 ‘Far as any geologist has yet gone down in the world’, declares Melville in Book XXI of Pierre,

it is found to consist of nothing but surface stratified on surface. To its axis, the world being nothing but superinduced superficies. By vast pains we mine into the pyramid; by horrible gropings we come to the central room; with joy we espy the sarcophagus; but we lift the lid—and no body is there!—appallingly vacant as vast is the soul of a man!35

To anyone familiar with postmodernist literature, this description of superinduced superficies will probably recall not only the writers I mentioned earlier—that is, Vladimir Nabokov and Jorge Luis Borges—but also such things as, say, Roland Barthes's claim that texts can be seen

as constructions of layers (or levels, or systems) whose body contains finally no heart, no kernel, no secret, no irreducible principle, nothing except the infinity of their own envelopes—which envelop nothing other than the unity of their own surfaces.36

The parallel is there, certainly: but there is a difference, and it is a crucial one. For there is no escaping the intense bitterness, the sheer rage and sense of betrayal, that runs through the passage from Pierre that I have just quoted (and, indeed, through the entire book): feelings which, it need hardly be said, are conspicuous only by their absence from Barthes's remarks and from most of the fiction of Nabokov and Borges. Part of Melville, it is clear (and a significant part of him at that), wanted to utter a thunderous ‘no’ to the idea of ‘surface stratified on surface’; to that extent, at least, he was rather more than just a progenitor of postmodernist writing, and Pierre itself is something other than just a distant anticipation of books like Ficciones and Pale Fire. In his seventh novel, as in so much of his work, Melville's heart tried desperately to reject what his head told him. Which accounts not only for the book's anger, occasional awkwardness, and acidity, but also for its power as an expression of that impulse most of us feel at one time or another: the impulse to believe, that is, even if only in the possibility of belief, however perversely and despite all the evidence.


  1. Pierre; Or, The Ambiguities (1852), p. 294. All references are to the New American Library, New York, 1964 edition.

  2. The Letters of Herman Melville edited by Merrell R. Davis and William H. Gilman (New Haven, 1960), pp. 146, 150.

  3. Melville: The Critical Heritage edited by Watson G. Branch (London, 1974), pp. 294, 298, 303.

  4. Edward H. Rosenberry, Melville (London, 1979), p. 90. See also, Richard Chase, Herman Melville: A Critical Study (New York, 1949), p. 103.

  5. P. 322.

  6. ‘Introduction’ to Pierre, New York, 1949 edition, p. xxi. See also, Ronald Mason, The Spirit Above the Dust: A Study of Herman Melville (London, 1951), pp. 169-71.

  7. P. 344.

  8. P. 23. The other quotation in this paragraph is from p. 237.

  9. New York, 1962. Quotations from Pierre in this paragraph are from pp. 25, 27, 44, 47, 58, 59, 79, 208, 297.

  10. William Ellery Sedgwick, Herman Melville: The Tragedy of the Mind (New York, 1962), p. 153. See also, Murray, ‘Introduction’, pp. l-lxv.

  11. P. 111. Cf. Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus translated by Justin O’Brien (New York, 1959), p. 10. Other quotations from Pierre in this paragraph are from pp. 60, 91, 139.

  12. P. 146. Other quotations from pp. 69, 144, 149, 152, 154, 176, 186.

  13. Pp. 212-13. Other quotations from pp. 74, 241, 298.

  14. P. 311.

  15. P. 121. Other quotations from p. 208.

  16. P. 135. Other quotations from p. 134.

  17. Cited in Tony Tanner, City of Words: American Fiction 1950-1970 (London, 1971), p. 34.

  18. P. 280. Other quotations from pp. 243, 378.

  19. Cited in Tanner, City of Words, p. 41.

  20. Pp. 242-43. Other quotations from p. 92.

  21. P. 170. Other quotations from p. 380.

  22. There is ‘something passive’ about Plinlimmon, we are told; his face has ‘a repose separate and apart—a repose of a face by itself’; and his features appear to express the belief that ‘to respond is a suspension of isolation’. Pp. 328, 330.

  23. P. 295. Other quotations from pp. 241, 242.

  24. P. 380. Other quotations from pp. 298, 309.

  25. See, e.g., Newton Arvin, Herman Melville (London, 1950), p. 227.

  26. P. 342.

  27. Pp. 341-42.

  28. P. 94.

  29. In Pierre the implication is that an act of incest has occurred; in The Sound and the Fury the implication is that it has not. A further ambiguity is introduced into Pierre by the fact that we never knew for certain whether or not Pierre and Isabel do have the same father.

  30. P. 402. Other quotations from pp. 402, 404.

  31. See, e.g., H. Bruce Franklin, The Wake of the Gods: Melville's Mythology (Stanford, 1963), pp. 101ff. Edgar A. Dryden, Melville's Thematics of Form: The Great Art of Telling the Truth (Baltimore, 1968), pp. 118ff.

  32. Pp. 383-84. Other quotations from pp. 160, 161, 383.

  33. P. 405.

  34. See ‘Bartleby’ and The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade for later explorations of these two alternatives.

  35. P. 323.

  36. ‘Style and its Image’, in Literary Style: A Symposium (London, 1971). I am indebted to Harold Beaver for drawing attention to the parallel noted here.

Nicholas Canaday (essay date 1986)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3344

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.


Melville's Pierre opens with the idyllic story of Pierre and Lucy Tartan told in the extravagant, sentimental terms of the domestic romance, which Melville is parodying.2 The substance and especially the style of the opening deservedly capture critical attention, not least because the leisure activity of courting Lucy has a central place in the life of a young man whose life is virtually all leisure. The romance, however, is spun out of the domestic circle of which Pierre is a member, and leisure entertainment—usually reading, but in this instance a kind of stagy performance featuring a series of tableaux vivant—is not its sole function. The romance, however, serves not merely to entertain but, more importantly, to praise the behavior and confirm the values of those in the circle. At Saddle Meadows the circle starts with two, Pierre and his mother, but Lucy and Mrs. Tartan are included, as well as other women on the social periphery. Mrs. Glendinning is the chief instrument of social authority, “conventionalness” as Melville terms it, which shapes the domestic circle and vests its highest ranking arbiter with her power.3

The reader is soon given a glimpse of Pierre on a typical morning. It begins as Pierre helps his mother, whom he calls sister at her insistence, finish her toilet in front of her glass at her dressing table, passing a ribbon around her neck and fastening it with a cameo. As they talk pretty talk, he adjusts a stray ringlet of her hair and then kneels to secure the tie of her slipper. At breakfast Pierre attentively supplies his mother with all of her needs, several times admonishing the butler Dates to adjust the window sashes is order to block from his mother's neck any “unkind current of air,”4 and to swing around a hinged painting on the wall into a favorable light. All the while the hovering Pierre takes great interest in “Sister Mary's” food. The talk between Pierre and Mrs. Glendinning here and in the other opening scenes of the novel is largely about domestic detail.

It is apparent that normal aspects of a young man's education are denied Pierre. There are books at Saddle Meadows, of course, “his father's fastidiously picked and decorous library,” but because they cultivate only “delicate warmths” and “soft, imaginative flames in his heart” (p. 6), we may infer that they were chosen for a young wife. Occasionally Pierre sojourns to the city for the purpose of “mingling in a large and polished society,” but that society seems to be essentially feminine, for there Pierre “had insensibly formed himself in the airier graces of life” (p. 6). Finally, Pierre is “companioned by no surnamed male Glendinning” (p. 8). Without a male model in this domestic circle, Pierre has no idea how to act in the traditional male role, and thus the folly of his longing is presented ironically in Melville's imagery: in the “vain-gloriousness of his youthful soul, he fondly hoped to have a monopoly of glory in capping the fame-column, whose tall shaft had been erected by his noble sires” (p. 8).

Pierre is unlike most other nineteen-year-old males. He keeps no secret from his mother, but, after the chance encounter with Isabel, seeing her and haunted by her face, he conceals from his mother for the first time ever a circumstance in his life and evades her questions. Mrs. Glendinning stresses Pierre's docility whenever she thinks of his character. She recalls her late husband's attitude toward women and applies it to Pierre as well: Pierre's father had said that “the noblest colts, in three points—abundant hair, swelling chest, and sweet docility—should resemble a fine woman.” She adds “so should a noble youth” (p. 20). Yet in her musing she is at the same time fondling old General Glendinning's baton, part of the Saddle Meadows collection of mementos, which she recognizes as a “symbol of command” and incompatible with “sweet docility” (p. 20). But Pierre has thoroughly accepted the values of the domestic circle, as exemplified by his attitude toward the beautiful, girlish Lucy:

Methinks one husbandly embrace would break her airy zone, and she exhale upward to that heaven whence she hath hither come, condensed to a mortal sight. It can not be; I am of heavy earth, and she of airy light. By heaven, but marriage is an impious thing! (p. 58)

Frail heavenly femininity, that is, crushed by brutal earthly masculinity makes marriage itself a sacrilege, a rather unusual view about himself and sex from a nineteen-year-old male.

Pierre was unaware, as Melville writes, of the foreboding and prophetic lessons taught by Palmyra's ruins. Melville's version of the lesson of Palmyra is particularly appropriate in this context. That ancient city is said to have had an avenue lined by 750 limestone columns, each over fifty feet high topped by a statue. Melville writes only about one column: “Among those ruins is a crumbling, uncompleted shaft … crushed in the egg; and the proud stone that should have stood among the clouds, Time left abased beneath the soil” (p. 8). That ruin is an image of Pierre's masculinity, crushed in the egg and left abased in the domestic circle.

The baton that is incompatible with docility, the folly of aspiring to cap the fame-column, the abasement of the proud shaft—all this phallic imagery is summarized when Melville begins Book IV, which is entitled “Retrospective” and, looking back on the romantic section of the novel, brings it to an end. He begins by writing that he is dealing with the unconscious:

In their precise tracings-out and subtile causations, the strongest and fieriest emotions of life defy all analytical insight. … The metaphysical writers confess, that the most impressive, sudden, and overwhelming event, as well as the minutest, is but the product of an infinite series of infinitely involved and untraceable foregoing occurrences. … things not wholly imputable to the immediate apparent cause, which is only one link in the chain; but to a long line of dependencies whose further part is lost in the mid-regions of the impalpable air. (p. 67)

He then suggests that the shrine in Pierre's heart, the vestibule of his religious feeling, is his late father's reputation, now laid low by the revelation of the existence of Isabel. The image of the shrine is that of a “niched pillar, deemed solid and eternal, and from whose top radiated all those innumerable sculptured scrolls and branches, which supported the entire one-pillared temple of his moral life.” In the niche of the pillar “stood the perfect marble form of his departed father; without blemish, unclouded, snow-white, and serene; Pierre's fond personification of human goodness and virtue” (p. 68). The retrospective summary of the first part of the novel sees the shrine as devastated before a “withering blast” that had “stripped his holiest shrine of all overlaid bloom and buried the mild statue of the saint beneath the prostrated ruins of the soul's temple itself” (p. 69).

Melville writes specifically in this retrospective passage that Pierre's entire early life had been a product of rural influences because Pierre “had never yet become so thoroughly initiated into that darker, though truer aspect of things, which an entire residence in the city from the earliest period of his life almost invariably engraves upon the mind of any keenly observant and reflecting youth of Pierre's present years” (p. 69). This situation precisely reflects the “familial interpretation of power relations” described by Jane Gallop in her book The Daughter's Seduction: Feminism and Psychoanalysis. Gallop says feminism sometimes mistakenly accepts the familial interpretation as true of the world outside of what I have termed the domestic circle. Feminism, that is, complaining about men in power, “endows them with a sort of unified phallic sovereignty that characterizes an absolute monarch, and which little resembles actual power in our social, economic structures.”5 Pierre's vision of the one-pillared temple is well described by the phrase “unified phallic sovereignty,” and that temple is removed by more than a country mile from the darker, truer aspects of power in citified social and economic structures.

Without a masculine role in the early part of the novel, his maleness crushed in the egg and abased in the domestic circle, Pierre is effectively a daughter, a sister. Isabel emerges from the darker, truer life of their father (the dark lady's contrast to the snow-maiden Lucy has often been noted), and thus Pierre's seduction by the father through Isabel is similar to the model outlined by Jane Gallop. The main result of this encounter is “the introduction of heterogeneity (sexuality, violence, economic class conflict) into the closed circle of the family.”6 In terms of Melville's novel, into the domestic and asexual circle of Saddle Meadows Isabel brings sexuality (Pierre's mysterious depths of attraction for Isabel never felt for Lucy), violence (his confrontation with his mother on a stairway after which he trips and falls down on the stone portico of the house), and economic class conflict (his befriending of Delly Ulver). Pierre chooses to flee, leaving the ruins of Saddle Meadows laid low by the “withering blast.”


With crushing irony Melville shows us Pierre not escaping but transferring the domestic circle to New York City. The company of Isabel, Delly, and later Lucy in the Apostles', the three-room tenement in the abandoned church building, evidences a sensibility and a set of values exactly like that left behind at Saddle Meadows. Aside from the fact that their number makes it manifestly absurd that Pierre could ever hope to support them by his writing, this circle is completely unprepared for citified life and even for the rough, masculine democracy of the other tenants of the Apostles'. There is ready sympathy available for Pierre and his poverty-stricken household, and on one occasion willing male helpers offer protection by forcibly ejecting Lucy's brother Frederic Tartan and Pierre's cousin Glen Stanly as they attempt Lucy's rescue. Yet Pierre cannot relate to the others in any way, partly because of a lingering class consciousness, but mostly because he has no idea how to act with other men.

Pierre's domestic circle in New York is held together by certain fictions. Isabel's rhetoric maintains their brother-sister relationship except in certain moments as they sit together in the dark. Yet Isabel's seductive beauty is always present, and her jealousy of Lucy surfaces with little provocation. Delly, on the other hand, because of her sense of propriety, must make an effort—and she seems successful in doing so—to convince herself that Pierre and Isabel are married. She knows nothing of their family relationship. When Lucy joins them, fleeing from her new suitor Glen Stanly and her mother and brother, and determined to sacrifice her life to Pierre's well-being, she too believes that they are married and knows nothing of their kinship. It is, ultimately, the revelation of the filial relationship, while she still believes that they have lived together as man and wife, that causes her to drop dead from shock at the climax of the novel. Incest is certainly one type of sexuality that can destroy the domestic circle and those in it as well.

Melville's way of depicting Pierre as out of place in New York City is through imagery typically applied to a young woman: “Like a flower he feels the change; his bloom is gone from his cheek; his cheek is wilted and pale” (p. 271). The verdant youth had not yet come to maturity in the summer of Saddle Meadows: “Oh, woe to that belated winter-overtaken plant which the summer could not bring to maturity! The drifting snows shall whelm it” (p. 296). To further emphasize the non-masculine nature of his arrested sexuality, Lucy says to Pierre that he has “no love as other men love,” but “thou lovest as angels do” (p. 309). The remark is true but ironically somewhat different from the intended high compliment.

Pierre's sexual stirrings toward Isabel continue, and she encourages them by words, movement, and touch—hers is the volition, not his—but if further evidence were needed in the sometime critical disagreement as to whether their love is in fact consummated the picture of Pierre as sexually immature angel should settle the disagreement.7 Phallic insistence, the love that other men have, is inappropriate in this circle.

Since Charlie Millthorpe never appears in the Saddle Meadows section of the novel, his presence in New York City as a boyhood friend of Pierre's continues Melville's irony. In helping Pierre to find a place to live in the city, Charlie's earnest and practical kindness stands in contrast to the diffident and haughty dismissal Pierre suffers at the hands of his cousin Glen Stanly. Charlie, the son of a farmer on the Glendinning lands in Saddle Meadows, now after his father's death removed to the city with his mother and sister, attempts quite unsuccessfully in his blustery, masculine way to relate to Pierre. Eventually Charlie pays the rent for Pierre and even offers to help him move furniture about when Lucy arrives to join the household. Pierre smiles condescendingly at Charlie's lack of sophistication and mutters that he is “plus heart, minus head” (p. 320), but Pierre addresses Charlie only once directly in the several times they meet. That one time is after the porter bringing Lucy's belongings is dismissed: “The porter is gone then? … Well, Mr. Millthorpe, you will have the goodness to follow him” (p. 319).

Some expository details are given about how Pierre and Charlie played together as children in Saddle Meadows, but that happened long before Pierre's adolescence. Charlie went on to school and to assume responsibility for his family. In contrast to Pierre, Charlie had a male presence in his life, although his father was rough, inarticulate, and given to drink. Charlie is Pierre's friend to the end, and when he holds the dead Pierre in his arms in the jail cell at the end of the novel Charlie's speech inadvertently hints at Pierre's arrested sexuality:

Ah, Pierre! my old companion, Pierre;—school-mate—play-mate—friend!—Our sweet boy's walks within the woods! … What scornful innocence rests on thy lips, my friend!—Hand scorched with murderer's powder, yet how woman-soft! (p. 362)

This speech prompts Isabel's dying sentence in the same scene, essentially Pierre's epitaph: “All's o’er, and ye know him not!” (p. 362). Read as a response to Charlie, it is a remark probably not meaning that the author withheld the one secret of his character's life, his incestuous relationship with Isabel,8 but that Charlie and the world were ignorant finally of Pierre's psychosexual immaturity and his real relation with Isabel and the other women in his household.

It is, unfortunately, this same arrested sexuality that keeps Pierre from succeeding as a writer. He had promised his publisher a “popular novel,” and that could have been spun out of the rural Saddle Meadows just like his life's activities there, but in the city what he writes becomes “blasphemous rhapsody” (p. 356). The controlling metaphor of writing in the nineteenth century is “literary paternity” according to Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar in The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Imagination. They make the observation that “male sexuality … is not analogically but actually the essence of literary power. The poet's pen is in some sense (even more than figuratively) a penis.”9 We have seen that Pierre lacked unified phallic sovereignty, and Melville is writing in the tradition in which the literary text is a manifestation of power. Again, according to Gilbert and Gubar:

In patriarchal Western culture … the text's author is a father, a progenitor, a procreator, an aesthetic patriarch whose pen is an instrument of generative power like his penis. More, his pen's power, like his penis's power, is not just the ability to generate life but the power to create a posterity to which he lays claim. … In this respect the pen is truly mightier than its phallic counterpart the sword. …10

Thus unlike the idyllic harmony of Saddle Meadows, Pierre's desperation in New York City results from a growing awareness of his incongruous place within the group of women who encircle him. His murderous assault on Glen Stanly with a brace of pistols stolen from the chambers of another inhabitant of the Apostles' is an unfocused and suicidal attempt to escape into maturity. As he leaves the Apostles' for the last time, Pierre passes through the room of Isabel, who sits in her chair as if petrified; and then through the room of Lucy, unstirring in her chair as though entranced. In the corridor between the two outer doors of each room, he pauses with outstretched arms and then breaks the domestic circle forever with this wish: “For ye two, my most undiluted prayer is now, that from your here unseen and frozen chairs ye may never stir alive” (p. 358). It is a harsh leave-taking from the women who have been close to him, but Pierre's bitter awareness of the stultifying, exclusively female, “rural bowl of milk” is a measure of Melville's response to all that was unnatural in the early life of his youthful hero and to his belated disastrous entry into a masculine world.


  1. Merrell R. Davis and William H. Gilman, eds., The Letters of Herman Melville (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1960), p. 146.

  2. Melville's satirical purpose is argued convincingly by William Braswell, “The Early Love Scenes in Melville's Pierre,AL [American Literature: A Journal of Literary History, Criticism, and Bibliography], 22 (1950), 283-89, which essay also provides a good summary of earlier critics who had accused Melville of a lapse of taste in the opening scenes.

  3. In an earlier essay, Nicholas Canaday, “Melville's Pierre: At War with Social Convention,” PLL [Papers on Language and Literature: A Journal for Scholars and Critics of Language and Literature], 5 (1969), 51-62, I have characterized Pierre as a rebel against social authority.

  4. Herman Melville, Pierre; or the Ambiguities, ed., Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker, and G. Thomas Tanselle, Northwestern-Newberry Edition (Chicago: Northwestern Univ. Press, 1971), p. 17. All subsequent citations, which appear parenthetically in the text, are to this edition.

  5. Jane Gallop, The Daughter's Seduction: Feminism and Psychoanalysis (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1982), p. xv.

  6. Gallop, p. xv.

  7. For a summary of critical comments on this point, see Canaday, pp. 58-59. More recent support for the argument that their love is not consummated is found in Paula Miner-Quinn, “Pierre's Sexuality: A Psychoanalytic Interpretation of Herman Melville's Pierre, or, The Ambiguities, HSL [University of Hartford Studies in Literature: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Criticism], 13 (1981), 111-21.

  8. Henry A. Murray, ed., Pierre: or, The Ambiguities by Herman Melville, Hendricks House Edition (New York: Farrar Straus, 1949), p. xcii.

  9. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1979), p. 4.

  10. Gilbert and Gubar, p. 6.

Phillip J. Egan (essay date 1987)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5162

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 trademark as a storyteller—become “peremptory and ludicrously unconvincing” (188). More positive commentators tend to reiterate certain commonplaces and to make general statements without much detail. E. L. Grant Watson noticed long ago, for example, that the story records the “birth of the conscious soul” (206), but neither he nor any successor explains much about how Melville creates this impression. More recently, Eric Sundquist tells us that the prose of the story approximates “the lithe and haunting music Isabel and her guitar make,” but he does not elaborate (164). Thus the form of Isabel's story has never been fully and sympathetically treated.

Obviously, the tale is a short bildungsroman, an explanation not only of the events of Isabel's life but also of her coming-to-be. Less apparent are the patterns that support and constitute this bildungsroman and the philosophy that informs it. Properly considered, Isabel's story is nothing less than a manifesto of the Romantic artist-philosopher, complete with an implied philosophy of language. Of course, the bildungsroman itself, with its emphasis on stages of development and hard-won transitions to new plateaus of understanding, was a favorite form of the Romantic writers. In Isabel's story Melville manipulates this form both to display the seductive attractions of Romantic philosophy and to hint at its disastrous consequences for Pierre.

A close examination reveals first that Melville emphasizes the different stages of Isabel's development by evoking different literary genres or patterns (the fairy tale, the descent into hell, and the pastoral idyll) as backdrop for these stages. Second, the story is developmental also in its portrayal of both Isabel's psychology and her linguistic abilities. Third, the story uses motifs and ideas of Romantic origin to express a specifically Romantic vision of art and epistemology—and to express as well Melville's ambivalence about this vision. Within this context, both Isabel's rhetorical practices and her pauses are purposive, not arbitrary. If there is a problem with Isabel's characterization, it is the fact that she must fulfill a dual role: on the one hand she is a static symbol of nature, but on the other hand, the bildungsroman form commits her to the dynamic process of growth and change.

Of course, Isabel's story in some sense “seduces” Pierre, but the seduction, whatever its incestuous content, is primarily philosophical. Isabel revolutionizes Pierre's life not so much because she gets him to do unconventional things but because she gets him to think unconventionally and thus pulls him loose from the fixities of his early life. The trouble with Romantic philosophy is that its flexibility, imagination, and rejection of conventional order, while at first liberating, lead to a paralyzing lack of certitude and a crippling inability to deal with the world as it is. Isabel's story hints at this; Pierre's life illustrates it.

Pierre visits Isabel after sundown in a little red farm house located near a gloomy wood from which issues a “moaning, muttering, roaring, intermitted, changeful sound” including the “devilish gibberish of the forest-ghosts.” Brian Higgins and Hershel Parker point out that the landscape Pierre must traverse to the cottage suggests the possible terrors that Isabel has in store for him (171-172). Isabel's cottage itself is of a piece with this setting. Overgrown with moss and adjoined at one end by a dairy-shed, it is strongly associated with nature and good food, and vaguely threatening as well. In this setting we also see the first of several manipulations of genre Melville performs in Isabel's story: by approaching the cottage, Pierre steps out of the pastoral idyll of Saddle Meadows into a fairy tale.

“‘I never knew a mortal mother,’” Isabel begins (114). Her first memory is that of a crumbling mansion, perhaps a small chateau, located in a dark and threatening forest somewhere in Europe. Her original language, she believes, was French. Her foster parents, an old man and woman, treat her with frequent disdain, rarely speaking to her but often looking at her as they converse in whispers near the fire. Isabel vividly recalls an incident in which she asked to have some bread they were eating and actually touched the loaf. The man threatened to strike her, and the woman threw the loaf into the fire. Isabel sought consolation from a cat but was only hissed at. When she retreated outside to sit on a rock, the very earth seemed hostile, and its coldness caused her to faint for sheer loneliness. After this time, she says, everything she saw and heard began to be stranger and stranger to her. This early rejection and others like it powerfully shape her life, and later events (as well as her feelings even as she tells the story) consistently evoke the “starings” from her foster parents and her own “bewilderings” of this early period.

In this first part of the story, Melville evokes the world of the fairy tale. The indefinite time and place, the setting of the dark forest, the wicked foster parents, and the theme of the abandonment of a child all commonly occur in the German märchen. Such tales, often seen as children's stories because they express the visions and fears of childhood, are an appropriate literary reference for Isabel's early life. But Melville's use of fairy-tale conventions is subtle, not heavy-handed. None of the frankly supernatural elements common to fairy tales—gnomes, witches, and talking animals—occur here. Melville evokes the fairy tale, therefore, by selecting only those elements of it that can be reconciled with Isabel's generally realistic narrative.

