Pierre Review – Marika O’Hara

For some people, Herman Melville’s Pierre; or the Ambiguities may be the perfect book. These people would have to be those will an abundance of  time of their hands and absolutely nothing better to do.

Pierre, which was Melville’s follow-up to the poorly received Moby Dick, is roughly 450 pages in some editions, which doesn’t seem like that many compared to some other popular books.  It is shorter than the last four Harry Potter books,  and about the same length as each of the three Lord of the Rings books. The problem with Pierre, however, is not just the length. The problem is that not much happens in these 400-some pages. There is an incredible about of exposition before the novel’s first interesting plot – when Pierre learns of the existence of his half-sister Isabel. Even after this dramatic reveal, there are chapters and chapters in which Pierre does nothing but think, debating what to do about Isabel and his mother’s certain disapproval.

In Melville’s defense, however, a little research shows that he did not intend Pierre to be a plot driven novel. His intention in writing a novel that is a psychological study on a particular character is noble enough, the problem is that Pierre is just… kind of weird. Having repressed sexual feelings for the recently discovered illegitimate daughter of your deceased father is not a growing pain that many people can relate to, whether it be in 2019 or 1852. Despite that the fact that novel spends most over its pages examining Pierre’s psyche, readers are left with no clear psychological explanation for the novel’s abrupt ending, which clouds the novel’s true genre and purpose.

While Pierre; or, The Ambiguities is certainly an odd and not particularly effective novel, the fact that it was not well-received at the time, neither critically or commercially, shows that not much as changed in all these years about the American public’s taste in literature in terms of length, pacing, and content.