Oh Brother; or, a Review of Melville’s Pierre

While reviewing Pierre; or, the Ambiguities by Herman Melville, I couldn’t help feeling that this novel is like a fridge: I keep opening it but nothing looks good.

To begin on a positive note, I thought the plot was intriguing. Pierre’s ambiguous relationships and romances with the novel’s female (and male) could parallel kept me asking questions, and the dialogue pushed the story in many interesting directions. If there was more action throughout the novel, HBO would already be scripting their adaptation.

I also enjoyed Melville’s attempts at parody and criticism within Pierre.  The novel’s first few books set a scene which mirror many Gothic novels, with their stately settings and archetypal aristocrats. I imagine Melville’s original audience expected the story to play out very differently. Similarly, Pierre’s career as a writer offered an excellent criticism of American print culture of the mid 19th century. For me, it offered excellent context and showed me a world I had never previously considered.

But Melville ultimately tries to do too many things. He want to reinvent the novel while offering his criticism and craft a controversial plot. If he had only tried to accomplish one or two of those things with Pierre, perhaps he would have written something more engaging.

The prose jerks slowly across each page, like a teenager driving a stick shift for the first time. Much of the imagery feels deflated, and the abundant punctuation peppered in every paragraph made navigating the text difficult.

And what an awful ending. almost 500 pages building to an end that tied the novels loose ends up in about 4 pages. After reading for nearly an hour about Pierre’s meditations on the memnon rock, I would have hoped to get in his head a bit more after he commits his crime. Seriously, all that jazz about the memnon rock was seemed extraneous to me as a reader.

Points were deducted because the book was taxing to read and did not leave me feeling satisfied, but ultimately this is better than some other Gothic novels I have read.


Pierre; or, The Ambiguities #questusreviewus – Wei Chee Chen

I would not have finished the book if I didn’t have forced reading quizzes in my English course. Parts of the book had pages and pages of text without any breaks, which was followed by another large block of text about insignificant details of the novel like Pierre in the forest while thinking about a rock. Even while forced to read the novel, I still had to skim about a fourth of the novel to get the meaning of a section—I still didn’t understand the meaning even after skimming multiple times. I wouldn’t have finished reading the required pages in time without skimming, and would’ve been a miserable waste of time reading to understand every part of the novel.

The only interesting part of Pierre is the plot. I was truly interested in the readings that had quotes when the characters of the novel were interacting with one another, and mainly because it was weird. I only continued reading because a mom was calling her own son her “brother,” or Pierre’s weird impromptu decisions with Isabelle. The characters definitely do not follow the norm, especially in today’s society. I was so appalled at the plot that I told everyone around me what was going on in my reading. The plot pushed me past those long pages of text that Melville seems to think is “philosophical.” Melville may have tried too hard to make a better novel than Moby Dick after receiving negative reviews, but it only made parts of the book difficult to read continuously.

After watching The Eagleman Stag, a BAFTA winning short film that is also ambiguous, I realize that this review is only based on reading the book one time. The Eagleman Stag is about meditations on time that can easily be missed by watching it only one time. The first time I watched the short film, I had no idea what was going on and why Peter, the main character of the film, would do all the crazy choices he does. The second time watching it, I realize there is a deeper meaning that involved cyclical natures in life such as being a baby to becoming an old person that ends up acting like a child again. Maybe, just maybe, rereading the book will help people understand some of the ambiguities that Melville is trying to achieve, but I will not be one of those people rereading it unless forced to.

Pierre Review- Hannah McCann

              Pierre by Herman Melville was an interesting book to say the least. Honestly, it was unlike any of the books that I have read before. In my opinion, the plot of the book was adequate. It kept me engaged and made me want to continue reading. It had lots of very unexpected events and decisions which were exciting. These events included Pierre deciding to “marry” his sister, Pierre finding out his mother had died 25 days after she was in the ground, and Pierre, his sister, and his long-lost lover, Lucy, deciding to kill themselves (in one single page). However, it had some extremely strange parts that left me puzzled. For example, the book began and Pierre continuously called his mother sister and his mother continuously called him brother. I found this quite strange and a little disturbing. His obsessions were also quite strange, especially his obsession with his mother and his family line. He could talk about his family line for 50 pages and I could not have been less interested.