Isabel does not clearly remember leaving her forest home, and she only vaguely remembers crossing the ocean to America. It is at this time, she says, that English gradually came to replace her native French. At this point, acknowledging the vagueness of her story, she gives an apology worth quoting in full:

“Scarce know I at any time whether I tell you real things, or the unrealest dreams. Always in me, the solidest things melt into dreams, and dreams into solidities. Never have I wholly recovered from the effects of my strange early life. This it is, that even now—this moment—surrounds thy visible form, my brother, with a mysterious mistiness; so that a second face, and a third face, and a fourth face peep at me from within thy own. Now dim, and more dim, grows in me all the memory of how thou and I did come to meet. I go groping again amid all sorts of shapes, which part to me; so that I seem to advance through the shapes; and yet the shapes have eyes that look at me. I turn round, and they look at me; I step forward, and they look at me.—Let me be silent now; do not speak to me.” (117-118)

The first of five pauses that punctuate the story follows. Isabel's procedure here sets a pattern that she maintains throughout her narrative. The passage that precedes the pause consists of a repetition of certain key words and phrases—things, dreams, face, shape, and look at me. Of course, there is nothing unusual about repetition in Isabel's rhetoric even when she is not approaching a pause. Here, however, the rhetoric gives the passage cadence, a sense of ending. As she approaches the pause, her sentences and rhythms become shorter, so that the rhetoric seems to turn in upon itself and spiral down to a dead point. Such rhetorical patterns precede nearly all of her pauses. Moreover, the same general feeling brings on all her pauses, a feeling of unreality and bewilderment (or, to use Isabel's term, “bewilderingness”). Thus Isabel cannot stick to the story line; it constantly evokes feelings of loss and confusion which she emphasizes with a pause. These pauses, with their stylized introductions, impose their own rhythm on the narrative as a whole and divide it into a series of prose “stanzas” punctuated by a refrain of despair.1 Stern condemns the device as “peremptory,” but, seen as an expression of Isabel's character, these pauses become ritualistic; they both express her despair and help her to control it.

The above passage also implies Melville's critique of Romanticism. Isabel employs Coleridge's “esemplastic power” with a vengeance: she can dissolve conventional order and reconstruct things in her own imagination; however, for her even simple matters of fact are surrounded by “mistiness.” As Pierre hears this, he is attracted by the very vagueness of her narrative and its implied rejection of all forms of conventional order, great and small. As one critic points out, however, anyone who can “dissolve solidities” holds much peril for Pierre (“rock”) (Franklin 121). Moreover, Isabel's statement, viewed from the unsentimental perspective of modern psychology, admits that she suffers from both hallucination and paranoia.

When Isabel resumes speaking after her first pause, she describes her second habitation, a large house situated by a river. Although she never uses the term, her words clearly describe an insane asylum. The loneliness she recalls during this period brings on her second and third pauses. Here Isabel again talks to almost no one, and the sights and (more especially) the sounds, evoke both the classical and Dantean versions of hell: people are whipped, chained, and born by mutes to an invisible basement from which issues a cacophony of moans and cries; and even the inmates not directly tortured are, like the inmates of hell, in a fixed state from which they will never escape. The hero of the bildungsroman typically passes through some personal descent into hell. Isabel's stay at this house, located in a treeless “lowland” near a “green and lagging river,” is surely hers.

In the midst of this section, Isabel gives what amounts to a credo, which is all the more interesting because it contradicts what follows in the story. Rejecting happiness, she says:

“my spirit seeks different food from happiness; for I think I have a suspicion of what it is. I have suffered wretchedness, but not because of the absence of happiness, and without praying for happiness. I pray for peace—for motionless—for the feeling of myself, as of some plant, absorbing life without seeking it, and existing without individual sensation. I feel that there can be no perfect peace in individualness. Therefore I hope one day to feel myself drank up into the pervading spirit animating all things. I feel I am an exile here.” (119)

This is Isabel's clearest statement of her ideal; and, in such phrases as “the pervading spirit animating all things,” we can recognize not only the transcendentalist over-soul but also the more general Romantic attitude toward nature, expressed in such poems as Wordsworth's “Tintern Abbey.”2

Isabel's ideal, however, contradicts the movement of her character. This contradiction becomes evident in the fourth section where, as a foster daughter of a farm family, Isabel first sees natural human affection between the farm wife and her infant. This infant, says Isabel,

“first brought me to my own mind, as it were; first made me sensible that I was something different from stones, trees, cats; first undid in me the fancy that all people were as stones, trees, cats; first filled me with the sweet idea of humanness; first made me aware of the infinite mercifulness, and tenderness, and beautifulness of humanness; and this beautiful infant first filled me with the dim thought of Beauty; and equally, and at the same time, with the feeling of the Sadness; of the immortalness and the universalness of the Sadness.” (122)

This passage (which in a few sentences leads to the fourth pause) rhetorically dramatizes Isabel's change in its very diction.

Contrasted with her identity with “stones, trees, cats”—all stark objects from her early home in the forest—are the newly discovered abstractions. The passage, moreover, is poetic: it is held together by the repetition of “first” combined with parallel structures; the strategic use of “and” in the second half of the passage spaces apart the accents and creates gentle rhythms which contrast with the harsh rhythms of the first portion; even the sibilance of the repeated-ness is used to good effect. Here perhaps is the “music” Sundquist speaks of. And, in passages like this, it is not hard to imagine that Isabel largely accomplishes her philosophical seduction of Pierre. Rarely do abstractions sound so euphonious.

Linked with Isabel's ability to abstract comes a feeling of her separation both from nature and from the other members of the farm family. Isabel tells us that her household chores (“being busy”) made her sensible of being human. As a child between the ages of nine and eleven years old, she begins to distinguish between the “human” and the “not human” in nature and concludes that “‘all good, harmless men and women were human things … in a world of horrible and inscrutable inhumanities’” (122).

She tells us further that, “‘as I grew older, I expanded in my mind. I began to learn things out of me; to see still stranger, and minuter differences’” (123). As a foster child, she does not have the same status in the family as the real children. The farmer seldom speaks to her; the wife shows more affection to her real daughters than to Isabel. And while Isabel suffers from the “starings” and “bewilderingness” she remembers from her forest home, she is thankful that the farm wife loves her even as much as she does:

“I thanked—not God, for I had been taught no God—I thanked the bright human summer, and the joyful human sun in the sky; I thanked the human summer and the sun, that they had given me the woman; and I would sometimes steal away into the beautiful grass, and worship the kind summer and the sun; and often say over to myself the soft words, summer and the sun.” (123)

Melville is trying to have it both ways in his characterization of Isabel. The very growth of her perceptions takes her toward the “individualness” she condemns in her earlier-stated credo. In other words, Isabel's development, her history of individual growth and change, conflicts with her symbolic and static identity with nature. The result is an uneasy compromise. Growing up requires the very separation from nature Isabel deplores; and, perhaps for this reason, Melville does not make the separation complete. An orphan herself, she becomes the woman who sees all of humanity as an orphan of the cosmos. Her vision, however, is not of humanity totally isolated because some parts of nature (e.g., the summer and the sun) and some objects (e.g., her guitar) are “human.” Isabel grows up, then, but only part way. She has the adult's capacity to see man's condition as tragic while retaining the child's capacity to see elements of the cosmos as mystically linked with herself.

The above passage also reveals that Melville interprets this portion of Isabel's life not as a fairy tale or a descent into hell, but as a pastoral idyll. She works on the farm, but, all in all, farm life is idealized. Isabel mentions no exhausting duties, boring routines, or harsh winters. The focus is on the summer and the sun. Her idyll is based upon a measure of domestic love and completed by the visits from her father. Perhaps Melville interprets this portion of her life as an idyll for the purpose of shattering it with her father's death.

Isabel eventually learns that her father had arranged to keep her with the farmer's family by sending them money. After he dies, Isabel must leave and find work in another house. While she is there, she buys a guitar from a peddler. She seems to develop a “personal” rapport with it; when she sings to it, it answers her with its music. She says, “‘the guitar was human … I made a loving friend of it.’” It translates “‘all wonders that are unimaginable’”; it sings of “‘mystic visions’” of those in the insane asylum and of “‘legendary delights’” unknown to her. She ends her story abruptly with the request, “‘bring me the guitar’” (125). Here Melville may, as one critic suggests, be working in the tradition of Gothic heroines who have magical musical instruments.3 But the guitar's creative and artistic significance makes it similar as well to the eolian harp and other stringed instruments, which Romantic poets consistently used as images of both artistic inspiration and the divine presence of nature.

Melville both reinforces and critiques this association with the guitar later when he explains Pierre's domestic routine in Book XXI after the move to the city. At this time Pierre is struggling to write a “mature work” of literature and looks to Isabel's music for inspiration:

When his day's work was done, [Isabel] sat by him in the twilight, and played her mystic guitar till Pierre felt chapter after chapter born of its wonderous suggestiveness; but alas! eternally incapable of being translated into words; for where the deepest words end, the music begins with its supersensuous and all-confounding intimations. (282)

The guitar is both inspiring but somehow inadequate. The failure of inspiration was a common crisis among the Romantic poets, particularly Coleridge, who presents “Kubla Khan” as an unrealized dream-vision, a beautiful might-have-been. In that poem Coleridge attributes his inspiration to a “damsel with a dulcimer” (I.298, 1. 37) whom he can no longer hear. Pierre has his own version of this figure under his very roof, but she still does not lead to artistic production. Melville may not be alluding to “Kubla Khan” here, although he probably knew the poem. In any case he does satirize the notion, rather popular during the Romantic era, that inspiration is all. Melville makes it clear when describing Pierre's work routine in Book XXII, that, in order to get work done, Pierre must exclude Isabel from his room.

The scene that follows the introduction of Isabel's guitar is a bizarre and fitting conclusion to what has gone before. Isabel strums her guitar with a wild and wanton virtuosity, intertwining her lyrics of the “‘Mystery of Isabel’” with the melodies she plays. Pierre is so enchanted that he is nearly speechless at the end. Claiming to be her “‘loving, revering, most marvelling brother,’” he kisses her and departs (127).

Clearly Melville juggles different goals in Isabel's story, for upon this rather elusive narrative he tries to impose a certain realistic psychology and attempts to show the development of a philosophy. For example, the early scenes with the cruel foster parents and the insane asylum inmates powerfully affect Isabel and condition her interpretation of later events with the farm family. Here recurring image patterns are important. Isabel frequently feels alone, out in the open, barren of protection, and watched by hostile glances. The earliest habitation that she remembers is in a clearing surrounded by a forest full of threatening pines and “‘unconjecturable voices’” (115). On the ship Isabel again stresses the open space surrounding her, as she does the treeless lowland that surrounds the insane asylum where she stays later. Isabel also feels, to the point of paranoia, that she is the object of hostile glances. The worst part of the rejection from her original foster parents and from the uncompanionable cat is the “starings” which she often mentions in later situations. And we have seen that, even as she speaks to Pierre, she complains of “shapes” that look at her.

At the same time Melville makes an issue of Isabel's developing linguistic consciousness. Isabel stresses, for example, that she has really no one to talk to in either her early home or the insane asylum. Furthermore, she suffers a linguistic dislocation as English gradually replaces her native French. Possibly for these reasons, Isabel is rather tentative both in her use of words and in her acceptance of their meanings. Sometimes she rejects the convenient shorthand that words offer. When she describes her voyage to America (117), she does not say immediately that she was on a ship but instead treats her listener (and the reader) to some rather puzzling description which reveals her situation gradually, somewhat as Isabel must have discovered it at the time. When she describes the insane asylum, she uses a similar tactic, except that this time she refuses to name the reality even after she describes it. She warns Pierre: “‘Do not speak the word to me. That word has never passed my lips; even now, when I hear the word, I run from it; when I see it printed in a book, I run from the book. The word is wholly unendurable to me’” (121).

As her narrative progresses, she compiles an entire list of words to which she struggles to attach meanings: summer, sun, happiness, humanness, sadness, beauty, father, death. To a great extent, living has meant learning the meanings of words that name life's great realities. Even when she does not consciously fix upon a word, however, her very style demonstrates her preoccupation with the mysteries of language. Indeed her procedures imply a rejection of the rationalist attitude that language is a self-evident system of reference neatly categorizing reality. In almost all of the passages quoted above, Isabel's thoughts circle around repeated words and phrases which give even her most ordinary narrative the character of poetry or music. Her story is her work of art, and her language is part of her creation.

If her narrative is her “verse,” then her pauses, as noted above, mark her stanza divisions. The plot of her story naturally invites division between the different settings Isabel lives in: the crumbling mansion, the ship, the insane asylum, the farmer's house, and her current setting. However, Isabel does not regularly pause at the changes in setting; rather—true to the Romantic faith in intuition in art—she divides the story at the dictates of her shifting feelings as she narrates.

The sudden introduction of the guitar toward the end of the story reinforces the impression that the story is about art and allows us to see Isabel's life as a portrait of a developing Romantic artist-philosopher. The Romantic artist, in this portrayal, comes to her art by a recognition of man's tragic situation—his presence among the inhumanities. This view of life happens partially as a consequence of the separations involved in growing up, both individually and as a race. Art is not primarily the result of conscious craft, but of imagination and intuition. (Isabel needs no teacher for her to play the guitar.) Art, finally, attunes the artist to nature, to childhood experience, and to the inspired visions of the mad.

Isabel's narrative, then, is artistically and philosophically sophisticated. On the one hand, it conveys a fairy-tale atmosphere in its setting and some of its elements, and it projects Isabel as a kind of enchantress. On the other hand, it employs realistic psychology both in the recurrent memories of early rejection and in the psychological and linguistic development it portrays. The story also becomes a portrait of a developing artist who displays her art not only with the guitar performance at the end but with the very lyrical order she imposes upon her story throughout. Given the fact that Pierre and even Lucy have artistic aspirations in their writing and painting, it would be wrong to read Isabel's story as Melville's last word about the artist in this novel. In Isabel, Melville portrays the subconscious sources of artistic inspiration, for Isabel is very much a creature of the subconscious. She seems to step out of Pierre's subconscious into his life with her mysterious power and vaguely incestuous appeal; her story, with its fairy-tale setting and its use of fairy-tale elements, seems to proceed from the very unconscious of humanity.

Isabel's ultimate significance, of course, lies in her effect on Pierre. In a number of ways, Isabel's story subtly forecasts the various stages of Pierre's decline. Like Isabel, Pierre comes to feel cosmically orphaned. Melville makes the point that Pierre felt he was a “soul-toddler” deserted by human parents when he first received Isabel's letter. Later, as he is working on his book and feels the indifference not only of man but also God to his aspirations, Melville reports, “the toddler was toddling entirely alone, and not without shrieks” (296). Like Isabel, who can turn dreams into solidities and solidities into dreams, Pierre increasingly loses his hold on reality. He begins having trouble with his vision and at one point suffers a fit from which he awakes in the gutter of a side street. Melville notes ominously, “if that vertigo had been also intended for another and deeper warning, he regarded such added warning not at all” (341). Finally, Pierre himself sees dreams as realities in his vision in Book XXV of Enceladus. All of these conditions are presented with attractive pathos in Isabel's narrative, but are lived out in their real sordidness by Pierre.

Finally, a point needs to be made about incest in this book. James Wilson, in The Romantic Heroic Ideal, points out a division among Romantic authors in their attitude toward sibling incest. British and French authors such as Lewis, Byron, Shelley, and Chateaubriand wrote of incestuous attachments with a compassion amounting to apology. Thus such incestuous pairs as Agnes and Lorenzo (The Monk), René and Amélie, Laon and Cynthna, Manfred and Astarte, and the poet and the “sister soul” (Shelley's “Epipsychidion”) all receive gentle treatment, if not outright justification, from their respective authors. These authors, says Wilson, see incest as a “regenerating alternative to conventional, sterile morality” (135). Wilson notes that the German attitude is quite different; Schiller, Tieck, and Grillparzer all treat incest as a blasphemous crime.4

Isabel's story is interesting for the way it invites the British and French interpretation of her relationship with Pierre. For Isabel, the developmental heaven toward which her bildungsroman tends is a passionate brother-sister attachment. Sanctified by their private love, and insulated by a grand indifference to social convention, this attachment appears to offer artistic inspiration. When Pierre joins Isabel, Melville takes up the incest theme where the British and French authors leave it off, and shows the spiritual bankruptcy of their views. The promised regeneration proves elusive, and the world of their private love turns out to be a solipsistic prison isolating them from others and weakening their hold on reality.

Isabel's story has been attacked by some critics, but if there is a problem here, it is chiefly that Isabel does not live up to the expectations she creates in Book VI. She never again quite achieves the quiet power she has when she first appears. In Book VIII Melville engages in facile supernaturalism when he portrays her eliciting a melody from her guitar without actually playing it. After the move to the city, Isabel is more of a vague presence than an active character. She is occasionally jealous or seductive, but in comparison with her appearance in Book VI, she is bland. However, it would be wrong to fault Melville harshly for the difficulty that Isabel presents. Once she is on the scene, it is certainly not easy to know what to do with her. Isabel is mysterious and intuitive, and she thrives better in the misty past, where many more things seem possible, than in the clearer atmosphere of the fictional present. Nevertheless, Melville achieves a great deal by putting this “dark” woman on display in the many ways that he does, and by giving her a narrative resonant with the motifs and ideas of Romanticism.


  1. Larry Edward Wegener makes a similar point though he bases it upon the repetition of Delly Ulver's footsteps heard during Isabel's pauses (xii).

  2. Compare, for example, lines 95-102 of Wordsworth's poem in which he speaks of

                                                                a sense sublime
              Of something far more deeply interfused,
              Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
              And the round ocean and living air,
              And the blue sky and in the mind of man:
              A motion and a spirit that impells
              All thinking things, all objects of all thought
              And rolls through all things. (II.262)
  3. Newton Arvin argues that Isabel's preternatural relationship with her guitar makes her a descendant of several heroines who are associated with music in Mrs. Radcliffe's novels (41).

  4. See Wilson 133-139. It seems likely that Melville knew many of the British works named here, although this is difficult to prove. Of the German works, it is quite likely that he had read Ludwig von Tieck's Der blonde Eckbert, which was in Carlyle's translation, German Romance, a two-volume set Melville borrowed from Evert Duyckink in 1850 (Sealts 47).

Works Cited

Arvin, Newton. “Melville and the Gothic Novel.” New England Quarterly 22 (March 1949): 33-47.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. The Complete Poetical Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Ed. Ernest Hartley Coleridge. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1912.

Franklin, Howard Bruce. The Wake of the Gods: Melville's Mythology. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1963.

Higgins, Brian and Hershel Parker. “The Flawed Grandeur of Melville's Pierre.” In New Perspectives on Melville. Ed. Faith Pullin. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1978.

Melville, Herman. Pierre; or, The Ambiguities. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1971.

Murray, Henry. Introduction. In Pierre; or, The Ambiguities. By Herman Melville. New York: Hendricks House, 1949. xiii-ciii.

Sealts, Merton M. Melville's Reading: A Checklist of Books Owned and Borrowed. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1966.

Stern, Milton R. The Fine Hammered Steel of Herman Melville. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1957.

Sundquist, Eric J. Home as Found: Authority and Genealogy In Nineteenth-Century American Literature. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979.

Watson, E. L. Grant, “Melville's Pierre.New England Quarterly 3 (April 1930): 195-234.

Wegener, Larry Edward. Preface. In A Concordance to Herman Melville's “Pierre, Or The Ambiguities.” Ed. Larry Edward Wegener. New York: Garland, 1985. I: xi-xx.

Wilson, James D. The Romantic Heroic Ideal. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982.

Wordsworth, William. The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth. Ed. Ernest de Selincourt. 5 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1940-1949.

James C. Wilson (essay date 1987)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4982

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 very beginning of the novel, Melville repeatedly calls the reader's attention to the social influences that have shaped Pierre's life. Living at Saddle Meadows, his ancestral mansion, Pierre has been “nurtured amid the romance-engendering comforts and elegancies of life” (216). The young Glendinning has been raised as a country gentleman—steeped in tradition, social convention, and a bogus sentimentality that becomes ever more obvious as the novel progresses. In Book I we see Pierre, the grandson of a Revolutionary War hero, play at being the knight-errant and romantic lover of his betrothed, Lucy Tartan. His protestations of love are both effusive and artificial in these early mock Romeo and Juliet scenes. He will say, for example, “‘I must away now, Lucy; see! under these colors [a flower] I march,’” to which Lucy responds in kind, “‘Bravissimo! oh, my only recruit!’” (4). Their dialogue here and throughout the novel—with its use of archaic expressions like “thee,” “thou,” and “fie, now,” and the excessive use of exclamation points—reads as though it had been copied from the kind of cheap sentimental romance that was so popular in Melville's day. In fact, Pierre attempts to measure up to what he sees as his heroic and aristocratic heritage by living according to the conventions of the sentimental romance, and he does it with a zeal that rings as false as the conventions themselves. It is significant that Pierre is repeatedly castigated, at least in the Saddle Meadows section, by the narrator of the novel, who frequently calls attention to his young protagonist's bravado, his naivete, and his romantic excesses.

Pierre maintains an equally immoderate relationship with his mother. Mrs. Glendinning, described as “an affluent, and haughty widow” (4), has rejected all suitors since the death of her husband so that she might better lavish attention on her only son. Their wealth and their insulated country life in Saddle Meadows have allowed them a “strange license” (5), a bizarre inbred familiarity that is explicitly Oedipal. With his “lover-like adoration” (16), Pierre has replaced his father, has become “lover enough” (5) for his widowed mother. Pierre and Mrs. Glendinning call each other “brother” and “sister,” they engage in a kind of incestuous conversational foreplay, and they live out a pretend or mock marriage in scenes that parody the typical drawing-room marriages of the sentimental romance. The excesses of Pierre's “romantic filial love” (5) are evident throughout the early scenes of the novel.

If Pierre's love for his mother is “romantic,” his love for his dead father can only be described as quasi-religious. Perhaps out of a sense of guilt for having created their own mock marriage at Saddle Meadows, both Pierre and his mother have transformed the memory of Mr. Glendinning into an icon, an image of God, the heavenly father. Mrs. Glendinning refers to him as “your dear perfect father” (19), and Pierre regards him as the “personification of perfect human goodness and virtue” (68). The dead father has become a “shrine” (68), where the son can worship the father and all that the father represents. What the father represents, as the novel makes clear, is the moral foundation (or ideological superstructure) on which Pierre's life of privilege has been constructed. Pierre's obsession with the symbolic purity of his father is yet another example of his general tendency toward absolutism, a characteristic that will prove to be self-destructive.

By the time Pierre receives the fateful letter from Isabel Banford in Book III, Melville has established most of Pierre's essential traits: his absolutism, his romantic illusions, and his emotional immaturity and volatility. These characteristics predispose Pierre to act rashly, as we see by his reaction to Isabel's letter, in which Isabel declares that she is his illegitimate sister and requests his help. Here in this first of many such instances, we see Pierre turn away from all he has held sacred and accept, without a shred of hard evidence, that Isabel is indeed his sister. Suddenly, Pierre decides, the “before undistrusted moral beauty of the world is forever fled; for thee, thy sacred father is no more a saint; all brightness hath gone from thy hills, and all peace from thy plains; and now, now, for the first time, Pierre, Truth rolls a black billow through thy soul!” (65). And just as suddenly, before he even meets Isabel, Pierre commits himself to a course of action that will have tragic consequences: “‘Oh! Isabel, thou art my sister; and I will love thee, and protect thee, ay, and own thee through all’” (66).

Though Isabel's story as told in Books VI and VIII is extremely vague, and though her reasons for believing herself to be Pierre's sister are inconclusive at best, the point is that Pierre has already decided (on impulse, certainly not on any rational basis) to believe her. Thus the problem that Pierre faces is how to “protect” Isabel without publicly humiliating his mother and dishonoring the memory of his father. His solution, as dishonest as it is ultimately disastrous for everyone involved, is to announce to his mother and the world at large that he and Isabel are married. Thus Pierre goes from one pretended marriage with his mother to another pretended marriage with his (fictitious?) sister. Predictably, Mrs. Glendinning reacts with outrage and promptly disinherits her son, who leaves the mansion feeling “hurled from beneath his own ancestral roof” (185). At this crucial juncture, Pierre makes yet another rash decision—he decides to flee to New York with Isabel and Delly, a local servant woman who has recently born a child to an already married man and who is, like Isabel (and soon Pierre), a social outcast. Acting out of a “new hatefulness” (196), Pierre severs all ties with his family and his past; he symbolically burns all the family letters and miscellaneous memorials in his possession and declares: “‘Henceforth, cast-out Pierre hath no paternity, and no past …’” (199). Here we see established a pattern that will become clearer in the second half of the novel as the action moves to New York—Pierre will decide on a particular cause to champion, will feel constrained and/or attacked by hostile forces, and will strike out impulsively and with increasing anger at all that supposedly restrains him.

Melville reminds the reader in repeated passages that Pierre suffers from an illusion that is central to his sentimental education—the illusion that he is capable of heroic action. Throughout the novel Pierre sees himself and is described as a “recruit,” a “warrior,” a “knight.” Conventions of the literature of courtly love and the sentimental romance intermingle in one important early description of Pierre:

In the country then Nature planted our Pierre; because Nature intended a rare and original development in Pierre. … She blew her wind-clarion from the blue hills, and Pierre neighed out lyrical thoughts, as at the trumpet-blast, a war-horse paws himself into a lyric of foam. … She lifted her spangled crest of a thickly-starred night, and … ten thousand mailed thoughts of heroicness started up in Pierre's soul, and glared round for some insulted good cause to defend. (13-14)

Pierre, of course, finds two of these insulted good causes in Isabel and Delly. He eagerly—and recklessly—takes it upon himself to protect and provide for both of them without understanding the consequences of his action or how the world will view it.

However, Pierre's motives in deciding to “defend” Isabel are not altogether altruistic and/or mock-heroic. Early in the novel it is apparent that Pierre's attraction to Isabel is partially, if not primarily, sexual. After he sees her for the first time at a neighbor's house, Isabel's “mystic face” (48) haunts Pierre and causes “wild reveries” (50) and a “pervading mood of semi-madness” (52). He cannot control his infatuation: “The emotions he experienced seemed to have taken hold of the deepest roots and subtlest fibers of his being. And so much the more that it was so subterranean in him, so much the more did he feel its weird inscrutableness” (48-49). Later, when Pierre agrees to meet Isabel in the little red farmhouse where she is staying, he goes to satisfy his “wild, bewildering, and incomprehensible curiosity” (47)—in other words, to possess her. To Pierre, trapped in an Oedipal relationship with his mother and an asexual courtship of Lucy, Isabel initially promises sexual release. He sees her (and in a sense creates her) as a dark, mysterious, olive-cheeked girl—in stark contrast to his cold, haughty mother, and his cold, virginal bride-to-be.

