Pierre: or, The Ambiguities

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Pierre: or, The Ambiguities
Pierre or, The Ambiguities.jpg
First edition title page
Author Herman Melville
Country United States
Language English
Genre Psychological novel Gothic fiction
Published 1852 (New York: Harper & Brothers)
Media type Print
Preceded by Moby-Dick
Followed by Israel Potter

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 Glendenning; his widowed mother; Glendenning Stanley, his cousin; Lucy Tartan, his fiancee; and Isabel Banford, who is revealed to be his half-sister.

Coming after the lukewarm reaction to Moby-Dick, Pierre was a critical and financial disaster. Initial reviewers universally condemned both its morals and its style. More recent critics have been more sympathetic, seeing it as a "psychological novel -- a study of the moods, thought processes, and perceptions of his hero." [1] With the exception of Israel Potter, he never published another conventional novel, although he subsequently wrote and published many stories, including Bartleby, the Scrivener and Benito Cereno, and the experimental novel, The Confidence-Man.


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.

Publication history and critical response[edit]

Melville initially proposed to his publisher that Pierre be published anonymously and credited "By a Vermonter".[2] He wrote to his British publisher, Richard Bentley that his new book, Pierre

possessing unquestionable novelty ... [is] as I believe, 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... [3]

When it was published in July 1852, it bore the author's real name and was immediately met with negative critical response. One review which ran in the New York Day Book bore the title "Herman Melville Crazy" while the American Whig Review wrote that Melville's "fancy is diseased".[4]

Brian Higgins and Hershel Parker characterize the novel as "an ambitious experiment in psychological fiction" whose primary focus is the "complex workings of the human psyche," especially the "tortuous processes of distortion and self-deception involved in fervid states of mind combining religious exaltation and sexual arousal." They comment that the novel also draws on the conventions of Gothic fiction.[5] Andrew Delbanco added that Pierre long suffered from being in the shadow of Moby-Dick, but that "with its themes of sexual confusion and transgression" it now seems "fresh and urgent."[6]

Delbanco argues that Melville anticipates Sigmund Freud’s assertion that the sexual behavior of each human being transgresses “the standard of normality” to some extent. The novel, Delbanco feels, is ambivalent in dealing with the “rather too loving” supervision of his mother and his “ardent sentiment” for Glen, the young man who is his cousin, with whom he explored “the preliminary love-friendship of boys.”[7] Yet, continues Delbanco, after an extended discussion, it is hard to know whether critics who now see Melville as a homosexual are simply making a long overdue acknowledgment or whether gay readers are projecting their own feelings onto Melville – or both. The novel is, after all, subtitled “The Ambiguities.” Delbanco concludes that “the quest for a private Melville has usually led to a dead end, and we are not likely to fare better by speculating about his tastes in bed or bunk.”[8]

Readers, says Parker, have long been puzzled and critics bothered by the inconsistencies between the character of Pierre in the beginning of the novel and his suddenly becoming an author in later chapters. Parker reasons that the reason for this change is biographical, not artistic. He deduces that Melville took a far shorter manuscript to New York for delivery to Harpers. [9] The publisher was not at all pleased to see a psychological novel which delivered sexual and literary shocks and threatened to further damage their religious audience. In any case, Harpers offered a contract so unfavorable that it may actually have been meant as a form of rejection. Further fueling Melville’s ire was reading the uncomprehending reviews of Moby-Dick while he was in New York. Parker further reasons that Melville may have shown the original, shorter manuscript to Everett Duyckinck, who condemned the sexual content as immoral. In frustration and retaliation, Parker concludes, Melville, perhaps in two or three batches, may only then have added the sections dealing with Pierre’s literary career, especially the chapter “Young America in Literature,” which describes publishers and critics in scathing terms. These additions undermined the structure of the novel and muddied the characterization of Pierre, who Melville had not originally been intended to be an author. [10]

Parker prepared an 1995 edition of the book which demonstrates what the original might have been like by removing the sections which present Pierre as an author, notably Books XVII, XVIII, XXII, with shorter deletions elsewhere.[11] The Melville scholar John Bryant praised this edition's pictures by Maurice Sendak, which present Pierre as a "full-blown adolescent: muscular, ecstatic, desperate, devoted, and lonely; he is the man-child invincible.” Bryant points out that Sendak's earlier children’s book Pierre was written with Melville in mind.[12]

Renditions in other media[edit]

The book was the source for the French film, Pola X (Pierre ou les ambiguïtés, 1999), directed by Leos Carax.

The American composer Richard Beaudoin is writing an opera based on the book. Act I was staged in August 2007 at the Arcola Theatre in London.

References and further reading[edit]


  1. ^ HigginsParker (2006), pp. 7.
  2. ^ Miller, Edwin Haviland. Salem Is My Dwelling Place: A Life of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991: 359. ISBN 0-87745-332-2
  3. ^ Parker (2002), pp. 106-107.
  4. ^ Delbanco, Andrew. Melville: His World and Work. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005: 179. ISBN 0-375-40314-0
  5. ^ HigginsParker (2006), pp. 57.
  6. ^ Delbanco (2005), p. 15.
  7. ^ Delbanco (2005), p. -181-183.
  8. ^ Delbanco (2005), p. 204.
  9. ^ MelvilleParker (1995), pp. xxxi.
  10. ^ MelvilleParker (1995), pp. xxxiii- xxxvi.
  11. ^ MelvilleParker (1995), pp. xxxiii- xxvi.
  12. ^ Bryant,, John (1998). "Pierre and Pierre: Editing and Illustrating Melville". College English. 60 (3): 336–341. 

External links[edit]