First published 1852,
reissued by Penguin Classics, 1996
ISBN 0 14 0434884 4

Felville has the honor of being required reading, and thus righteously ignored, by thousands upon thousands of high school students. This is not entirely the fault of the high school students. Most of us never actually read Moby-Dick in whatever high school or college American Literature class it was assigned. Perhaps we read Billy Budd instead. It’s shorter, and teachers know they need to keep our attention. But it’s no disadvantage to come to Melville later in life. In fact, Melville’s glorious, wry passion is something that improves with age—the age of the reader, that is, and perhaps the age of society as well.
        In Melville’s own age, society wasn’t ready to appreciate his greatest works. Melville’s reputation was not always as solid as it is now. He was an instant hit with his first novel, Typee, the real-life history of his desertion from a ship and life in comfortable captivity with a cannibal tribe. Typee is an amazing adventure, although there are hints of a more thoughtful Melville in it. The success of Typee had little to do with Melville, though; it rested upon the exoticism of the island location, and the fact that it had really happened. This was before daytime talk shows, but people had just as much appetite for "real." As Melville’s work became more complex and philosophical, readers and critics lost their enthusiasm.
        Pierre, or the Ambiguities, was written the year after Moby-Dick, and only two years after White-Jacket, the fourth of Melville’s moneymaking sea stories. It was the strain of writing adventure books he looked down on that drove Melville into writing for himself, but the commercial failure of Moby-Dick was a frustration. Melville wrote Nathaniel Hawthorne of the difficulty of writing for the public while wanting to write for himself, admitting that what usually came out was a hodgepodge that neither he nor the public liked. Pierre, or The Ambiguities is directly born of Melville’s frustration, both with himself and with the world. It is a hodgepodge, and a bizarre and difficult book that doesn’t belong on a high school syllabus. Nevertheless, it is fascinating.
        In the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition, William Spengemann writes that Melville can hardly be considered a novelist. Since Melville is responsible for one of the greatest, or perhaps the greatest, of American novels, at first the claim seems spurious. But, in a certain way, it is very true. Typee and Omoo were fictionalized memoirs. Redburn and White-Jacket were written merely for money, and even for those Melville used bits and pieces of his life. Even Moby-Dick is a mixture of Melville’s experiences as a whaler and his own brand of scornful and lively philosophy, and isn’t known for its tight story or in-depth characterization. With Pierre, on the other hand, Melville attempts a novel and fails utterly—but don’t let that stop you from reading it.
        As a novel, Pierre is a wreck, but taken as the same brand of memoir and philosophy as Moby-Dick, the book has real value. It seems that Melville basically tried to write a romantic novel, and succeeded in creating a strange composition with the principle themes of incest and how hard it is to be a writer—a daunting combination. The first theme lends the story a weird and daring interest, and the second theme is a sad commentary on Melville’s own dilemma. In addition, like Melville’s other books, Pierre is a sort of memoir, a look at the frustrations and difficulties of Melville’s own background.
        Pierre, the hero, is an aristocrat, of sorts. As the story is set in America, he is not of noble birth, but, as Melville explains in detail, he’s better. His family has owned the land for ages, fought in all the best battles, and is generally looked up to and admired by everybody. This is better than an inbred title, explains Melville in great detail and with great certainty. And well he might, since it was his own background. Melville was descended from old families on both sides, and grew up in just the life of luxury and carelessness he gives Pierre. Like Pierre, Melville was cast out as a young man, although in Melville’s case it was for less dramatic reasons. In any case, the difference was just as stark for Melville as for Pierre. In the rest of the book, Pierre is forced to cope with the hardships of poverty. As the book progresses, it loses force and believability, and simultaneously becomes more valuable as a memoir. One of the most eloquent passages is when Melville writes about how hard it is to force your brain to create when all you can do is think about the lack of heating. We watch Pierre suffer through a day of "work" with his brain sluggish, his body run down and his spirit in the gutter. The romance of the poet in the garret is rubbish, says Melville vehemently, and poor conditions make poor brains. Poverty changes Pierre’s nature from open, impulsive and loving, to cynical, distrustful and impatient. Another touch of reality is the contemptuous reply Pierre receives from his publisher, something Melville could have only been too worried about: "Sir:—You are a swindler. Upon the pretense of writing a popular novel for us, you have been receiving cash advances from us, while passing through our press the sheets of a blasphemous rhapsody, filched from the vile Atheists, Lucian and Voltaire." This is, of course, nearly what Melville is doing in Pierre, and his putting these words in a publisher’s mouth is both a sad truth and a sly joke. Pierre’s rejected book has an author for a hero and tries to be a novel, but becomes an overstrained and half-baked philosophical opus that Pierre disdains. As always, Melville was his own most ruthless critic.
        One hopes that he incest element can be classed as Melville’s imagination at work, rather than his memory. This theme is part of what makes the book particularly daring and original for its time. Pierre has a close and flirtatious relationship with his beautiful mother, who prepares her appearance for him almost as if he was her lover. They call each other brother and sister, even in front of others, and Pierre gallantly and lavishly serves her. Pierre also has a fiancˇe, the sweet and angelic Lucy, who seems more insipid than she proves to be. A chance encounter leads to a secret discovery—standard novel fare, and so far everything seems relatively normal in the book, in spite of Melville’s long monologues on tangents such as the superiority of the countryside for children. Pierre meets the fascinating Isabel, whose childhood spent isolated and confined in a lunatic asylum seems to have left an understandable impression on her. Dark, mysterious, passionate and—to a modern view—quite possibly mentally unstable, Isabel captivates Pierre. Isabel is, or seems to be, Pierre’s illegitimate sister. This fact derails Pierre, but it is here that the novel’s failings as a novel begin to show. There isn’t ever much real explanation for Pierre’s feelings or actions in his burst of instant devotion to Isabel. His devotion is fraternal, but passionate, with more than a few hints that they are closer than they should be. Isabel, in turn, clings like a limpet to Pierre. For various reasons, none of which is particularly convincing, Pierre pretends Isabel is his wife, the third note struck in the incest theme. They remove to town, and Melville launches on the theme of writing and writers, clearly more interesting to him than the drama of Isabel. Occasionally he dips back into the story, such as when Lucy, pretending to jealous Isabel she is Pierre’s cousin, makes the household a menages a trois. But all in all, the story is over.
        For all the valuable hints the book gives us of Melville’s own hardships, and for all the modernity in the story of Pierre and Isabel, the book has serious weaknesses. The story is flimsy, to say the least. Melville seems to get tired of his characters halfway through, and the climax is both careless and pointless. Ambiguities there most certainly are, and maybe that should have been the name of the book, and Pierre left out of it. It’s certainly not Melville at his best—but does that matter? It’s still a thoughtful work by an author who truly had something unique to say, and who tried his best to say it. And for that I respect it.