Though initially attracted, Pierre soon recoils from Isabel because his sentimental education has not prepared him for, and in fact does not allow for, open sexuality. As a victim of the idealized world of Saddle Meadows, Pierre has learned to substitute incestuous desire for genuine Eros or sexual love. Just as formerly he had diverted his youthful sexual desire into a mock-marriage with his mother, now he defuses his sexual response to Isabel by creating yet another fictitious, incestuous marriage. The result, of course, is that by forcing his relationship with Isabel to become hidden and illicit, Pierre ultimately destroys the relationship.

It has been a common critical assumption, at least since Henry A. Murray's seminal introduction to the Hendricks House edition of Pierre, that Isabel is, in Murray's words, “the personification of Pierre's unconscious” (lii). As a reflection of Pierre's unformulated and heretofore repressed desires, Isabel appears in images of sexuality and death. Indeed, the two sets of images are everywhere linked, as in this passage: “He felt a faint struggling within his clasp; her head drooped against him; his whole form was bathed in the flowing glossiness of her long and unimprisoned hair. Brushing the locks aside, he now gazed upon the death-like beauty of the face, and caught immortal sadness from it. She seemed as dead …” (112). In this and other passages we witness the classic struggle between Eros and Thanatos (that is, between sexual love and the death-wish) that Freud described nearly a half century after Melville. The struggle occurs both in Pierre's psyche and in the character of Isabel, and the result is that, as Pierre continues to withdraw from Isabel, Eros, diverted, gives way to Thanatos. Isabel becomes more and more associated with death. Her beauty is “death-like” and her manner “funereal”; she speaks repeatedly of a “world of horrible and inscrutable inhumanities” (122) and of the “infinite forlornness of [her] life” (123). Isabel longs for dissolution; she says at one point, “‘I pray for peace—for motionlessness—for the feeling of myself, as of some plant, absorbing life without seeking it, and existing without individual sensation’” (119). Late in the novel Isabel actually attempts to commit suicide by jumping from a ship, while Pierre and Lucy restrain her.

It is significant that, as Pierre moves toward Thanatos, he begins to identify with literary, mythological, and historical characters who share a tragic fate. For example, in Book VII Pierre identifies with Memnon, “that dewey, royal boy, son of Aurora, and born king of Egypt, who, with enthusiastic rashness flinging himself on another's account into a rightful quarrel, fought hand to hand with his overmatch, and met his boyish and most dolorous death beneath the walls of Troy” (135); in Book IX (and elsewhere) with Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, who extinguished his royal family in an attempt to avenge the murder of his father; in Book XVI with the gladiator Spartacus, who led an unsuccessful slave revolt against Rome from 73-71 B.C.; and in Book XXV with Enceladus the Titan, the “most potent of all the giants” (345), who according to Greek mythology was killed by the thunderbolts of Zeus during a futile war on the gods. These characters share the “reckless sky-assaulting mood” (347) that Pierre is driven to emulate—by challenging infinitely greater powers, they destroy themselves.

Thus Pierre has become increasingly prone to reckless and violent behavior by the time he and Isabel leave Saddle Meadows in Book XIII. Book XIV contains the theoretical center of the novel—Plotinus Plinlimmon's pamphlet. Pierre discovers the torn, discarded pamphlet, entitled “EI” (or “IF”), in the coach that takes him to New York. To be more specific, Pierre finds a fragment of the first of the 333 lectures supposedly contained in the pamphlet. This first lecture, “Chronometricals and Horologicals,” is billed as “not so much the Portal, as part of the temporary Scaffold to the Portal of this new Philosophy” (210). The point here is that the first lecture, like the pamphlet itself, is incomplete; as the narrator points out, it lacks a “conclusion,” a definitive resolution to the problems that it presents.

Critics have disagreed over the meaning of “Chronometricals and Horologicals” and why Melville chose to include the pamphlet here.3 However, it is apparent that, when considered in the context of the entire novel, the pamphlet further illuminates Pierre's essential problems—problems that are, once again, derived from his sentimental education. Plinlimmon, using the distinction between chronometric and horological time as his extended metaphor, distinguishes heavenly or “chronometric” wisdom from earthly or “horological” wisdom. He argues that, just as in China where one would not keep Greenwich time, “in things terrestial (horological) a man must not be governed by ideas celestial (chronometrical)” (214). His conclusion, though one of the most debated passages in all of Pierre, is really quite simple: “A virtuous expediency, then, seems the highest desirable or attainable earthly excellence for the mass of men, and is the only earthly excellence that their Creator intended for them” (214).

However, to recognize the importance of the pamphlet to Pierre, it is important to understand fully Plinlimmon's argument. To his distinction between chronometrical and horological, he adds that it “follows not” that God's truth is one thing and man's truth another. Instead, he argues that “by their very contradictions they are made to correspond” (212), and elsewhere that “this world's seeming incompatibility with God, absolutely results from its meridianal correspondence with him” (213). Finally, he promises that this correspondence, in which all contradictions are resolved, will be forthcoming in subsequent lectures, lectures that are missing from Pierre's copy of the pamphlet. The fact that these lectures are missing in Pierre's copy is significant because, unlike Plinlimmon, Pierre cannot resolve the contradictions of the world. Later in the novel he will come to refer to them as the “ambiguities.”

Furthermore, embedded in the pamphlet are several passages that warn against the kind of excess and absolutism towards which Pierre is inclined. For example, at one point Plinlimmon writes that though “minor self-renunciations” are inevitable, a man “must by no means make a complete and unconditional sacrifice of himself in behalf of any other being, or any cause, or any conceit” (214). Elsewhere he writes that a man who makes an “absolute effort” to live in this world according to chronometricals will likely be led into “strange, unique follies and sins” (213; Melville's emphasis) and eventually “work himself woe and death” (212). These statements describe, rather obviously I think, the life of Pierre Glendinning. In fact, Plinlimmon's pamphlet can be read as an indictment of Pierre and his imprudent behavior; Pierre certainly sees it as such, which is the primary reason why he does not consciously comprehend the pamphlet, as the narrator makes clear. Because it “condemns” him, Pierre does not want to understand the pamphlet, for any treatise or sermon that “illustrates to [man] the intrinsic incorrectness and non-excellence of both the theory and the practice of his life; then that man will—more or less unconsciously—try hard to hold himself back from the self-admitted comprehension of a matter which thus condemns him” (209).

Pierre's inflexibility becomes even more apparent when he arrives in New York with Isabel and Delly. Accustomed to his life of privilege in the country, Pierre cannot adjust to the nightmarish world of greed, poverty, and sin that he discovers on his first night in the city. As a result, Pierre reacts with increasing violence in a series of brief but bitter altercations with a coach-driver, his cousin Glen Stanley, and a crowd of rowdies at a watch-house (or shelter) for the poor. When their coach-driver is insolent, Pierre flies into a “sudden wrath” (233); he “burst” open the door, “sprang ahead of the horses, and violently reined back the leaders” (233). Only the timely appearance of a policeman prevents Pierre and the driver from coming to blows. When Glen Stanley snubs Pierre because of his various affronts to conventional morality, Pierre leaps toward his cousin “like Spartacus” and only manages to restrain the “savage impulse in him” because of the presence of guests in Stanley's apartment. Even so, Pierre says, “‘By Heaven, had I a knife, Glen, I could prick thee on the spot; let out all thy Glendinning blood, and then sew up the vile remainder’” (239)—a threat that looks forward to the end of the novel. Later, when he returns to the watchhouse where he has left Isabel and Delly, Pierre resorts to “an immense blow of his mailed fist” to free Isabel from one particularly aggressive “whiskerando” (241).

Pierre manages to control his violent impulses only temporarily and only by retreating with Isabel and Delly to the cloisters of the old Church of the Apostles, where they take a set of rooms in one lofty tower. The Apostles had long since outlived its “primitive purpose” (266) and had been divided, by the merchants and accountants who succeeded the priests, into offices and apartments for rent. At first the tenants had been primarily lawyers, but by the time Pierre arrives only a few lawyers remain on the ground floor, while the towers are “populous with all sorts of poets, painters, paupers and philosophers” (269). Symbolically, Pierre locates himself up above with the dreamers, sequestered in a “beggarly room” in the tower (270).

Though socially isolated in New York, Pierre is as imprisoned by his sentimental education as he was in Saddle Meadows, and he remains at heart a warrior desperate for another cause to champion. He finds his cause when he and Isabel reach the self-justifying conclusion that “‘Virtue and Vice are trash!’” (273), which Pierre decides to incorporate in a book and publish to the world. The reader discovers at this point, rather belatedly, that Pierre had been a juvenile author who had enjoyed some success with silly, sentimental poetry. Characteristically, when Pierre resumes his writing career, he does it with the same excess that he displayed in courting Lucy or rushing to the aid of Isabel: he announces that he will “‘gospelize the world anew, and show them deeper secrets than the Apocalypse!’” (273). However, what happens is that, as Pierre becomes more and more obsessed with his book, he loses himself in what the narrator refers to as the “devouring profundities” (305). His attempts to overturn convention and replace it with Truth (for Pierre, always capitalized) result in such passages as the following, where Vivia, the protagonist of his book, soliloquizes:

“A deep-down, unutterable mournfulness is in me. Now I drop all humorous or indifferent disguises, and all philosophical pretensions. I own myself a brother of the clod, a child of the Primeval Gloom. Hopelessness and despair are over me, as pall on pall. Away, ye chattering apes of a sophomorean Spinoza and Plato, who once didst all but delude me that the night was day, and pain only a tickle. Explain this darkness, exorcise this devil, ye can not. Tell me not, thou inconceivable coxcomb of a Goethe, that the universe can not spare thee and thy immortality, so long as—like a hired waiter—thou makest thyself ‘generally useful.’ … Thou wert but the pretensious, heartless part of a man. Lo! I hold thee in this hand, and thou art crushed in it like an egg from which the meat hath been sucked.” (302)

Here, once again, we see Pierre's anger and his instability, and we see him striking out blindly at imaginary adversaries. Above all, we see the same dangerous fanaticism that has characterized him throughout the novel, except that here his early sentimentalism has been replaced by an equally immature nihilism. Indeed, Vivia's self-indulgent despair is just the reverse image of the sentimental rubbish that Pierre wrote and published as a youth—such poems as “The Tropical Summer: a Sonnet,” “The Weather: a Thought,” and “Honor: a Stanza.”

Pierre never finishes his book, because finally he can only attack conventional wisdom and morality, not replace it. He cannot write the new Gospel for, as he discovers, “the more and the more that he wrote, and the deeper and the deeper that he dived, Pierre saw the everlasting elusiveness of Truth” (339). In all aspects of his life, Pierre finds himself surrounded by contradiction and uncertainty. He comes to doubt whether Isabel is truly his sister, realizing too late that the evidence supporting her claim was always tenuous and that his willingness to believe her had resulted not from fact or probability, but from an “intense procreative enthusiasm” (353)—a desire to believe. Isabel, like everything else in Pierre's life, becomes to him “an enigma, a mystery, an imaginative delirium” (354). Thus Pierre falls into the ultimate intellectual trap: he cannot live with uncertainty, and yet he cannot achieve certainty; he cannot live with the contradictions that plague him, and yet he cannot resolve those contradictions.

The final sequence of events begins when Pierre receives two letters, one from his publishers accusing him of being a swindler for sending them the early pages of his “blasphemous rapsody” instead of the “popular novel” (356) he had promised, and one from Glen Stanley and Lucy's brother accusing him of being a “villainous and perjured liar” (356) for his many crimes (which, by this time, include not only jilting Lucy and running away with Isabel, but allowing—or seducing, as they see it—Lucy to come live with them in a menage of four). To this last accusation, Pierre responds with violence; he searches out a brace of pistols and rushes into the street to meet his accusers. Earlier in the novel, after he learned that his mother had died and left the Saddle Meadows estate to Glen Stanley, Pierre had pondered the subject of murder as an intellectual possibility: “when he thought of all the ambiguities which hemmed him in; the stony walls all round that he could not overleap; the million aggravations of his most malicious lot …—then the utmost hate of Glen and Frederic were jubilantly welcome to him; and murder, done in the act of warding off their ignominious public blow, seemed the one only congenial sequel to such a desperate career” (337). Now idea becomes reality as Pierre, in an attempt to break out of the stasis in which he finds himself and play the hero once again, shoots and kills Glen Stanley. “‘Tis speechless sweet to murder thee!’” (359), Pierre says as he slays his cousin, who has become the focus of Pierre's wrath, not only because he represents the values of the conventional society that Pierre has rejected, but because he has replaced Pierre as heir to the Glendinning estate and would-be suitor to Lucy.

Pierre is immediately “seized by a hundred contending hands” (360) and taken to the city prison. There he finds himself, like Enceladus in his dream, confined by massive stone walls “partly piled on him” (360). Likewise, he is still trapped in his belief that life is “ambiguous still” (360). Here Pierre has played out all his possibilities save one, and it is at this point that, as Isabel reasserts her power as a symbol of Pierre's unconscious death-wish, Pierre embraces the idea of suicide. Before he went out to murder Glen Stanley, Pierre had told the two women that his “‘most undiluted prayer is now, that from your here unseen and frozen chairs ye may never stir alive’” (358). Now he expresses for himself this same wish for death: “‘I long and long to die, to be rid of this dishonored cheek’” (360).

It is significant that, before he takes the poison that Isabel has concealed in her bosom, Pierre cries out that he is “‘neuter now’” (360). Pierre is neuter both sexually and psychologically, and also in the sense that he is powerless to act the warrior now, powerless to find other “insulted good causes” to defend. Also, as we have already seen, Pierre is intellectually barren in that he has failed in his attempt to “gospelize the world anew.” Neutered in all of these ways, Pierre turns to Isabel and the poison that she has hidden in her breast:

“Girl! wife or sister, saint or fiend!”—seizing Isabel in his grasp—“in thy breasts, life for infants lodgeth not, but death-milk for thee and me!—The drug!” and tearing her bosom loose, he seized the secret vial nesting there. (360)

Isabel follows Pierre's lead and, as her “long hair ran over him and arbored him in ebon vines” (362), their final embrace is an embrace of death in a scene that mocks, at the same time it borrows, the conventions of the tragic denouement.

Henry A. Murray concluded that Melville actually “defends” Pierre's rash behavior in spite of the tragic consequences that it produces. Murray argues that Melville “defends this form of behavior [furious aggression] as stoutly as he justifies impulsiveness” (c). However, I do not think that Melville defends or justifies Pierre's extremism at all. (That Melville is more sympathetic to his protagonist toward the end of the novel does not constitute an endorsement of “aggression” or “impulsiveness.”) Rather, what Melville has done here is to show how violence is the end result of Pierre's sentimental education, for the very qualities—his absolutism, his romantic illusions, and his emotional immaturity and volatility—that Pierre acquired in the idealized world of Saddle Meadows cause him to self-destruct once he moves out of the closed, incestuous world of his forefathers.

Melville's young protagonist is naive and self-deluded, as many critics have remarked, but he is also a victim of his society and its socially-transmitted illusions of romance and heroism. Thus, Pierre can be read as an indictment of the sentimental education of Pierre Glendinning and, by extension, the social world of privilege represented by Saddle Meadows. The theme of violence, and its relation to Pierre's sentimental education, is important because it helps unify an otherwise discordant novel and suggests that Melville, from the very beginning of Pierre, intended to subvert the genre of the popular or sentimental romance while working (more or less) within the confines of its artificial and essentially trivial form.


  1. Leon Howard assumed in the Historical Note to the Northwestern-Newberry Edition of Pierre that Melville initially conceived of the novel in terms of a popular romance. However, other critics have viewed Pierre as a satire of a popular novel. For example, Robert Milder in “Melville's ‘Intentions’ in Pierre,” characterizes the novel as a “diabolical parody of the romance.” See also William Braswell's “The Early Love Scenes in Melville's Pierre,” and Richard H. Brodhead's discussion of Pierre in Hawthorne, Melville, and the Novel.

    Still other critics have argued that Melville intended Pierre to be a psychological novel. See especially Henry A. Murray's 1949 introduction to the Hendricks House edition of Pierre and, more recently, the work of Hershel Parker and Brian Higgins.

  2. The most thorough work on the composition of Pierre has been done by Hershel Parker in “Why Pierre Went Wrong,” and in his work with Brian Higgins, including “The Flawed Grandeur of Melville's Pierre” and their introduction to Critical Essays on Melville's Pierre. For an opposite view, see Robert Milder's “Melville's ‘Intentions’ in Pierre”; Michael S. Kearns' “Interpreting Intentional Incoherence: Towards a Disambiguation of Melville's Pierre; or, The Ambiguities”; and William B. Dillingham's discussion of Pierre in Melville's Later Novels.

  3. For a summary of the scholarship on whether Plinlimmon's pamphlet represents Melville's own views, see Brian Higgins' “Plinlimmon and the Pamphlet Again,” and William B. Dillingham's discussion of the controversy in Melville's Later Novels.

Works Cited

Braswell, William. “The Early Love Scenes in Melville's Pierre.American Literature 22 (1950): 283-289.

Brodhead, Richard H. Hawthorne, Melville, and the Novel. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.

Dillingham, William B. Melville's Later Novels. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986.

Higgins, Brian. “Plinlimmon and the Pamphlet Again.” Studies in the Novel 4 (1972): 27-38.

Higgins, Brian, and Parker, Hershel. “The Flawed Grandeur of Melville's Pierre,” in New Perspectives on Melville, ed. Faith Pullin. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1978.

———. “Introduction” to Critical Essays on Melville's Pierre. Boston: G. K. Hall & Company, 1983.

Kearns, Michael S. “Interpreting Intentional Incoherence: Towards a Disambiguation of Melville's Pierre; or, The Ambiguities.The Bulletin of the Midwest Modern Language Association 16 (1983): 34-52.

Melville, Herman. Pierre; or, The Ambiguities. Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern University Press and The Newberry Library, 1971.

Milder, Robert. “Melville's Intentions in Pierre.Studies in the Novel 6 (1974): 186-199.

Murray, Henry A. “Introduction” to Pierre or The Ambiguities. New York: Hendricks House, 1949.

Parker, Hershel. “Why Pierre Went Wrong.” Studies in the Novel 8 (1976): 7-23.

Nancy Craig Simmons (essay date 1987)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 13115

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 divine” and provides “the crux of Pierre”; and Murray Krieger devotes fourteen pages to “The Perils of ‘Enthusiast’ virtue” in Melville's “Enthusiast”—likewise undefined.3 James Duban links Pierre's “quasi-religious enthusiasm” with the ideas of Jonathan Edwards, adding that Melville uses the term to “describe Pierre's excitement.”4 More recently, William B. Dillingham recognizes Melville's emphasis on the term but quickly connects it with Gnosticism; and Brian Higgins and Hershel Parker, in the Pierre chapter of A Companion to Melville Studies, state that Melville “now confronted the possibility that absolute Christlike behavior … might always be … destructive to the enthusiastic follower of Jesus.”5 The last statement indicates that our common understanding of this undefined term has moved a great distance from Murray's assumption of a Platonic definition.

It is not surprising that scholars cannot agree on the meaning of the term; what does surprise is that no one has attempted to determine how Melville is using it, for it is basic to the character, plot, and meaning of the novel. Some form of the word occurs thirty-five times in Pierre—as opposed to a single use in Moby-Dick.6 And the terms “idealist” and “idealism,” repeatedly used to categorize the hero or the subject of Melville's attack, do not appear at all.7 Instead, Pierre is called “our young Enthusiast,” “the Enthusiast to Duty,” and “the enthusiastic youth”; and his “unprecedented” decision (to atone for his father's sin by pretending that his illegitimate half-sister Isabel is his wife) is twice labelled an “enthusiast resolution.”8

Although the “Enthusiast” is but one layer in a complex character, and although any attempt to define a single “intention” in Pierre would be reductive, to focus on “enthusiasm” opens the text in new ways, indicating a greater distance between Pierre and his creator than most critics have been willing to grant. Pierre reveals a sound knowledge of the literature of enthusiasm, which discusses the term's inherent ambiguity, often equates enthusiasm with madness, and focuses on the problem of determining the source of supposed inspiration and the difficulty of discovering truth in enigmatic situations without some extrinsic authority to provide validation of that “truth.” To look at Pierre in this context suggests that however “prescient”9 Melville's psychology may have been, or however aberrant Pierre's behavior may seem, Melville drew on typology and vocabulary provided by philosophers and religious thinkers of the period, which he could have expected some of his audience to recognize. Once again we see that Melville's genius lay not in his conception of original characters and plots but in his ability to transform and complicate borrowed materials in ways that simultaneously explore the recesses of his own mind, his problems as a writer, and the culture in which he lived.

In Pierre, Melville is refitting an old term to a new use—finding a language, as Philip Gura suggests the writers of the American Renaissance had to do, rooted in human nature rather than divine, that would speak to a post-Scriptural world, and, in the process, discovering the “ambiguity inherent in the gesture of human speech.”10 Gura's project is to show “how the terms of theological debate, particularly with regard to the accuracy and implication of scriptural revelation, when coupled with the influence of continental romanticism, were transformed into premises with deep reverberations in epistemology, theology, education, and literary form” (p. 6). My discussion will focus on a single, sometimes theological term, “enthusiasm,” which helps explain not only Pierre's seemingly illogical behavior and tragic end but also Melville's use of his story to explore the problem of the imagination, especially for the writer of fiction, as a guide to action and a means to truth in a modern, secular world.


Melville could not have chosen a better vehicle than “enthusiasm” to convey the ambiguities of the imagination. Derived from the Greek entheos, which may mean either “God possessing Man or Man caught up into God,” the word entered English in the Renaissance, when it “referred to religious experience, whether of possession or ecstasy,”11 or to some form of divine inspiration, religious or poetic. Enthusiasm was the “major preoccupation of religious minds” for a hundred and fifty years (roughly 1650 to 1800), “obscuring from contemporary view the rise of atheism,” according to Ronald Knox, whose study of this “chapter in the history of religion” chronicles successive eruptions of what he would prefer to call “suprasupernaturalism.”12 Spreading at this time into Lockean epistemology and evangelical religion, sentimentalism and skepticism, piety and naturalism, the term most frequently connoted delusion; beginning in the nineteenth century, “enthusiasm” more often meant “ardent zeal” (OED) or the mental state in which a noble selflessness replaces selfishness.13

The term is problematic because historically “enthusiasm” has both positive and negative connotations, as innumerable attempts to distinguish between “true” and “false” enthusiasm make clear. How, asks John Locke in his discussion of enthusiasm in Book 4 of The Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), can one “distinguish between the delusions of Satan and the inspirations of the Holy Ghost?”14Pierre is built on this ambiguity. Melville could have found a full Platonic (and positive) understanding of the word in the anonymous “editor's” “Introduction” to Edward Bulwer-Lytton's Zanoni (mentioned in a letter to neighbor Sarah Morewood in the fall of 185115) where the Sage explains, “‘Plato … expresses four kinds of Mania, by which I desire to understand enthusiasm, and the inspiration of the gods. Firstly, the musical; secondly, the telestic or mystic; thirdly, the prophetic; and fourthly, that which belongs to Love.’”16 Likewise, Shaftesbury asserts in Characteristics (1711) (mentioned in a June 1851 letter to Hawthorne17) that “inspiration may justly be called divine enthusiasm; for the word itself signifies divine presence, and was made use of by the philosopher whom the earliest Christian Fathers called divine [Plato], to express whatever was sublime in human passions.”18

Melville is clearly also aware of the word's negative sense. The enthusiast's strange behavior might not be god-inspired. Instead, “enthusiasm” was often derogatory, connoting something excessive or some form of delusion. Typical judgments called enthusiasm “mistaken … divine inspiration,” a “misconceit of being inspired,” a “counterfeit of true religion,” “an imaginary, not a real, inspiration.” New England divine Charles Chauncy expands this last definition in his “Caveat Against Enthusiasm” (1742): “the Enthusiast … has a conceit of himself as a person favored with the extraordinary presence of the Deity. He mistakes the workings of his own passions for divine communications, and fancies himself inspired by the Spirit of God, when … he is under no other influence than that of the over-heated imagination.” Enthusiasm properly understood is a “disease, a sort of madness.”19

John Wesley, preaching on “The Nature of Enthusiasm” (1750), goes beyond his fellow thinkers in acknowledging the ambiguity of language: the term, he insists, “is undefinable.” Exploring etymology, he cautions (and Melville's critics would do well to listen) that the term is “exceeding rarely understood, even by those who use it most.”20 It is a “dark, ambiguous word”;21 its pre-Socratic Greek origins are impossible to trace; the word may mean “‘in God’” or “‘in sacrifice.’” In fact, Wesley states in a surprising conclusion, the word itself may be “fictitious.” Fictitious or not, “enthusiasm” persists in many languages, he continues, “because men were no better agreed concerning the meaning than … the derivation of it. They therefore adopted the Greek word because they did not understand it: they did not translate it into their own tongues because they knew not how to translate it, it having been always a word of loose, uncertain sense, to which no determinate meaning was affixed” (Sermons, II, 48). Wesley soon returns to safer ground, stressing that enthusiasts mistake “imaginary” influences for the “real influence of the Spirit of God” (Sermons, II, 53) and that reason and Scripture provide true and clear guides to God's will.

