Melville – Literary Genius or Failed Author

Review: Pierre, or the Ambiguities by Herman Melville

In short, if you want to be taken on a literary adventure for its references rather than its tale or themes, give this book a shot. If not, I would consider skipping on this torturous narrative. To give the novel some credit, the way Melville writes the chronicle allows it to be at times enjoyable, if you read just for the sake of reading some descriptive imagery and the mentions of famous literary works and art.  As a reader that cherishes the analysis of the “so what?” question following the end of a good read, Pierre leaves you too tired to even ask.

Pierre plays with the concept of time in a way that is no longer enjoyable for the reader, drawing out single, irrelevant moments of time and jumping into unnecessary background context for a whole book. One theme that I can show some appreciation for is difficult communication. It is evident how difficult it is for the narrative to communicate with us, the readers, even some of the most simple plot developments. There are tons of ambiguities, and maybe this was Melville’s intention to challenge the mode of literature. How could a novel potentially be masterful in philosophy but completely horrendous in plot? Was the way Melville pained his readers an act of art or just bad authorship? Either way, my final thoughts is that any message that Melville was trying to convey could have been done in an easier and more impactful way that wouldn’t make me question whether his ambiguities were enticing or just the outcome of bad writing.

Final Review : 3/5

Read Again? : No

Maybe There’s an Art Called Ambiguity – A Pierre Review by HH

“How’s the book you read for English?” my friend asked smilingly.

“It’s alright! It is pretty ambiguous, but it is unique.” I replied and smiled back. I wanted to say some more, but I wasn’t sure what to say. Everything I felt about Pierre suddenly felt ambiguous to me. Well, I liked it. Or do I? It wasn’t that hard to read. Or is it? So many scenes in the book rushed to my brain, and I was taken back to the very moment I began reading it.

With the excitement of reading a new book, I sat down at my desk, ready to binge-read a few books of the first nineteenth-century book I read. However, the first chapter quickly made me rethink about my plan. Lucy and Pierre’s conversation about love seemed nothing but ambiguous and abrupt. I told myself I could understand it by reading it again and I knew Pierre might be different from all the books I had read. I did not like Pierre at the beginning.

Just a superficial analysis of Pierre’s plot and writing style will show why it received an overwhelming amount of criticism. From calling his mother “sister” to marrying his unverified half-sister, Pierre’s moral is problematic. The disproportionate amount of narration on characters’ inner thoughts and philosophical debates, together with the book’s frequent references to the Bible and literature works such as Hamlet, easily confuses readers, making it difficult to appreciate every page.

In retrospect, Pierre is confusing to read, but is it actually that terrible?

To me, Pierre is unique in many ways. Unlike fictions that develop along a storyline centering on the protagonist, Pierre seems to be a “cinematic” book that imitates the style of a movie. In the first chapter, a hook of a scene expressing Lucy and Pierre’s mutual love is thrown to readers in the same way directors intrigue the audience with a clip at the beginning of movies. Then there’s a flashback to Pierre’s family background, resembling flashbacks in films. The book is divided into books, and multiple chapters comprise each book in a way like scenes in movies. The narration sometimes jumps from scene to scene, rapidly switching places and characters. For instance, in Book XVII, the first chapter is about Pierre telling Isabel his plan to depart for the city at Isabel’s place but the next chapter takes the audience to the mansion of Mrs. Glendinning. Although the narration style can leave readers confused at times, it facilitates storytelling to some extent.

Melville’s writing style does make Pierre difficult to read and comprehend, especially for foreign readers like myself. However, there are reasons to appreciate Pierre. Melville’s language is beautiful. Archaic English elements can be easily found in conversations between characters and techniques such as metaphor are used for rhetorical effects. Although Pierre is ambiguous, Melville tied the plot together with recurring elements such as Isabel’s guitar and the painting of Pierre’s father. Themes including love and morality underlie the entire book. Therefore, whether people appreciate Pierre or not, ambiguities in Pierre might be an art—they are what make it unique, just like Catcher in the Rye is distinctive due to J.D. Salinger’s colloquial and depressing writing style. Melville wrote the book in a long and ambiguous way that allowed him to include many ideas in a single book, such as criticizing the print media and expressing his feelings for the lukewarm reaction to Moby Dick.

