Pierre: or, The Ambiguities

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia - View original article

Jump to: navigation, search
First edition title page

Pierre; or, The Ambiguities (1852), a novel, is the seventh book by American writer Herman Melville. The publication of Pierre was a critical and financial disaster for Melville. Reviewers universally condemned both its morals and its style. 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 "masque" The Confidence-Man.


It tells the story of Pierre Glendinning, junior, the 19-year-old heir of 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, and 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 response[edit]

Melville initially proposed to his publisher that Pierre be published anonymously and credited "By a Vermonter".[1] When it was published in July 1852, it bore the author's real name and was immediately met with negative critical response. One negative 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".[2]

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.


  1. ^ 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
  2. ^ Delbanco, Andrew. Melville: His World and Work. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005: 179. ISBN 0-375-40314-0

External links[edit]

Online versions of Pierre
Publishing history, contemporary criticism and reviews
Other criticism