The Ambiguities

On Melville’s Pierre, or The Ambiguities

by Lonely Christopher


The trouble with Pierre is ambiguous. While initial critical responses claimed it was terribly written, bloated with affectations, and a sorry misstep compared to Melville’s earlier “popular” work, even intelligent approaches to the novel resulted in discomfort over an inability to fully define the intentions of the whole, to find an objective correlative, and the situation has hardly changed even after the passage of time and the canonization of the author and his corpus. That the book is a “mess” shouldn’t bother anyone truly appreciative of the abysmal madness of Moby-Dick (written directly before Pierre). In my estimation, Melville is only second to Gertrude Stein in general importance of American writers, and the reason is not because he perfectly executed the elements of craft that were most popular at the time. Moby-Dick has the unfortunate stink of the canon on it, so I was nearly traumatized by surprise when I discovered it wasn’t the mannered, dry novel I expected it to be, but was a reckless poem full of comedy and absurdity that loudly defied the model used to write it. Appreciation for Moby-Dick has increased greatly since the Melville revival, but its initial reception wasn’t as negative when compared to the response to Pierre (which hasn’t accrued the gradual worship that Moby-Dick enjoys). According to some, both books began with attempts to write versions of the popular stories that were Melville’s best received, and they became what they stand as now when the conflicted author gradually gave over to his desire for artistic integrity despite commercial expectations. Extant letters reveal Melville assuring various individuals that Pierre would have wide appeal, that it would be a romance sure to attract the large popular female audience that encouraged sales of books that adhered to that specific genre. Whether or not Melville knew he was being misleading in the letters in unclear to me. Though I am unfamiliar with popular ladies’ romances of the mid-19th century, Pierre does seem to follow a formula initially. We are introduced to the unimpeachable young hero Pierre, and it is established he has everything going for him and is presently to be engaged to a lovely young girl named Lucy¾but conflict arises when Pierre learns that the dead father he idolizes secretly had a bastard daughter who’s entrance into the story threatens Pierre’s security and stability. At the same time, while this is happening on the level of narrative, it’s not inappropriate that many have asked a question about the language: Does Melville (or the narrator) really think he is being elegant in his incessant use of the flourishes of purple prose, or is he parodying or otherwise using the style as a device? I cannot believe that Melville was unaware he was going upsettingly overboard stylistically (predominately in the first half), and that it wasn’t to some purpose. Proust is one who uses flowery prose in a beautifully effective way, while in Pierre the language is beautifully ungainly. While I disagree with claims that Pierre is badly written (and would even go as far as saying I think the only other writer I know that is as successful in elegant poeticism in language is Shakespeare), and while I maintain the prose is a pleasure to read (sometimes a line will feel like it’s on the verge of breaking into meter), the choices Melville makes can be deeply awkward, complicated, or otherwise problematic. Note this exchange between two lovers that ostensibly takes place in rural upstate New York around the mid-1800’s: “Fie, now, Pierre; why should ye youths always swear when ye love?” “Because in us love is profane, since it mortally reaches toward the heaven in ye!” “There though fly’st again, Pierre; thou art always circumventing me so.” Considering that the heightened, performative tone seems anachronistic, and that the young lovers even use poetic elision, it just has to be accepted that the writing is intentionally stylized in a way that causes ambiguities resulting from conflicts between form (the setting) and content (the language). Strangely, Melville uses repetition and circularity in a way that reads almost like Stein by way of Hawthorne. Words and phrases reoccur senselessly within the structure of the baroque sentences as the plot crawls along through obsessive meditations. I think this suggests that the book is not about “getting to the point” or resolving the established narrative within the model of a romance. Pierre is more like a fairy tale princess with her skin removed, revealing a complicated mess of diabolical systems that facilitate the dreamy facade (and it is a rejection of that facade). Though to say that Melville was simply being delirious with the tropes of genre fiction would be as reductive as claiming Moby-Dick was only a critical pastiche of the high sea adventure tale. I am suspicious of storytelling, and don’t particularly believe fiction should operate as a vehicle for an Aristotelian narrative (if a novel’s main purpose is crafting a “good story” it’s more likely to end up as a trinket than a work of art), and that is one of the reasons I am drawn to Melville. He works in the model of the novel-as-craft but with the conceptual grammar of poetics. Any attempt to reconcile the deformed architecture of Pierre with the model of a lady’s romance will always be frustrated¾the foremost obstacle being the innumerable transgressions from a tidy genre. The most notorious of those when