Pierre, or, The Ambiguities Herman Melville
The following entry presents criticism of Melville's novel Pierre (1852). See also Bartleby, the Scrivener Criticism, Benito Cereno Criticism, Billy Budd Criticism, and Redburn: His First Voyage Criticism.
Many critics have deemed Pierre the most puzzling, and—alongside Moby-Dick (1851)—the most structurally and thematically complex work of Melville's career. Denigrated by most contemporary reviewers for its main themes of fornication, incest, and illegitimacy, Pierre was praised by some as a successful sentimental romance. The history of Pierre criticism has been controversial, with critics agreeing on very little, in part because the novel itself seems to contain and encompass two sides of every critical argument. For example, it is a romance that also parodies the genre of romance, a philosophical work that satirizes philosophers and philosophizing, and the story of an idealist who consistently undermines his own good intentions and ultimately commits suicide. Pierre has become increasingly popular in the latter part of the twentieth century, with many readers speculating about its psychosexual themes, Melville's intentions in the work, and the novel's place in Melville's corpus.
By the time he began writing Pierre in late 1851, Melville had already published seven novels—Typee (1846), The Story of Toby (1846), Omoo (1847), Mardi (1849), Redburn (1849), White Jacket (1850), and Moby-Dick—and was well-established in his literary career. His earlier narratives of exotic sea voyages appealed to the reading public, but Moby-Dick received mixed assessments. While some reviewers recognized and lauded Melville's technical and thematic accomplishment in that novel, many others found the work inscrutable. Most important to Melville himself was the enthusiastic praise of the novel by fellow novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, whom Melville considered a soulmate. In a letter written in 1851, Melville conveyed his heartfelt “content” with Hawthorne's response to Moby-Dick, but also expressed the continued pressure of his creative impulse and the need to move on: “So, now let us add Moby-Dick to our blessing, and step from that. Leviathan is not the biggest fish;—I have heard of Krakens.” Melville was feeling impatient with his past achievements, and also vulnerable as a result of harsh criticism of Moby-Dick. By Christmas, according to his family, he was so “engaged in a new work as frequently not to leave his room until quite dark … under a state of morbid excitement which will soon injure his health.” The new work was Pierre. The book, which grew from an estimated 360 pages to 500, was published by Harper and Brothers in the United States, but Melville's English publisher, Bentley, declined to publish it despite Melville's description of the work as “calculated for popularity … being a regular romance, with a mysterious plot to it, and stirring passions.” The advance proofs Melville had sent to Bentley clearly told a different story. Emotionally and physically exhausted, and unsure of what was expected of him any more as a novelist in the United States, after the publication of Pierre Melville decided to abandon novel writing and instead focused on short fiction.
Plot and Major Characters
A superficial plot outline of Pierre does indeed read like a typical sentimental novel of its day, but its dark psychological undercurrents manifest themselves soon enough. The novel's protagonist, Pierre Glendenning, the only son of a wealthy widow, grows up on a fine estate, Saddle Meadows, in bucolic upstate New York, and receives the best education available to a young man of his station. In addition, he is brought up to honor the near-saintly image of his dead father. In time, Pierre becomes engaged to Lucy Tartan, the daughter of another prominent New York family. His life changes drastically, however, when he meets Isabel and learns that she is his father's illegitimate daughter, and, therefore, his half-sister. Pierre's mother, leery of family scandal, does her utmost to hide the facts of the situation by controlling Pierre, but Pierre rebels and comes to believe that it is his duty and newfound mission in life to protect Isabel from his mother and from the world at large. He realizes that acknowledging Isabel as his sister would disgrace his father's memory, so he pretends to marry her and they elope to New York City. Now poor and friendless, Pierre pursues a career as an author, working on a book that no publisher will accept. Lucy, who is still in love with Pierre, follows him to New York, and in turn is followed by her brother and Pierre's cousin. The two threaten Pierre with discovery and Pierre kills the cousin. Lucy and Mrs. Glendenning die of grief when they hear the news, and Pierre and Isabel, who are now in love with each other, commit suicide together in his prison cell.