Melville's general understanding of the term may very well derive from Locke's attack in the Essay: enthusiasm takes away “both reason and revelation, and substitutes the ungrounded fancies of a man's own brain.”22 Locke's discussion is extracted (without quotation marks) into the lengthy entry on “enthusiasm” in Chambers' Cyclopedia, which Melville owned in the 1728 edition.23 In this passage Locke asserts that “in all ages, men, in whom melancholy has mix’d with devotion, or whose conceit of themselves, has raised them into an opinion of a greater familiarity with God, than is allowed others; have often flattered themselves with the persuasion of an immediate intercourse with the deity, and frequent communications from the divine spirit. Their minds being thus prepared,” they tend to view “whatever groundless opinion comes to settle itself strongly upon their fancies [as] an illumination from the spirit of God; and whatsoever odd action they find in themselves an inclination to do, that impulse is concluded to be a call, or direction, from heaven, and must be obeyed.” Locke goes on to discuss the problem of “immediate revelation, of illumination without search, and certainty without proof,” and concludes that God works through natural reason or provides some “marks which reason cannot be mistaken in.”24 Melville may also have read David Hume's popular Essays; in “Of Superstition and Enthusiasm” (1741) Hume discusses the swollen imagination that produces “raptures, transports, and surprising flights of fancy [which] are attributed to the immediate inspiration of that Divine Being, who is the object of devotion.”25 Samuel Johnson's Dictionary (1755) codified the pejorative sense of “enthusiasm” in its first definition: “A vain belief of private revelation; a vain coincidence of divine favour or communication.” Other meanings in the Dictionary are more secular and neutral: “2. Heat of imagination: violence of passion, confidence of opinion” and “3. Elevation of fancy; exaltation of ideas.”26


Dozens of discussions of enthusiasm could be cited,27 only a few of which we can be certain that Melville knew. And one might argue that he needed no more than the Cyclopaedia's version of Locke, with its interesting statement of the central problem of enthusiasm: “But of this seeing and feeling [of the hand of God moving within], is it a perception of an inclination to do something, or of the spirit of God moving that inclination?”28 The source of the “inclination to do something” is central to Pierre's “grand enthusiast resolution”: Melville examines relentlessly all the factors that can enter into a single decisive action—the nexus of fate, free will, and chance that determines human events—but his treatment is far more naturalistic, skeptical, and secularized than earlier discussions of enthusiasm. Pierre's bizarre behavior is most true to a type provided by one of the last significant explorations of enthusiasm, first published in 1829, which defines enthusiasm as a diseased imagination, a mental illness with specific causes, symptoms, and consequences: Isaac Taylor's Natural History of Enthusiasm.

As Taylor's best-known work, the Natural History of Enthusiasm went through ten editions, British and American, between 1829 and 1845. A copy could have been in the “‘cartload’” of books Melville's widow sold to A. F. Farnell of Brooklyn after Melville's death, which included many “‘theological’ works … regarded as a dead loss and … scrapped for waste paper”29—a terrible loss for scholars. A wonderful compendium for the popular mind of the basic elements of “enthusiasm” as it had evolved over the two hundred years preceding its use by Melville as the subject for his rural romance, the Natural History of Enthusiasm would have delighted Melville's ever-questioning, alternately skeptical and believing mind: it is “a sort of historico-philosophical disquisition on the perversions of religious imagination, … written with a freshness and vigour which gave it an instant vogue.”30 Despite its somewhat religious orientation, however, the Natural History (as the title suggests) attempts to be scientific and objective in its approach to the traditional problem of distinguishing true from false inspiration. Taylor's proofs are from nature, not Scripture, and he stresses worldly causes and consequences rather than heavenly ones. For Taylor, enthusiasm is the product of a diseased or disordered imagination, a natural human faculty.

This literalization of the long-metaphorical relationship between enthusiasm and madness31 makes Natural History of Enthusiasm particularly useful for an understanding of Pierre. In much the same way that autobiographical or nautical facts structured his earlier works, the typical characteristics and progress of the early nineteenth-century version of the enthusiast became the framework for Melville's case study of a disease that he seemed to have contracted. He seeks not to judge Pierre but to understand his behavior by entering his mind, thus transforming Taylor's type into a richer, more ambiguous figure.

The text for Wesley's sermon links enthusiasm with Melville's own personal concerns at this time: from Acts 26, 24, “And Festus said with a loud voice, Paul, thou art beside thyself,” the text focuses on the problem of insanity and societal opinion of individual behavior out of conformity with its codes. Wesley's restatement of the problem anticipates the ideas of Melville's Plotinus Plinlimmon in the pamphlet Pierre reads on his way to the city: “It is easy to observe that the determinate thing which the world accounts madness is that utter contempt of all temporal things [Plinlimmon's ‘horologicals’], and steady pursuit of things eternal [Plinlimmon's ‘chronometricals’].” Since Wesley wants to absolve Methodism of the derogatory charge of enthusiasm, he, like Plinlimmon, counsels “rational” behavior rather than enthusiasm, which he calls a “disorder of the mind [that] greatly hinders the exercise of reason …, a religious madness arising from some falsely imagined influence or inspiration of God.”32 To Melville in 1850 and 1851, first struggling to complete Moby-Dick and then reading the early reviews of his masterpiece while writing his seventh book in as many years, recognizing that dollars damned him and yet refusing to write what would sell, and exhibiting symptoms that were causing family and reviewers to question his sanity, this subject would have great personal significance.33 He even quoted Paul's reply to Festus, “‘I am not mad, most noble Festus’” (Acts, 26, 25), in a letter to Hawthorne (November 17? 1851), when he was beginning Pierre. Partly because of his own worries about insanity, it seems, Melville cast Pierre in the role of the enthusiast as a way of exploring the apparently aberrant workings of the human mind a half-century before Freud.34

Unlike Wesley, Taylor in the Natural History does not want to recognize the inherently ambiguous nature of enthusiasm. To prevent the spread of this dangerous disease, he adopts a one-sided stance. In his “Advertisement” he is dogmatic: he will describe distinctly the “perilous illusion” (enthusiasm) to “fix the sense of the term.”35 Thus he calls enthusiasm a “religion of the imagination” (p. 16), “fictitious piety” (p. [iii]), an “intellectual disease” (p. 98), a “common vice of the mind” (p. 16); the product of a “pampered imagination” (p. 17), and the “perversion of the religious affections” (p. 31); it always involves an “error of imagination … misjudging of realities … [and] calculations which reason condemns” (pp. 14-15); and it always connotes “folly,” “weakness,” “extravagance” (p. 14). But Taylor's awareness of the difficulty of “fixing” a definition creeps in at several points, as at the end of the sweeping statement that anyone who “cuts himself off from the common sympathies of our nature, and makes idiot sport of the energies of moral action, and has recourse either to a jargon of sophistries, or to trivial evasions when other men act upon the intuitions of good sense … must be called an enthusiast, even though he were at the same time—if that were possible—a saint” (p. 92). (Compare Wesley's admission that any man “excellent in his profession … has … in his temper a strong tincture of enthusiasm”; Sermons, II, 48-49.) The term refuses to contain a single meaning; uprooted in empirical epistemology from any grounding in the transcendent, “enthusiasm” has become inherently ambiguous.

It is the ground between the various possibilities—the enthusiast as madman, as deluded, as suffering from an overactive imagination, as heroic or even saintly—that Melville exploits in Pierre. Whereas the religious writers try to contain the problem of the aberrant imagination by referring all questions to the known source of truth (Holy Scripture), Melville makes it the stuff of moral tragedy, openly playing with the ambiguity of enthusiasm as a means of raising questions about the validity of the imagination as a guide to action. On the one hand, he suggests that Pierre's is a case of “true” enthusiasm: the crisis prompted by Isabel's mysterious note leads Pierre to an “almost superhuman” resolution, and, the narrator concludes, “Thus, in the Enthusiast to Duty, the heaven-begotten Christ is born” (p. 106). “Nothing great was ever done without enthusiasm,” Emerson says at the end of “Circles”; but Pierre comments ironically on such naivete, suggesting Pierre's may be “false” enthusiasm. For, only a few days (and a hundred pages) after the birth of the enthusiast in Pierre, as “our young Enthusiast” rides in the silent coach, away from Saddle Meadows, his past, and his patrimony, he suffers extreme doubts: “to him the Evil One propounded the possibility of the mere moonshine of all his self-renouncing Enthusiasm” (p. 205). Is his decision heroic, the only just action possible under the circumstances, a true enacting of the injunctions of Scripture? Or is Pierre a dupe of his own overactive imagination? Or is he (as he later wonders, recalling the apparent insanity of both his parents at their deaths) insane? Like “sin,” “vice,” and “virtue,” “enthusiasm,” we realize from exploring its etymology and uses, may be “another name for the other name” (p. 274)—madness, insanity, ego, sexual desire, delusion.


A major obstacle to critical and popular appreciation of Pierre has been the “revolting” nature of its title character and plot. One contemporary reviewer knew exactly why Pierre was “trash”: “the plot … is monstrous, the characters unnatural, and the style a kind of prose run mad.”36 For many readers Newton Arvin's objection still holds: “Pierre is presented to us as an Enthusiast to Duty: well and good. … We are not prepared to believe in his acting like a madman.” Arvin concludes that “Melville is chargeable in the end with an abysmal lapse of moral seriousness and coherence. … Pierre has behaved, not in fact like a Don Quixote, but like an Orlando Furioso.… he has conducted himself generally like a psychopath” (pp. 228-229). However, considering the language available to Melville in 1851, we see that Pierre behaves exactly as Taylor's scientific model predicts he will.

Taylor's genre—natural history—affords him a middle ground between theology and fiction that he peoples using narrative techniques, and the character that emerges from his analysis resembles Pierre in striking ways. From the Natural History we learn that the incipient enthusiast lives in a dream world, in “a sort of happy somnambulency—smiling and dreaming as he goes, unconscious of whatever is real, and busy with whatever is fantastic”; he seems both reckless and serene (p. 12). Perpetual illusion leads him to misjudge reality (pp. 14, 15); his “disordered imagination” creates a “region of fictitious happiness” in “the fields of intellectual enjoyment … especially of poetry and the fine arts.” A “refugee” from the “vexations of common life,” he lacks the “vigor necessary for continued and productive toil”; nevertheless, he wastes time on some ambitious “gaudy or preposterous extravagance of verse or picture: or perhaps [spends his] days in loading folios, shelves, and glass-cases with curious lumber of whatever kind most completely unites the qualities of rarity and worthlessness” (Taylor, pp. 13-14). To many, he seems insane.

Melville's extremely unrealistic treatment of the “dewily refreshed” Pierre in the “green and golden world” of his fathers (p. 3) and Pierre's relationships with his mother and Lucy creates in the opening chapters a subject and tone that mirror the enthusiast's unreal world, the illusory soil that engenders enthusiasm. And, although the transformation of the athletic and aristocratic Pierre of the novel's opening to dabbler in precious verse of Book XVIII is unprepared for, such dilettantism is a natural attribute of the enthusiast described by Taylor.

Taylor identifies the common element in all enthusiasts as presumption of self-importance, revealed in their demand for “sensible evidence” of God's special attentions: visions, voices, bodily commotions, natural signs. This is impiety, Taylor asserts, and the enthusiast's “experience” of such “evidence” results from uncontrolled imagination, not God's special activity on his behalf.37 Peculiar behaviors are not evidence of God's influence. In fact, God's operations, he asserts in true Enlightenment fashion, are inscrutable because they are perfectly harmonized (Taylor, p. 66): in the human world as in nature, God works in natural ways, unseen and unperceived (p. 70), not by “extra-natural impulses, or sensible shocks upon the intellectual system” (p. 67). The “heavenly emanation which heals, cleanses, and blesses the spirit is still, and constant, and transparent” (p. 68). Taylor would agree with Melville's narrator's statement that “Silence is the only Voice of our God” (Pierre, pp. 204, 208). The enthusiast, however, “eager for transitory excitements” (Taylor, p. 70), demands more. Not content with the “silent rise of the well spring of purity and peace” (p. 71), his desire for palpable evidence results in “frothy agitations” and a sour “uncharitable temper,” physical melancholy, and “relaxation of the moral sentiments” (p. 71). The result is a sort of bipolar manic swing from ecstasy to despondency.

Examples of Pierre's presumptuous enthusiasm abound: his belief in “divine commands upon him to befriend and champion Isabel” (p. 106), his sense that Isabel's letter is the “unmistakable cry of the godhead through her soul” (p. 174), his calling on the Terror Stone to fall on him if his vow is unjustified, and his assertion that he has “‘consulted heaven itself upon [the deceitful solution to his problem], and heaven itself did not say Nay’” (p. 192). To enthusiasm, also, can be attributed Pierre's unrealistic view of the world, alternately agitated and despondent emotional state, rejection or twisting of authority and reason, and a tendency to act impulsively or leap to conclusions with insufficient evidence.

According to Taylor, the enthusiast, in his role as a “heaven-commissioned minister of religion” (p. 160), is often complacent, hypocritical, and vain (p. 175); or he may indulge in “self-renunciation” and other types of “metaphysical suicide” (p. 40—compare Pierre's “self-renouncing Enthusiasm,” p. 205). The Christian should endure unnecessary suffering only when unavoidable through the use of reason (see Taylor, pp. 211, 214; compare Plinlimmon's statement that “certain minor self-renunciations” are necessary, but one must “by no means make a complete unconditional sacrifice of himself in behalf of any other human being” [Pierre, p. 214]). The Tayloresque enthusiast tends to blame Chance for events which actually arise from the “intricate connections of the social system” (p. 128) and to label God's actions “mysteries” (compare Pierre's increasing sense of the utter mysteriousness of life as a result of his encounter with the “mystery” of Isabel).

The variety that most closely anticipates Pierre is Taylor's intellectual enthusiast—the “heresiarch” or “heretic by temperament” (p. 87)—a type much like the Melville who wrote Moby-Dick and Pierre. This sort of mind enjoys the “intellectual gratifications [of] abstruse speculation”: “discovery—invention—exaggeration, and paradox” (Taylor, p. 85). Yet, uncontrolled, these qualities spell danger. Heresy occurs when the imagination trespasses on forbidden territory—Scripture—“improving” and “embellishing” the source of Christian authority. Pierre's announcement, “Virtue and Vice are trash! Isabel, I will write such things—I will gospelize the world anew” (p. 273), suggests that he is such a heretic.

Taylor's mini-biography of the typical heresiarch closely parallels Melville's hero's development. The young heresiarch has “spent the earliest season of life, while yet the ingenuousness of youth remained unimpaired, in the pursuits of literature or science, and [is] ignorant of Christianity otherwise than as a system of forms and offices” (Taylor, p. 88). Likewise, Pierre “did … glide toward maturity thoughtless” of reality, spending many hours in his father's “fastidiously picked and decorous library; where the Spenserian nymphs had early led him into many a maze of all-bewildering beauty” that produced “soft, imaginative flames in his heart.”38 Eventually reality punctures the enthusiast's dream, producing a crisis very like that caused by Isabel's information about Pierre's father: “But the moment of awakening arrives; some appalling accident or piercing sorrow sets the interest of time in abeyance, and opens upon the soul the vast objects of immortality” (Taylor, p. 88). Taylor then explores the psychology of the woe-awakened conscience. Although submission or humility may result, the enthusiast hovers over a void: “the first accidental contact with doctrinal paradox kindles the constitutional passion, and rouses the slumbering faculties to the full activity of adult vigor; contention ensues—malign sentiments, though perhaps foreign to the temper, are engendered, and these impart gloom to mysticism, and add ferocity to extravagance.” The ingenuous youth becomes a “delirious bigot” (Taylor, p. 88).

Pierre's enthusiastic, imagination-based religion is the worship of his imaginary father (“without blemish, unclouded, snow-white, and serene” [p. 68]) described in Book IV. The “doctrinal paradox” is the discovery of his father's sin and the “fact” of Isabel's sisterhood; and the contention between the two occupies over a hundred pages of Pierre, from the moment when Pierre fearfully reads Isabel's mysterious note on pages 63 and 64 until he “crosses the Rubicon” and informs Lucy of his “unprecedented final resolution” on page 182. In this section, the narrator minutely anatomizes the mind and heart of his enthusiast (“I am more frank with Pierre than the best men are with themselves” [p. 108]), seeking the clue to his motive for choosing the perilous path and Isabel over the simple world of Saddle Meadows and Lucy. In the last of these books, Book X (“The Unprecedented Final Resolution of Pierre”), “enthusiasm” or some variant appears six times in ten pages. Pierre's crucial decision, Taylor would assert, is the natural consequence of the fundamental unreality of his life.

Taylor's and Melville's enthusiasts both ingeniously support their heresies—in Pierre's case, his simultaneous devotion to his “sister” and to his father's reputation. Spurning authority, Taylor's heresiarch hastily convinces himself of the “certainty of the new truth” (p. 87) and argues cleverly but fallaciously to buttress his false beliefs. With more “intellectual mobility” than “strength,” his “ready perception of analogies gives him both facility and felicity in collecting proofs, or rather illustrations, in support of whatever opinion he adopts.”39 Certainly the most elaborate analogy in Pierre is that constructed by Plinlimmon to support his (heretical) argument for a “virtuous expediency” (p. 214), but Pierre recognizes and chastizes his own tendency to analogize: “‘Quit thy analogies; sweet in the orator's mouth, bitter in the thinker's belly’” (p. 42). Still, when presented with what appears to be a compelling coincidence, he ignores his better reason: even before hearing the first part of Isabel's story he confirms his “presentiments” of his mother's attitude by her response to Ned and Delly's analogous situation; from this he concludes “he now perfectly knew his mother's mind, and had received forewarnings, as if from heaven” (p. 110), not to mention Isabel to her. A second coincidence—Isabel's residence in the house of Delly's father—seems one more argument for divine intent. At such times, the narrator says, one tends to ask, “chance, or God?” (p. 111). Taylor's heretic is soon duped by his self-created “false doctrine” (p. 89): “In this state of mind, of what value are the opinions of teachers and of elders? Of what weight the belief of the catholic church in all ages? They are nothing to be accounted of;—there seems even a glory and a heroism, as well as a duty, in spurning the fallible authority of man:—modesty, caution, hesitation, are treasons against conscience and heaven!” (p. 87). Pierre's examination of the “evidence” in his case—the two portraits, his aunt's story, Isabel's fragmentary memories—and his use of these products of the imagination to determine a truth, along with his failure to be honest with Lucy and his attempt to gain Falsgrave's support—in fact all of his mental machinations in Books IV through X—serve to justify his conviction of the “new truth,” that Isabel is indeed his sister and that he indeed must somehow help her.

The prognosis for the young heretic is dire, for the natural result of his enthusiasm is “a lamentable catastrophe.” Taylor's description anticipates what happens to Pierre in New York: “when the heart is sick and faint from the exhaustion of over activity, when the whispers of conscience have long ceased to be heard, when the emotions of genuine piety have become painfully strange to the soul, nothing is so probable as an almost sudden plunge from the pinnacle of high belief; into the bottomless gulf of universal scepticism” (p. 89).

Taylor is the only writer on enthusiasm to explore in any detail the consequences of enthusiasm for the individual, and the two major dangers of the excessive imagination enumerated in Section I closely anticipate Pierre's fate and Melville's treatment of it. First, it can overcome “all other affections and motives belonging to human nature” (p. 11), sever the enthusiast from “all sympathy with the common interests of life, and … render a man a mere phantom” (p. 12). Taylor explains, “whoever [creates] a paradise of abstract contemplation, or of poetic imagery, where he may take refuge from the annoyances and the importunate claims of common life—whoever thus delights himself with dreams, and is insensible to realities, lives in peril of awakening from his illusions when truth comes too late” (p. 18). Imaginative indulgence tends to “indurate” (p. 17) the heart. “Artificial excitement” induced by the “religion of the imagination” (pp. 17, 16) is unhealthy and transforms the tender heart into “a freezing centre of solitary and unsocial indulgence. … No cloak of selfishness is in fact more impenetrable than that which usually envelopes a pampered imagination. The reality of woe is the very circumstance that paralyses sympathy: … more often than not, this kind of luxurious sensitiveness to fiction is conjoined with a callousness that enables the subject of it to pass through the affecting occasions of domestic life in immovable apathy:—the heart has become, like that of Leviathan, ‘firm as a stone—yea, hard as a piece of the nether millstone,’” (Taylor, pp. 18-19).

Whereas most discussions of enthusiasm are filled with images of heat (enthusiasm, according to Chambers, is “Prophetic rage, or fury, which … enflames and raises the imagination”),40 Taylor insists it leads to coldness and stoniness: “a fictitious piety corrupts or petrifies the heart not less certainly than does a romantic sensibility” (p. 18). When enthusiasm infects philanthropy, the “emotions of the heart are transmuted into mere pleasures of the imagination” (p. 177). In monkish enthusiasm, “imaginative indulgences … petrify the heart,” making “void the law of love to our neighbor, by a pretended intensity of love to God” (p. 220). (Compare Pierre's question, “Lucy or God?” p. 181.) Monastic life represents an “absolute separation from the society of man. The anchoret was a disjoined particle, frozen deep into the mass of his own selfishness,” and Taylor concludes that “this sort of meditative insulation is the ultimate and natural issue of all enthusiastic piety” (p. 220).

Taylor's discussion of enthusiasm's effect on the individual brings together several themes significant to Melville's exploration of the subject: selfishness, the inciting effect of woe, cold, the problem of fictionalizing, and, especially, stoniness—the dominant metaphor for Pierre's transformation.41 “Enthusiastic Truth, and Earnestness, and Independence” “invariably lead” the well qualified mind to “Hyperborean Regions,” according to Melville at the beginning of Book IX, as he explores the moral crux Pierre has involved himself in. His cutting himself off from his mother, his fiancee, his past, his patrimony, and his future; his long cold days at his desk in New York; his becoming in his dream a monolith, the armless Enceladus; his death in the low-ceilinged stone dungeon of the prison: these are all consequences of his “grand enthusiast resolution” which, the narrator points out, will require Pierre to “make a sacrifice of all objects dearest to him” (p. 106).

But, for Taylor, this is not the worst danger facing the enthusiast: even though it severs one from the sympathy of mankind, worse can happen if enthusiasm is, by chance, aligned with “the malign passions”:

Opportunity … and habit may be wanting, but intrinsic qualification for the perpetration of the worst crimes is not wanting to the man whose bosom heaves with enthusiasm, inflamed by malignancy. If checks are removed, if incitements are presented, if the momentum of action and custom is acquired, he will soon learn to extirpate every emotion of kindness or of pity, as if it were a treason against heaven; and will make it his ambition to rival the achievements, not of heroes, but of fiends. (p. 18)

Similarly, Melville's narrator generalizes about those “Hyperborean regions” to which Pierre's enthusiasm has led him: there the common maxims of social man can become inverted and confounded until one “entirely loses the directing compass of his mind” (p. 165). From the moment he receives Isabel's letter, Pierre behaves irrationally, simultaneously holding conflicting goals, failing to seek evidence before acting, leaping over the obvious question, “What must I do?” to the problem of “How must I do it?” (pp. 87-88), and rationalizing that his quest for truth can somehow be accomplished by living a lie. It is this loss of reason that causes critics like Arvin to label Pierre an “Orlando Furioso.” The fall that Taylor predicts suggests the plot of Pierre from the moment when young Glendinning receives Isabel's note and swears he “will be impious” (p. 66)—a fall from innocence that climaxes when he arrives in the city. Glen's cold rejection of his woe-maddened relative issues in Pierre's “savage impulse” to murder his cousin; and Glen's dismissal of Pierre as a “‘remarkable case of combined imposture and insanity’” (p. 239) is fit prelude to the descent to hell (the police station at night). From here it is a small step to Pierre's declaration that virtue and vice are “nothing” and his question, “How can one sin in a dream?” (p. 274).

The infamous actions so revolting to nineteenth-century reviewers of Pierre are a natural consequence of enthusiasm. Although the enthusiast may, under ordinary circumstances, suffer no ill effects from his “fictitious piety” or enthusiasm, Taylor asserts, his artificial support will “necessarily” fail him “in the hour of unusual trial.” Lacking “the common principles of honor and integrity which carry worldly men with credit through difficult occasions, [the] enthusiast is … of all men the one who is the worst prepared to withstand peculiar seductions.—He possesses neither the heavenly armor of virtue, nor the earthly” (p. 20). In fact, the enthusiast “has only a choice of immoralities, to be determined by his temperament and circumstances” (p. 20): he may become a zealot, visionary, railer, or recluse. Hemmed in by apparently irreconcilable options—to tell the truth he must grievously wound his mother and impugn his father's reputation; to help Isabel he must reveal his father's secret or reject Lucy—Pierre convinces himself that his chosen “immorality” is the least painful for all concerned, but in return he is considered a monster, a swindler, a villainous liar, and a fiend. The “seduction” Pierre faces upon meeting his strange but beautiful “sister” is “peculiar,” to say the least, and in the question of whether or not Pierre withstands this seduction in a physical sense lies the taboo subject of incest in the novel. One is reminded, too, of Plinlimmon's statement that “almost invariably, with inferior beings, the absolute effort to live in this world according to the strict letter of the chronometricals is, somehow, apt to involve those inferior beings eventually in strange, unique follies and sins, unimagined before” (p. 213). From the birth of his enthusiasm to his disastrous end, Pierre closely follows the naturalistic type provided by Taylor's study.


Melville uses Pierre's enthusiasm to explore the question of the validity of art—the product of the imagination as interpreted by the imagination—as a guide to action and a means to truth in an artificial world where habitual fictionalizing renders all “Truth” suspect. Theological concern about enthusiasm had centered on the source of inspiration, whether it was divine or demonic; with the advent of romanticism, however, inspiration gives way to imagination, moving the locus of reality from outside to inside the individual mind. Though the terms have changed, the problem remains, as Taylor's treatment of the imagination makes clear. Thoroughly Baconian and empirical, convinced of the superiority of the inductive method, Taylor distrusts abstraction in areas where (scientific) reason should prevail, and he believes the diseased imagination—enthusiasm—leads to a dangerous loss of reality. Repeatedly he emphasizes the need for authoritative reason to control the errant imagination. But his entire argument is predicated upon the very real existence of the imagination, twin to reason: both are necessary human faculties. The opening of the Natural History, in fact, is a paean to the imagination that introduces an immediate ambiguity into his discussion:

Some form of beauty, engendered by the imagination … invests almost every object that excites desire. These illusions—if indeed they ought to be called illusions, … by mediating between body and spirit, reconcile the animal and intellectual propensities and give dignity and harmony to the character of man. It is these unsubstantial impressions that enrich and enliven the social affections; and these, not less than the superiority of the reasoning faculties, elevate mankind above the brute. (p. 9)

But, not only is imaginative speculation attractive; enthusiasm is necessary to human progress. Without it, “the sciences would never have moved a step in advance of the mechanic arts, much less would the high theorems of pure mathematics, or the abstruse principles of metaphysics, have been known to mankind” (p. 93). Because the imagination deals with what is not there, what is not already realized—the abstract, the metaphysical—it can theorize, invent, dream. But, misused or uncontrolled, it can create heretical doctrine, abstruse speculation, or “fictitious happiness” (p. 12), rendering the dreamer unable to deal with reality. Only a thin line separates the imagination from its perversion, enthusiasm.

