Pierre; or, The Ambiguities  

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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!

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Pierre; or, The Ambiguities is a novel, the seventh book, by American writer Herman Melville, first published in New York in 1852. The plot, which uses many conventions of Gothic fiction, develops the psychological, sexual, and family tensions between Pierre Glendinning; his widowed mother; Glendinning Stanley, his cousin; Lucy Tartan, his fiancee; and Isabel Banford, who is revealed to be his half-sister. According to scholar Henry A. Murray, in writing Pierre Melville "purposed to write his spiritual autobiography in the form of a novel" rather than to experiment with the novel and incidentally working some personal experiences into it.

Coming after the lukewarm reaction to Moby-Dick, Pierre was a critical and financial disaster. Reviewers universally condemned both its morals and its style. Critics have more recently shown greater sympathy, seeing it as a "psychological novel -- a study of the moods, thought processes, and perceptions of his hero."



Pierre Glendinning, junior, is the 19-year-old heir to the manor at Saddle Meadows in upstate New York. Pierre is engaged to the blonde Lucy Tartan in a match approved by his domineering mother, who controls the estate since the death of his father, Pierre, senior. When he encounters, however, the dark and mysterious Isabel Banford, he hears from her the claim that she is his half-sister, the illegitimate and orphaned child of his father and a European refugee. Pierre reacts to the story (and to his magnetic attraction for Isabel) by devising a remarkable scheme to preserve his father’s name, spare his mother’s grief, and give Isabel her proper share of the estate.

He announces to his mother that he is married; she promptly throws him out of the house. He and Isabel then depart for New York City, accompanied by a disgraced young woman, Delly Ulver. During their stagecoach journey, Pierre finds and reads a fragment of a treatise on "Chronometricals and Horologicals" on the differences between absolute and relative virtue by one Plotinus Plinlimmon. In the city, Pierre counts on the hospitality of his friend and cousin Glendinning Stanley, but is surprised when Glen refuses to recognize him. The trio (Pierre, Isabel, and Delly) find rooms in a former church converted to apartments, the Church of the Apostles, now populated by impecunious artists, writers, spiritualists, and philosophers, including the mysterious Plinlimmon. Pierre attempts to earn money by writing a book, encouraged by his juvenile successes as a writer.

He learns that his mother has died and has left the Saddle Meadows estate to Glen Stanley, who is now engaged to marry Lucy Tartan. Suddenly, however, Lucy shows up at the Apostles, determined to share Pierre’s life and lot, despite his apparent marriage to Isabel. Pierre and the three women live there together as best they can, while their scant money runs out. Pierre’s writing does not go well — having been "Timonized" by his experiences, the darker truths he has come to recognize cannot be reconciled with the light and innocent literature the market seeks. Unable to write, he has a vision in a trance of an earth-bound stone giant Enceladus and his assault on the heavenly Mount of Titans. Beset by debts, by fears of the threats of Glen Stanley and Lucy’s brother, by the rejection of his book by its contracted publishers, by fears of his own incestuous passion for Isabel, and finally by doubts of the truth of Isabel’s story, Pierre guns down Glen Stanley at rush hour on Broadway, and is taken to jail in The Tombs. There Isabel and Lucy visit him, and Lucy dies of shock when Isabel addresses Pierre as her brother. Pierre then seizes upon the secret poison vial that Isabel carries and drinks it, and Isabel finishes the remainder, leaving three corpses as the novel ends.