The major theme of Pierre, as its subtitle suggests, is ambiguity, and this idea is played out on many different levels of the novel. Melville was interested in the idea of exploring human psychology, especially repressed sexual urges, and in seeing how good can turn into evil in unpredictable ways. Pierre believes that conventional Christianity does not offer a high enough standard of conduct, and he sets for himself the goal of true Christ-like behavior. When Pierre and Isabel, in a pivotal chapter, are escaping to New York, he finds by chance a “philosophical lecture” on “Chronometricals and Horologicals.” The author of this discourse on time argues that the perfection of the chronometer makes it an imperfect timepiece for ordinary purposes and people (“Christ was a chronometer”). A horologue, which is adjustable to local standards, is more practical. Pierre aspires to follow chronometric time but, despite his high moral principles, ends in destroying those around him as well as himself. Melville develops the theme of the ambiguous nature of good and evil through Pierre, but also through the story of Isabel's childhood, and through Pierre's relationship with his manipulative mother. Again and again, Melville focuses on the mixed motives and the murky reasoning of the major characters of the novel. Even the treatment of nature proves problematic: Pierre rhapsodizes about the scenery of his native upstate New York and in part derives his optimistic philosophy from it, but discussions of nature often turn into satire and result in self-parody. The structure of Pierre also supports the idea of ambiguity. There are numerous shifts in tone and style, characters take on different roles with each other, narrative voices change over the course of the work, and there is a sharp change in the novel as the locale moves from rural upstate New York to the wasteland of New York City. Many critics have also pointed out an autobiographical dimension to the novel. Pierre, like Melville, is a novelist without a reading public who is trying to determine what is expected of him and to what extent he can comply with those expectations.
Pierre failed on both the critical and popular fronts and it did not bring Melville even the private satisfaction that Moby-Dick had offered. His popularity as an author, already seriously damaged by the publication of Moby-Dick, was completely destroyed by Pierre. The reading public, who preferred the entertainment of Typee and Omoo, were confused by the novel's metaphysical questionings and offended by its theme of incest. The book does contain conventional Romantic material, such as the beautiful blonde sweetheart and the mysterious dark lady with whom Pierre elopes, and the melodrama with its sexual tensions, murder, and suicide is not far off from the potboilers of the day. Contemporary readers rejected it probably for what they perceived as a lack of direction and good taste, but critics point out that they were probably also distressed by its acerbic treatment of the New York cultural scene, its undercutting of transcendental optimism and genteel conduct, and its subversion of religious doctrine embodied in the ironic outcome of Pierre's attempt to model his behavior on received Christian principles. Many critics, including Lewis Mumford, Hershel Parker, Gillian Brown, John Carlos Rowe, and Wyn Kelly have written about the autobiographical aspect of Pierre, often focusing on Melville's evolving view of himself as a writer and on his questioning of the validity of the profession of authorship in America. Broadening this discussion, Steve Gowler and Nicola Nixon have emphasized the pertinence of the American social context in the mid-nineteenth century to Pierre and to Melville's dilemma regarding his own choice of career. Other scholars, including R. K. Gupta and Nicholas Canaday, for example, have paid close attention to Melville's literary style in Pierre, discussing narrative stance, characterization, and Melville's borrowings from other genres. There is still an ongoing debate about the unity of Pierre as a novel; recently Bert C. Bach and Carol Colclough Strickland, among others, have argued for the novel's unity based on levels of narration and imagery, respectively. Perhaps most intriguing of all for late-twentieth-century critics has been exploration of Melville's treatment of human psychology, especially sexuality; R. Scott Kellner, James Creech, and Stephen Rachman have offered varied and controversial approaches to this field of study. Critical interest in Pierre has grown exponentially since the 1920s and the novel has provided a fertile field for research. Most Melville scholars now agree with Brian Higgins and Hershel Parker in their assessment of Pierre as perhaps “the best psychological novel that had yet been written in English.”