Melville drops numerous “hints” that Pierre's predicament is the result of the imagination's usurping the role of reason. At the beginning of Book IV, the narrator discusses the difficulty—if not impossibility—of accounting for human emotions which can lead an individual like Pierre to behave in a way that most people consider insane. The whys and hows of human experience are lost in the chain of circumstances that leads to any event. “Idle then would it be,” he concludes, to attempt to explain why Isabel's information led Pierre immediately and unquestioningly to do battle with Fate for his “sister.” Nevertheless, “some random hints” may help to understand Pierre's “tumultuous mood” (p. 68). The “hints” all concern Pierre's father, but more specifically the imaginary father Pierre has confected from his own memories, his mother's attitudes, his Aunt Dorothea's stories, and the “chair-portrait” that was “stolen” by cousin Ralph. Again, in Book X, attempting to explain Pierre's “extraordinary” decision to pretend that his sister Isabel is his wife, the narrator states that in tracing “the rarest and profoundest things,” their “probable origin” is often “something extremely trite or trivial” (p. 176); the very strong “hint” he offers here is the “fictitiousness” of Pierre and his mother's “brother-sister” relationship. And, in Book XII, attempting to explain Pierre's sudden hatred and destruction of the chair-portrait, the narrator “hints” that the ambiguously smiling face of his father symbolizes for Pierre the “tyranny of Time and Fate”: only in the portrait does he find a link between his deceased father and the strange woman, so that the painted image, not the real man, seems to be the father of Isabel (p. 197).

All of these “hints” point to the imagination as the motivating force. Whether the medium be paint or language, the human capacity to envision and represent what is not there is the immediate cause of Pierre's acts. For the real flesh-and-blood father, Pierre has substituted an idealized version whom he worships. Another imaginative version of his father, captured in the chair-portrait, seems to speak, urging him to believe in an alternate reality; this portrait supplies him with the only bit of “evidence” to support Isabel's claim—the physical similarity Pierre noticed between the two “faces.” “For the real Lucy”—the person most cruelly used in Pierre's scheme—he substitutes an abstraction, a “sign,” an algebraic “x” (p. 181). And, for the real Isabel, he substitutes an enigma (a literary problem), the “mystery of Isabel,” “wholly … out of the realms of mortalness, and … transfigured in the highest heaven of uncorrupted love” (p. 142). The products of the imagination work on each other: the “conjectured past of Isabel took mysterious hold of his father; therefore, the idea of his father tyrannized over his imagination” (p. 104). In fact, after his first “interview” with Isabel, Pierre sees all human relationships as imaginary: faced with “mysteries interpierced with mysteries, and mysteries eluding mysteries,” he begins to “seem to see the mere imaginariness of the so supposed solidest principle of human association” (p. 142). However, Pierre irrationally uses this “evidence” to arrive at the “burning fact, that Isabel was his sister” (p. 170).

Only at the end of the novel does Pierre come to realize that his “grand enthusiast resolution” was predicated upon a tissue of abstractions and fictions rather than a foundation of facts. The words in Isabel's note become the key that unlocks the mystery of the father's ambiguous smile, whereas the chair-portrait becomes Pierre's only “proof,” “the entire sum and substance of all possible, rakable, downright presumptive evidence” (p. 353) that Isabel is his sister. Pierre draws on the world of the imagination to fill the spaces in his knowledge; his “proofs” are insubstantial because each is the product of the imagination, and each depends on the other for validation.

Pierre begins to realize his folly soon after his arrival in New York: “Call me brother no more! How knowest thou I am thy brother? Did thy mother tell thee? Did my father say so to me?—I am Pierre, and thou Isabel, wide brother in the common humanity,—no more” (p. 273). The doubts return more forcefully after Pierre, Isabel, and Lucy visit the art gallery with its strangely evocative portraits: “How did he know that Isabel was his sister?” (p. 353), Pierre seems to ask as he responds to the pictures. He reviews his aunt's “nebulous legend,” the “shadowy points” in “Isabel's still more nebulous story,” uncertain and blurred as it is; he recalls his “own dim reminiscences of his wandering father's death-bed”; and then he sets aside “all his own manifold and inter-enfolding mystic and transcendental persuasions,—originally born, as he now seemed to feel, purely of an intense procreative enthusiasm:—an enthusiasm no longer so all-potential with him as of yore”; and, in the light of “real naked reason,” looking at the “plain, palpable facts,” the central question remains, “how did he know that Isabel was his sister?” (p. 353). The crux of enthusiasm is the source of the “truth.”


Pierre's enthusiasm is an important element in Melville's exploration of the role of the imagination in the quest for truth. In a very interesting way, Isabel's story and the chair-portrait illuminate each other at the same time that they call into question the possibility that the imagination—as both the creator and the interpreter of art—can lead to truth.42 Both the story and the portrait are enigmas, artistic puzzles demanding solutions of their hidden meanings. Pierre is bewildered by the “enigmas” (p. 138) that invest Isabel, an “enigmatic girl” (p. 176), after she tells her “enigmatical story” (p. 128) which ends in “enigmatical obscurity” (p. 136) to the point where he begins to wonder whether “I and all mankind, beneath our garbs of common-placeness, conceal enigmas that the stars themselves, and perhaps the highest seraphim can not resolve?”43 Pierre's handling of these enigmas, especially when compared to Taylor's discussion of this subject, is further evidence that his imagination has usurped his reason.

Taylor's concern is the problem of interpreting scriptural prophecy, since erroneous interpretation is a symptom of enthusiasm. Recognizing the difficulty of explaining God's method of speaking to men about things that have no real existence, he uses an analogy: a Biblical prophecy is like an enigma, a literary form used traditionally to manifest—and conceal—the “most important and serious truths” (p. 108). He develops at length a hint from Locke, that God provides some “extrinsical” “mark” whereby truth can be distinguished from delusion.44 An enigma is “artfully constructed” (p. 111) so that the real subject is hidden or disguised “by some ingenuity of definition, and by some ambiguity of description” (p. 108); the enigma is designedly so framed as to tempt and to allow a diversity of hypothetical explanations” (p. 109); and the key to the correct interpretation of the enigma is a “special mark which shall prevent the possibility of doubt once the substance signified is seen” (p. 108).45

Among its ambiguities, Pierre contains numerous enigmas demanding solution, including Isabel's handkerchief and guitar and the carved “S. ye W.” on the Memnon stone. One minor enigma satisfies all of Taylor's “laws”: the apparent cooling of Pierre's once-fervid friendship with his cousin Glen. The disguise that conceals while revealing lies in the subtle change in Glen's correspondence with Pierre; of several possible interpretations for this perceived coolness, the narrator claims, “one possible ambiguity [becomes] the only possible explanation for all the ambiguous details”: the fact that Glen too has romantic feelings for Lucy, a truth Pierre arrives at, significantly, through his imagination. Here is the “master solution” that explains “all the singular enigmas in Glen”: “thus read, all these riddles apparently found their cunning solution” (p. 224). Later events support this solution. As this example makes clear, Pierre's imagination may lead to truth. What is significant in “solving” an enigma is arriving at the one solution that explains all the ambiguities—Taylor's “special mark that prevents the possibility of doubt.” Melville hints that Pierre may have arrived at such a solution in relation to Plinlimmon's enigmatic pamphlet; the narrator's avowed befuddlement about this enigma-within-an-enigma suggests (as the multiple critical interpretations of the piece indicate) that the pamphlet, if understood, might be the “chemic key of the cipher” (p. 70) of Pierre.

According to Taylor, the enigma's disguise serves three purposes: it is “a blind to the incurious—a trap to the dogmatical, and an exercise of modesty, of patience, and of sagacity, to the wise” (p. 109). The story of Isabel lures Pierre into the dogmatic trap: convinced even before she tells her story of the “fact” of Isabel's sisterhood, Pierre considers only a single interpretation. Her incoherencies add up to a terrible indictment of his father as the source of the damsel's distress. Taylor emphasizes that if the “expositor” of an enigma settles on “any one of the several interpretations of which an enigmatical prophecy is suceptible, and … claims for it a positive and exclusive preference,” he “sins most flagrantly, and outrageously, against the unalterable laws of the language” (p. 111); the subsequent reading of contemporary events as fulfillments of the misinterpreted prophecy can lead the expositor to the “verge of insanity—or worse, of infidelity.” “In this feverish state of the feelings, mundane interests, under the guise of faith and hope, occupy the soul to the exclusion of ‘things unseen and eternal:’ meanwhile the heart-affecting matters of piety and virtue become vapid to the taste, and gradually fall into forgetfulness” (p. 113).

On the other hand, Pierre's response to the chair-portrait is far more fluid and open-minded, suggesting this may be a truly imaginative interpretation, an “exercise of modesty, of patience, and of sagacity” (Taylor, p. 109). The one bit of evidence—the catalyst in Pierre's decision—is this ambiguously created, ambiguously smiling portrait. It is appropriate that this illustration of the possible deceits of the imagination be a work of art, even more important that it be the product of a series of deceits, cousin Ralph's lies about the painting he was making as he “stole” the image from the young man who became Pierre's father while that young man was wearing a smile that perhaps hid—or revealed?—his deception of the social world and of a young Frenchwoman, and that it be interpreted by a romantically sentimental sister. In trying to capture that face of deceit, the artist indeed created an enigma, “artfully constructed” to reveal and conceal the truth.

As Pierre sought to penetrate the mystery of the chair-portrait during his adolescence, the portrait had seemed to speak, to encourage him to probe deeper into the mystery behind its ambiguous smile. In the heat of Pierre's enthusiasm, Isabel's story becomes the key to the mystery—the special mark—to unlock all of its previous ambiguities, a moment of enlightenment suggestive of a religious conversion:

But now, now—Isabel's letter read: swift as the first light that slides from the sun, Pierre saw all preceding ambiguities, all mysteries ripped open as if with a keen sword.… Now his remotest infantile reminiscences—the wandering mind of his father—the empty hand, and the ashen—the strange story of Aunt Dorothea—the mystical midnight suggestions of the portrait itself; and, above all, his mother's intuitive aversion, all overwhelmed him with reciprocal testimonies. (p. 85)

The portrait, Melville goes on to say, is “no longer wholly enigmatical, but still ambiguously smiling” (p. 87).

Later, however, at the art gallery, Pierre recognizes that the now-destroyed chair-portrait, like the similar portrait he sees, may have been “a pure fancy piece” (p. 353), a product of the imagination, and he now dismisses any similarity to the real father as “one of the wonderful coincidences” (p. 352)—whereas earlier, he had read coincidences as signs to be followed. The portrait, the coincidences—these constituted the evidence for the decision that is inexorably leading to his end. By framing Pierre's enthusiastic gesture with two apparently similar portraits whose significance can be determined only by some knowledge that resides outside of the artifacts themselves—Locke's “something extrinsical to the persuasions themselves” (Works, III, 157)—Melville deftly indicates the perils that attend the imagination when unrestrained by reason.


The question framed by the portraits has to do with the nature and truth of art and the imagination and their relationship to human action. Is the product of the imagination “merely” a “fiction”—a lie? Is the truth that one thinks one discovers through the imagination merely an enthusiastic fantasy, the product of disordered reason? Or is that shadow land that Pierre enters when the chair portrait seems to speak to him in his adolescence—is that world more real than the supposedly real world of facts and surfaces, Mary Glendinning's world as represented by the drawing-room portrait? The space that Pierre's youthful mind enters in the fifth chapter of Book IV, as Melville seeks an answer to the question of the motive and cause of Pierre's immediate entrance into the lists opened by Isabel's note, resembles the moonlight world in the second story of Hawthorne's Custom-House: here are the “ever-elastic regions of evanescent invention” (Pierre, p. 82; compare Taylor's use of “elasticity” in reference to the “inventive power [p. 84]); in “reveries and trances” Pierre opens himself to all those ineffable hints and ambiguities, and undefined half-suggestions, which now and then people the soul's atmosphere” (p. 84); here he falls into a “midnight revery” (p. 85). It is this elastic world that engenders Pierre's enthusiasm, here that art speaks to his fluid mind and seems to convey a truth deeper than that which his social world is teaching him to know.

For the Christian addressed by most of the writers on enthusiasm, the bulwark against dangerous enthusiastic speculation is a rational approach to Scripture, the authoritative word of God which resolves all possible questions. Melville's plot indicates that this authority is unavailable to Pierre: his father (whose “pure, exalted idea” [p. 82] had once controlled his imagination) is dead and discredited; his mother failed to act her part and is now revealed to be coldly proud; and twice Pierre has discovered Falsgrave's position on the very real problem of illegitimacy, both times receiving an answer quite opposite from that taught in the Sermon on the Mount. He has come to see the social world as selfishly hypocritical, an institution whose smooth functioning depends on compromises (compare Plinlimmon's dismissal of chronometrical truth as a guide for horological life) and forms and lies, and thus he becomes his own authority, trapped in the hermetic circle of his imaginative logic.

Melville underscores this problem of the absence of an authoritative center to guide the enthusiast's actions by comparing Pierre's mood of “rebellion and horrid anarchy and infidelity” (p. 205) to that of the priest tempted to renounce his belief: whereas the priest retained his faith through the “indestructible anchors” of Christianity, Pierre has destroyed the only hard evidence he had—a work of the imagination. Moreover, Melville insists, Pierre's problem is of a different order: whereas the priest's problem concerned belief, for Pierre “it was a question whether certain vital acts of his were right or wrong.” And he stresses this distinction between beliefs and acts by adding, “In this little nut lie germ-like the possible solution of some puzzling problems” (p. 205). Throughout Pierre, Melville is concerned with this vital question of the relationship between imagination and action—with how the “fancy pictures” created by the mind may determine human events. Despite the book's many ambiguities, Pierre's uncontrolled imagination (his “enthusiasm”) is the cause of his actions.

Although Pierre's interpretations of the enigmas of Isabel and his father are clearly enthusiastic, Melville further complicates the question of the validity of the imagination by suggesting—at exactly the moment that Pierre is berating himself for his enthusiastic act, near the end of the work—that Pierre's intuitive solution may indeed have been correct. When Pierre and Isabel, side by side, view “A stranger's head, by an unknown hand,” they seem to respond identically, but the omniscient narrator reveals that they are seeing different things. For Pierre, the similarity between this portrait and the one he destroyed raises questions about the necessary relationship of art to life and calls into question the whole edifice upon which he built his grand enthusiast resolution: “the original of this second portrait was as much the father of Isabel as the original of the chair-portrait. But perhaps there was no original at all to this second portrait” (p. 353). The father of Isabel produced by his imagination may not exist at all. On the other hand, Isabel apparently sees in the portrait the face of the gentleman she associates with the word “Glendinning” and remembers from her childhood; if so, the portrait provides exactly the corroborative evidence Pierre sought.

But, as Taylor warns it will, skepticism has finally replaced enthusiastic faith: recently to Pierre, the “whole story of Isabel had seemed an enigma, a mystery, an imaginative delirium” (p. 354), especially now that he, through his own art, understands the fiction-making process. Only now, when it is too late, does he come to ask himself the questions that Taylor insists one must ask when confronted with an enigma. Pierre's recognition that Isabel's story may have been an “enigma, a mystery, an imaginative delirium,” as well as his rejection of coincidences as conclusive proof, represents a return to a more rational approach to the problem. Coming fast upon his severe case of enthusiasm, however, it can only plunge Pierre into “the bottomless gulf of universal scepticism” that Taylor predicts for the “young heresiarch” (p. 89).

Melville's connection of Pierre's new-found skepticism with his role as a professional “bejuggler”—a “profound” writer (p. 354)—suggests how he was using his creation of a Tayloresque enthusiast to explore the problem of the dangers and deceits, the lure and the ambiguity of the imagination he was encountering as a writer of fiction. The problem is especially acute in a selfish and scientific age when unusual behavior like Pierre's, or even Melville's, is no longer considered inspiration, but instead insanity. As opposed to his earlier belief (expressed in the review of Hawthorne's Mosses, 1850) in “fine authors … standing, as they do, for the mystical, ever-eluding Spirit of all Beauty, which ubiquitously possesses men of genius,” the Melville of Pierre wonders whether such a writer is merely trapped in his own fictions, deluding himself and his readers. In that same review, Melville had compared Truth “in this world of lies” to a “scared white doe [fleeing] in the woodlands,” revealed “only by cunning glimpses … covertly, and by snatches,” and he had acknowledged that the writer of fiction (like Taylor's creator of enigmas) may usefully create titles “directly calculated to deceive—egregiously deceive, the superficial skimmer of pages.”46 Pierre's questions at the end of the novel suggest not only that the professional creator of serious fictions must resort to the conscious deceit of the enigma in order to conceal while revealing the most important truths, but also that those “truths” as well may be deceits. One is tempted to ridicule Pierre for his “unprecedented” method of “knowing” truth by enthusiastically creating and living a lie; but such subterfuge is endemic to professional fiction-making. Habituated to his created fictions, Melville suggests, the writer may lose the ability to distinguish between the actual and the imaginary and end by either deceiving himself and his readers or doubting the possibility of any truth. His treatment of these questions in Pierre shows him well on his way to the questions concerning truth and art explored in The Confidence-Man.

But, unlike Taylor, Melville is not dogmatic on this point: whether or not Isabel is his sister remains for Pierre an unanswered question. The imagination may have led Pierre closer to the real truth of Isabel and the social world than factual evidence ever could have. Instead, Pierre dramatizes the difficulty of arriving at final truth, a difficulty suggested by the progression of metaphors Melville chose to image Truth—from a “scared white doe” in 1850 to a fathomless white whale in 1851, to the “appallingly vacant” “central room” (p. 285) of the pyramid in 1852.47 The problem is not so much that Truth is elusive (as in Mardi and Moby-Dick), but that the human instrument for seeking Truth may be unreliable. The only true fiction, then, as Melville both states and practices in Pierre, will be that which resists the attempt to systematize the unsystematizable as do most novels and thus remains true to the “one sensational truth” about the “complex web of life” (a learning that Pierre derives from his encounter with Isabel): “the unravelable inscrutableness of God”—or, rather, that which “all men are agreed to call by the name of God” (p. 141), a statement that implies another act of the imagination, possibly a way of talking about something that has no real existence.

More important, however, is Pierre's awareness of the implication of being trapped by a possible fiction: a fiction, like an enigma, is made by someone for some “cause.” His new “knowledge” brings new questions, new ambiguities: who, and for what purpose, could have implanted in Isabel information that would later derail Master Pierre Glendinning as he glided on to his “choice fate” as heir to the family seat, to a life of aristocratic luxury, surrounded by adoring females? In Book I of Pierre, the narrator clumsily shoves the question of “Fate” and its possible role in Pierre's life at the reader through repeated foreshadowings and indirect questions (“we shall see if Fate hath not just a … small word or two to say” [p. 12; compare p. 14]). Taylor, however, indicates that the hows and whys of human events lie in neither the “unravelable inscrutableness of God,” nor Fate, nor chance, nor some perverse human agent; instead he loads the dice in favor of “temperament and circumstances” (p. 20).


Melville's type-casting of Pierre according to this naturalistic model suggests that we consider—before Darwinian ideas had emphasized heredity and environment—how large a role natural rather than supernatural causes play in the plot of human life. The “fixed threads of the warp” (Moby-Dick, p. 185) of Pierre's life (Taylor's “temperament and circumstances”) are his “susceptible, reflective, and poetic” (p. 111) nature, his high-strung spirit, his “double revolutionary descent” (p. 20), his background, childhood, culture and education; the stimulation of his imagination and habitual fictitiousness of his life result in predictable behavior. The element of “chance” that brings Isabel into Pierre's physical sphere would be interpreted by Taylor as the result, instead, of the “intricate connections of the social system.” He goes on to explain that “The thread of every life is entangled with other threads, beyond all reach of calculation” (p. 128). Melville echoes this thought: Pierre justifies his “strange,” “deceitful … but harmless way” out of his difficulty, explaining to Isabel, “thy true heart foreknoweth not the myriad alliances and criss-crossings among mankind, the infinite entanglements of all social things, which forbid that one thread should fly the general fabric … without tearing itself and tearing others” (p. 191).

The threads that led to Pierre's first “fatal” view of Isabel's face (all that has happened, he believes, “inevitably proceeded from the first hour I saw thee” [p. 192]) may include Isabel's father's (if indeed he was her father) desire to provide somewhat for his unacknowledged daughter by locating her in his vicinity; Delly's pregnancy, which deprives her family of her labor; the existence of some “necessitous emigrants” (p. 44) in the neighborhood; the Miss Pennies' deafness and resultant charitable effort in establishing a sewing circle in their home; and Mary Glendinning's role as local philanthropist. This intricate web leads to a severe psychic shock which, as Taylor predicts, results in the onset of the disease (enthusiasm) in one constitutionally susceptible as is Pierre.

Among all of these threads, the opportunity for Pierre's weaving into his destiny any measure of free will is limited.48 As Melville says, “Fixed Fate and Free Will were arguing him, and Fixed Fate got the better in the debate” (p. 182)—“Fate” interpreted, as Taylor's work suggests, as the natural elements that produce his enthusiasm. If free will exists, Melville suggests it is located in the link between thought and action, exactly the point where Taylor fears the trespassing of the imagination. In his lengthy probing of the motives leading to Pierre's “unprecedented final resolution” in Book X, the narrator hovers over Pierre like a Greek chorus, commenting on the significance of his action “if he now acted out his most rare resolve” (p. 176). Enumerating the terrible consequences that even “impulsive Pierre” recognizes, he concludes, “Such, oh thou son of man! are the perils and the miseries thou callest down on thee, when, even in a virtuous cause, thou steppest aside from those arbitrary lines of conduct, by which the common world, however base and dastardly, surrounds thee for thy worldly good” (p. 176).

The forms, codes, lies, and hypocrisies of modern social life—justified as necessary for survival—encourage a divorce between idea and action: it is prudent to believe one thing and do another, as Falsgrave and Mary Glendinning demonstrate. Pierre has an inkling of the need for the “social lie” when he curses “the hour I acted on the thought, that Love hath no reserves. Never should I have told thee the story of that face, Lucy” (p. 37). But, even in this vital area of action, Pierre suggests that free will may be extremely limited: “not always in our actions are we our own factors” (p. 51), we are reminded, as Pierre ponders the “motive” that led him, for the first time, to lie to his mother. For at this point in the novel, the narrator “hints” that the clue to Pierre's fatal action may lie in the habitual fictitiousness of their relationship. Thus, Pierre finds the solution to his problem in the “baleful thought” that enters his mind as he ponders his irreconcilable motives, “that the truth should not always be paraded; … that sometimes a lie is heavenly, and truth infernal” (p. 92). Only one habituated to fictions would consider such a solution as the means to knowing “Truth.”

The plot of Melville's Pierre, like Taylor's treatise and Plinlimmon's pamphlet, is a critique of enthusiasm—of acting under the delusion that one is in direct communication with God, mistaking imagination for reality, acting (in Plinlimmon's terms) chronometrically while living in a horological world. But, both Taylor and Plinlimmon recognize the possibility of a few great souls who are truly inspired, although this is not the lot of the many. Rare indeed are those who can live enthusiastically or chronometrically “without folly or sin” (p. 213). Melville's novel transcends both of these little treatises in also recognizing and dramatizing the complexities and ambiguities that surround any decisive human action, and in the process creating a frightening image of the modern world as Melville saw it—an “artificial world,” as Plinlimmon calls it, where the “soul of man” is necessarily “removed from its God and … heavenly truth” (p. 211). In representing this world, through the artificiality, the bombast, the excess, the baroque style of Pierre, Melville creates an image of the artificial, imaginary world that the mass of men have come to believe is real. In the end, Pierre, like Plinlimmon's pamphlet, is “more the excellently illustrated re-statement of a problem, than the solution of the problem itself.” But, as Melville adds parenthetically to his judgment of the pamphlet, “Perhaps [such illustrations] are the only possible human solutions” (p. 210).

Pierre indeed illustrates the problem of the uncontrolled imagination in its most developed form, the diseased form of what Taylor calls the “constitutional fictions” (p. 11) all humans are subject to. It dramatizes the difficulty of right action in a situation where the voice of God is a paradoxical silence, an artificial world of lies and hypocrisies, of surfaces and masks, where the Isabels are abandoned, the Dellys are banished, and the Pierres set off shock waves; where for the lack of an authoritative center, Plinlimmon's pamphlet remains an enigma. Melville's fiction too remains enigmatic because its truth turns back upon and questions its own instruments at the same time that it indicts the artificiality of human life in a self-created imaginary world; the mind rebels when confronted with this illustration of how impossible it is for one brought up in western society to distinguish truth from falsehood, imagination from reality. Habitual fictionalizing—the creation of an artificial, antiseptic world, divorced from nature and real feeling (the insights Melville had begun to formulate in writing Typee six years earlier) and from any real possibility of the transcendent—makes it extremely difficult, Melville suggests through his character Pierre, for the individual to distinguish fact from fiction, truth from lie, and thus to discover any authoritative guide to action. On this level, Pierre becomes a hideous allegory, demonstrating through Pierre's “enthusiasm,” his diseased imagination, the problem of western man in a culture that has lost its connection with a reality beyond its own man-created world of fictions.