When it comes to the art of ambiguities, ambiguity is central to making short films deep and memorable. The Eagleman Stag might be nothing more than a grey animation on first sight, but it reveals the cycle of life; Cargo might seem like a simple horror film, but it gives people insight into how time can be spent meaningfully… Admittedly, Pierre is ambiguous because it’s long rather than short. But the book’s short ending and pages of ethical debates do allow readers to think deeply.

After reading Pierre, I asked myself what rating I would give to this book that is distinct from everything I read before. It took me a while to come up with one. The difficulty of reading Pierre gave me the urge to rate it one star, the moral is two stars at best, the plot is three stars, the language is four stars, and its uniqueness as an ambiguous book maybe deserves a five star. Alright, I told myself, I would give it a three star—a perfect, truly ambiguous rating for Pierre, the first ambiguous book I read.

Pierre Review-O.B.

When I first heard that I would be reading Pierre by Melville I went to look up the author because the name sounded familiar to me. Turns out that is because Melville is the one who wrote Moby Dick. Now I know it is one of those classic novels everyone says you should read and I thought about it once before someone informed me that it was one of the worst, dragged out books they have ever read and I think it is safe to say this comment can be used for Pierre as well. Now I am not saying Pierre is a bad book because there were parts where I enjoyed reading the novel and was rather intrigued. However most of the time I was just annoyed with the expansive pages of one tiny detail that could be honestly said in a few sentences at most. I love a good cliff hanger and suspense being drawn out in a good way but this was not that kind of novel and did not need to be as long as it did.

Diving more into the story and it’s details I thought the Dialogue and the plot was rather entertaining and quite good. I mean the story has a lot of turns and twists and is shocking and dramatic and sort of connected to people and their lives. This story in its most simplest summary could be described as a boy who loses his father young and is raised by a tough mother who he has no choice but to look to for advice and guidance. He then one day falls in love with a girl his mother likes but finds a long lost sister who throws his perfect life into a whirlwind that takes him on an adventure into finding who he really is. It really is a coming of age story in the simplest sense and that part of the story is what I think makes it good and interesting to read. However these parts are separated and filled with nonsense pages that drag on about things that really do not matter and deter you from the basis of the story.

Now some people thing these long winded explanations and pages are his critique on the publishing age and that these long pages without the dialogue and story plots are his jabs at the publication of the time period and why they were awful to him and to others. My teacher also brought up the fact that this was a response to Hawthorne as well and how he was upset that they no longer wrote letters to each other and were no longer friends. But having read it on my own and looking back at these observations they could be done without the multiple books and the pages upon pages describing a rock or a pamphlet.

Maybe I am being bitter because I had to read some of these pages late at night, which when droned on could put you to sleep. Or maybe I just do not get the deeper meaning of these pages or see the real point behind them. That being said I did not hate Pierre as a story itself and if it was modified and condensed a ton I think this book would be amazing and a very interesting read. I think Melville was one of those writers who was too modern for his time which is how it goes for a lot of classic authors and their books. Though I do not appreciate his style of writing I think he was rather bold in his writing of Pierre and that he made his points and stuck to his true style of writing and who he is.

Pierre was rather difficult to handle a some points, and could make you want to throw whatever device you are reading it on across the room at times too. But ultimately I think the book achieved what Melville wanted and is actually quite entertaining when you really read the good parts. I think Pierre is not a great read but an interesting one and if you have the time and the mental capacity then should definitely be read and maybe skimmed around the long never ending sections.

