Herman Melville, Pierre; or, The Ambiguities

Pierre: Or, the AmbiguitiesPierre: Or, the Ambiguities by Herman Melville

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What was left of Melville’s early audience was killed off by the dreadful Pierre, a year after Moby-Dick, and despite various modern salvage attempts, Pierre certainly is unreadable, in the old-fashioned sense of that now critically abused word. You just cannot get through it, unless you badly want and need to do so.
—Harold Bloom, Introduction to Bloom’s Modern Critical Views: Herman Melville

I read Bloom’s quip about Pierre when I was a teenager and have been making a shortened version of it about various and sundry books ever since: “Unreadable in the old-fashioned sense: you just can’t read it!” I waited until now, though—specifically, until the publication earlier this year, for the first time, of a Norton Critical Edition—to actually read Pierre; or, The Ambiguities (1852). Its 357 pages took me about nine days: a challenge, then, but not an impossibility.

With his reference to the older meaning of “unreadable,” Bloom, writing in the 1980s, intended to mock then-fashionable postmodern standards of value based on Roland Barthes’s distinction between “classic realist texts” that supposedly require little but passive consumption and so are merely lisible, or readable, and experimental or avant-garde writing that demands readerly collaboration and therefore is scriptible, or writeable. Bloom is correct that Melville’s disastrous seventh novel will not be rescued by any kind of deconstruction—it deconstructs itself more thoroughly than any hip Reagan-era Yalie could—but to dismiss it as a bad, boring book is what Bloom might call a “weak misreading.”

Pierre is not exactly a page-turner nor even the high-spirited if unorthodox romp that Moby-Dick is, but we should transvalue the novel’s early reviewers’ infamous damning judgments (“Herman Melville Crazy,” “inexcusable insanity”) and learn to appreciate this parody of sentimental fiction turned lethally serious Greek tragedy, this nihilistic romance of how an everyman becomes an Ahab, this incest-obsessed kissing cousin to all the great fateful family romances, from the classic ones it invokes—the tales of the Greek Titans; Hamlet—to the modern ones it resembles or foreruns: Wuthering Heights, The Sound and the Fury, One Hundred Years of Solitude.

The story of Pierre is shortly told, unless you are Herman Melville, lover of Tristram Shandy and Sartor Resartus and consequently determined to write an extraordinarily verbose metafictional psychological novel that dwells for pages upon pages on mental states both minute and bizarre. Sadly, Melville believed he was writing a potboiler, a domestic sentimental gothic novel like the ones currently in fashion, whose expected popularity would make up for the decline in his book sales accompanying the fictional experiments of Mardi and Moby-Dick. While he borrowed a broad social canvas, a lurid and melodramatic plot, and a cloying tone from such popular novels, Pierre cannot cloak under anodyne middlebrow sentiment its finally nihilistic attack on family values, the American class system, the business of books, or, ultimately and as in Ahab’s tragedy, the very arrangement of the cosmos.

The novel concerns Pierre Glendinning, last male heir to a distinguished New York family of Indian-killers and Revolutionary warriors; Melville does not let us forget that their wealth is built on violence. Pierre is in his late teens as the novel begins. He lives in a bucolic and aristocratic paradise called Saddle Meadows with his stately, flirtatious mother, whom he addresses and by whom he is addressed in turn as a sibling, and he is moreover betrothed to the ethereal blonde Lucy Tartan. Melville’s prose in these opening episodes is an overwhelmingly unctuous and loquacious imitation of sentimental fiction, though it betrays satirical intentions—for instance, toward the institution of the family or toward romantic love—that sentimentalists might resist:

Wondrous fair of face, blue-eyed, and golden-haired, the bright blonde, Lucy, was arrayed in colors harmonious with the heavens. Light blue be thy perpetual color, Lucy; light blue becomes thee best—such the repeated azure counsel of Lucy Tartan’s mother. On both sides, from the hedges, came to Pierre the clover bloom of Saddle Meadows, and from Lucy’s mouth and cheek came the fresh fragrance of her violet young being.

“Smell I the flowers, or thee?” cried Pierre.

“See I lakes, or eyes?” cried Lucy, her own gazing down into his soul, as two stars gaze down into a tarn.

The Norton editors in a footnote helpfully point us toward the “tarn” of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” American Romanticism’s most famous Gothic tale of incest. (In fact, I detect a great deal of Poe in this novel, though critics do not seem to discuss this very much.) Of most interest to contemporary readers in the novel’s rather slow opening might be the narrator’s digressive refutation of American exceptionalism. Melville insists that grand lineages like the Glendinnings, with their their vast estate, show the United States to be no less—or perhaps more—feudal than Old Europe:

But whatever one may think of the existence of such mighty lordships in the heart of a republic, and however we may wonder at their thus surviving, like Indian mounds, the Revolutionary flood; yet survive and exist they do, and are now owned by their present proprietors, by as good nominal title as any peasant owns his father’s old hat, or any duke his great-uncle’s old coronet.