  1. Thompson, Melville's Quarrel With God (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1952), pp. 267-268.

  2. Murray, “Introduction,” Pierre (New York: Hendricks House, 1949), p. lx; “Explanatory Notes,” p. 460, n. 125.17; cf. p. 473, n. 244.20.

  3. Franklin, The Wake of the Gods: Melville's Mythology (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford Univ. Press, 1963), p. 105; Krieger, The Tragic Vision: Variations on a Theme in Literary Interpretation (Chicago and London: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1960; Phoenix edition, 1966), pp. 195-209.

  4. Duban, Melville's Major Fiction (Dekalb: Northern Illinois Univ. Press, 1983), p. 179.

  5. Dillingham, Melville's Later Novels (Athens and London: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1986), p. 195 ff.; Higgins and Parker, “Reading Pierre,A Companion to Melville Studies, ed. John Bryant (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986), p. 228.

  6. Larry Edward Wegener, A Concordance to Herman Melville's Pierre: or the Ambiguities, 2 vols. (New York and London: Garland, 1985); Eugene F. Irey, ed., A Concordance to Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, 2 vols. (New York and London: Garland, 1982). Father Mapple cries out “with a heavenly enthusiasm” on p. 50 of Moby-Dick, ed. Harrison Hayford and Hershel Parker (New York: Norton, 1967).

  7. Wegener; for Robert S. Forsythe, “Introduction,” Americana Deserta ed. (New York: Knopf, 1930), Pierre records “the tragic downfall of a brilliant young idealist” (p. xxxi); for William Ellery Sedgwick, Herman Melville: The Tragedy of Mind (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1944), it is a “tragedy of youthful idealism” (p. 167); Murray's Pierre is “an idealistic, benevolent youth crushed by the practical, non-benevolent world” (p. xcviii); Merton M. Sealts, Jr., “Melville and the Platonic Tradition,” in Pursuing Melville, 1940-1980 (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1982), classes Pierre with Melville's “other objections to philosophical idealism” (p. 323); Milton R. Stern, The Fine Hammered Steel of Herman Melville (Urbana, Chicago, and London: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1968), discusses the “problem of idealism” (p. 151); Duban's Pierre is motivated by “idealistic absolutism” (p. 153). The list could be multiplied many times.

  8. Herman Melville, Pierre; or, The Ambiguities, ed. Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker, and G. Thomas Tanselle (Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern Univ. and Newberry Library, 1971), pp. 204, 106, 208, 106, 111; hereafter cited parenthetically.

  9. Higgins and Parker, “Reading Pierre,” p. 213.

  10. Gura, The Wisdom of Words (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1980), p. 4.

  11. Susie I. Tucker, Enthusiasm: A Study in Semantic Change (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1972), p. 3.

  12. Knox, Enthusiasm: A Chapter in the History of Religion, with Special Reference to the XVII and XVIII Centuries (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1950, 1962), pp. 4, 2.

  13. Walter E. Houghton, The Victorian Frame of Mind, 1830-1870 (New Haven and London: Yale Univ. Press for Wellesley College, 1957), p. 264.

  14. Locke, “Enthusiasm,” Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Works, 10 vols. (London: 1823; rpt. Germany: Scientia Verlag Aalen, 1963), III, 155-156.

  15. Melville to Sarah Morewood, September 12? 1851, The Letters of Herman Melville, ed. Merrell R. Davis and William H. Gilman (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1960).

  16. Bulwer-Lytton, Zanoni (New York: A. L. Burt, 1845), p. viii. Leon Howard and Parker discuss possible influences of the novel on Pierre in the “Historical Introduction” to the Northwestern-Newberry edition, pp. 370-372.

  17. Melville to Nathaniel Hawthorne, June 1? 1851, Letters.

  18. Anthony, Earl of Shaftesbury, Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, ed. John M. Robertson, 2 vols. in one (1711; rpt. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1964), I, 38.

  19. “mistaken”: Meric Casaubon, A Treatise Concerning Enthusiasm, As it is an Effect of Nature: but is Mistaken by Many for Either Divine Inspiration, or Diabolical Possession (London: by R. D. …, 1655); “misconceit”: Henry More, A Collection of Several Philosophical Writings of Dr. Henry More … 4th ed. … (London: Joseph Downing, 1712), p. 2; “counterfeit”: James Foster, Sermons, 4 vols. (London: J. Noon & A. Millar, 1755), III, 276; “imaginary”: Charles Chauncy, “A Caveat Against Enthusiasm” (Boston: J. Draper …, 1742), p. 3.

  20. Wesley, Sermons II, Works, ed. Albert C. Outler, (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 1985), II, 47. “The Nature of Enthusiasm,” first printed in volume 3 of Sermons (1750), was separately printed in 1755 and included in the popular Sermons on Several Occasions, printed in seven editions in the eighteenth century and about 35 editions, English and American, in the nineteenth century prior to 1851. It is a work Melville could easily have seen.

  21. Wesley, Sermons, II, 58.

  22. Locke, Works, III, 149.

  23. Sealts, Melville's Reading: Revised and Enlarged Edition (Columbia: Univ. of South Carolina, 1988), p. 164.

  24. Ephraim Chambers, Chambers' Cyclopaedia: or, An Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences (London: D. Midwinter, &c., 1741), s. v. “Enthusiasm.” Because the edition Melville owned (J. & J. Knapton, &c., 1728) capitalizes all substantives in the entry, a practice I find distracting, I quote the 1741 edition, which differs from the 1728 (in quoted portions) only in this respect.

  25. Hume, Essays Moral, Political, and Religious, Philosophical Works, ed. T. H. Green & T. H. Grose, 4 vols. (London: 1882; rpt. Germany: Scientia Verlag Aalen, 1964), III, 145.

  26. Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language …, 2 vols. (London: W. Strahan, 1755; rpt. New York: AMS, 1967), s. v. “Enthusiasm.”

  27. For extensive treatments see Knox and Tucker, cited in notes 11 and 12.

  28. Locke, Works, III, 152, from Chambers' Cyclopaedia, s. v. “Enthusiasm.” Locke reads, “is it a perception of an inclination or fancy to do. …”

  29. Sealts, “Records of Melville's Reading,” Melville's Reading, p. 10.

  30. Thomas Seccombe, “Taylor, Isaac (1787-1865),” DNB (1898-1899).

  31. Tucker is interested in “how figurative language reflects attitudes of mind” (p. 5); see her discussion in ch. 11, “Metaphors,” pp. 144-161.

  32. Wesley, Sermons, II, 47; compare Pierre, p. 214; Sermons, II, 49-50.

  33. See Paul Smith, “Flux and Fixity in Pierre,ESQ [A Journal of the American Renaissance], 32 (1986), 119-120, n. 1. Murray, “Introduction,” discusses Melville's “exhaustion,” “moral conflict,” and “underlying will to wreck his self” (pp. xiv-xv), and Newton Arvin, Herman Melville, American Men of Letters Series (New York: William Sloane. 1950), Melville's “psychoneurotic fatigue” (p. 218). See also Sealts, “Herman Melville's ‘I and My Chimney,’” Pursuing Melville, esp. pp. 16-22 passim. Higgins and Parker (“Reading Pierre”) mention a letter revealing that in December Melville was angered by gossip about Moby-Dick as “‘more than Blasphemous’” (p. 226). Sarah Morewood to George Duyckinck, December 28, 1851, in Eleanor Melville Metcalf, Herman Melville, Cycle and Epicycle (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1953), worried about Melville's “morbid excitement,” teased him by suggesting that his reclusive life was making “city friends think he was slightly insane—he replied that long ago he came to the same conclusion himself” (p. 133). See also Melville's letters to Hawthorne of November 17? 1851 (“I am not mad, most noble Festus”) and July 17 1852, and Melville's description of the probable success of Pierre to English publisher Richard Bentley (April 16, 1852).

  34. See Dillingham, pp. 238-243, on the therapeutic value of Pierre for Melville.

  35. Isaac Taylor, Natural History of Enthusiasm (London: Holdsworth & Ball, New York: J. Leavitt, 1830). Only Murray has connected Pierre with Taylor's treatise: for him Pierre contradicts Taylor's model. Commenting on Melville's leniency “in allowing [his hero] to be the sole carrier of the spirit in a world of universal ‘Imbecility, Ignorance, Blockheadedness and Besottedness,’” Murray writes, “As a challenger, Isaac Taylor, for one, would have proved a tough customer. In an excellent little book, Natural History of Enthusiasm, widely read in Melville's day, the Rev. [in fact, Taylor was not a clergyman] Mr. Taylor succeeded in accomplishing his announced intention [warning against enthusiasm]. In defending his hero against Taylor's piercing criticisms, Melville might have succeeded in forging the one positive conception that is lacking in this novel” (p. lxxvi). Knox devotes two sentences to Taylor's History (which he dates as 1823): “Isaac Taylor scored an instantaneous success with The Natural History of Enthusiasm; probably the most uniformly dull book ever written. You may read through 275 pages, in the inflated style of the period, without coming across one arresting sentiment, or one important consideration” (pp. 6-7). I do not concur.

  36. New York Commerical Advertiser, August 11, 1852; rpt. in Critical Essays on Herman Melville's Pierre; or, The Ambiguities, ed. Brian Higgins and Hershel Parker (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1983), p. 35.

  37. Compare Locke: Enthusiasts' “minds being thus prepared, whatever groundless opinion comes to settle itself strongly upon their fancies, is an illumination from the spirit of God, and presently of divine authority; and whatsoever odd action they find in themselves a strong inclination to do, that impulse is concluded to be a call or direction from heaven” (Works, III, 150).

  38. Pierre, p. 6. Pierre's religious training has been merely formal: “At the age of sixteen, Pierre partook with his mother of the Holy Sacraments” (p. 7); his father believed “no man could be a complete gentleman … unless he partook of the church's sacraments” (p. 98).

  39. Taylor, p. 87. Locke, Works, III, 151 and 153, contains an interesting discussion of the enthusiast's circular logic.

  40. See Tucker, pp. 145-148; Chambers, s. v. “Enthusiasm.”

  41. See especially Saburo Yamaya, “The Stone Image of Melville's ‘Pierre,’” Selection, 34 (1957), 31-58; Franklin, pp. 101-103; and Edgar Dryden, Melville's Thematics of Form (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1968), pp. 118-127, passim.

  42. The relationship between fictions, the fictionalizing imagination, and Melville's plot, style, and characterization in Pierre is explored by Dryden in Melville's Thematics of Form, pp. 132-138, and “The Entangled Text: Melville's Pierre and the Problem of Reading,” Boundary 2, 7 (1979), 145-173; and by Brook Thomas in “The Writer's Procreative Urge in Pierre: Fictional Freedom or Convoluted Incest?” Studies in the Novel, 11 (1979), 416-430. Richard Gray explores the work's anticipation of postmodernism in its skeptical examination of “its own claims and assumptions,” subversive techniques, and self-reflexive idiom in “‘All's o’er, and ye know him not’: A Reading of Pierre,” in Herman Melville: Reassessments, ed. A. Robert Lee (London and Totawa, N. J.: Vision and Barnes & Noble, 1984), p. 117. Richard Brodhead, Hawthorne, Melville, and the Novel (Chicago and London: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1976), explains Melville's use of the form of the sentimental romance to call attention to itself as fiction and the artist's recognition that he is trapped in a fiction (pp. 163-193).

  43. Pierre, p. 139. The word “enigma” or one of its variants occurs ten times in Pierre (Wegener) as compared to only two uses in Moby-Dick (Irey), both of the adjectival form “enigmatical”: Ishmael's recollection of the “enigmatical hintings” of Elijah (p. 190) and his pointing out a “strange, enigmatical object” (“the whale's penis,” Hayford and Parker's note explains) on the deck (p. 350).

  44. Locke, as excerpted in Chambers' Cyclopaedia, states, “to enable [the prophet] to judge of his inspirations, whether they be of divine original or no … [God] either evidences that truth by the usual methods of natural reason, or else makes it known to be a truth which he would have us assent to by his authority; and convinces us, that it is from him, by some marks, which reason cannot be mistaken in.” Chambers omits Locke's emphasis on the need for “something extrinsical to the persuasions themselves” if we are to distinguish among “inspirations and delusions, truth and falsehood” (Works, III, 156-157).

  45. Howard and Parker, in the “Historical Note” to the Northwestern-Newberry Pierre, quote from Bulwer-Lytton's explanation (in a later edition of Zanoni) that his novel is a “book of ‘mysteries,’” a “story in which ‘typical meanings’ were concealed, and … each ‘mystery’ or ‘enigma’ might lend itself to a variety of interpretations by different individuals” (p. 371). This language closely parallels Taylor's definition of the enigma.

  46. “Hawthorne and His Mosses,” The Piazza Tales and Other Prose Pieces, 1839-1860, ed. Harrison Hayford et al. (Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern Univ. and Newberry Library, 1987), pp. 239, 244, 251.

  47. Dillingham's positive reading of this passage—his insistence that it does not signify Melville's recognition of emptiness in the soul of man—is interesting but not, to my mind, convincing (pp. 168-169).

  48. Although I find Brodhead's discussion perhaps the most illuminating of recent work of Pierre, my exploration of Pierre's enthusiasm leads to a very different conclusion from his statement that “The discovery of this discrepancy [between heavenly precepts and human behavior] allows an enthusiastic youth three choices” (p. 180). Taylor's naturalistic model suggests he has very little choice.

Priscilla Wald (essay date 1990)

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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 and other polite periodicals” bespeak his disinclination towards the rigors of authorship. He is lauded by critics for having “Perfect Taste” and being “unquestionably a highly respectable youth … blameless in morals, and harmless throughout” (287). In a chapter entitled “Young America in Literature,” Melville parodically assigns Pierre archetypal status in an Emersonian vision; Pierre, like the nation, is reluctant to ruffle a surface beneath which “the world seems to lie saturated and soaking with lies” (244). He is unwilling, that is, to probe the contradictions that make his legacy intolerable.

Pierre turns to authorship when his discovery of an allegedly illegitimate sister shakes his faith not only in his family myth but in American society as well. Pierre's family is indeed rooted in American history; he is the grandson of two Revolutionary War heroes and heir to a “docile homage to a venerable Faith, which the first Glendinning had brought over sea, from beneath the shadow of an English minister” (11). He is, furthermore, the only living male surnamed Glendinning, from which he incurs sole responsibility for preserving the family line. At the commencement of Pierre there seems to be no problem, since Pierre is a remarkably dutiful nineteen-year-old with an appropriately tractable fiancée. But it is precisely his docility that makes him vulnerable to Isabel, a mysterious woman who claims to be his father's illegitimate daughter. Accustomed to submission, Pierre easily transfers his allegiance from his intractable mother to the equally potent Isabel.

Pierre discovers Isabel when she thrusts herself upon him, and the discovery leads him to question not only “the dear perfect father” that Mrs. Glendinning counsels him always to remember, but also the notion of legitimacy that he was raised to revere. The sullied “name of the father” calls the law itself into question, but Pierre's incapacity for ambiguity leads to his immediate reinstitution of the law; he vows to “legitimize” Isabel with a fictitious marriage that largely resembles his earlier relationship to his mother, and he leaves the idyllic Saddle Meadows for New York City where he intends to support himself by writing a novel that exposes the hypocrisy of social convention.

Melville is not subtle about Pierre's textuality:

So perfect to Pierre had long seemed the illuminated scroll of his life thus far, that only one hiatus was discoverable by him in that sweetly-writ manuscript. A sister had been omitted from the text. He had mourned that so delicious a feeling as fraternal love had been denied him. Nor could the fictitious title, which he so often lavished upon his mother, at all supply the absent reality. …

“Oh, had my father but had a daughter!” cried Pierre; “someone whom I might love, and protect, and fight for, if need be. It must be a glorious thing to engage in a mortal quarrel on a sweet sister's behalf! Now, of all things, would to heaven I had a sister!” (11-12)

The passive voice of the passage emphasizes Pierre's “characterization”; the script is written that he need only enact. But the script is confusing, even paradoxical. In the mid-nineteenth-century United States, the national script of identity called at once for obedience and heroism. Pierre belongs to what George B. Forgie calls “the post-heroic generation,” which came of age in the period preceding the Civil War, at a time when “[a]lmost all important political, moral, and personal matters … were referred to, and most policy choices measured against, the heroic standards of the founding period and the lives of the founders themselves.”3 Mrs. Glendinning's consistent reminder of Pierre's ancestry is in keeping with the national reverence of the founding fathers. The age invoked heroic models in a generation to which heroism was forbidden. As Forgie notes, the founders necessarily frustrated the heroic ambitions of their successors, who could inherit the content of the rebellion, Union, only at the expense of its form, revolution. Melville himself articulates (to Evert Duyckinck) the malaise of the age in a letter written shortly before publication of Pierre: “We are all sons, grandsons, or nephews, or great-nephews of those who go before us. No one is his own sire.”4

Mrs. Glendinning remarks on the paradox when she notices that Pierre's docility, so admirable in its absence of challenge, is at odds with the heroism that is also supposed to comprise his patrimony. Delighting in Pierre's manageability, she “thank[s] heaven [she] sent him not to college,” that is, to a place where he might learn to think independently, but she goes on to muse that she would “almost wish him otherwise than sweet and docile … seeing that it must be hard for man to be an uncompromising hero and a commander among his race, and yet never ruffle any domestic brow” (27). Ultimately, however, Mrs. Glendinning favors her son's adaptation, as she “pray[s] heaven he show his heroicness in some smooth way of favoring fortune, not be called out to be a hero of some dark hope forlorn” (27).

It is characteristic both of the tragi-romantic dimensions of Pierre and of Pierre's reluctant authorship that both he and his mother are destroyed precisely by what “heaven” grants them in response to their invocations: Mrs. Glendinning, by Pierre's “heroism”; and Pierre, by his sister, Isabel.5 In fact, in their fictional epithets of “brother” and “sister,” both mother and son express their desire for Pierre's autonomy (by implication, from his father as well as his mother); yet, when Pierre declares his independence, both resort to madness and death. As a “fictional title” suggests, Pierre does not want to alter the text, but merely to modify it, and he is unprepared to re-write.

Endemic to Pierre's vision of his home is the inviolability of the family, particularly his dead father's perfection, and it is precisely the possibility of his imperfection that Isabel embodies and that Pierre's childlike fantasy cannot withstand. The deification of the father has an analogue in American nationalism, which Melville emblematizes in his use of “Young America,” an epithet of national self-representation in the 1840s.6 And Emerson's 1844 lecture, “The Young American,” neatly fills out Pierre's Emersonian contours in the portrait of a nation so

newborn, free, healthful, strong, the land of the laborer, of the democrat, of the philanthropist, of the believer, of the saint, she should speak for the human race. America is the country of the Future. … it is a country of beginnings, of projects, of vast designs, and expectations. It has no past: all has an outward and prospective look. And herein is it fitted to receive more readily every generous feature which the wisdom or the fortune of man has yet to impress.7

An analogous denial of history is precisely what underwrites Pierre's authorial failure; the past rushes back, unperceived, to inform one's perception of the present. Emerson returns, in this passage, to a Jeffersonian ideal, an agrarian utopianism that in fact defines progress as a return to the past; he celebrates the “happy tendency” of the young men “to withdraw from the cities, and cultivate the soil,” both because of the moral benefits they will reap and because “this promised the conquering of the soil, plenty, and beyond this, the adorning of the whole continent with every advantage and ornament which labor, ingenuity, and affection for a man's home could suggest.”8 As Emerson frames conservation in progressive rhetoric, he blurs the distinction between his utopianism and the industrialization that was also hailed as utopian. “The conquering of the soil,” similarly, could send attentive youths not home to cultivate their gardens but westward under the banner of “manifest destiny.” Emerson and his “progressive” opponents, like the North and the South, blur their distinctions in their use of a rhetoric that summons in the same paradoxical past justification for the opposing ideals of the present.

So, against Emerson's explicitly avowed ahistoricism runs a preoccupation with history that, as Ann Douglas has documented in The Feminization of American Culture, characterized mid-nineteenth-century America.9 Emerson's denial of America's past in fact obscures the present as it invigorates the narrative of history, a progressive, resistless force that impels young Americans into the future while it justifies the growing nationalism that obscured difference and made invisible the atrocities committed in the name of “manifest destiny” (the heir of the Puritans' “divine mission”) at home and of the Christian salvation (missionary movement) abroad. Isabel offers Pierre the chance to introspect, the potential to examine the resistlessness of the narrative of history in America.

Illegitimate Isabel, whose childhood memories are fragments of an ocean voyage, a madhouse, a house in the woods, and a gentleman whom she presumes to be her father, is a creature of boundaries, almost, in fact, supernatural. Brian Higgins and Hershel Parker call her “an embodiment of the Unconscious,” and there is something undefined and primal about her.10 Devoid of primary relationships, she is unformed humanity, the exact opposite of her pampered brother. Isabel is the alternate discourse, the outsider who transcends cultural norms and speaks, as her mystical music makes clear, from beyond language. She is civilized, brought into the cultural symbolic, after she has already begun, vaguely, to perceive; she is, that is, brought in relatively late and as an outsider, which privileges her perspective on the values and conventions of Saddle Meadows, a perspective to which the socially indoctrinated Pierre has no access. Isabel invites Pierre to the margins of his own discourse. And since “adultery,” both word and deed, has consigned Isabel to the margins, Pierre can begin his heroic inspection of social convention with an exploration of this particular prohibition, specifically of the inviolability of the home and “the name of the father” (the law, in Lacan's formulation).

But, as the narrator alerts us from the onset, Pierre resists marginality, and Isabel promotes not inspection but submission. Pierre first encounters Isabel at a sewing circle that his mother patronizes; when they see each other, she faints. Pierre responds passionately but nevertheless passively: “A wild, bewildering, and incomprehensible curiosity had seized him, to know something definite of that face. To this curiosity … he entirely surrendered himself” (58). The narrator continues to insist on Pierre's passivity, suggesting that “the face … had … fully possessed him for its own” (66) with a “mystic tyranny” (63) that Pierre cannot question. The “tyranny” of Isabel's face derives in fact from the internalized source into which, as we have seen, Pierre eagerly incorporates her; it is that script, rather than its human embodiment, that dominates Pierre.

The narrator offers an alternate narrative, a “history [which] goes forward and goes backward, as occasion calls” (67), that disrupts the progressive narrative of Pierre's discovery to propose an alternate narrative of his self-damnation. “Nimble center, circumference elastic you must have” (67), suggests the elusively unreliable narrator, presumably in order to understand the unperceived narratives that manifest themselves as resistless forces, like the resistless force of Emerson's disavowed historicism in the passage cited above. And it is precisely Pierre's failure to acknowledge this apparently ineluctable narrative of identity that leads him to “directly plagiarize[] from his own experiences” (352) in a text that was to mark his declaration of independence.

Isabel does not inaugurate Pierre's break with the past, with the arbitrary symbolism of Saddle Meadows, because he refamiliarizes her and draws her into the prewritten manuscript of his identity. She is, of course, the “sister [who] had been omitted from the text,” the inscribed call to heroism that Pierre's legacy required him eventually to enact. But she also inherits the legacy of Pierre's interaction with his mother, who rhetorically prefigures Isabel with her fictional epithet of “sister.” And, as the narrator stresses, Pierre rehearses even the pattern of his interaction with Isabel in his relationship with his mother.

What Isabel wills, though subtly articulated, replaces what Mrs. Glendinning demands; Pierre simply transfers his allegiance:

Far as we blind moles can see, man's life seems but an acting upon mysterious hints; it is somehow hinted to us to do thus or thus. For surely no mere mortal who has at all gone down into himself will ever pretend that his slightest thought or act solely originates in his own defined identity. … [So Pierre's] nominal conversion of a sister into a wife … might have been found in the previous conversational conversion of a mother into a sister; for hereby he had habituated his voice and manner to a certain fictitiousness in one of the closest domestic relations of life. (209)

Pierre's relations with women appear to follow the pattern established by his mother, one that leaves no room for the autonomy that authorship requires. And Pierre is “no mere mortal who has gone down at all into himself”; he is neither perceptive nor analytical about his motivations. Mrs. Glendinning, we learn, returns Pierre's “romantic filial love … [with] triumphant maternal pride” precisely because “in the clearcut lineaments and noble air of the son, [she] saw her own graces strangely translated into the opposite sex” (9), because, it seems, he is the reflecting pool to her Narcissus. And that is how Pierre learns to love, as we see in the opening scene with Lucy, in which “the two stood silently but ardently eying each other, beholding mutual reflections of a boundless admiration and love” (7). The only reflection of which Pierre seems capable is mirroring, and he never thinks to question the fictional self that he sees thus reflected.

Insofar as Isabel resembles their father, and presumably the resemblance is strong enough to convince an albeit receptive Pierre, she must resemble—or mirror—Pierre himself. Pierre, then, does not see difference so much as similarity when he looks at Isabel. His vision constitutes the dialectical identification with the other that, in a Lacanian formulation, is preformed in the mirror-stage. The narrator uses a literal mirror to suggest that Isabel's mirroring could still jar Pierre into a contemplation of the alienation implicit in the mirror-stage of identity-formation, an alienation, that is, that can potentially elucidate the contours of Pierre's cultural subjectivity. Pierre “started at a figure in the opposite mirror. It bore the outline of Pierre, but now strangely filled with features transformed, and unfamiliar to him” (76). But such heroism is not for Pierre, as he “vainly struggle[s] with the incomprehensible power that possessed him” (76). Pierre struggles in vain, a futile effort against the vanity and the narcissism through which he repossesses Isabel as a reflection of himself; he is, it seems, incapable of any more profound self-reflection. The narrator reduces Pierre to the “umpire” between “two antagonistic agencies within him” (77) and undercuts even this degree of psychological agency with the observation that “Pierre was not arguing Fixed Fate and Free Will, now; Fixed Fate and Free Will were arguing him, and Fixed Fate got the better in the debate” (216).

