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Pierre: Or the Ambiguities (Writings of Herman Melville) Paperback – 13 Nov 1997


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Product details

  • Paperback: 445 pages
  • Publisher: Northwestern University Press; New edition edition (13 Nov. 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0810114127
  • ISBN-13: 978-0810114128
  • Product Dimensions: 14 x 3 x 21.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 3,017,314 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Herman Melville was 31 years old when he started writing The Whale in New York during February 1850. He left the sea in 1844 to become a writer and had drawn on his experience as a seaman in many of his successful works. By 1851 the only part of his years at sea which he had not drawn on for fictional purposes was his experience on a whaling ship Acushnet in 1841-2. It is almost as if he had intuited that this area of his life would yield the richest returns only when his imagination was ready to appropriate all its possibilities and explore them to their further riches. The most important event during the seventeen months in which Melville was writing his novel was his meeting with Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1850. This meeting had a profound effect on Melville. Moby Dick is dedicated to Hawthorne. Melville died, in obscurity, in 1891.

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About the Author

Herman Melville (August 1, 1819 - September 28, 1891) was an American novelist, short story writer, essayist, and poet. He is best known for his novel Moby-Dick. His first three books gained much contemporary attention (the first, Typee, becoming a bestseller), and after a fast-blooming literary success in the late 1840s, his popularity declined precipitously in the mid-1850s and never recovered during his lifetime. When he died in 1891, he was almost completely forgotten. It was not until the "Melville Revival" in the early 20th century that his work won recognition, especially Moby-Dick, which was hailed as one of the literary masterpieces of both American and world literature. He was the first writer to have his works collected and published by the Library of America. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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THERE are some strange summer mornings in the country, when he who is but a sojourner from the city shall early walk forth into the fields, and be wonder-smitten with the trance-like aspect of the green and golden world. Read the first page
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24 of 27 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 25 Feb. 1999
Format: Paperback
"Pierre," (written shortly after "Moby Dick") is called "The Book that ruined Melville." In fact, he never wrote another novel after "Pierre," but spent his last 40 years either unemployed or working as a customs official. But by the end of the 20th century a new generation of readers and critics had rediscovered him, and today his reputation is at the front rank of American authors. "Pierre" is a superbly controlled exploration of the deepest psychological motivations which underlie all human beha vior. If it is ambiguous, it is meant to be so, not in the sense of vagueness, but in the sense of many meanings. Melville, like Thomas Hardy is a master at depicting country life. And the conflicts in the novel are very much tied to country versus city living. The novel is Freudian, in its questing after the deepest reasons for human behaviors. Like most of us at some point in life, Pierre sees the father he had idolized as human and capable of error. His own values are put into question by the receipt of a note from his long-lost sister. Melville points out that we all walk "on a razor's edge of security.....that what we take to be our strongest tower of delight, only stands at the caprice of the minutest event-the fallling of a leaf, the hearing of a voice, or the receipt of one little bit of paper scratched over with a few small characters by a sharpened feather." Melville does not spare Pierre from disillusion but continues to open him up0 with an "electrical insight" into the character of his mother. He sees how she has been molded by the culture and how her love for him is not unconditional, but based upon his outward beauty and docile behavior.Read more ›
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By M. Dowden HALL OF FAMETOP 50 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on 31 Aug. 2009
Format: Paperback
I can't start this without giving a warning. This book has small print that some may not find that easy to read, also Pierre has never been that popular mainsteam-wise and thus you may want to steer clear of this. When Melville died he was nearly forgotten and it wasn't until a renewed interest in his works in the 1920's led to him being reassessed, but even then this particular novel was only plaudited by die-hard fans.

When this first appeared it was slated by the critics and would probably be so by many today, but given its faults it isn't hard to read and is very interesting. Melville needed to make money and so thought about writing a sentimental novel, a genre that had been very popular with the public since the 18th century. Melville soon realised however that he just couldn't produce something that was going to be popular, what he liked and excelled at writing wasn't what the public was clamouring for and so this book is a bit of a hodge podge. Indeed by the time I was on the second page I thought birds were going to sing and everyone was going to burst into song. Even that early in the book Melville has already started to parody, and this is really a satire on the whole genre, rather like Austen's satire Northanger Abbey (Wordsworth Classics). Running deeply throughout this book is the theme of incest, although there is no actual indication either explicitly or between the lines that this ever actually happens with any of the characters.