Now I know that I said the plot of the book was good, but the difficult part was finding the plot amongst Pierre’s long drawn out inner thoughts and feelings. It was incredibly difficult to restrain myself from skipping over his thoughts and going straight to each tidbit of plot that Melville gave us every now and then. Personally, I think that this book could have been written in 100 pages or less if the plot would have been the main focus. For most books, the plot is usually the most important and pronounced part. However, for Pierre, the plot was just sprinkled here and there. The main focus was what was going on in the head of Pierre. This may have been interesting to some people but I had little to no interest in learning about Pierre’s grandfather or about his thoughts when he laid in bed at night or about a rock. He talked about a rock for several pages. Just a rock. Melville also added a portion of the book after he published it that, to me, had little to no relevance. Pierre went from trying to find a home for himself, his sister, and Delly, to becoming an author. It was a very strange sequence of events that felt rushed. There were portions of the book that felt incredibly rushed such as the ending, and then there were portions that felt unbearably slow. It was as if Melville was always on one side of the spectrum and never in the middle like he should have been.

Melville’s style of writing made me very angry. However, the story was intriguing and I enjoyed it. I think that he put more than enough unnecessary details in this book. I would have enjoyed this book a lot more if he would have sprinkled unnecessary details in with the plot rather than sprinkling the plot in with all of the unnecessary details. Overall, I would not recommend this book to anyone that is not assigned to read it. If you are assigned to read it, find those sprinkles of plot.

Pierre #questusreviewus – Bea Huffines

In what my English professor described as the kindest review of Melville’s Pierre she could find from the time of its release, the following passage is found:

“Thought staggers through each page like one poisoned. Language is drunken and reeling. Style in antipodical, and marches on its head. Then the moral is bad. Conceal it how you will, a revolting picture presents itself. A wretched, cowardly boy for a hero, who from some feeling of mad romance, together with a mass of inexplicable reasons which, probably, the author alone fathoms, chooses to live in poverty which his illegitimate sister, whom he passes off to the world as his wife, instead of being respectably married to a legitimate cousin. Everybody is vicious in some way or other.” (Fitz-James O’Brien, 1853).

In a modern-day Amazon review, similar distaste is found:

“This is a romance to turn you celibate. Melville’s worst.” (“Henry with an I,” Amazon, 2016).

In short, I disagree with the negativity – and I will explain why. To me, these reviews are missing the point. In fact, I’d argue that the things they dislike about Melville are the very things that make it great. Before I explain, I’ll include two caveats to my review: first, I am a sucker for a coming of age novel, and a bit of a Pierre-like over-thinker myself – so I may be biased. Second, I read this novel in a college literature course, with a professor pointing out to me the deeper meanings and important themes as I went, which may have helped.

Having said that, I think Melville accomplished exactly what he wanted to with the novel. Reading it in the right lens, I found it to be enjoyable and relatable, and with a profound larger point that these criticisms ignore.

O’Brien is not wrong when he says that the thought is staggered, the moral is bad, the hero makes inexplicable life choices. But to me, that’s the whole point. Melville, through Pierre’s thoughts, comments throughout the novel on the lack of reality in the publishing world. But in truth, reality is messy, coming of age is staggered, filled with difficult moral decisions and reeling thoughts, and the right choices aren’t always the ones that are made. In reality, everybody is vicious in one way or another – and that’s part of what Pierre, and I think everyone, experiences as they grow up. With Pierre, Melville brings that reality to life – which should be relatable, I think, to anyone who has grown up in any time period. It certainly felt relatable to me.

“Henry with an I” is not wrong either. If the point of Pierre was to be a romance, it would be bad enough to “turn you celibate” (so to speak). The romance story itself, though, is, I think, really just a framework to take the reader through Pierre’s tumultuous journey through growing up and entering the publishing world – the actual details of the romance are less relevant.

To read Pierre well then, the bottom line is to focus on the right things. Reading it with others might help, if not in an English class setting like me, in a book club or at least along with one other person – that way, it’s easier to digest and divulge what’s important. If done right, I truly believe Pierre can be wonderful. Maybe hard to get through at points, but worth it in the end for the wholly real depiction of the human existence that Melville has created.

Pierre Review- Richa Malhotra

There is only one word that will go through your head while you are reading this never ending novel… and it is WHAT. Melville’s unique arrangement of ideas makes this novel a puzzle that doesn’t really fit together. Melville continuously uses the stream of consciousness technique and goes on and on and on about tangents that allude to his opinion of literature, his relationship with Hawthorne, and Pierre’s inevitable death. Simply put, these tangents are irrelevant to the plot. The worst part is that these long sections were sometimes longer than the actual plot of this book.