For all this, then, we shall not err very widely if we humbly conceive, that—should she choose to glorify herself in that inconsiderable way—our America will make out a good general case with England in this short little matter of large estates, and long pedigrees—pedigrees I mean, wherein is no flaw.

“No flaw”—which is to say, I believe, that they are at least partially inbred. This brings us to the plot’s catalyst: Pierre visits a sewing circle with his mother, where he is pierced by the glare of a strange girl. Later, he receives a letter from this girl, Isabel, wherein she claims to be his illegitimate sister and begs his aid in her poverty. From fragmentary memories of family lore, Pierre gradually recalls that his father may have had a youthful affair with a refugee—a woman of noble or even royal blood—from the French Revolution. Pierre then goes to the small cottage where Isabel lives, also coincidentally the residence of a “fallen woman” named Delly. (Delly was the scandalous topic of conversation between Pierre’s righteous mother and the weak, effeminate minister, Rev. Falsgrave, i.e., one whose counsel about death is false, earlier in the novel.)

Isabel, who has the otherworldly and slightly inhuman air of one raised in the wild or in isolation (like Caspar Hauser, alluded to in the novel in a different context), narrates her early life of orphaned wandering. Because she has never learned the common names for things and because her hold on reality is tenuous, she describes the settings of her childhood, from ships to asylums, in highly defamiliarizing and disorienting terms:

“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.”

Her eerie account of how she came to self-consciousness suggests that individual identity is a fall from grace, a sequestration within the fragile flesh of the human, which hint the rest of the novel bears out:

“Now I began to feel strange differences. When I saw a snake trailing through the grass, and darting out the fire-fork from its mouth, I said to myself, That thing is not human, but I am human. When the lightning flashed, and split some beautiful tree, and left it to rot from all its greenness, I said, That lightning is not human, but I am human. And so with all other things. I can not speak coherently here; but somehow I felt that all good, harmless men and women were human things, placed at cross-purposes, in a world of snakes and lightnings, in a world of horrible and inscrutable inhumanities.”

I have not even mentioned the “mystic guitar” she uses to communicate with Pierre. Like Coleridge’s “damsel with a dulcimer,” this dark-eyed, dark-haired mystery woman signifies the mute enigma underlying Romantic art, as well as—if we are in a Jungian mood—the male Romantic artist’s anima, the internal and eternal feminine that draws him on toward the ideal.

Pierre determines that he must not turn away from the challenge posed by Isabel, not even for the sake of his worldly reputation or success. If he were to acknowledge his sister, he would bring disgrace to his family by implicitly accusing his dead father, upon whose portrait Pierre often meditates in his chamber, of adultery, as well dishonoring his betrothed Lucy. Pierre decides to spare his loved ones by pretending he has married Isabel to prevent the disclosure of the truth about her parentage. But his haughty mother is obviously unaware that Isabel may be descended from usurped European monarchs, not to mention the possible offpsring of her own husband; Mrs. Glendinning believes that Pierre is “[m]ixing the choicest wine with filthy water from the plebeian pool” and so she disowns him. Pierre then absconds to New York City with both Isabel and Delly. That Pierre and Isabel harbor more than familial feelings for each other is implied as decisively as Victorian standards would allow:

He held her tremblingly; she bent over toward him; his mouth wet her ear; he whispered it.

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.

In New York, Pierre is disowned as well by his wealthy man-about-town cousin and is therefore forced to take up residence in an old church turned bohemian flop-house, which allows Melville to spend several pages mocking the hipster fashions of the period, such as the congeries of lifestyle radicalisms surrounding Transcendentalism and the philosophical vanguards marching under the banner of German Idealism.

Pierre, we are suddenly told in the novel’s most famous instance of Melville’s indifference to the reader, is a successful writer and determines to live by his pen now that he has marred his aristocratic fortunes. Abandoning the plot, Melville takes to a savage satire of the mercenary book trade and the destructiveness of its bottom-line philistinism to literature. Considering Melville’s own fate—Pierre would mark the end of his authorial success, and he would not receive his due recognition until a generation after his death—this satire is sad as well as funny, and doubly sad in that 170 or so years has not dimmed its relevance. It is, though, quite a digression from the story and accounts, as much as does the novel’s psychological focus and stylistic bombast, for its “unreadable” reputation.

Pierre now embarks on a masterwork, though he is scarcely twenty, and Melville makes clear through a set of allusions to the defeated mythological Giant Enceladus that the young man’s heroic effort to challenge the gods is a noble but doomed one. Pierre’s literary aspirations, like his discovery of Isabel, stand for the goad toward absolute and supra-mundane values that every great or even potentially great human being experiences. Just so we do not miss this Ahab-theme of the heroically  perverse quest, Lucy re-enters the novel almost at its ending, supernally determined to live with Pierre and Isabel and to serve them. This intention is based solely on her intuition that they need her, even though she has no actual knowledge of their own relationship nor why Pierre abandoned her in the first place.

