Book Review: Pierre: or, The Ambiguities

Today I finished reading Pierre: or, The Ambiguities (which I think is a great title, incidentally) for my class on Herman Melville. Now, Pierre, published 1852, was the first novel Melville wrote after Moby-Dick, published 1851. It was also his first book not set on the ocean, but rather on land. And it was a complete failure, resulting in harsh criticism and financial disaster. Melville wrote only one more traditional novel, Israel Potter, and then moved on to short stories, a “masque,” poetry, and the novella Billy Budd.

Given all of this, I did not go into Pierre was particularly high expectations. But, while (unsurprisingly) Pierre does not rival Moby-Dick – nothing can rival Moby-Dick – it is a truly fantastic book. Now, do not mistake me – it has serious flaws, including over-the-top writing, unbelievable characters, and ambiguous morality. Really, almost everything the critics complained about when it came out was present (Dr. Cowan read us some of the contemporary reviews in class, and they were quite accurate).

But they also completely missed the point. Pierre is a brilliant examination of the nature of the self,  subjectivity, love and the other; ethics, ethical pride, and the Titanic man; the artist, artistic isolation, and artistic genius; and God and the problem of evil. It both builds directly on Melville’s own treatment of these themes in Moby-Dick and moves in an entirely new direction due to the movement from land to sea and the absence of a first-person narrator.

Here, for example, is a great excerpt from a chapter discussing the face of a Transcendentalist philosopher who is majestic but “non-benevolent”:

Did I not say before that that face was something separate, and apart; a face by itself? Now, any thing which is thus a thing by itself never responds to any other thing. If to affirm, be to expand one’s isolated self; and if to deny, be to contract one’s isolated self; then to respond is a suspension of all isolation.

Is this not the phenomenological definition of “love” that Jean-Luc Marion talks about in his Prolegomena to Charity? And Melville wrote this in 1852.

Something else I find striking is how similar Pierre is in many ways to some of the novels of Dostoevsky. I suppose this ought not to be surprising; I knew a year ago that Moby-Dick and Crime and Punishment had many interesting parallels, and I’ve mentioned before how a key facet of the philosophies of both Melville and Dostoevsky is that, in Melville’s words, “it’s a mutual, joint-stock world,” or, as Dostoevsky would say, “each is responsible for all.” But I didn’t expect such a similarity in action and tone, as well as of philosophical thought:

  • Like that of Crime and Punishment, Pierre‘s central character attempts to be Titanic, a over-man, by transcending society and paradoxically becoming completely moral by transgressing conventional morality;
  • Like The Idiot, Pierre is a drawing-room novel revolving around an idealistic young man who attempts to marry in order to “save” a girl, rather than truly out of love;
  • Like Demons, it is partially a parody of the extremes of philosophic thought when devoid of love (Transcendentalists in Melville, nihilists in Dostoevsky) and the moral hollowness of the society that allows/forces these figures to emerge;
  • Like The Brothers Karamazov, it involves conflict over the memory of a father figure and the nature of guilt;
  • Finally, like any good Dostoevsky novel, Pierre ends with an act of extreme violence that is apparently the only way, in a book like this, to bring about the terrifying denouement.

Of course, their styles are quite different – Melville is more given to description and internal thoughts (multiple chapters involve various characters’ faces and Pierre’s internal reactions to them) while Dostoevsky uses pages and pages of conversation/monologue to delineate character. But, for two authors who could not possibly have read each other or even known about each other, these seem to me fascinating similarities. Perhaps they are a start towards an understanding of the modern Christian existentialist novel (existentialist here used broadly, meaning focused on the self, not the world or society). What other authors, I wonder, are as concerned with these questions as Melville and Dostoevsky? I ought to find them and read them.


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