Without the question mark, that title headlined a newspaper article shortly after the publication of Pierre, Melville’s 1852 follow-up to Moby-Dick. Can it be that bad? We’ve dealt with messiness before, and certainly there’s plenty of insanity in Moby-Dick, but I have to agree that Pierre kicks things up a notch.
The title character, Pierre Glendinning, is a grand and magnanimous young man, a member of young America’s landed aristocracy in upstate New York, who right from the start exhibits a bizarre relationship with his mother. Pierre calls the still-attractive widow “sister Mary,” and she returns with “brother Pierre,” making sure “never to appear in the presence of her son in any dishabille that was not eminently becoming” and having him help tie ribbons around her neck, sealed with a kiss. The confusing intimacy of family relations is continued in Pierre’s reflections on his wishes for a real sister, whose affections would be similar to those of a wife.
Then, Pierre does find a real sister—half sister—maybe. He wants desperately to acknowledge her but knows his mother would never welcome the dark and mysterious Isabel into her home, never admit the possibility of Pierre’s father’s indiscretion. Pierre’s attempt to solve the dilemma of helping Isabel and not hurting his mother is insane; he throws aside his fiancée, the sweet, fair, angelic (and mother-approved) Lucy, and pretends to have secretly married Isabel, making her a Glendinning without marring his father’s memory. Mrs. Glendinning’s response is hardly unpredictable: furious, she disowns Pierre and eventually dies, seemingly of pure enraged pride.
In case that wasn’t enough, the spurned Lucy decides, after a period of pining, to go and live with Pierre and Isabel, pretending to be Pierre’s cousin.
A bit of a departure from harpooning whales and befriending cannibals. So what sort of animal is Pierre? You’ll note that it is Melville’s only book-length work to take place entirely on land, and even it can’t quite resist the ocean by the very end. There is evidence Melville may have meant the novel as a bit of rural romance. Much of the novel occurs within private homes, giving it certain elements of the domestic fiction popular at the time.
But Melville couldn’t write a popular romance; he had to write exactly as he pleased, and that meant a flight into the Gothic. Pierre is full of mystery and gloom, with a full-blown Romantic hero going mad. It’s also a step beyond the style of Moby-Dick, stuffed with high-flown prose and dialogue stylized beyond any pretense at realism. Here is a short speech from Pierre to Isabel, at least as Shakespearian as anything heard from Ahab:
“Call me brother no more! How knowest thou I am thy brother? Did thy mother tell thee? Did my father say so to me?—I am Pierre, and thou Isabel, wide brother and sister in the common humanity,—no more. For the rest, let the gods look after their own combustibles. If they have put powder-casks in me—let them look to it! let them look to it! Ah! now I catch glimpses, and seem to half-see, somehow, that the uttermost ideal of moral perfection in man is wide of the mark. The demigods trample on trash, and Virtue and Vice are trash! Isabel, I will write such things—I will gospelize the world anew, and show them deeper secrets than the Apocalypse!—I will write it, I will write it!”
This isn’t exactly representative, since Pierre isn’t this mad throughout the whole novel. But it’s not too far off, either. While I certainly enjoyed it, and beyond “mere” Appreciationism, and will be writing about it for the rest of the week, no, this is not a novel most people should read.