The main story is that Pierre is set to marry Lucy but then a girl claims that she is his half sister.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 23 reviews
61 of 67 people found the following review helpful
Bad, Bizarre and Brilliant 17 Feb. 2000
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Pierre is perhaps the strangest novel of all time: bizarre, to say the least, but brilliant in its extravagence. At a minimum, it is one of Melville's central novels that deconstructs the entire myth of pre-war American society in its explorations of incest, patricide and psychosis. It is almost inconceivable that Melivlle really believed that it would be popular (which he did), for it shows the impossibility of writing as an American author, the impossibility of originality, and the impossibility of self-reliance. Beware: it is not for the faint of heart. It is demanding, relentlessly challenging, and very rewarding.
53 of 61 people found the following review helpful
Memorable and Disturbing 5 April 2000
By Padma Thornlyre - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
It's been since grad school, in the early 80s, that I last read Melville's "Pierre", yet it's stuck to my ribs ever since. I recall a quote from Freud, that he ventured nowhere that a poet hadn't preceeded him, and I have to wonder if he had this unfortunately obscure masterpiece in mind. For Melville examines themes of psychology and sexuality as no other writer before him...excepting perhaps the Pagan mystics of old Europe. "Pierre" brilliantly illuminates the darknesses of the human psyche, those tunnels and strange rooms few of us ever explore, lest we be artists and therefore honest and courageous enough to sacrifice our egos. Melville considered "Pierre" his most important work, a suitable novel to follow "Moby Dick" (justifiably considered by many THE great American novel). Yet I find "Pierre" more moving, because more tragic, than "Moby Dick"--Ahab is obsessed and while his obsessions mixed with his intelligence make him complex, he is clearly one-dimensional in his drive. Pierre, however, is drawn by instincts which defy his conscious realization, by desires which emanate from the dark belly of humanity and therefore can't be seen. Ahab wants revenge; Pierre wants fulfillment. For a landlocked person such as myself, "Pierre" is also an easier read: no boggling display of nautical terminology to refer to on every page. Yeah, Freud was right: he owed a great deal to the poets...and while, technically, Melville was more storyteller or novelist than poet, here is a poetry there that's unmistakeable. Embrace this book, and embrace the spirit of the great man who possessed the courage to write it.
27 of 32 people found the following review helpful
American Heartbreak 10 Oct. 2002
By Arch Llewellyn - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Pierre has all the markings of an awful book--flat characters, overblown writing, shameless melodrama. So why is it such a masterpiece? Melville seems to have put all of himself into this work--his despair, his religious doubts, his understanding of human psychology--with an intensity that makes the usual standards of plot, style and character obsolete. The analysis of Pierre's mother as she turns on her husband/son and Melville's agonizing descriptions of the writing process were two of the book's highlights for me. The Beats loved Pierre--maybe they saw a model for their own art, where elegance takes a back seat to energy. The novel was a critical disaster at the time, but look where it ranks on amazon 150 years later. I hope Melville's somewhere watching.
19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
"Pierre " is more than a masterpiece. 25 Feb. 1999
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
"Pierre," (written shortly after "Moby Dick") is called "The Book that ruined Melville." In fact, he never wrote another novel after "Pierre," but spent his last 40 years either unemployed or working as a customs official. But by the end of the 20th century a new generation of readers and critics had rediscovered him, and today his reputation is at the front rank of American authors. "Pierre" is a superbly controlled exploration of the deepest psychological motivations which underlie all human beha vior. If it is ambiguous, it is meant to be so, not in the sense of vagueness, but in the sense of many meanings. Melville, like Thomas Hardy is a master at depicting country life. And the conflicts in the novel are very much tied to country versus city living. The novel is Freudian, in its questing after the deepest reasons for human behaviors. Like most of us at some point in life, Pierre sees the father he had idolized as human and capable of error. His own values are put into question by the receipt of a note from his long-lost sister. Melville points out that we all walk "on a razor's edge of security.....that what we take to be our strongest tower of delight, only stands at the caprice of the minutest event-the fallling of a leaf, the hearing of a voice, or the receipt of one little bit of paper scratched over with a few small characters by a sharpened feather." Melville does not spare Pierre from disillusion but continues to open him up0 with an "electrical insight" into the character of his mother. He sees how she has been molded by the culture and how her love for him is not unconditional, but based upon his outward beauty and docile behavior. Melville deals with nature versus nurture as he contrasts the honesty of natural growing things with the subtlety of cultural influences. The author is at his best with descriptions like this: "The sounds seemed waltzing in the room; the sounds hung pendulous like glittering icicles from the corners of the room; and fell upon him with a ringing silveryness; and were drawn up again to the ceiling, and hung pendulous again, and dropt down upon him again with the ringing silveryness. Fireflies seemed buzzing in the sounds, summer-lightnings seemed vividly yet softly audible in the sounds. And still the wild girl played on the guitar; and her long dark shower of curls fell over it and vailed it; and still, out from the vail came the swarming sweetness, and the utter unintelligibleness, but the infinite significancies of the sounds of the guitar. The novel ends with a "Romeo and Juliet " death scene worthy of the original..."And from the fingers of Isabel dropped an empty vial-as it had been a run-out sand glass-and shivered upon the floor; and her whole form sloped sideways, and she fell upon Pierre's heart, and her long hair ran over him, and arbored him in ebon vines." The black hair of Isabel which enchanted Pierre at the beginning of the novel, covers his dead body at the end of the story. The ambiguities which began the narrative are unresolved at the end. All of us have many contradictions in our lives and most of us will not solve them. Like the genius that he was, Melville knows this. He digs deeply into the soul of Pierre trying to unravel the threads of his existence. We learn much about Pierre , and ourselves, and how we are the cause of what sometimes is our own destruction. We also learn about fate and the little that we can do to change our destinies. We learn about choices, and how the slightest incident can twist our parths toward other directions. Like Moby Dick, Pierre is Melville, calling out to us to read him. Like "Moby Dick" "Pierre" has been unread for generations. Perhaps this generation will embrace him and have the enriching experience only Melville can give.
23 of 28 people found the following review helpful
Adultery, incest, madness, murder, and suicide--all in "a narrative nervous breakdown" 30 April 2006
By D. Cloyce Smith - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
"Pierre" is perhaps Melville's most difficult and challenging novel--and that's saying something. Despairing over his inability to support his family, Melville began writing a book designed to be popular--a counterpoint to the sensational novels written and read by contemporary women, using inspiration from French romances and even from Hawthorne's novels. Wavering between psychological melodrama and social satire, Melville ultimately increased the book's length by half again, incorporating his rage against the literary world by adding a subplot about a young man's desperate struggle to become a writer.

