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Pierre’s Blackened Hand ROBERT S. LEVINE University of Maryland t the Black Swan Inn, havingjust broken off his engagement with Lucy Tartan and leaving her in her “white cottage” looking as “whiteas any Aleper,” Pierre Glendinning prepares to journey to New York City with the black-haired, “olive”-complectedIsabel Banford and the disgraced servant Delly Ulver.1 Before doing so, however,he contemplates the chair-portrait of his father, painted during his father’s happier bachelor days, in light of Isabel’s recent account of her life history. Convinced by the circumstantial evidence of her story that his heretofore highly revered dead father was in fact a seducer who, before his marriage, had had an affair with a French refugee and fathered a daughter, Pierre suddenly comes to see the glorious Glendinning family genealogy, and indeed his own identity,as little more than a fraud. As he studies the portrait, he feels almost mocked by the “ambiguous, unchanging smile” of his father, and he’s particularly disturbed by a “certain lurking lineament in the portrait...[which] was visible in the countenance of Isabel” (196). Enraged at his father and yet committed to keeping “his public memory inviolate,” Pierre decides to “destroythis thing.” He builds a fire and drops the canvasinto the hearths “crackling,clamorous flames,”taking satisfactionin “thefirst crispings and blackening of the painted scroll.” But when his father’s face on the canvas, just before disappearing forever, seems to look at him for one brief moment “in beseeching horror,” Pierre makes a last-minute effort to save the portrait: “Yielding to a sudden ungovernable impulse, Pierre darted his hand among the flames, to rescue the imploring face; but as swiftly drew back his scorched and bootless grasp. His hand was burnt and blackened, but he did not heed it” (198). After destroying additional family documents, he goes to the Ulver farm-house to pick up Isabel and Delly in a wagon belonging to the Black Swan Inn. When Isabel notices his blackened hand, Pierre affects nonchalance: “’Tisnothing. I am not hurt; a slight burn-the merest accidental scorch this morning.” But his nonchalance turns to concern when he notices that Isabel’s hand too is blackened, and he remarks: “I have not touched thee, Isabel?” (201).By expressinghis concern in the form of a question, Pierre allows for the possibility that her “blackness”has been obtained from some other source. lHerman Melville, Pierre; ox TheAmbiguities, ed Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker, and G. Thomas Tanselle (Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern University Press and The Newberry Library, 1971), pp. 186, 183. (Isabel’s “olive” complexion IS noted on pp. 46, 51.) Subsequent citations appear parenthetically in the text A J O U R N A L O F M E L V I L L ES T U D I E S 2 3 R O B E R T S . L E V I N E Associated with the father’s putative past “immoral” actions, blackness here is imaged as a sign of a blemishing, tainting, or impurity in the Glendinnings’ family line. From the opening Book of the novel, the Glendinnings are presented as harboring an almost obsessiona1concern with upholding the glories of their genealogical history. An elevated and unsullied genealogy remains of particular importance to Pierre’s mother, Mary Glendinning, who possesses a “pride of purity” (89) in the Glendinning “race.”Thus, when she senses that Pierre has begun to distance himself from her following his meetings with Isabel, she expresses her concern using an imagery of blood and race: “I feel my blood chemically changing in me. I, the mother of the only surnamed Glendinning, I feel now as though I had borne the last of a swiftly to be extinguished race. For swiftly to be extinguished is that race, whose only heir but so much as impends upon a deed of shame” (131). Her concerns about the racial purity and identity of the Glendinnings culminate in her anguished response to the news that Pierre has broken off his marriage to the “white” Lucy in favor of the “olive”Isabel: “Oh! oh! oh! Thus ruthlessly to cut off, at one gross sensual dash, the fair succession of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1750-1849
Print ISSN
1525-6995
Pages
pp. 23-44
Launched on MUSE
2013-05-29
Open Access
No
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