“Pierre; or; The Ambiguities” by Herman Melville

Books 1-5

The story told by Herman Melville in his book titled Pierre; or; The Ambiguities that was first published in the middle of the nineteenth century attracts the attention of the readers to a network of conflicts and troubled relationships between the protagonist and other characters. At the beginning of the first book, the author introduces the protagonist of the story called Pierre, a young starry-eyed idealist who is tranquility walking in one beautiful morning in summer. As is clear from the chapter, Pierre already has a person who is ready to accept his ideas and support him – his fiancé named Lucy. The sweet talks between Lucy and Pierre show the readers that nothing human is alien for that young man whose willingness to live based on higher principles will destroy his life.

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Having created this romantic picture, the author switches his attention to bare facts showing the story of the life of the protagonist. Thus, he turns out to be an heir to the estate whose mother is a widow. The latter, as is clear from the book, remains one of the most important people in his life even though her domineering character acts as one of the sources of conflict that define the further development of the story. Describing the appearance and specific features of Pierre’s mother that make her different from others, the author reveals an implicit conflict between Pierre and Mrs. Glendinning based on the jealousy of the former; even though his mother still “eclipsed far younger charms”, the protagonist does not admit an assumption that his mother will ever be with another man (Melville et al. 4). Considering the passionate and sensitive character of the protagonist, Pierre’s jealousy and ill-preparedness for possible changes in his mother’s life result in his anger towards anyone who would dare to ask for his mother’s hand in marriage. Even though any author should be good at expressing feelings, Melville seems to run into difficulties when it is necessary to describe the basic feeling that is responsible for the survival of humanity – pure, unconditional love between a mother and her child. To express his vision in the best way, the author uses a lot of metaphors and comparisons while describing their relationship; thus, he compares their story to the river that suddenly divides into two unmixing streams.

Another conflict touched upon in the first part of the novel is related to the underlying motives that encouraged Pierre to enter into a romantic relationship with Lucy Tartan. In general, those are presented by his mother’s willingness to support them and his dispassionate and calm love for Lucy. In the discussed part of the novel, this relationship is destined to be broken due to the intervention of another girl, Isabel Banford. Pierre received a letter from Isabel where she tells that his deceased father did not have only one child. Another child, the letter claims, is she, Isabel. The news presented the cause of another internal conflict for Pierre because his opinion on plans becomes too unclear. On the one hand, he cannot predict the reaction of his mother and has certain doubts concerning the truthfulness of the letter that he has received.

On the other hand, the confession of Isabel touches upon his boldest dreams. In the first chapters, the author reveals that Pierre always wanted to have a sister, to take care of someone who would be weak and sincere. In such a manner, the uncovered truth became a kind of a new breath of fresh air for Pierre; therefore, he was ready to meet Isabel. Speaking about the impact that the news had on him, it is necessary to highlight that the appearance of the half-sister served as the factor that encouraged him to reconsider his entire life. He was trying to keep in mind every single detail of the history of Glennindings and his mind was floating away from his current life again and again in its attempts to incorporate the knowledge about his half-sister into his new world landscape. During these moments, Pierre often thinks about his aunt, cousin, the mysterious portrait from the manor, and childhood memories. If we could divide all literary writings into two large groups based on the degree to which the key characters are active in the material, external world, Pierre; or; The Ambiguities would rank among the books in which every single action of change is shown as it is seen through the prism of the protagonists’ ideals. To some extent, the reader is provided with an opportunity to keep track of changes that encourage Pierre to withdraw from his calm life to follow his aspirations and ideals.