Pierre's decision to turn to authorship is intrinsic to the nature of his struggle. The impulse to write, to, as he conceives of it, “gospelize the world anew,” has its psychological analogue in the impulse to define oneself, to be both original and authoritative. This notion of authorship charts a departure from the theological universe in which imitation enables one to approach the divinity; imitation becomes, in this secularized world, “plagiarism,” a failure to resist the authorizing discourse. And yet, as we have seen, Pierre's rhetoric belies his intention to resist; his very conception of his struggle to possess his own narrative, to authorize himself, is paradoxical and self-defeating:

Henceforth I will know nothing but Truth; glad Truth, or sad Truth; I will know what is, and do what my deepest angel dictates … Oh! falsely guided in the days of my Joy, am I now truly led in this night of my grief?—I will be a raver, and none shall stay me! I will lift my hand in fury, for am I not struck? I will be bitter in my breath, for is not this cup of gall? Thou Black Knight, that with visor down, thus confrontest me, and mockest at me;—I will be impious, for piety hath juggled me, and taught me to revere, where I should spurn. From all idols, I tear all veils; henceforth I will see the hidden things; and live right out in my own hidden life!—Now I feel that nothing but Truth can move me so. (80-81)

Even at this moment, the height of his potential for self-authorization, Pierre imagines himself following “dictates,” and no longer guided, he is nevertheless passively “led.” Similarly, when he resolves henceforth to be impious, he juxtaposes impiety and piety in a dualistic opposition that affirms rather than negates the symbolic order from which he seeks his independence, as impiety assumes the very categories by which the culture defines “piety.” In his transcendentalism, Pierre deifies “Truth,” an absolute that he seeks as if it were a grail, and he resorts to images of madness, gall, and Black Knights that bespeak a marked tendency towards romanticism and that are perhaps even plagiarized from boyhood readings. His authorship has less than auspicious beginnings.

Pierre is, after all, fundamentally a believer, and he adheres fundamentally to the letter of the law. He believes the letter in which Isabel proclaims herself his sister, and he subscribes to what Donald Pease calls “the revolutionary mythos,” the ahistoricism of the nation's perpetual breaking with the past.11 Pierre removes his father's picture from the wall and, with an impressive faith in the power of the symbolic, declares, “I will no longer have a father” (Emerson's country with “no past”). But, from the first, Pierre's country was far more motherland than fatherland. The narrator again underscores Pierre's lack of preparation for the author's task:

Nor now, though profoundly sensible that his whole previous moral being was overturned, and that for him the fair structure of the world must, in some then unknown way, be entirely rebuilded again, from the lowermost corner stone up; nor now did Pierre torment himself with the thought of that last desolation; and how the desolate place was to be made flourishing again. He seemed to feel that in his deepest soul, lurked an indefinite but potential faith, which could rule in the interregnum of all hereditary beliefs, and circumstantial persuasions; not wholly, he felt, was his soul in anarchy. The indefinite regent had assumed the scepter as its right; and Pierre was not entirely given up to his grief's utter pillage and sack. (113)

As the abundance of passive constructions and the imagery of monarchy make clear, Pierre chooses to substitute one absolute code for another rather than remain in doubt. He thus avoids the torment that he should inevitably feel under the circumstances. Pierre cannot tolerate the lack of structure implicit in his rebellion, and his metaphors belie his intention to create truly new forms in the place of the old, invalidating his declaration. Pierre, as a believer, must replace one faith with at least the “potential” of another. Insofar as Pierre is representative, Melville undermines the paradox evident in American rhetoric. The narrator makes apparent that the form of faith in the values of his inheritance belies the content of the legacy, as he rejects his Republican heritage in his preference of monarchy to self-government and his Puritan heritage in his failure to make the desert flourish.12 In a time of profound need of cultural affirmation, the impending Civil War's threat to the Union, the cornerstone of national identity, Pierre stands only as a reflection of the nation's failure.

Discrepancies between beliefs and discoveries that contradict them, such as Glendinning Senior's adultery, precipitate psychological crises, which, in turn, potentially facilitate insight. But as Victor Turner has pointed out in his discussion of liminality, a cultural analogue of such individual crises, the moment gives rise as well to the temptation to retreat more deeply into the sanctity of prescribed values.13 As Nina Baym suggests, Pierre's crisis extends to grave “doubts about language” (910).14 “Oh, hitherto,” he laments, “I have but piled up words; bought books, and bought some small experiences, and builded me in libraries.” Yet, just as his recognition of language and literature as the transmitters of his internalized script of cultural identity seems inevitable, Pierre again retreats into text, concluding his thought with “now I sit down and read” (110). And he similarly continues, “Oh, men are jailers all; jailers of themselves, and in Opinion's world ignorantly hold their noblest part a captive to their vilest; as disguised royal Charles when caught by peasants” (110). The metaphoric addendum, in which Pierre unconsciously preserves the equation of class distinction and nobility, distinctly undercuts the apparent sense of the initial observation, which, if followed logically, would have called the term of the metaphor into question.

Pierre's susceptibility to Isabel is, as we have seen, not so much to Isabel as to the script into which he incorporates her. Consequently, he ignores the authorial challenge that she embodies. The social isolation of her formative years brings her acquisition of language into particular focus; she is conscious of the meaning of words and of her exclusion from meaningful discourse, especially from the narrative principles that provide coherence to the stories of more socialized selves. “I can not but talk wildly upon so wild a theme” (138), she explains, as she recounts the disjointed and impressionistic details of her strange autobiography. And her meditation on the word “father” illuminates the social contours of both the term and the role:

… though at the time I sometimes called him my father, and the people of the house also called him so, sometimes when speaking of him to me; yet—partly, I suppose, because of the extraordinary secludedness of my previous life—I did not then join in my mind with the word father, all those peculiar associations which the term ordinarily inspires in children. The word father only seemed a word of general love and endearment to me—little or nothing more; it did not seem to involve any claims of any sort, one way or the other. (173)

Isabel potentially affords Pierre the opportunity to examine social constructions that he had internalized unconsciously as truths. “[G]iven Melville's Emerson-derived notion of language as proceeding from a divine Author or Namer,” argues Baym, “the loss of belief in an Absolute entailed the loss not only of truth in the universe but also of coherence and meaning in language.”15 Isabel actually goes further, as she points to a realm beyond language, a chaotic world that lacks coherence and meaning in general, a liminal space that temporarily illuminates the role of language in such social constructions.

At first, Isabel resists names. As she tells Pierre, “I did not ask the name of my father; for I could have had no motive to hear him named, except to individualize the person who was so peculiarly kind to me” (173-74). “The gentleman” and “my father” suffice as such particularizations for Isabel, who, furthermore, feels “there can be no perfect peace in individualness” (142). For Isabel, “individualness” means exclusion. She longs instead “to feel [her]self drank up into the pervading spirit animating all things” (142). Isabel speaks here for an alternate meaning of “union” in the “union of individuals” that United States ideology paradoxically espouses. Isabel's republic of spirit annihilates distinction; “union” means self-dissolution and is, clearly, incompatible with individualism. But “individualism,” on the other hand, means exclusion and, for Isabel, has never translated even potentially into “opportunity.” The will to belong, to be a part of society, supersedes even the desire to exist.

Significantly, “the gentleman's” absence prompts Isabel to forego her resolution and discover his name. Naming, and language in general, become presences that both signify and are initiated by absence.16 On discovering writing on the handkerchief that “the gentleman” drops on his last visit to her, Isabel resolves to learn to read “in order,” she tells Pierre, “that of [her]self she might learn the meaning of those faded characters” (175). Isabel's obvious social motivation again makes explicit the socializing qualities of language as it bears witness to her susceptibility to socialization. Even her (suicidal) longing to dissolve into “the pervading spirit animating all things,” as we have seen, attests to a desire to be included.

Thus socialized, Isabel surrenders her agency to become a conduit for “thoughts [that] well up in [her].” She protests:

I can not alter them, for I had nothing to do with putting them in my mind, and I never affect any thoughts, and I never adulterate any thoughts; but when I speak, think forth from the tongue, speech being sometimes before the thought; so, often, my own tongue teaches me new things. (147)

What Pierre mistakes for mysticism is in fact Isabel's submission to the “pervading spirit,” the social force. Her tongue teaches her new thoughts precisely because of her submission to the process of socialization. Language dictates thought. Isabel is not a teacher who can consciously lead Pierre to the margins of discourse; rather, she is an example who dwells on, and so illuminates, those margins. She apologizes for, rather than celebrates, the incoherence of her narrative. Initially, this incoherence disturbs Pierre, who

[strives] to condense her mysterious haze into some definite and comprehensible shape. He could not but infer that the feeling of bewilderment, which she had so often hinted of during their interview, had caused her continually to go astray from the straight line of her narration; and finally to end it in an abrupt and enigmatical obscurity. But he also felt assured, that as this was entirely unintended and now, doubtless, regretted by herself, so their coming interview would help clear up much of this mysteriousness.… (162)

Pierre resists the discomfort of Isabel's “bewilderment” and seeks the familiar “straight line of … narration” just as he clings to his faith in the fundamental values that have been instilled in him. Such narration, as Hayden White suggests, privileges causality, a principle that is particularly suited to an ideology of individualism.17

Gradually, however, the possibility of heroism tempts Pierre into an attraction precisely to the “bewilderment” that disturbs him. Pierre “saw, or seemed to see, that it was not so much Isabel who had by her wild idiosyncrasies mystified the narration of her history, as it was the essential and unavoidable mystery of her history itself, which had invested Isabel with such wonderful enigmas to him” (165). Unwittingly, Pierre is drawn to the paradox that Isabel embodies. The incoherence of her “narration” stems from her social exclusion; Isabel attempts to describe her experience, but there is no language that can convey the experience of illegitimacy in terms that are not social. Isabel makes every effort to use words to describe an experience that is beyond words. She attempts, in other words, to describe the outside (social exclusion) from within it, as Michel Foucault tries, with equal lack of success, to describe madness in its own terms rather than from within the language of reason.18 Pierre has now reached the brink of another, perhaps the fundamental, social paradox; however, as we have seen, Pierre retreats from paradox. Isabel, or the experience of Isabel, “fill[s … Pierre] with nameless wonderings” (141), impels him beyond language. But instead of pursuing such wonderings to the margins of discourse, Pierre removes Isabel from the sphere of human experience. “[T]o him, Isabel wholly soared out of the realms of mortalness, and for him became transfigured in the highest heaven of uncorrupted Love” (170).

Pierre's idealization of Isabel also prevents his having to acknowledge his sexual attraction to her—and the incestuous implications of that attraction. Incest, which Freud and Lévi-Strauss both locate in the boundary between nature and culture, presents the possibility of ultimate defiance.19 An incestuous relationship would allow Pierre to call into question the rudiments of civilization, the taboo from which all convention stems. But again Pierre retreats from the margins of discourse, this time into a veneration that enables him to deny his desire. Isabel, again, exists only as a character in a pre-written script. And Pierre rebels in accordance with his two favorite texts, Dante's Inferno and Shakespeare's Hamlet. Significantly, the heroes of both these works end their political rebellion and their metaphysical quests in the self-surrender of either veneration or, literally, self-destruction.

The narrator makes apparent that Pierre's reluctance to venture to the margins of discourse has at its root his inability to recognize paradox. He20 admonishes Pierre:

Tear thyself open, and read there the confounding story of thy blind doltishness! Thy two grand resolutions—the public acknowledgement of Isabel, and the charitable withholding of her existence from thy own mother,—these are impossible adjuncts.—Likewise, thy so magnanimous purpose to screen thy father's honorable memory from reproach, and thy other intention, the open vindication of thy fraternalness to Isabel,—these also are impossible adjuncts. And the having individually entertained four such resolves, without perceiving that once brought together, they all mutually expire; this, this ineffable folly, Pierre, brands thee in the forehead for an unaccountable infatuate. (202-3)

The narrator counsels Pierre, first of all, to recognize his own textuality—and social identity—and hence to perceive the paralysis to which his denial of agency has consigned him. In other words, the narrator advocates a course that would lead to Pierre's self-authorization. Pierre, however, prefers to retreat not only from the margins of discourse, but also from Saddle Meadows, as though a physical rather than a mental space has entrapped him. “Henceforth,” he declares, “cast-out Pierre hath no paternity, and no past; and since the Future is one blank to all; therefore, twice-disinherited Pierre stands untrammeledly his ever-present self!—free to do his own self-will and present fancy to whatever end!” (235). Pierre would rather be the victim, the cast-out, than accept responsibility for his leaving, and his third person self-reference further stresses his preference to be someone else's character.

His flight to the city begins almost as an epic journey to the underworld, which, as in Dante (and his predecessors), frames the (ritualized) quest for identity in the inspection of the old order that leads to the institution of a new one. The journey begins in silence:

All profound things, and emotions of things are preceded and attended by Silence. What a silence is that with which the pale bride precedes the responsive I will, to the priest's solemn question, Wilt thou have this man for thy husband? In silence, too, the wedded hands are clasped. … Silence is the only Voice of our God. …

Now word was spoken by its inmates, as the coach bearing our young Enthusiast, Pierre, and his mournful party, sped forth through the dim dawn into the deep midnight, which still occupied, unrepulsed, the hearts of the old woods through which the road wound, very shortly after quitting the village. (240)

The marriage imagery heightens the suggestions of incest and adultery that Pierre's companions, Isabel and Delly, an adulteress, embody. And Silence, perhaps actively resisting language at the margins of cultural discourse, suggests the possibility for speaking against the arbitrary terms of that discourse. Silence precedes marriage, the ritual that marks the assumption of a new role in the social order, as though possibility holds its breath before committing itself to the choice that marks participation in the social order, as though there were still some potential for resistance. But “Silence” becomes “no words,” an alternate presence represented as absence, and the coach a prison whose “inmates” find no alternative to their captivity. “Silence is the only Voice of our God” suggestively intimates an absence that Pierre, and presumably his companions, cannot tolerate.

In fact, Pierre leaves precisely to maintain the symbolic order of Saddle Meadows. His fictitious marriage is not specifically intended as an act of defiance, but rather as an attempt to “legitimize” Isabel, to bring her into the realm of social conventions from which she has felt excluded. Pierre fails to recognize the potentially defiant implications of his departure; he leaves Saddle Meadows because to remain would be to leave Isabel outside society or to expose his father's adultery (itself a defiance of social conventions) or to commit the defiance of an incestuous marriage. His taking the adulteress, Delly, with him, in effect removes her from the eyes of Saddle Meadows. “Our young Enthusiast,” ever the believer, is indeed an “inmate,” imprisoned by his inability to transcend what he can no longer wholly accept, an inability that finds expression in an impotence extending as well to his inability to write.

Chaos and dream logic dominate the underworlds of epic. Apparently at the brink of the underworld, Pierre's “thoughts were very dark and wild; for a space there was rebellion and horrid anarchy and infidelity in his soul” (240). But, as the preceding paragraphs have made clear, Pierre cannot sustain such rebellion. Even here his thoughts appear to be at a distance from himself, almost as if the anarchy had invaded his soul, and he is not its source. Significantly, the narrator compares him to a priest of whom it is told that a “temporary mood … [once] invaded [his] heart. … The Evil One suddenly propounded to him the possibility of the mere moonshine of the Christian Religion. Just such now was the mood of Pierre; to him the Evil One propounded the possibility of the mere moonshine of all his self-renouncing Enthusiasm” (240-41). Like Pierre, the priest is the passive victim of a mood that he personifies as the devil. But the comparison further illustrates that Pierre has turned his self-renunciation into a kind of faith, that his actions are motivated by self-renunciation rather than self-assertion, and that he has therefore rejected psychological authorship.

The priest, who had been in the middle of administering the sacrament, “by instant and earnest prayer—closing his two eyes, with his two hands still holding the sacramental bread—. … had vanquished the impious Devil” (241). In other words, the priest holds on to the symbol and so dispels his doubts, which he has already successfully projected onto a personified other. He applies a preexisting system to his situation and submits himself to it—“these [tenets] were the indestructible anchors which still held the priest to his firm Faith's rock, when the sudden storm raised by the Evil One assailed him” (241). The narrator frames Pierre's dilemma in the context of the priest's:

But Pierre—where could he find the Church, the monument, the Bible, which unequivocally said to him—“Go on; thou art in the Right; I endorse thee all over; go on.”—So the difference between the Priest and Pierre was herein:—with the priest it was a matter, whether certain bodiless thoughts of his were true or not true; but with Pierre it was a question whether certain vital acts of his were right or wrong. (241)

And “right or wrong” again images his dilemma as a dualistic opposition that depends on a given social order. Pierre is far more eager to read than to write.

As an act of reading (Isabel's letter) begins his challenge, so an act of reading accompanies his doubt. “When, first entering the coach, Pierre had pressed his hand upon the cushioned seat to steady his way, some crumpled leaves of paper had met his fingers. He had instinctively clutched them; and the same strange clutching mood of his soul which had prompted that instinctive act, did also prevail in causing him now to retain the crumpled paper in his hand for an hour or more of that wonderful intense silence …” (240). Again, Pierre longs to anchor his drifting mind; he receives the paper passively and then clutches it instinctively. Pierre prefers to surrender his subjectivity to whatever is available, and the paper suits his purposes. His lack of consciousness makes it seem as though the paper had arrived magically in his grasp; “[h]e knew not how it had got there, or whence it had come, though himself had closed his own grip upon it” (242). The use of the objective “himself” further signals Pierre's characterization in a narrative he is unaware of authoring and so cannot resist. Pierre reads as an alternative to authorship: “more to force his mind away from the dark realities of things than from any other motive, Pierre finally tried his best to plunge himself into the pamphlet” (243).

Plunging, too, bespeaks a suicidal urge, an act of self-annihilation, an alternative to the self-reflection of which we have already seen Pierre consistently incapable. Here his plunge is clearly an attempt to escape from the questioning process that his emotional anarchy has begun to inspire rather than to continue to probe for truth. And plunging throughout the novel follows on turmoil, as after his first encounter with Isabel, “Pierre, gladly plunging into this welcome current of talk[,] was enabled to attend his mother home without furnishing further cause for her concern or wonderment” (60). Subsequently, plunging becomes an image of damnation in Pierre. Mrs. Glendinning, alarmed at the change that has come over Pierre consequent to his meeting Isabel, declares, “Let him tell me of himself, or let him slide adown!” (157). As if in fulfillment of her curse, the next section of the book begins, “Pierre plunged deep into the woods …” (157). And Pierre's efforts to convince Isabel to join him as his supposed wife in the city again instill plunging with forebodings of doom, “Already have I plunged! now thou canst not stay upon the bank” (227). Pierre opts continually for self-abandonment. His “plunge” into Plinlimmon's pamphlet becomes his Narcissus's dive, his unwitting attempt to possess himself which ironically results in his self-destruction.

And like Narcissus's pond, Plinlimmon's pamphlet casts back an image that Pierre fails to recognize as his own. Plinlimmon claims to have found “the talismanic Secret [that] … reconcile[s] this world with [man's] own soul” (244). The “talismanic Secret,” as the narrator explains, is the solution to the paradox of idealism that underlies Christian society:

Sooner or later in this life, the earnest, or enthusiastic youth comes to know, and more or less appreciate this startling solecism:—That while, as the grand condition of acceptance to God, Christianity calls upon all men to renounce this world; yet by all odds the most Mammonish parts of this world—Europe and America—are owned by none but professed Christian nations, who glory in the owning, and seem to have some reason therefore. (243)

“Solecism” subtly emphasizes the role rhetoric plays in this grand deception, in the resolution, that is, of a paradox. And this discovery, analogous to Pierre's discovery about his father's morality, provokes a quest that could well lead to authorship. The young enthusiast's uncertainty, according to the narrator, leads to an

earnest reperusal of the Gospels: the intense self-absorption into that greatest real miracle of all religions, the Sermon on the Mount. From that divine mount, to all earnest-loving youths, flows an inexhaustible soul-melting stream of tenderness … sentences which embody all the love of the Past, and all the love which can be imagined in any conceivable Future. Such emotions as that Sermon raises in the enthusiastic heart; such emotions all youthful hearts refuse to ascribe to humanity as their origin. This is of God! cries the heart, and in that cry ceases all inquisition. (244)

Here the young enthusiast, like Pierre, refuses to probe and instead plunges into the text to find answers that will end the inquisition and, thus, any possibility of doubt and autonomy. Specifically, he turns to the Sermon on the Mount in which Christ speaks with authority, not as the scriber. And indeed it is as an author, through his sentences, that Christ seduces the Christian soul into submission. His sentences emblematize completion and contain the language of the potential author (rebel), who is condemned to repeat, or plagiarize, an authorizing discourse. One who repeats is, of course, reading and not writing a text.

The pamphlet portrays a provisional world and the arbitrariness of signification. Plinlimmon suggests that while attention to the ideals keeps man from “run[ning] into utter selfishness and human demonism” (251), absolute adherence to them requires that one “commit[] a sort of suicide as to the practical things of this world … and, finding by experience that this is utterly impossible; in his despair, he is too apt to run clean away into all manner of moral abandonment, self-deceit, and hypocrisy. …” (250-51). Plinlimmon elucidates the oppositional duality through which Pierre consistently affirms rather than questions, plunges into rather than probes, the symbolic order.

But Pierre, who even rebels “in obedience,” albeit “in obedience to the loftiest behest of his soul” (245), reads the pamphlet “merely to drown himself” (245). Reading, “he felt a great interest awakened in him … but the central conceit refused to become clear to him” (245). Pierre waits for an illumination that would undermine the narrative principle that underlies his unwitting self-definition. Pierre's pamphlet, which is literally a fragment, offers fragmentation as an alternative to the inevitable plagiarism of a narrative identity. The uncertainty that Plinlimmon regards as a condition of earthly existence could easily translate into a rejection of the “truths” of social convention, prompting a rejection of the principle of coherence that governs Western identity and masks the experience of the fragmentation that promotes introspection.

The narrative, at this juncture, blurs the distinction between itself and Plinlimmon's pamphlet, as the narrator enters into a treatise in the first person:

That profound Silence, that only Voice of our God, which I before spoke of; from that divine thing without a name, those impostor philosophers pretend somehow to have got an answer; which is as absurd, as though they should say they had got water out of a stone; for how can a man get a Voice out of Silence? (245)

The narrator's obvious subjectivity, which disrupts the text's narrative coherence, leaves the reader with an uneasy feeling, hinted at, but less dramatically presented elsewhere in the text. If the narrator has become so resolutely a character, then who is left to guide us through the profoundly disturbing collapse of Pierre? And what principle will ensure that the events of the text will eventually make sense to us? As Ahab's vision threatens to dissolve Ishmael, and as, in fact, Ishmael's ultimate internalization of Ahab does mark a sort of Pyrrhic victory for the captain's “madness,” so Pierre's confused resolve seems to provoke the narrator into a narrative surrender. He exposes the relativity of the narrative consciousness by which he has both understood and undermined Pierre.

Insofar as we come to see the narrator's perspective as an alternate narrative (as, that is, an other, not the other narrative), then perhaps Silence can indeed speak to the attuned reader. The narrative unravelling that follows undermines narrative authority and alerts the reader to the possibility of an alternate discourse. Silence (and its counterpart, meaningless noise) emerges in resistance to narrative and meaningful language, not as an absence but as an alternate presence, the embodiment, perhaps, of possibility. “[E]verything written,” writes Maurice Blanchot, “has, for the one who writes it, the greatest meaning possible, but has also this meaning, that it is a meaning bound to chance, that it is nonmeaning.”21 Silence presents the continuous possibility of an alternate meaning and so becomes itself an alternate meaning; it means that there are always other possible meanings. Insofar as the narrator's recovery of Pierre's unperceived narrative is itself a narrative act, Pierre opens itself to the possibility of a Derridean deconstruction, a reduction to noise. But as the narrator's narrative does succeed in recovering Pierre's self-annihilation in his narrative, and as Silence emerges as a and not the Voice in the text, and, finally, as Melville never fully undermines Pierre's representational status in “Young America,” Pierre emerges as a multivocal critique of the resistless narratives that society and individuals unwittingly create and then live by.

Emblematic of such narrative reflexivity, Plinlimmon's pamphlet, which offers horological fragmentation as the earthly counterpart to chronometric silence, calls the implicitly progressive and causal form of narrative into question. Pierre is seduced by the apparent profundity of the reductive pamphlet and, especially, by the promise of consolation that the torn pamphlet never finally offers, but, as we have seen, Pierre is unable to break through the mirror image to the process of symbolization. The mirror is, for him, a Narcissus's pool in which he does not even recognize the image as himself. “For,” as the narrator explains, “in this case, to comprehend, is himself to condemn himself” (246). The narrator's grammatical clumsiness itself mirrors the “highly inconvenient and uncomfortable” (246) task of such self-condemnation.

Pierre's “comprehension” (understanding) of the pamphlet would expose the futility of his quest for coherence and consistency, but “comprehension” also suggests engulfment. To “comprehend” anything is to enclose it, to impose coherence on fragmentation, and hence to “condemn” oneself to reject the possibility of self-authorization, which depends upon the perception of contradictions that disrupt coherence. The narrator continues his rhetorical performance as he retreats into the more “convenient” and “comfortable” narrative consciousness and reduces “comprehension” to the single sense of “understanding” with his assurance that “men are only made to comprehend things which they comprehended before” (246). To complicate this reading, to pause at the awkwardness that attests to textual mischief, to read, that is, in a way that is not governed by the rules of traditional narrative is to make visible the process of exclusion that is endemic to meaning and thus instigate self-authorization. Melville suggestively sends Pierre into New York wearing the pamphlet unwittingly in the lining of his coat.

