'Ambiguities indeed! One long brain-muddling, soul-bewildering ambiguity (to borrow Mr. Melville's style), like Melchisedeck, without beginning or end-a labyrinth without a clue - an Irish bog without so much as a Jack o'the'lantern to guide the wanderer's footsteps - the dream of a distempered stomach, disordered by a hasty supper on half-cooked pork chops." So judged the New York Herald when Pierre was first published in 1852, with most contemporary reviewers joining in the general condemnation: 'a dead failure,' 'this crazy rigmarole,' and "a literary mare's nest." Latter-day critics have recognized in the story of Melville's idealistic young hero a corrosive satire of the
It's about a young, ever-so-slightly-bladish American aristocrat named Pierre Glendinning, whose life is but a dream, rapidly turning nightmarish after he meets his illegitimate sister (dark-complexioned) and leaves his WASPy fiancee (fair, naturally) and goes away to live with the sister and a disgraced village girl in an existence too squalid to ever become bohemian, with much talk about familial duty in the face of cruel and hypocritical social mores, an imperfectly sublimated sexual undercurrent (which Melville has great fun with, talking about how different this all would have been if the sister hadn't been hot), and, eventually, the arrival of the fiancee too. And of course it all ends in tears, and Melville's polemic against the emptiness of conventional religious belief and harmfulness of contemporary religious values is undermined by the telescoped timeframe on which everybody works themselves up to fever pitch (lots of dropping dead of sheer despair in this). And there's the usual metaphysical dithering, made worse somehow when taken out of the open air of the Pequod and sealed up in a boarding-house. By the end, though,Melville has loosened up a lot and some of his sardonic quips are genuinely funny in an off-the-cuff way, refreshing after the foregoing ponderosity: the thing about "two ceaseless steeds for a man to ride" (you laugh mockingly, merrily, but without the condescension that comes through in so many of Melville's prior japes at Pierre's expense); the leering sailor (a rare example of Melville's nautical Tourette's coming off successfully in non-nautical context).
A partial success, wheat amongst chaff.
Pierre, the protagonist, makes very ludicrous decisions and arrives at extremely ridiculous conclusions. This makes any type of empathy for Pierre nearly impossible. I know that Melville may have been poking fun at the ridiculous scenarios of other melodramas, but goes WAY too far.
The dialogue is atrocious. The best way I know how to describe the dialogue is to use a comparison with which not everyone will be familiar. But it is the best I've got. You know the dialogue in the Star Wars Prequels? Compared with the dialogue in Pierre, that dialogue is sheer genius.
Enough of the negatives, now I shall mention some positive aspects.
Melville does give some very insightful thoughts at various points. Some of the streams of consciousness become very philosophical. Those parts I rather enjoyed.
When the characters are simply described by their actions without directly speaking to one another (i.e. when there is no dialogue), it is possible to get a bit absorbed into the story.
The ending is quite unpredictable. Although Melville does end it in a bit of a deus ex machina fashion, it does come as a bit of a shock. Furthermore, after reading the final sentence, I did have to take pause for a bit to reflect on everything. This is something that does not happen when I read a book that is completely superficial. So the book must've contained some depth.
The story is a bit strange, but what is there under the sun that we think we have never heard of yet, that can exist somewhere, somehow, in someone's imigination, or in reality, or both. (Both are really the same thing after all, reality and imagination, that is.)