After the confession of Isabel, Pierre spends a lot of hours thinking about his further life and the most appropriate decision that he can make considering the truth that has revealed. Before the face-to-face meeting with Isabel, Pierre focuses on the most important question that exists for him, focusing on the action that he must take in this situation. Thinking about the situation, he pays increased attention to the image of his mother, seeing her not only as a guardian angel who is ready to protect him but also as a counselor whose lessons could always put him on the right track. As is clear from the experience of Pierre, almost everything can change very fast, but there are things in this uncertainty that tend to remain the same. One of such things was his mother’s strong character and reluctance to reconcile the reality contradicting her expectations. Therefore, Pierre was sure that she would never accept another child of her deceased husband. Understanding that their relationships will be broken, Pierre was trying to prepare a kind of speech aimed at uniting their family with its new member. “God hath given me a sister, and unto thee a daughter,” – he tried to imagine the scene of the happy reunion, but in fact, Pierre and his newfound sister and fair one were destined to become exiles from the paternal roof (Melville et al. 89).

Having left Lucy who notices his strange behavior, Pierre writes to her a letter in which he tries to soothe her and encourages her to live her own life and wait for him to appear again. The next morning, he is having breakfast with his mother, and the latter, noticing that something is wrong, tries to get to the bottom of the problem. The heart of a mother cannot be deceived, and Mrs. Glenninding already knows that something unusual has happened to her son. She says that “it is not Lucy” but Pierre manages to invent an excuse and keep the letter from Isabel a secret (Melville et al. 95).

Books 6-11

When it comes to the next part of the novel, the narration continues at the manor where Pierre stays. Despite his nervousness and uneasiness that accompany him due to the letter that he received, Pierre understands that he needs to meet his half-sister to bring back something that was lost. About the brightest characteristics of the novel, it can be said that the author tends to create a different stream of time in various parts of the novel. Thus, when Pierre’s reflections are described, time seems to extend as the protagonist manages to think about a thousand things and imagines a thousand scenes during a short period. I suppose that this intenseness remains one of the features that any successful author should possess, and it helps Melville to show Pierre as a talented young man who is capable of becoming a writer. Waiting for the appointed time to come, Pierre tries to stay calm and lets his imagination create any scenes to fill in time and be ready to meet Isabel.

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Getting ready for the meeting, he already understands what will follow it; his far-sightedness tells him that his steps “are taking him forever from the mansion” and, therefore, from wealthy life (Melville et al. 111). Despite that, his intuition tells him to go to meet his sister. Standing before the door of the house where the meeting is appointed, he still thinks about the appropriateness of his decision when the appearance of Isabel suddenly interrupts his thoughts. Pierre notices the look of loneliness in her eyes and realizes that he is attracted to her. The nature of this attraction remains unknown, be it fraternal affection or even sexual attraction. Staring at her, Pierre has no more doubts that she is his sister as her face reminds him of the portrait of his father even though she looks feminine.

The first shock of the encounter disappears, and they are ready to lock each other in arms. During further dialogues, they appear to be ready to disclose their thoughts and dreams to each other. Isabel tells her newfound brother that she is a full orphan and reflects on the history of the house where they have met. From her monologue, it becomes clear to Pierre that she had a difficult life and her loneliness changed her. Isabel tells him about an old couple who were living in the house, about their strange attitude to her. She acknowledges that she will never recover from the effects of her “strange early life” and Pierre appears to have mixed feelings; he has a fellow feeling for Isabel because of her sufferings, but it also seems to him that her life is going to improve because he is here to protect her (Melville et al. 117).

Seeing her as an unearthly creature, Pierre continues listening to her stories and memories. Isabel tells him about many places where she used to live, many deaths she has seen being a child, and Pierre understands that her soul will always be hurt. The house where she lived being a child had a lasting impression on her as she used to see people with mental problems every day. Due to her story, Pierre understands that his sister has always lived in uncertainty and the necessity to move from one place to another even enhanced her grief. That time, she tells, she used to compare her life to the lives of other people who had full families and were not deprived of parental love. To provide an example, Isabel tells Pierre about another house where she used to live; there was a child with his mother who was happy just because he had an opportunity to lie in his mother’s breast.

Her long monologue continues when she starts telling Pierre about her living on a farm at the age of ten. Isabel seems to remember that period of her life with sadness because the farmer’s wife who carried her away from the previous house was very kind to her and taught her to work with wool and spin it. Isabel was working hard and she never tried to ask the farmer, his wife, or their children about her life in the past and the reason why they took her to their house. Isabel was lost just because she knew almost nothing about her origin, her past, her future, and her goals in life. Even though the family was not treating her as if she was the farmer’s daughter, she wanted to see her mother in his wife.