the novel was first released was probably the sustained theme of incest (though even that is less singularly titillating than clouded by ambiguity), which was harshly derided by offended contemporary critics. Pierre has a confusing relationship with his mother, whom he addresses as sister, and halfway through the book breaks off his engagement to Lucy claiming that he has married an unfamiliar girl who is secretly his father’s estranged daughter. Yet the only “proof” his “sister” Isabelle offers of her familial ties to Pierre is a guitar with her own name inscribed inside of it. Pierre forgoes all suspicion and responds with unquestioning support, concocting, immediately after two interviews with the impoverished Isabelle, a tremendously ill-conceived plan that results in his disinheritance and banishment from his household, sends two people into melancholic comas, and establishes the fundament of his total ruin. The plan also roughly splits the novel in two parts: the corrupted “romantic pastoral” of the first half and the “rhizomatic tragedy” of the second. The narrative skews from its original trajectory as Pierre collects Isabelle, whom he is passing off as his wife, and another scandalized woman named Delly, and relocates them to the city. Melville disregards the disturbance caused by this renegotiation of the direction and purpose of the novel, bridging the two parts with a panicked interlude wherein Pierre makes a series of rash decisions with a disproportionately small number of pages dedicated to the difficulty of his conflict. The requirements of expected narrative are manipulated as if they possessed the materiality of paint, and Melville plunges into a mode that feels blatantly conceptual compared to when the story was more convincingly draped over a formal architecture. The narrative unfolds into an unrecognizable landscape of notional surface area that no longer fits within the confines of the model it was conceived in, and that causes a rupture through which abstraction and autobiographical meditation enter. Pierre, initially a “flat” character existing within the confines of a specific mode of inscription, becomes a system apart (at which point Pierre the novel is actualized as its own distinct mode of inscription). At first a reader might conclude Melville was attempting adherence to the specifications of the genre he chose, but I think it becomes evident that the writer (or the narrator, though the difference is ambiguous) is not simply “performing” the model but hyperactively articulating the model as performance, thus constituting part of an artistic experiment that is much wider in scope. For example, when the outrageously tardy revelation comes in Chapter 17 that not only is teenage Pierre a published writer, but also that his creative genius is “universally” admired, it would be unacceptable to conclude this information was an emendation to his character that Melville only decided upon more than halfway through the novel. There is no reason to conclude that Melville could possibly have been unaware that he had to return to the beginning of his story and insert mention of this aspect of Pierre where the rest of his biography is established if he wanted to correct the logic problem created by withholding significant plot-altering specifics until the point that the belated revelation seems incongruous with the reader’s understanding of the story. Melville has dismantled the sense of proper narrative that denied the text’s agency at the outset until the niceties (and even the rules) of the form no longer control the story’s trajectory. Pacing is confounded in such a way that when the “stakes” of the plot are most heightened (and the narrative would feel most engrossing if Melville provided an attentive, determined movement through the series of misfortunes that befall the disowned Pierre), the action is entirely halted and set aside to allow room for leisurely exposition and meditation. If one tried to analyze Pierre as a character, I suspect one would discover Pierre isn’t even there. The fabric of his humanity is thin, nigh diaphanous; but that’s only problematic when cheap realism, and the desire for a reader to understand or feel empathy for a character, is overvalued in art. At his core Pierre is a trope bandaged in a set of reliable characteristics, but as he is propelled through the text Melville refuses to realize him as a mere automaton, instead allowing him to unfold into a nebulous accumulation of concepts that posits its instability as a virtue (predicated upon the idea that the paradigm is self-substantiating). In this way, Pierre is not as much the subject of the text as a function of the text, which is the subject of itself. The narration generates systems of ambiguity in which Pierre participates (and through which Pierre becomes defined as something other than a “character”). Without the reliability of being framed exactly within a specific model, it is unclear in what context the narration is working in, ergo it moves mercurially through series of contexts as the text operates as a mode of inscription with the ability to signify on its own erratic terms. Notably, the hyperactivity of the purple prose is subdued once the text breaks out of the pastoral and the theme of Pierre’s creative angst sabotages the focus. Melville begins to articulate an existential frustration over the writer’s lot through the amorphous vehicle of Pierre, and the text almost seems to begin to write itself. More than in “Bartleby,” which is often read as an allegory