I will not give away the novel’s ending except to say that, as you might expect, this unorthodox arrangement ends badly for all involved, and rather thrillingly—guns! prison! poison!—for a novel that moves as slowly as Pierre does.

Pierre is a domestic, sexual Moby-Dick: it shows that you do not need to be at sea to find yourself shipwrecked on your own reckless journey toward the reality you intuit behind reality. The incest of long-separated siblings provides a persuasive double (or ambiguous) symbol for such a narrative because it both derogates the secular world as an affair of self-involved material interrelation even as it shows true relation to be based on a secret and fated pattern of affinity. For Pierre, incest, like authorship, is an earthly evil and burden while also being a sublime, heavenly vocation.

Should we obey the divine call we sometimes hear or think we hear, no matter how seemingly insane its demand? (A free essay idea for any idling student who should chance by: compare and contrast Pierre with the nearly contemporaneous Fear and Trembling.) Should we marry our siblings or go broke trying to write great literature no one wants to read? Only, the novel implies, if we are willing to accept that this world will stand against us in every way.

During the carriage ride into New York City, Pierre finds part of a philosophical pamphlet written by one Plotinus Plinlimmon, likely a satire on Emerson, about whom Melville was ambivalent. In the pamphlet, Plinlimmon develops an ingenious analogy between two types of time-keeping devices and two types of people: chronometers—i.e., those clocks that keep Greenwich time on shipboard in every latitude—and horologes—which is to say, clocks and watches attuned to local time. Among human beings, chronometers are the saints and prophets, keeping heaven’s time on earth; but most people cannot be saints and prophets and must content themselves—amid the exigencies of work and family and all the rest—with living merely earthly lives and keeping merely earthly time. Melville tells us that Pierre does not understand this pamphlet because it hits too close to home; the implication is that Pierre might have been better to wind his watch and live out his normal life rather than undertake his catastrophic erotic and literary adventure. Melville must also be intimating here his own sorrowful second thoughts about his literary life and its inexorable decline.

Elsewhere in the novel, Melville goes further than Plinlimmon’s accommodationist philosophy when he shows that Pierre’s long, sleepless drive for the truth about his conflicting duties to Isabel and to convention terminate not in certainty but in confusion, in the ambiguities of the novel’s grand subtitle:

In those Hyperborean regions, to which enthusiastic Truth, and Earnestness, and Independence, will invariably lead a mind fitted by nature for profound and fearless thought, all objects are seen in a dubious, uncertain, and refracting light. Viewed through that rarefied atmosphere the most immemorially admitted maxims of men begin to slide and fluctuate, and finally become wholly inverted; the very heavens themselves being not innocent of producing this confounding effect, since it is mostly in the heavens themselves that these wonderful mirages are exhibited.

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.

“Hyperborean” will be Nietzsche’s word, in The Antichrist, for his bold philosophical peers, and much in Pierre hints at the coming world of Nietzsche, Kafka, and Beckett—a world where the truth-seeker simply has to learn to live amid total privation and total confusion. Of Plinlimmon’s pamphlet, Melville comments, “For to me it seems more the excellently illustrated re-statement of a problem, than the solution of the problem itself”—a description of Pierre itself, perhaps of all modern art, perhaps of all great art insofar as great art, whatever its epoch, is eternally modern in being perpetually problematic, or ambiguous.

Pierre is like the fanciful half-buried torso of Enceladus in Mt. Greylock (the novel’s absurd dedicatee) that is Melville’s emblem for his hero’s tragic literary venture: it is halfway between Romantic energy and modernist enervation. It savors as much of Emerson as of Nietzsche, of Shelley as of Kafka, of Blake as of Beckett, which means that it never entirely abandons an endorsement of intellectual, literary, and personal heroism, even though it knows such heroism will inevitably be crushed by the mundane world of law, family, custom, and commerce.

That the novel fails on every level is written into the novel: failure is its sublime. To fail you first must strive, though, and the exhortation to strive, rather than the passive wallowing in failure that I sometimes find tiresome in modernism, is what I take from this extraordinarily weird and, yes, occasionally unreadable novel. That is why, despite its faults, I recommend that you read it too.



  1. So what do we make of the so-called Kraken edition of Pierre, which omits any mention of Pierre as writer and thus purports to restore the novel to what Melville originally intended?

    • Seems ill-advised and unnecessary–some of the most entertaining passages are those about Pierre’s literary career and life among the hipster intellectuals in the city. Also, Pierre-as-author is perfectly in line with the first 2/3 of the novel thematically, given its parody of popular genres. The Kraken edition is a beautiful book, though, I’ll give it that!

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