Pierre's sojourn in New York is, appropriately, characterized by mirrors in which all difference is obscured beneath the unrecognized reflections of himself. The text itself mirrors earlier texts in an act of reflection that, the converse of Pierre's, elucidates rather than obscures. Pierre arrives in the city intending to find his cousin, Glendinning Stanly, whose name is the inverse of Pierre's (“pierre,” French for stone; “stan,” Anglo-Saxon). Lucy's predecessor in Pierre's affections, Glen even served as Pierre's earlier romantic mirror. As in Poe's “William Wilson,” the double becomes increasingly the “conscience,” or cultural voice (and Glendinning is even the name of one of Wilson's dupes). Whereas Glen Stanly is both real and villainous in Pierre, the allusion to Poe's story forces us to consider Pierre's role both in his own self-destruction and in, to some degree, his vilifying Glen. Nevertheless, Glen does assume Pierre's legacy, as he inherits Saddle Meadows and almost even Lucy. Both “stones” are, finally, equally unyielding, and the monuments of early friendship become, ironically, each other's tombstone. Pierre ultimately murders his cousin, ambiguously in self-defense, when the latter comes to retrieve Lucy, who has come to the city to join Pierre despite his “marriage” to Isabel. Like William Wilson's, Pierre's “murder” is equally a suicide. In murdering his counterpart, the cultural self he has rejected, he murders his whole self (literally, his ultimate suicide in prison).

It is tempting here to see in Pierre and Glen and analogue for the Confederacy and the Union, which, unable to compromise, face destruction and which, furthermore, fail to recognize their mirroring. What neither Pierre nor Glen can tolerate, it seems, is any violation of what Michael Kammen calls “the cult of consensus.”22 When Pierre, in quest of his kinsman, meets a “scarlet woman,” Melville evokes Hawthorne's “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” in which a youth in pre-Revolutionary America comes to the city in search of his uncle, who he hopes will help him make his fortune. The only person who accosts him is a prostitute in scarlet, who tempts him into consensus, which he doesn’t understand until his uncle passes, tarred and feathered, and Robin finds himself laughing uncontrollably, caught up in the contagion of “revolutionary” fervor. He also learns that “one man [may] have several voices … as well as two complexions,” a lesson that exposes the ambiguity of the American Revolution to a listener who, like Pierre, does not seem fully able to comprehend it but is in fact comprehended by it.

The narrator pauses, after Pierre's arrival in New York, to begin “Young America in Literature” with a discussion of historiography:

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. (286)

When the narrator classifies historiography, which he assigns to either of two genres (what Hayden White would call the annals or narrative forms of historical discourse), he both explains and illustrates how exclusion underlies meaning.23 Cultural convention is transmitted through the process of categorization which organizes data into a coherent and “meaningful” reality. Categories operate according to a principle of exclusion insofar as “meaning” restricts the possibility of endless interpretation.24 Even the form of historical discourse, according to White, determines the extent to which “reality wears the mask of a meaning, the completeness and fullness of which we can only imagine, never experience. Insofar as historical stories can be completed, can be given narrative closure, can be shown to have had a plot all along, they give to reality the odor of the ideal.25

Classification, while not itself a narrative act, is a restriction, a form of closure, and, as such, it anticipates Pierre's attempt to impose meaning on his life by narrativizing events. His effort thus to “gospelize the world anew” bespeaks the idealization that underwrites (and undercuts) his authorship. For Pierre, authorship is an absolute identity, a commitment or achievement which, therefore, entails a choice among rather than an inspection of the categories that are imposed on him through the internalized script of cultural identity. The narrator's transcendental ahistoricism, according to which his subjectivity organizes his data, recalls Pierre's declaration of independence in an act of mirroring that illustrates the failure to resist categorization, which is the goal of self-authorization.

This passage is a narrative “act” in another sense as well. It is a performance that enables the inspection that it apparently forestalls. Nina Baym views Pierre's authorship as a textual rupture in which “the uneasy union of narrator with tale dissolves.” The fissure represents, in Baym's analysis, Melville's attempt to restore Pierre “to the center of the narrative.”26 Perhaps, however, as the reader is supposed to trip over such awkwardnesses as have previously been discussed, so the reader is meant to pause at the disruption marked by this juncture. The narrator willfully contradicts himself in his claim to transcendental ahistoricism in order to underscore the principle of exclusion by which Pierre converts the process of self-authorization into the ideal of authorship. Pierre's “authorship” is neither sudden nor precipitous; the consequences of Pierre's obvious textuality have been, from the onset, the dominant subject of the narrative. The narrator's intrusion indeed disrupts the narrative flow, but the reader's discomfort should instigate a questioning process. The passage illustrates how Pierre symbolizes both the process and the consequences of his symbolization.

In addition, Baym attributes Melville's “generic drift” to his conviction that genre, as a manifestation of literary convention, restricted rather than expanded possibilities.27 She reads the passage that introduces Pierre's authorship as evidence of one of the central problems of the text: Melville's “fiction got in the way of the direct statement that [he] was seeking to make” (919). Yet Melville's “generic drift” calls into question the principles of classification by which, as in the passage in question, we organize the data of our world. Melville's intentional disturbance of such boundaries forces a consideration—and a reconsideration—of the effect of those principles. Perhaps the chaos of Pierre, because of which a majority of the text's critics cite the failure of Melville's project, clarifies rather than obscures the central tenets of the work.

Pierre is not, as Richard Brodhead suggests, “a draught of a draught, in a … desperate sense”; it does not “trace its author's discovery of the impossibility of his own creative project … [nor] rule out even the minimal faith in his own work that the task of revision would require of him.”28 In fact, Pierre is an endless series of re-visions, that, as I have suggested, compel the reader's participation, and its open-endedness completes the task that Melville had begun in Moby Dick. Pierre is neither historical nor ahistorical, but in some sense the history of ahistoricism. What makes the text so difficult is Melville's struggle to expose, and so to check, the compulsion to repeat the unconscious narrative of one's identity that follows on a declaration of independence. For such repetition is, as we have seen, the “comprehension” (death) of the author. To turn comprehension/engulfing into comprehension/understanding (mastery), requires repetition to bring the narrative of identity into consciousness. Undermining narrative authority, Melville does not, as Ann Douglas suggests, “allow[] his readers no real way into the novel,” but in fact allows them no real way out.29

The narrator, in one of the more sardonic moments in the text, startles the reader with the impossibility of the whole project:

The world is forever babbling of originality; but there never yet was an original man, in the sense intended by the world; the first man himself—who according to the Rabbins was also the first author—not being an original; the only original author being God. (302)

As the narrator's theological stance should be, by this time, at least suspect, the sense of this declaration is unclear. But, psychologically, it re-visions authorship as a quest, an analytic process (rather than an end), to which the narrator opposes Pierre's pride, for “Pierre was proud; and a proud man … likes to feel himself in himself, and not by reflection in others” (304). As we have seen, a reflection in others, “mirroring,” provides both the source of identity and the potential for its inspection. But as we have also seen, Pierre fails to recognize his mirroring and so succumbs to it.

Pierre declares, “I will gospelize the world anew, and show them deeper secrets than the Apocalypse!—I will write it, I will write it!” (319). His use of “gospelize” suggests that he cannot reject the basic tenets he thinks he has overthrown. Pierre wants to be the instrument through which an absolute eternal truth is filtered; he wants to transcribe rather than write. He is not only Ahab's heir, as critics have suggested, but Ishmael's as well.30 When Ishmael ends Moby Dick with Rachel's searching for her children, he paraphrases a gospel that itself repeats Jeremiah in fulfillment of the prophecy. Repetition, in Matthew, is authorizing and authenticating. But in Moby Dick, it is a reflection of Ishmael's internalization of Ahab, his need, that is, to find meaning in chance events, such as his survival. Ishmael, traditionally considered a foil for Ahab's megalomaniacal acts of interpretation, is in fact finally, although subtly, seduced by Ahab's point of view; his mirroring ultimately submits, to a large extent, to a reflection of rather than on Ahab.

We can perhaps understand Pierre's plagiarism specifically in conjunction with his own desire for originality. The narrator opposes “plagiarism” not to originality but to conscious repetition. Edgar Dryden underscores “plagiarize” “because Pierre's experience is composed of a series of literary fictions,”31 but it is more particularly a reference to the narrative of identity into which those fictions, along with all other cultural transmitters, have been incorporated. In his declaration of originality, Pierre denies the narrative that, as we have seen, consequently becomes a resistless force.

Pierre's text, which also features an author-hero, mirrors both Pierre and Pierre; the former is, again, not conscious of the full implications of reflection, whereas the latter exploits it. Melville ridicules Pierre, whose manuscript betrays not the darkness of his vision that horrifies his publishers, but the ludicrousness that undermines his tragedy. Goethe is an “inconceivable coxcomb … like a hired waiter” (352). The world could “spare a million more of the same kidney … crushed … like an egg from which the meat hath been sucked” (352-53). What Pierre's text tells us about Pierre, however, is to look to the most apparently ridiculous moments, the disruptions, in the text for access.

What seems most ludicrous and irrelevant, as Freud told his patients, is often what is most revealing. Pierre's unconscious desires, the narrative of which he is unaware, dominate his writing. Cold, hungry, and celibate, Pierre is preoccupied by questions of employment and images of food and of the body. Similarly, when the narrative dissolves into syllabic associations, Pierre's longings are more readily revealed: “—Nor jingling sleigh-bells, nor glad Thanksgiving, nor Merry Christmas, nor jubilating New Year's:—Nor Bell, Thank, Christ, Year;—none of these are for Pierre” (354). Striking in this catalogue is “Bell,” Pierre's nickname for Isabel, the forbidden object; “Christ,” too, alleges the importance of Pierre's cultural ties. “Thank” and “Year” denote cultural customs and categories of organization. But what is most important here is the reading lesson; association disrupts narration, imposing personal preoccupation on the events of the narrative.

Free association foregrounds the unperceived narrative that challenges the ostensible narrative. The two narratives promote a heteroglossia that can call narrative authority in general into question.32 Language, too, unravels into its components during the free play of association. Language breaks down as Pierre is increasingly excluded from the world, as he comes, that is, to share Isabel's alienation. As we have seen, Pierre cannot utilize his position to gain access to the margins of cultural discourse. Instead, it is a task left to the reader and the narrator, who, locating Glen's succession to Pierre's inheritance in “the hereditary syllables, Glendinning” (335), calls attention to the role of language in convention as well as to convention as a language, especially in reference to the name of the father and the authority of the law.

Without inspection, Pierre cannot change or resist the resistless force that he tragically (or pathetically) authors. His writing brings him to the precipitous discovery: “For the more and the more that he wrote, and the deeper and the deeper that he dived, Pierre saw the everlasting elusiveness of Truth; the universal lurking insincerity of even the greatest and purest written thoughts” (393). But Pierre has too much faith to make the necessary leap. If the elusiveness of Truth had led him to regard experience as relative and self-created, to perceive the terms of his unconscious narrative (the internalized script), Pierre would not have become the “most unwilling states-prisoner of letters.” But his attachment to convention overpowers his authorship, as “he blindly [writes] with his eyes turned away from the paper;—thus unconsciously symbolizing the hostile necessity and distaste” (394). Necessity's “hostility” attests to the oppositional thinking to which Pierre surrenders his humanity, turning himself instead into a symbol and allowing himself to be written by a fate he authors and so potentially could alter.

Such alteration is, of course, no easy process; in fact it is, in Nick Carraway's words, “a matter of infinite hope.” Typically coy, the narrator expresses a principle of interpretation that apparently chooses “the White Whale” and “the Ambiguities,” over “Moby Dick” and “Pierre”:

Say what some poets will, Nature is not so much her own ever-sweet interpreter, as the mere supplier of that cunning alphabet, whereby selecting and combining as he pleases, each man reads his own peculiar lesson according to his own peculiar mind and mood. (397)

The narrator's claim, “I write precisely as I please,” echoes through this passage. But “cunning” is disruptive; a “cunning alphabet” necessarily undermines linguistic free play. “Cunning” works against the narrator's claim as words signify against the intentions of their users. Language, a type of classification and cultural transmitter, organizes meaning, as “the Delectable Mountain,” a mountain near Saddle Meadows rechristened by an old Baptist farmer, cast a “spell … [that], gazing upon [the mountain] by the light of those suggestive syllables, no poetical observer could resist” (397). The mood and the word, in intricate conjunction, conspire to mean.

Social terms invariably comprehend Pierre, organizing even—in fact, especially—his fantasies of rebellion, to which he is passive:

one night … a sudden, unwonted, and all-pervading sensation seized him. He knew not where he was; he did not have any ordinary life-feeling at all. He could not see; though instinctively putting his hand to his eyes, he seemed to feel that the lids were open. … During this state of semi-unconsciousness, or rather trance, a remarkable dream or vision came to him. The actual artificial objects around him slid from him, and were replaced by … a baseless vision. (395-97)

Under the influence of and in conformity with “his Titanic soul” (396), his particular concerns, Pierre refashions Delectable Mountain into “the Mount of the Titans” (397):

Stark desolation; ruin, merciless and ceaseless; chills and gloom,—all here lived a hidden life, curtained by that cunning purpleness, which, from the piazza of the manor house, so beautifully invested the mountain once called Delectable, but now styled Titanic. (399)

“Cunning,” which recalls the “cunning alphabet,” signals the projection onto the landscape with which Pierre denies his act of authorship. The narrator shifts rhetorically at this point from a description of what “the tourist” was and did to the direct second person address, “you still ascended …” (399), thus forcing the reader into a specific narrative perspective. This movement parallels Pierre's surrender to a narrative that he disowns as he abandons himself to the myth of Enceladus, which finally ends his attempt at authorship. Pierre returns home in his fantasy, and he overturns his mother's genteel Christianity, but only to replace it with a pagan and emphatically social ideal. Pierre imagines himself as Enceladus, the Titan child of incest, who led an assault on the heavens and was condemned by the gods to drag the earth on a chain around his ankle. The myth fits not only Pierre's unconscious concerns but, more potently, his unconscious desires:

… Enceladus was both the son and grandson of an incest; and even thus, there had been born from the organic blended heavenliness and earthliness of Pierre, another mixed, uncertain, heaven-aspiring, but still not wholly earth-emancipated mood …—that reckless sky-assaulting mood of his, was nevertheless on one side the grandson of the sky. For it is according to eternal fitness, that the precipitated Titan should still seek to regain his paternal birthright even by fierce escalade. Wherefore whoso storms the sky gives best proof he came from thither! (402-3)

The mytho-literary precedents for Pierre's rebellion again make clear that his “sky-assaulting mood,” although directed against a paternal figure, is very much in accordance with a paternal tradition.

Most prominent, however, is the theme of incest. The monster, Enceladus, that springs from the seed of incest re-enforces the cultural prohibition. And yet, Enceladus enormously attracts Pierre in this vision. Incest has created a powerful hero, a replica of his heroic ancestors. Pierre's identification with Enceladus could foreground his attachment to his paternal ancestors, but, more important, his attraction to the myth borders on his acknowledgement of his desire for Isabel—inflamed, perhaps, by his celibacy—and, by implication, for his mother, and for himself. In other words, Pierre could potentially confront the desire through which he could shatter convention and the desire that prevents him from doing so. But his vision recovers that desire as it recovers it, and Pierre retreats for the last time from the cultural margins and the chance to resist the narrative of his identity.

Pierre seeks refuge from the intensity of his vision and from his struggle in an excursion to an art exhibit with Isabel and Lucy. Circumstances culminate his crisis as it began, in a wish that comes true—that Isabel is not in fact the sister for whom he had wished. A portrait of a nameless head in an art gallery casts doubt on Isabel and Pierre's familial ties. As Isabel's resemblance to Pierre's father's portrait convinces him that she is his sister, her resemblance to the stranger's portrait exposes the hastiness of his original conclusion. This time, however, “[t]he most tremendous displacing and revolutionizing thoughts [that] were upheaving in him, with reference to Isabel” (409), no longer pertained to heroism, but to his twin desires for Isabel and conformity. In the context of these desires, Pierre re-evaluates Isabel's story. The gallery portrait calls into question the symbol on which Pierre's chief evidence rested—the portrait of his father—and leads Pierre to wonder whether Isabel may have been consciously scripted: “By some strange arts Isabel's wonderful story might have been, someway, and for some cause, forged for her, in her childhood, and craftily impressed upon her youthful mind” (411). With no sister, Pierre has no excuse for heroism nor defiance (particularly the “danger” of incest); with no evidence of his father's adultery, he has nothing to define himself in terms of or against. Bewildered, Pierre must cast away his script and is temporarily reduced to wordless desire: “With such bewildering meditations as these in him … and with both Isabel and Lucy bodily touching his sides as he walked; the feelings of Pierre were entirely untranslatable into any words that can be used” (410).

Pierre, of course, is incapable of extending the limitations of language into an understanding of its inherent incapacities. And he is equally unwilling to act on his desire. But since he cannot relinquish the narrative of heroism, he channels his passion—composed of his frustrated rebellion and his desire for Isabel—into rage against the social institutions represented by the signatories of two letters he discovers on his return home. One terminates his contract with his publishing house, “Steel, Flint & Asbestos,” a name that signifies impotence in its juxtaposition of fire-starters and fire-resistants. The other, from Glen Stanly and Lucy's brother, brands him “a villainous and perjured liar.” Impotent against the social terms that he himself empowers, Pierre destroys himself, as we have seen, through Glen Stanly.

The final act opens on Pierre, whose metaphysical imprisonment has now taken literal form. In jail, Pierre finishes the second of his books, the one writ in blood, although his metaphors again consign him more to characterization than authorship:

Here, then, is the untimely, timely end;—Life's last chapter well stitched into the middle! Nor book, nor author of the book, hath any sequel, though each hath its last lettering!—It is ambiguous still. Had I been heartless now, disowned, and spurningly portioned off the girl at Saddle Meadows, then had I been happy through a long life on earth, and perchance through a long eternity in heaven! Now, ’tis merely hell in both worlds. Well, be it hell. I will mold a trumpet of the flames, and, with my breath of flame, breathe back my defiance! But give me first another body! I long and long to die, to be rid of this dishonored cheek. Hung by the neck till thou be dead.—Not if I forestall you, though!—Oh now to live is death, and now to die is life; now, to my soul, were a sword my midwife! (418)

Pierre appears to want to act here, in fact, to believe that he is acting, “mold[ing] a trumpet of the flames … and breath[ing] back [his] defiance” (418). But he is only, again, enacting a script. Deluded, he believes that “now to die is life,” and he refuses to accept the nothingness of reality in death even as he recoiled from the absence of certainty in life. Enter Isabel and Lucy to play out the full tragic scene: “Lucy shrunk up like a scroll, and noiselessly fell at the feet of Pierre.” Enfolded in Pierre's destiny, Lucy has herself become a text in which Pierre reads his final line, “seizing Isabel in his grasp—in thy breasts, life for infants lodgeth not, but death-milk for thee and me!—The drug!” But Pierre's finale is pathetic rather than tragic. Even his death is plagiarized, this time from Socrates, with the notable difference that Pierre's makes no point and no sense. “Midwife” suggests that Pierre believes he is being somehow reborn; he rejects the reality of his death even as he has denied the reality of his life. Pierre dies not a tragic failure, but a failed tragedy.

The end of the novel reads as a parody of a Shakespearian tragedy, and, indeed, Hamlet runs throughout as a pre-text for Pierre's heroism and his paralysis.33 The three main characters lie dead or dying and the only survivors are incidental characters, but no one pronounces the lesson to be learned or the principles on which the community may be rebuilt. The apocalyptic scene is relieved only by the archaic language that undercuts any vestige of the tragedy that may have remained, beginning with Lucy's brother's exclamation:

“Yes! Yes!—Dead! Dead! Dead!—without one visible wound—her sweet plumage hides it.—Thou hellish carrion, this is thy hellish work! Thy juggler's rifle brought down this heavenly bird! Oh, my God, my God! Thou scalpest me with this sight!”

“The dark vein's burst, and here’s the deluge-wreck—all stranded here! Ah, Pierre! my old companion, Pierre;—school-mate—playmate—friend!—Our sweet boys' walks within the woods!—Oh, I would have rallied thee, and banteringly warned thee from thy too moody ways, but thou wouldst never heed! What scornful innocence rests on thy lips, my friend!—Hand scorched with murderer's powder, yet how woman-soft!—By heaven, these fingers move!—one speechless clasp!—all's o’er!”

“All's o’er, and ye know him not!” came gasping from the wall; and from the fingers of Isabel dropped an empty vial—as it had been a run-out sand-glass—and shivered upon the floor; and her whole form sloped sideways, and she fell upon Pierre's heart, and her long hair ran over him, and arbored him in ebon vines. (420-21)

Pierre here conforms to the pre-written script, and his apparent bent for playing out romantic scenes brings on his senseless and melodramatic demise. The ending is apocalyptic, but no Fortinbras or Edgar, Malcolm or Lodovico, survives to profit from his tragic errors and so institute a more just rule. The stakes are simply not that high. And we assume that Pierre's text suffers the same fate.

More than one of Melville's text's initial reviewers suggested that its author be institutionalized (rather than canonized). But the intensity of its critical reception, then and now, attests to the efficacy of its formal experimentation. A book about a writer's writing a book about a writer lends itself to the prismatic introspection that Brodhead sees as a failed novel, “a draught of a draught, in a … desperate sense.”34Pierre's reflexivity inspects Pierre's internalization of a narrative identity that consistently foils his self-authorization, his inspection of the terms of cultural discourse, precisely because that internalization formalizes his declaration of independence. Melville's deconstruction of the national script of identity, which reads like the erratic disruptions of an unconscious, a cultural unconscious, insists on the reader's inspection of his/her own such internalization. Pierre confounds its readers' expectations by narrative disruptions that challenge fundamental (and internalized) assumptions about narrativity.


  1. Pierre, in Israel Potter, The Piazza Tales, The Confidence-Man, Uncollected Prose, Billy Budd, with notes by Hamson Hayford (New York: The Library of America, 1984), pp. 2-421.

  2. This claim runs counter to Richard Brodhead's assertion that a novel represents an author's “tacit commitment to the premise that the kind of world he wants to create can be articulated through a temporal narration, through an account of the progressive unfolding of sequential experience” (Hawthorne, Melville, and the Novel [Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1976], p. 10). However, if the difficulty of Pierre stems from Melville's efforts to call the concept of narrative into question within a narrative form, then what Brodhead evaluates as a failed novel may in fact be a largely successful formal experiment.

  3. Patricide in the House Divided (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1979), p. 8.

  4. The Letters of Herman Melville, ed. Merrell R. Davis and William H. Gilman (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960), p. 78.

  5. Eric Sundquist similarly notes that “[i]ronically enough, the ‘sweetly-writ manuscript of his life,’ whose only flaw is the omission of a sister ‘from the text,’ is terribly disfigured by the correction of this detail” (Home as Found: Authority and Genealogy in Nineteenth-Century American Literature [Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979], p. 171). Sundquist precedes the observation of this irony with the more general notation that “[i]rony invokes an object of reference only to call it into question; in extremity it mutilates its own discourse and hollows out its own authority, leaving a lacuna in the stead of signification” (171). Somewhat less violently, I am calling attention here to Melville's underscoring of Pierre's unwitting authorship; he is in fact destroyed less by his wish than by his interpretation of that wish. Perhaps, as Freud might suggest, his deepest wish is for self-destruction.

  6. According to Michael Paul Rogin, “Young American” and “Manifest Destiny” were the two dominant political slogans of the 1840s. Significantly, both were coined by John L. O’Sullivan, an editor and journalist with whom Melville shared a number of acquaintances. (See Subversive Genealogy: The Politics and Art of Herman Melville [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983]). Forgie discusses the psychological implications of this metaphor in the context of earlier and later “dominant metaphors” in Patricide in the House Divided.

  7. In Essays and Lectures, Nature; Address, etc., with notes by Joel Porte (New York: The Library of America, 1983), pp. 211-30.

  8. Emerson, “The Young American,” p. 227.

  9. Again, Forgie's discussion of the preoccupation with the founding fathers during this period is particularly illuminating in this context (see Patricide in the House Divided). In effect, as Michael Kammen also observes, this age witnessed a kind of historical collapse or conflation in which an ideal of the past was imposed on the present. The preoccupation with history stems, in this formulation, from a “quest for republican legitimacy” and from the desire for validation to be found in a “nostalgic vision of the Golden Age” that masks the instability that actually characterized the goals and institutions of the past (People of Paradox: An Inquiry Concerning the Origins of American Civilization [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972], p. 51).

  10. “The Flawed Grandeur of Melville's Pierre,” in New Perspectives on Melville, ed. Faith Pullin (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1978), p. 163.

  11. Kammen similarly observes that “the United States may very well be the first large-scale society to have built innovation and change into its culture as a constant variable, so that a kind of ‘creative destruction’ continually alters the face of American life.” He counterposes such “constant breaking with the past” to the American tendency to “conform to transitory norms and fashions” (People of Paradox, pp. 115, 110), in order to outline a central dualism that underlies American ideology.

  12. In underscoring distinctions here among Melville, the narrator, and Pierre, I want to stress my departure from a reading such as Pease's. It is not Melville but Pierre who returns to a past that, as Kammen suggests, exists more in rhetoric than in actuality. In my reading, Melville does not, as Pease suggests, return to an affirmative past; instead, he demonstrates that such a return is inevitable and the attempt to deny the past merely reinforces its authority. For Melville, we are rooted in a past with an authority that we cannot escape and must, therefore, strive to understand. With his political metaphor, Melville suggestively links the authority of the past to a political system that was consciously disparaged by that (American) past (Pease, Visionary Compacts [Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987]).

    Rogin similarly underscores the political significance of Pierre's failure when he observes that Pierre's “revolution is truncated, like the 1848ers', because he steps back from its consequences. Like them he is discredited and succumbs to royal power” (Subversive Genealogy, p. 169).

  13. The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1967).

  14. See Nina Baym, “Melville's Quarrel with Fiction,” PMLA [Publications of the Modern Language Association of America] 94, no. 5 (Oct. 1979): 909-23.

  15. “Melville's Quarrel with Fiction,” 910.

  16. The Lacanian concept of “desire” is related to this idea in interesting ways. According to Lacan (and to a Lacanian reading of Freud), an object'