for Melville’s conflict between success and integrity, Pierre begins to mirror the crisis of the author until Melville himself is absorbed into Pierre’s abstract paradigmatic composition. The narration begins to circularly explicate obsessive genius, and fulfilling his new role as a malcontent artist, Pierre endlessly broods at a desk in a cold room (surrounded by discarded drafts of a novel that all reach for the same spark of insight, and altogether represent a horrific cycle of repetition). As Melville’s own agonies conflate with the apparatus that is Pierre, the character’s structural presence within scope of the text is again renegotiated. The following passage reflects this: “Who shall tell all the thoughts and feelings of Pierre in that desolate and shivering room, when at last the idea obtruded, that the wiser and profounder he should grow, the more and more he lessened his chances for bread; that could he now hurl his deep book out of the window, and fall to on some shallow nothing of a novel, composable in a month at the longest, then he could reasonably hope for both appreciation and cash. But the devouring profundities, now opened up in him, consume all his vigor; would he, he could not now be entertainingly and profitably shallow in some pellucid and merry romance.” The self-awareness of the text reaches a new height as the text repurposes itself as a miserable declaration of war against the conditions under which Melville is writing it (while at the same time casting evidence of coherent intention into ambiguous shadow by conflating different treads of motivation and articulating the muddy result through the network of Pierre). Pierre has not entirely become Melville, nor has Melville become Pierre, but within Pierre many articles of intentionality become indistinguishable from one another, even if they originally seemed fundamentally irreconcilable. Melville’s primary maxim could be that knowledge is antithetical to clarity. If one were to impose an over-arching narrative onto the confusion of the novel for the purpose of reduction, the easiest way to generally read Pierre is as a descent into Hell. Yet considering the rampant unconcern for narrative stability, using that as the key with which to interpret the text seems suspiciously superfluous. Melville does not rely on literary devices¾he explodes them. Every choice Pierre makes seems to lead him farther astray from the idyllic contentment he initially demonstrated, until plot developments that should improve his lot according to the pastoral logic of the first half of the novel no longer fit correctly in the renegotiated space of and around Pierre. This results in the narrative circularly reinterpreting situations, the plot sort of collapsing back onto itself so that characters have to renegotiate previously experienced conflicts with role reversals and disruptions in status and motivation. Lucy re-enters the story performing the role that Pierre inhabited when he caused his own disgrace and disinheritance, but this time the relationships between each character involved in the scandal are further complicated and misaligned. Melville uses the phrase displacing agency. Since Pierre’s sister Isabelle is performing the role of his wife, Lucy then must perform the role of his relative (in the interest of a facade to neatly present in public; although most of this “performing” occurs in the privacy of their lodgings, and the ruse creates more dishonorable confusion than it conceals). What is expected of Pierre, and what is causing him to behave so unpredictably, becomes indecipherable as the dynamics between him and the three women he lives with are constantly remodeled. As Pierre has carved out a space in the text wherein he can exist according to the descriptive grammar of the rupture that occurred to allow rhizomatic qualities to overwhelm the narrative, forces representing the supposed order of the earlier pastoral setting follow Lucy as she follows Pierre, and try to remove her by force from the contaminating ambiguity of that space. All woes compound unbearably as Lucy’s introduction to Pierre’s household retards any conceivable “positive” resolution, and the entropic combustibility of “infinite, mute, but unrenderable meaning,” as Melville writes, directs the narrative to destroy itself as the result of a final effort to cohere into a causal and formally dramatic statement of closure. Casually considered, the ending may seem tragically confident (for its model it uses Hamlet, a text Pierre earlier ripped into pieces, in a muddled conflation with Romeo and Juliet); yet the only definitive aspect of it is the finality of death, the consequence of all of the problems Melville designed in the text to cultivate an ever-escalating ambiguity. The deaths are gestures of surrender to the unnamable.  In a way, the novel is about infinity (inasmuch as a novel can be before completely detonating). The portraits in Pierre, representing a reoccurring theme, obscure the subject through endless suggestion by concealment more than they represent or illuminate the subject. The form of the novel also obstructs a view of the infinite while at the same time persistently suggesting it. Many critics seem to have felt it necessary to offer an apology for the “technical failures” of Pierre, but the awkward incongruities and the “weaknesses” of the text are foundational rather than detrimental. Pierre isn’t sorry for its own disorder, as Melville declares: “Let the ambiguous procession of events reveal their own ambiguousness.”