#questusreviewus Pierre; or, the Ambiguities – Priyam Patel

Pierre: or, the Ambiguities is an incoherent story without a set focus.  Melville begins with a well written and eye-catching introduction that leads us into believing this novel is a romantic coming of age story.  However, despite his mastery in language, he cannot seem to stick to one story path and creates an overly complicated plot line that focuses more on the “ambiguous” descriptions of scenery and events.  Instead of focusing on the journey of Pierre and Isabel, he leads us astray with long descriptions about Pierre’s ancestors or inanimate objects around Pierre.  I admit that these descriptions are very detailed, beautiful, and have the ability to draw the reader in, but have very little to no value towards the story itself.  Melville will spend more time on these descriptions instead of putting time towards developing a plot line.  As a result, the main story itself feels rushed, confusing, and dull as the I progressed through the novel.

By the end of the novel, I was left with more questions than answers.  It made me think what could possibly be going through Melville’s mind when he wrote this book to where he could have creating such astonishingly strange characters.  The headache I was given while trying to understand the peculiar thoughts and actions of Pierre and his associates only leaves me exhausted and uninterested in Melville’s story.  Overall, I believe this novel has a good start to the story but left me unsatisfied by the end and questioning as to why Melville took the route that he took.  If you are interested in long and mostly unnecessary descriptive text with sudden twists in an adventurous and confusing storyline, than this is the book for you, otherwise, steer clear away from this disaster of a novel.

#questusreviewus Pierre; or, The Ambiguities – Lindsey Senatore

Ah, never has a book title been quite so spot on. This story was, in fact, full of ambiguities…all centered around (you guessed it) Pierre!

Now, if you have read other reviews of the story, you may realize many people had a reaction like this:

OR this:

Yeah…same here.

However, I assure you this review is going to take a little bit of a different approach than most. Yes, Herman Melville…you failed to impress us and succeeded in losing us many times. However, I think there may have been a deeper point to your story that was never brought to light.

As I read the story, I more often felt as though I was reading about someone’s real life mess than a story meant to actually interest me. I mean, there was no way he actually thought through whether his story was organized or made sense…right? Could that have actually been his goal? I hope not.

Instead, I think maybe he was trying to let the readers read this story, think about their own life issues, and think, “Well at least I’m not Pierre!” So if that’s the case, I think we should thank Melville for showing us how messy life really can be! So stop crying about your own and realize, “Hey! At least I’m not married to my sister!”

Poor Pierre. Not only was he married to his sister, but he also was having family quarrels (with his mother), and having many side distractions going on… Many have complained about Melville’s inability to stay focused on the plot by going off into these side stories. I want to propose the notion that he added these side plots to, once again, display the reality of life. Life does not have one constant, organized plot. Not by a long shot. I wish everything going on in my life was relevant to one main issue or one main story. Unfortunately, we are always going to have a million different things going on in our life, not just one. In fact, I think a lot of our lives probably look a lot like this:


Do you see a scribbled mess? Good. That’s life and that’s okay! (As long as you’re not following too much in Pierre’s footsteps)

In his story, Melville portrayed issues with love, issues with family, and even a bit of an identity crisis (specifically referring to not knowing WHO he should be in relation to his newfound sister…and then deciding becoming her husband made sense….yeah…okay Pierre).

So in an interesting way, I believe Melville was using this novel not to make sense to readers or even particularly be interesting to readers, but to SHOW readers about life, messes, and misguided decisions.

Or maybe I am completely wrong. It’s up to you to read for yourself and decide!

#questusreviewus Pierre review – Luyang Jia

Luyang rated it   

I should admit the unexpected plot did attract me and draw me to do a continuous reading from the start to the end. However, there is a big gap in legibility between the plot and philosophy. The obscure and elusive philosophy between chapters always interrupted the narrative. It echoed with the book name. Trick readers by adding unnecessary ambiguities. This reminded me of the words in Poe’s the man of the crowd. “ ‘er lasst sich nicht lesen’- it does not permit itself to be read.” The ambiguous philosophy cannot be read since it is hard to be interpreted. Readers do not know what the author really wanted to tell us from the “Greenwich time” in the pamphlet or the stone appeared frequently. I felt isolation between plot and philosophy, especially when the whole book is unreasonably split into two parts, emphasizing morality in the first one and changing its theme to publication at last.