When she was still living with the farmer’s family, Isabel was happy to see her real father who used to visit her almost every month. One day, she was waiting for him to come again, but he seems to have disappeared. The farmer’s family informed the weeping child that her father was dead. These events had a strong impact on Isabel as she lost the only relative. When he was alive, Isabel’s father was giving money to the farmer’s family to let her stay at the house. There was no more money and the girl had to move to another house to work there. When it comes to her new duties, Isabel was supposed to milk cows, make butter, work with wool, and sew. Her life was full of grief and hard work and Isabel did her best to find a way to get distracted from problems. Therefore, she started playing the guitar.

Pierre is listening to her story and he understands that he is more and more attracted to her. Having stopped her monologue, Isabel tells him that she wants to play the guitar for him and they spend a few more hours together. After that, Pierre tells her that he loves her and departs. The beginning of the seventh book is devoted to Pierre’s thoughts concerning the first face-to-face meeting with his half-sister. Trying to remember the brightest moments of their encounter, Pierre recognizes that everything about his half-sister “bewitched and enchanted him” (Melville et al. 128). Pierre returns to the mansion at night and tries to sleep at least a few hours.

He wakes up very early in the morning and being alone becomes his only aim. After the encounter, Pierre experiences mixed feelings again. On the one hand, he seems to be extremely happy because he is not the only child of his deceased father and he now has a person who needs his love and support. On the other hand, it is rather difficult to call Pierre an egoist who does not think about other people’s feelings and leaves others easily. The burden of choice is envenoming his life; even though it is clear that Isabel is his sister, she also seems to attract him as a woman and this thought makes it even more difficult to choose only one girl, Lucy or Isabel. Finally, the attraction to Isabel and his willingness to redress an injustice make him want to marry her, and he informs Lucy and his mother about this decision.

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Books 12-20

Having informed Mrs. Glenninding and Lucy about his relationships with another girl, Pierre meets Isabel again. His newfound half-sister looks anxious because of everything that has happened. Mrs. Glenninding does not want to see her son anymore because of his mistakes and headstrongness. Pierre seems to have lost everything because Isabel has appeared in his life. Understanding that this girl is so attractive that Pierre has forgotten about his pure love for Lucy Tartan, his mother calls Isabel a witch. Pierre and Isabel have a conversation and the latter seems to think that everything that has happened is her fault. She fears that Mrs. Glenninding knows a secret concerning her origin, but Pierre sets her mind at rest and ensures that nobody knows about that. Describing their conversations, the author creates certain ambiguity because their behavior does not look like a typical interaction between a brother and a sister; there is a kind of a deeper feeling that Pierre tries to hide, a feeling which is also based on physical attraction. There is the author states, the “inexpressible strangeness of an intense love” that encourages the characters to reconsider everything that has happened to them before their first meeting (Melville et al. 192).

Meanwhile, Mrs. Glenninding is trying to recover from shock caused by the news, and her anger has no limits just like her love for Pierre. Feeling helpless, she is repeating that she would prefer to “tear her name off from her and burn it” to avoid this shame (Melville et al. 193). Despite that, it is clear that she still hopes that Pierre can go back and change his decision due to his disappointment in love and broken hopes. Mrs. Glenninding seems to be furious when talking to her domestic servants and telling them the news about a piece of impertinence demonstrated by her son. Pierre’s mother is so angry that she wants her domestic servants to “tumble his things out of the window” (Melville et al. 195).

Understanding the reaction of his mother who will not let him be with Isabel, Pierre thinks that the only way for them to start with a clean slate would be to depart from the Saddle Meadows to live in New York City. At the same time, he thinks that he would be able to fulfill one of his dreams and become a famous writer. Pierre arrives at the house where Isabel lives to meet her and check if she is ready to depart for New York City. Isabel informs her brother that nothing is left and they try to find the third person who is going to move to another city with them – Delly.