The stumbling points for most readers are the novel's opaque prose, the "thees and thous" of its antiquated dialogue, and the labyrinthine hodgepodge of a plot. But the density is broken by colloquial asides, sparkling sarcasm, and an occasional passage that approaches Dickensian mirth, such as Melville's description of the "Preposterous Mrs. Tartan!" and her undercover attempts to play matchmaker between Pierre and her daughter: "Once, and only once, had a dim suspicion passed through Pierre's mind, that Mrs. Tartan was a lady thimble-rigger, and slyly rolled the pea."

Behind the mask of the prose, however, is a modernist--even scandalous--story of a young, somewhat deluded man whose nihilistic descent leads to his destruction. Engaged to Lucy Tartan, Pierre adores his mother (their make-believe brother-sister relationship is almost creepy in its amorous undertones) and worships the memory of his long-dead father. This idyllic world is shattered by a missive from a woman, Isabel, who claims to be his half-sister--a claim supported by a more-than-passing resemblance to a portrait of his father. Complicating matters are his romantic feelings for this alleged half-sister.

Convincing himself that he is choosing honor over duty, he breaks off his engagement and flees to Manhattan with Isabel, taking along a local woman who had been disgraced by an out-of-wedlock tryst. Disowned by his mother and cut off from his family fortune, Pierre finds shelter for this odd trio among bohemian neighbors in a dilapidated part of town. His finances slowly evaporating, Pierre struggles to support them by writing a novel. And then, just when the plot can barely handle another twist, his estranged fiancee Lucy shows up at their doorstep.

To go any further would spoil the fun for the reader. Yet even such a basic plot summary omits some memorable and extraordinary scenes and sketches: his first meeting with Isabel, the near-riot that greets them during their first night in Manhattan, the eccentric philosopher who refuses to put his scholarly brilliance into written form.

Adultery, incest, madness, murder, and suicide--all the ingredients of a bleak nineteenth-century melodrama are wrapped in archaic language and modern themes. In her life of Melville, Robertson-Lorant calls "Pierre" "a narrative nervous breakdown" that is a "minefield" for biographers. It's also a goldmine; in no other work does Melville more clearly ridicule his critics, his friends and family, and even himself. The weird universe of "Pierre" is not the place to start if you've never read Melville, but it's certainly where you should go if you want better to understand his life and works.
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