All three stars are for the plot. After reading this story, I fell into deep consideration of Pierre’s maturity. Living in a rural meadow, inheriting wealth and pride form family, and filling with the love from mom and Lucy, Pierre is an innocent boy in the center of the Utopian World. This unique background cultivates his qualities and paves the way for every decision he makes. He is simple and innocent, so he believes all the words Isabel says without further investigation. He is kind and full of love. So, he decides to protect Isabel and gives her a legal identity. Finally, he is obsessed with family pride and afraid of his mom, so, he hesitates to disclose Isabel’s existence to the world. A fake marriage is a decision likely to be made by someone like Pierre and it is actually a clever solution I would agree. (Though there is still a debate about whether the marriage is real or not, I would prefer it to be a fake marriage at least in the beginning of the story.) But, the sudden departure and the action to conceal the truth from Lucy and his mom are unacceptable. This behavior, rather than the fake marriage, shows how immature Pierre is and leads to the final tragedy. Pierre is immature since he unwisely gives up all the things in the Utopia world and leaves the Meadow without considering the consequences or other alternative solutions. Also, he unnecessarily hurts his mom and Lucy. He is guided not by the rationality but his own mind. After realizing this, I started to consider whether Pierre is also immature in the decision of publication. Certainly, he seems to be irrational. Pierre wants to publicize a book which might ruin all the reputation he earned before. Pierre is once again guided by his heart, not by the rationality. So, is this decision immature? I am not sure. I thought Pierre knows the possible consequences this time, and he has an intense struggle before this decision. He dislikes novels in the contemporary market and the book he writes is a rebellion to the publication world. Pierre is a projection of Melville himself. Didn’t Melville know the book Pierre might not be acceptable by the public? He knew! The outcome of character Pierre’s book is the predicting result of Melville’s publication of Pierre. Melville created a situation similar to his for Pierre. The author used the character Pierre’s psychological struggle to express his concerns about the book Pierre. The decision is clear. Both Melville and Pierre chose to publicize the book even at a cost of their reputation and wealth. They want to yell out their own voice through the book. They want to rebel the contemporary publication market. They want freedom in writing. Pierre becomes mature at the end. His book is a deliberate rebellion and he is fighting for what he values most.

Pierre, An Ambiguous Review – Noah Sayre

Pierre; or, The Ambiguities is certainly not a misnomer concerning the contents of this book.  Melville clears the bar for ambiguous writing by leaps and bounds as he puts on display his commitment phobic style of writing.  Any conflict constructed within Pierre is met with endless pages of introspective debate, followed by an unsatisfying conclusion that gives an answer to none of the readers questions.  For example Pierre’s conflict with his mother was solved in four words “his mother was dead” (Book XXI, Chapter II). Rather than continuing the dialogue between Pierre and his mother after her exiling of him, she was simply killed.  Similarly, at the end of the book when the text is at a breaking point bringing up questions such as: Will Pierre choose Isabel and Lucy? Is Isabel even his sister? Or most importantly, will he reunite with his horses? In the midst of all these questions and many more Melville could not have picked a more abrupt murder-suicide ending to leave his readers wondering.  Whether it was Melville’s predilection to force his reader to fill in blanks or if he thought his reader would relish the ambiguity is likewise unclear.