The fourteenth book is devoted to the journey that was expected to change their lives completely. During the journey, Pierre tries to resolve another internal conflict that does not let him get distracted and think about something more positive. Keeping in mind his reckless actions that tore Lucy and Mrs. Glenninding apart, he seems to be in two minds about the reasonableness of such behavior. Therefore, Pierre is shown as a young man who is always sincere and ready to do anything to fulfill the needs of his heart. To some extent, it may seem to be a positive feature preventing a person from lying to others; nevertheless, as the story of Pierre shows, his sincerity and readiness to do anything to follow his principles blindly cost him, dear.

During their boring trip, Pierre finds an interesting document by Plotinus, a philosopher. The document presents one fragment of the philosopher’s work telling about the types of virtue, the distinction that exists between heavenly and earthly things. Pierre gradually becomes obsessed with the insightful remarks included by the author, but he suddenly discovers that the document is torn. The decision of the author to introduce this document into the plot can be seen as a key that is supposed to help Pierre to deal with his internal conflicts – understanding the difference between relative and absolute virtues, he can learn more about the nature of things that he considers to be the ultimate good.

Having arrived in New York City, Pierre realizes that his new life is full of new responsibilities as he has to take care of Isabel and Delly and protect them is necessary. Despite the seeming uncertainty that is strictly interconnected with the most recent changes in his life, Pierre still looks like a young man full of enthusiasm and joy. To get established in a new home, Pierre wants to visit his cousin Glen who is a full orphan just like Isabel. Therefore, Pierre hopes that his cousin who is two years his senior will be glad to help him and his friends because they used to be good friends in their childhood. Thus, Pierre, Isabel, and Delly arrive at the house where his cousin Glen lives. Unfortunately, they notice that nobody is happy because of their arrival. Pierre asks one of the domestic servants of cousin Glen to inform him that they have arrived, but the servant refuses to do that on the premise that he should not disturb Mr. Stanly. Eventually, he sees Glen who does not seem to be happy to meet his cousin. “I do not know this man; it’s a mistake,” he says and asks his servants to take Pierre and the two girls out (Melville et al. 239).

Glen Stanley knows everything about the strange behavior of Pierre and he does not want to see him. Therefore, Pierre and the two girls have to find another way to get established in a new city. They manage to find rooms in the Church of Apostles that serves as a shelter for many people whose life is strictly interconnected with art. Living there, Pierre, Delly, and Isabel meet a lot of people whose views of life are rather strange. Adherents of different philosophical theories, writers, and artists live in the church. Due to the lack of money and the impression that other inhabitants of the church had on him, Pierre decides to create his literary work, hoping to mark a place for himself in the history books. As is clear from the book, it is not the first attempt of Pierre at writing; therefore, he feels rather confident during the work. As for the latter, he tries hard to apply the best ideas he has to create something that would be worth reading.

Books 21-26

The narration continues when Pierre is still writing his book. Creating the first “mature work”, he often remembers about his life in the manor, his mother, and Lucy Tartan (Melville et al. 282). Searching for the source of inspiration, the protagonist tries to take into account his previous experience as a writer and does his best to avoid repeating old mistakes. The beginning of the discussed part of the book does not contain any dialogues as the protagonist who needs to earn money tries to focus his attention on the power of thought and the world of ideas created by the greatest thinkers of all time. Thinking about the ideas expressed by Plato and other philosophers, Pierre acknowledges that the greatness of their transcendental thought is relative and he can approach this state of mind, too. These distracting tangents interfere with his mature work; at the same time, the protagonist is shown as a person who understands the nature of writing. To him, the process of creation of literary works seems to be an artistic presentation of “invisible and eternally unembodied images in the soul” (Melville et al. 284).

