Melville's Pierre and its Ambiguities - Louise Norlie

        Around the time Moby Dick was published to mixed reviews and incomprehension, Melville set out to write a popular novel. The result - Pierre: or The Ambiguities - a fascinating failure, a bizarre metafictional hodgepodge. The plot, in short, is that Pierre, betrothed of Lucy and heir to a fortune, encounters Isabel, a mysterious stranger who purports to be his half sister. Pierre and Isabel elope and live together in the city where, disinherited by his mother, Pierre attempts to succeed as a novelist. Lucy later joins the pair in a strange ménage. All perish in a melodramatic finale. Pierre was a thorough failure upon publication, earning the universal condemnation of critics and the universal apathy of the public. One newspaper titled its review with the stark proclamation "HERMAN MELVILLE CRAZY." 
        Literature creates meaning out of intangibles, using words (puffs of air or ink on paper) to carve a landscape into a mental world. Exactly what various readers visualize or understand from a text varies widely. Pierre mirrors this uncertainty. Using metafictional artifice it reflects a struggle to describe the indescribable and demonstrates a divergence between words as objects and their use as communicators. Concrete features are often wreathed in subtleties. Substance is elusive. There are "ambiguous smiles" and an "inscrutable atmosphere." A character is allegedly "disguised" by his own face. It is paradoxical for a novel to hinge on a fictional character's assertion of a "hidden life," yet Pierre shrieks in fanatical self-assertion, "Henceforth I will see the hidden things; and live right out in my own hidden life!" Later, Melville announces of the story line: "Let the ambiguous procession of events reveal their own ambiguousness." This begs the question whether plots can be enigmatic, whether a conflict (the so-called "basic plot") can be sensed in the midst of obscurity. Melville continually mocks literary conventions and expectations with these metafictional devices; at the same time, Pierre's "ambiguities" hover on the border of the ridiculous. Ludicrous gestures are magnified to heroic proportions. Pierre and his two lovers, the angelic Lucy and the fiery Isabel, strike Byronic attitudes in a cramped, drafty garret. In a heated passion, Pierre's mother throws not a dagger but a fork.
         Herman Melville's genius strains to encompass everything from philosophy to history to geography. He does not balk at the immense whiteness of a whale. Notwithstanding, he was not a novelist in the traditional sense. In Pierre we find the results when he tries to constrain himself to a pre-ordained structure and scope. He first models his novel as a typical romance, but soon rebels, clearly unwilling to play the game by the rules. He shifts genres midstream, from a pastoral to a gothic romance, followed by chapters of satire. The genre attempts themselves are not burlesques, but their lack of belief in themselves is fatal. Pierre disintegrates as the plot loops back on itself to introduce new elements along the way. The novel defies categorization; trying simultaneously to be this and that, and all of that, labels slip off as mere absurdities.
        Melville's exasperation with the traditional novel is sensed in certain distinctive features of the text: extensive word repetitions and self-reflexive asides. The novel opens with an extravagant presentation of the characters in a bucolic setting; they are beautiful, ideal, and publicized with lofty phrases. Pierre is "a fine, proud, loving, docile, vigorous boy" and a few sentences later, again, a "proud, loving, docile, vigorous boy." Just as Isabel in her sketchy memories recalls that unfamiliar companions muttered, "broken, broken, broken," words everywhere toll with repetition. Melville's angry pen has become stuck in a rusty groove. He repeats his characters' names (Pierre…Pierre....yes…Pierre!) until the words feel italicized through emphasis. Thus Melville demonstrates his doubts from the start; he must self-consciously insist that his new creations matter. His authorial voice asks, "Am I not bound to celebrate this Lucy Tartan?" But soon after these perfect porcelain dolls are created, Melville throttles them, smashes their delicate features, and yanks out their fake locks of hair. He complains of his need to "steal gushing tears from his reader's eyes." He protests that "countless tribes of common novels laboriously spin vails of mystery, only to complacently clear them up at last" while "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 perfect, unanticipated, and disappointing sequels (as mutilated stumps)." This last phrase is the essence of Pierre, and is paralleled by the text itself. As novelist, the character Pierre refuses to be "pellucid" in a "merry romance."
        The literary background of Pierre is introduced late in the story, but Pierre's satire of the literary society of the day is razor sharp. Melville details literary frauds, overrated geniuses, self-publishing scam artists. In Pierre's literary scene, the focus is on externals, not substance; fancy inscriptions, pictures of the author, and public appearances take priority. The quality of the writing takes second place to the author's attractive persona and the book's lavish cover.
        Throughout Pierre there are metafictional references to writings in their physical forms: shreds of papers, manuscripts, books, letters. Pierre indulges in a histrionic destruction of pages of Shakespeare and Dante. He reads, and later loses, a bizarre philosophical pamphlet found on a journey. The overblown prose from his own failed novel, scribbled feverishly on scraps of paper, covers the floor of his room. For the character of Pierre, the act of writing becomes grotesque torture. The blank page is a mortal enemy. Freezing cold, his feet on heated bricks, tears in his eyes, Pierre slaves at his manuscript as the "pupils in his eyes rolled away from him in their own orbits." Pierre's novel, like the novel Pierre itself, is pledged to the publishers as "popular," but is condemned as a "blasphemous rhapsody, filched from the vile Atheists, Lucian and Voltaire."
        Ultimately, Pierre is a mockery of what Melville's readers wanted. The handsome hero, the virtuous maiden, the bucolic setting, all sour and rot. The hero dabbles in incest, the heroines embrace vice, and the uncharitable world spurns them back with endless stupidity, greed, and hypocrisy. It is a backwards fairy tale. Prosperity and happiness unravel in squalor, failure, confusion, and despair through a conflict generated in the deranged minds of its characters. The drama ends with the stage curtains in bloody tatters, the stunned audience in silence, unaware that in this layered artifice of literary ambiguities, the uncertainties are theirs.
        Are Melville's doubts resolved? Is there any hope of redemption? Melville writes: "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!" There is no mystery beneath the mystery; the only mystery is the labyrinth itself. In Pierre, pages upon pages of words, words repeated again, a limited universe of repeated words, are fated to unwind in a whirlwind of destruction, just as in an 1854 reality, over two thousand unsold copies of Moby Dick were destroyed by a fire in a publisher's New York warehouse.


Bio: Louise Norlie's fiction and nonfiction has appeared in numerous publications, including Mount Zion Speculative Fiction Review, The First Line, Edifice WRECKED, Elimae, Static Movement, Insolent Rudder, Audacity Magazine and Heavy Glow. See her writing log at for links to her work online and updates on future publications.