I would be remiss if I did not state that there was one aspect of Pierre that was far from ambiguous.  That one aspect was the hypersexual tendencies displayed by Pierre displayed throughout the book. Even though this may not be the most inspired debate which can be brought up after a reading of Pierre, I do believe it plays into the media we consume today.  Every television show or movie we see accentuates relationship conflicts often aimed to parallel those we experience in our own lives.  Which brings into question Melville’s choice of a sexually questionable character that was dissimilar and often repelled the readers of his time.  It is possible he thought everyone was having the same issues that he was having with Hawthorne, although it still leaves several of his other deviant relationships like that with his sister or horses unexplained.

Looking back holistically this was not the worst book I have ever read.  A condensed plot with far fewer digressions and some unambiguous conclusions by Melville, I believe would actually prove to be a pretty intriguing plot to most readers today.  Melville successfully brought to light some relational conflicts like that of calling his mother “sister”, which we do not see even in our society today. In addition, the Lucy and Isabel conflict had me on pins and needles until the end when Melville ultimately disappointed me with a cop out of an ending.  I believe it was stated in class that Moby Dick has an abridged version which cuts out a lot the seemingly meaningless content.  If Pierre were to have an abridged version I would suggest it to someone, although I would be afraid it would be under 100 pages.  

How I envision a conversation with Melville today:

Me: Coke or Pepsi?

Melville: *Writes 500 pages*

                   *Kills himself*

Me: So…

Melville Got A Little Angry

Well, here’s a book I have no intention of reading anytime soon: Herman Melville’s seventh novel Pierre; Or the Ambiguities. If you enjoy adventure, action, intrigue, excitement, and fun, then this book is not for you. If you are fond of confusing philosophical musings, abstract and overly dramatic prose, a plot that is occasionally incoherent, the protestations of a frustrated man, and the possibility of incest, then this book is more up your alley.  Pierre; or the Ambiguities is a novel that pretends to be three things simultaneously: a romance, a philosophic, and a critique; but the truth is, Pierre; or the Ambiguities is just one long, complicated, and unnecessary  letter of complaint.  The protagonist — Pierre — is quite obviously Melville that at times one wants to role his or her eyes,  and the actions and conflicts that Pierre is involved in are evidently a comparison to Melville’s strife. There is even a hundred or so pages devoted to a critique on Melville’s perspective of print media at the time. Clearly, Melville had some scores to settle, but rather do so privately and personally, he just pens a wacky and perplexing novel that only further hurt himself. And while there are some positives to this novel, they are so scarce that they are not even worth mentioning. Overall, Pierre; or the Ambiguities is a novel that was written by Melville for Melville and is, in many ways, probably his favorite book — perhaps only second to Moby Dick — solely upon how he arrogantly portrays himself, I mean, Pierre. I would suggest to anyone that this book is  a waste of time, and should one wish to read it, the entirety of this novel and of Melville’s personal tribulations can be summarized in a paragraph in his biography on Wikipedia.

Melville’s Last Supper

Closing Pierre is much like that of shutting the door on your distant relatives after Thanksgiving dinner; you are somewhat physically satisfied but are also left with a sizable emotional hole, about that of a whale, in your chest. The book’s problems stem from the fact Melville wrote Pierre to be a loaded ham …on Thanksgiving… in turkey country. Pierre Glendinning was unable to sink his interests into his mother, his fiancé, and himself as soundly as we sink into mashed potatoes, but he certainly gripped hard onto his (second?) dinner roll: his (maybe) half-sister. This incestuous struggle was even more blurred by Melville’s personal tirades about his own personal woes with his bromances (Hawthorne and publishers alike) which left a rather bitter after taste like that of canned cranberry jelly. I did enjoy the tiny morsels of dialogue dropped haphazardly throughout the meal as it would lure me back in even when my mental belt was on its last loop. The enjoyment was brief as the erratic psychological and philosophical babble staled the room much like my Aunt Patrice’s fifth spritz of Chanel No. 5. While Melville’s, I mean, Pierre’s stream of consciousness was unable to discontinuously continue for as long as Melville would have liked, the headache I am left with has enough serotonin to rival even the most potent of my post-Thanksgiving naps.

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.