Poor Pierre is portrayed as such a weak masculine character that makes rash decisions. I believe everyone should think of solutions that are outside of the box, but Pierre takes this way too far. Like who on earth decides to marry their sister? With that said, it is hard to hate on Pierre because the poor boy has the whole weight of the world on his shoulders. He gets kicked out of his house because his mom is jealous of his relationship with his illegitimate sister, loses his inherited fortune, leaves his lover, and struggles to make a living as an author. It’s hard to tell what Melville is trying to convey to the reader in this work. We understand he is frustrated with literature and publishers in general. But that’s about it. Unless Melville is trying to encourage incestuous relationships, this novel doesn’t really enrich the minds of its readers.

Pierre (Review); or The Ambiguities – Tiffany Tran

Herman Melville brings in different genres into his story, including romance (with a splash of incest) and psychology (in terms of Sigmund Freud’s proposal of suppressed sexual urges). He also creates Pierre as a complex character, faced with many decisions and thoughts of wondering what is wrong and what is right. With all of the details that Melville chose to include in his story, it becomes difficult to focus on what is actually happening. There are long passages that seem redundant to the story. It almost seemed that Melville was trying to be philosophical and deep with his details, but instead he strays away from the main story with boring parts that make you sleepy. Those kind of passages were the least memorable, and the story would’ve been more enjoyable without them.

The drama that Melville had Pierre endure was interesting. I found myself wondering how Pierre was going to deal with everything thrown at him, from him finding out about Isabel’s identity and so forth. Although I consider Pierre to be kind of stupid, I applaud Melville for developing Pierre to be wonderfully stupid. Most people wouldn’t pretend to marry their sister, but in some twisted way, Pierre believed that it was a great way to acknowledge Isabel as part of the family and in some twisted way, it makes sense. Melville managed to execute well the naive yet thoughtful persona that Pierre displayed in the story. There were some questionable topics that were brought up in the story, such as Pierre’s behavior towards his family (in particular, his mom and alleged half-sister). But, that is part of the drama.

There were events that I had not expected; those scenes in the story where there was action were the best parts. Otherwise, everything else was slightly irrelevant. Pierre was one main story with a bunch of side stories in the series, and one may find it interesting if they were to get tired of reading one major story and desire a break. It brings an understanding as to why Pierre experienced many controversy on whether the book was good or not. I think the book could have been reduced to a third of the story and it would’ve been 10 times better.

Pierre’s life was an interesting roller coaster that I would watch, but not get on.

Natalie Plahuta’s Book Review of “Pierre, or The Ambiguities” by Herman Melville

Herman Melville’s Pierre, or The Ambiguities is both too slow and too fast all at once. There are times when Melville uses twenty pages to describe a rock, but the entire conclusion spans less than ten measly pages. Due to Melville’s many random asides, which hold no greater significance in the story, the book spans 427 pages, when only 150 of those pages were necessary, possibly 200 if I’m being generous. Due to the book’s length, it is obviously not meant to be read in one sitting. In fact, it shouldn’t be read at all. This is the type of book that you put on your shelf as an ornament to make yourself look smarter. In fact, you must be a genius if you read Pierre and understood all of Melville’s philosophical madness, since it doesn’t make any goddamn sense, so keeping the book on your shelf would certainly make you look smarter…or insane.

Furthermore, the hero of the novel is not likeable. He is naive and meek, and despite the fact that he is portrayed to be a boy genius, he makes very unsound decisions. For example, if you had an illegitimate sister whom you wanted to care for, but could not tell your mother, would your solution be to marry her? No! I should think not! Would you then tell your mother about this shotgun wedding, knowing that she would disapprove, without having a backup plan or substantial savings in the very likely instance that she kicks you out of her house? I would sure hope not! It is not even until the last chapter of the novel that Pierre finally begins to doubt the validity of Isabel’s story. On top of an unappealing protagonist, there does not seem to be a clear moral of the novel, other than “don’t marry your sister,” which should have been obvious. Bravo, Melville! You really outdid yourself on that one!

One part of the book that would have been entertaining for its satire, if not written by Melville, is the part in which Melville describes how rapidly print media was expanding and how anyone could become either an author or a publisher. Melville includes a satirical advertisement by a former tailor which states that their fabrics, excuse me, bindings are the best in town, also including some other phrases to express how analogous clothing and books are. This part of the book does an excellent job of expressing the free for all that was print media during Melville’s time. However, since the book was written by Melville, the satire spans approximately 125 pages, despite the fact that print media is not the central plot or focus of the novel. Therefore, Melville’s rant mid-book seems like a tantrum thrown in response to the bad reviews he received for Moby Dick.

Many critics of Melville’s time thought he was crazy when he wrote Pierre. If so, then his insanity is contagious, as reading this book nearly drove me insane. Trust me, SparkNotes will be a better friend to you than this book.