Before writing Pierre, Melville read the Confessions by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Autobiographical Sketches and Confessions of an English Opium-Eater by Thomas De Quincey, Sartor Resartus by Thomas Carlyle. Murray writes that Benjamin Disraeli's autobiographical novels provided him with "more raw material for Pierre than any other author" save Lord Byron. Scholar Merton M. Sealts, Jr. agrees with Murray that Melville's own fascination in his youth with Byron is reflected in the character of Pierre himself in the early chapters of the novel. "The book which was most potent in fashioning Melville's ideal and thus indirectly affecting his personality and his writings", Murray suggests, was Thomas Moore's Life of Byron. Second to Byron only, "though ahead of him as a source for the first two acts of Pierre", Disraeli—himself a Byronist—was another major influence of Melville's early ideal self-conception, and hence Pierre's personality. Still other yet less consequential "architects of Melville's early ideal self and so of the character of Pierre of act 1" are Walter Scott, Edmund Spenser, Thomas Moore, James Fenimore Cooper, and Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Melville developed the characterization of Pierre further with William Makepeace Thackery's Pendennis, and William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, though the spirit of Shakespeare's play only pervades the early chapters, giving way to Hamlet's spirit later. As Book IX of Pierre says, "Dante had made him fierce, and Hamlet had insinuated that there was no one to strike".

Writing style

The characteristics of the style, described by Murray as a "miscellany of grammatical eccentricities, convoluted sentences, neologisms, and verbal fetishisms", are by themselves enough to set Pierre off as "a curiosity of literature." The chapter arrangement, by contrast, with each chapter called "Book" and sub-divided into short numbered sections, seems to aim for a clear structure that for critic Warner Berthoff helps "to salvage some degree of organization and pace from the chaos of Melville's purposes."

Imitation of Psalms

According to scholar Nathalia Wright, the style of Psalms is imitated in the passage where Pierre and Lucy one morning ride into the country, which is described in the manner of "a prose paean which has many of the characteristics of a Hebrew poem":

Oh, praised be the beauty of this earth; the beauty, and the bloom, and the mirthfulness thereof! The first worlds made were winter worlds; the second made, were vernal worlds; the third, and last, and perfectest, was this summer world of ours. In the cold and nether spheres preachers preach of earth, as we of Paradise above. Oh, there, my friends, they say, they have a season, in their language known as summer. Then their fields spin themselves green carpets; snow and ice are not in all the land; then a million strange, bright, fragrant things powder that sward with perfumes; and high majestic beings, dumb and grand, stand up with outstretched arms, and hold their green canopies over merry angels--men and women--who love and wed, and sleep and dream, beneath the approving glances of their visible god and goddess, glad-hearted sun, and pensive moon!
Oh, praised be the beauty of this earth; the beauty, and the bloom, and the mirthfulness thereof. We lived before, and shall live again; and as we hope for a fairer world than this to come; so we came from one less fine. From each successive world, the demon Principle is more and more dislodged; he is the accursed clog from chaos, and thither, by every new translation, we drive him further and further back again. Hosannahs to this world! so beautiful itself, and the vestibule to more. Out of some past Egypt, we have come to this new Canaan, and from this new Canaan, we press on to some Circassia.

The vocabulary and rhythm of this passage, Wright writes, "unmistakably echo the Psalms." The Psalmist employs the words "praised be," "thereof," and "Hosannahs." Melville also follows the general principle of form, with a refrain to introduce each paragraph, with alternation between the outbursts of exultation and the description of matter providing the grounds for the exultation. In the first half of each paragraph is a stanzaic pattern: in the first a distich and a tristich, in the second a distich and a tetrastich. The pattern becomes clear if the passages are printed as poetry:

Oh, praised be the beauty of this earth;
the beauty, and the bloom, and the mirthfulness thereof.
We lived before,
and shall live again;
and as we hope for a fairer world than this to come;
so we came from one less fine.

Unbeknownst to the King James Version translators, parallelism is the fundamental characteristic of all Semitic poetry, with the distych or two-line parallel as the norm, and variations of tristich and tetrastich. Numerous examples from Psalms may be used for comparison, Wright chooses the following, printed to reveal the extent of the parallelism:

Sing unto the Lord with thanksgiving;
Sing praise upon the harp unto our God:
Who covereth the heaven with clouds,
who prepareth rain for the earth,
who maketh grass to grow upon the mountains...
He giveth snow like wool:
he scattereth the hoarfrost like ashes.
He casteth forth his ice like morsels:
who can stand before his cold?
He sendeth out his word,
and melteth them:
he causeth his wind to blow,
and the waters flow.

See also

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