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Being isolated from the entire world, Pierre continues working on his book when his life undergoes a 180-degree turn. Suddenly, he learns that everything has changed in the manor where he used to live. Mr. Glendinning is dead and she has managed to keep her promise to strike Pierre out of her life – Glen Stanly, Pierre’s cousin who does not want to know him anymore, becomes a new heir to everything that their family owns. In the end, the protagonist gets to know that Lucy Tartan is not alone anymore as Glen Stanly wants to marry her.

Due to his departure from the manor, Pierre is not considered as a part of the family anymore, and his willingness to know everything about the things that have happened to his mother is ignored. Thus, he laments that “no letter had come to him; no smallest ring or memorial been sent him; no slightest mention made of him in the will” (Melville et al. 285). Pierre learns about the disease and the death of his mother almost a month after her last gasp. People are extremely different when it comes to the necessity to forgive others; there are people whose love and kind-heartedness do not let them be miffed at others for a long time. About Mrs. Glenninding, she is a person whose fidelity to principles has power over her will. The sad news encourages him to make a journey into the past and it happens to anyone who has just lost a closed one. In real life, a person in grief has a strong need to keep in mind all the details concerning the deceased person. Therefore, Pierre spends a lot of time thinking about his mother, the old joyous life that they had. Even though the final decision of his mother may seem to be shocking, Pierre is not surprised by her willingness to leave a legacy to Glen Stanley as she always saw him as a worthy representative of their family.

Pierre’s dreams about his professional success are not destined to come true. He, who is referred to as “the most divine, freshest form of a man” can seem to be a person who can solve the riddles of the universe. Despite that, Pierre belongs to the number of people whose sensibility encourages dark views of life and the future. Therefore, he turns out to be unable to meet the requirements of the audience that seeks something more positive and life-affirming.

Lucy’s melancholy urges her to write a letter to Pierre in which she asks for permission to live with them. Waiting for Lucy to come, the girls prepare a cozy room for her. It is rather difficult for them to live together as Lucy still misses the time when she was with Pierre. Isabel and Pierre do not disclose their secret and everybody seems to mind their work. Thus, Pierre continues his attempts at writing whereas Lucy practices new crayon drawing techniques to improve her skills. Lucy is willing to make her contribution to ensure that Pierre lives a happy life and has enough money. To do that, she is planning to sell portraits. In this part of the novel, the author also shows numerous difficulties associated with the domestic partnership of people who used to be a couple. Seeing Lucy’s kindness to Pierre and her sincere and pure love that still exists, Isabel thinks a lot about her human worth and unselfishness. Saying that Lucy’s “great sweetness” reminds her of her stupidity, Isabel tends to underestimate her love for Pierre (Melville et al. 333). This unobvious competition with Lucy encourages her to weigh any options that can help her to earn money for Pierre. To express her readiness to do anything for Pierre, she uses a kind of exaggeration when promising to sell her hair.

There is a chapter of accidents that makes Pierre commit a crime and try to kill his cousin Glen. First, his publishers inform him that he is unable to meet the expectations of the audience due to his misanthropy and negativistic attitudes to life. His mental instability becomes even stronger considering that he sees potential threats everywhere. Pierre realizes that there is nothing that he knows for sure; the proximity of blood with Isabel also looks like a rumor. After the incident, Pierre is taken to prison and Lucy and Isabel are allowed to visit him. Feeling helpless, Isabel seems to forget about their secret and starts blaming herself for everything that has happened. “Not thou art the murderer, but thy sister hath murdered thee, my brother,” she says and Lucy falls dead (Melville et al. 360). This event is followed by two more deaths as Pierre and Isabel manage to take poison in the cell. The story ends on a sour note and leaves the reader alone with great disappointment due to a real tragedy that could be prevented. To some extent, the events at the end of the last chapter are unexpected. Despite that, I like the novel as it provides the audience with an opportunity to make their conclusions and define the key factor that is responsible for those deaths.

Work Cited

Melville, Herman, et al. Pierre; or; The Ambiguities. Northwestern University Press, 1971.

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StudyCorgi. (2021, February 16). "Pierre; or; The Ambiguities" by Herman Melville. Retrieved from https://studycorgi.com/pierre-or-the-ambiguities-by-herman-melville/

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