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  • Reading Pierre during the Pandemic
  • Samantha O'Connor (bio)

In a purely rational world, nothing should create consensus like a pandemic. After all, the very word "pandemic," from pan ("all") and dēmos ("people"), is a testament to the indiscriminate nature of contagious disease. We, however, don't live in a purely rational world. If any work of literature puts this rather mundane fact on full display, it is Herman Melville's seventh novel Pierre; or The Ambiguities (1852). Pierre is a wonderful book. It is a mélange of sentiment, satire, and profundity whose whacky style is only matched by its still whackier substance. Melville's novel shows us that Americans faced the same problems in the nineteenth century that they face today. But Pierre is more than a zany book that challenges our failures to confront economic exploitation and racial injustice. Pierre is my favorite novel because it shows us something about belief and folly—about the search for answers and the reasons we don't find them.

Pierre tells the story of an eponymous protagonist who tries to overcome a troubled past. The novel begins with Pierre learning that his father, a renowned Christian gentleman, might have been an adulterer. A woman named Isabel arrives on the scene, claiming to be his sister, corroborating Pierre's longstanding intuition that his father had a secret daughter. In order to protect his mother's feelings and his father's reputation, Pierre resolves to masquerade as Isabel's husband. Leaving his fiancée on his ancestral estate, Pierre moves with his supposed sister to a New York City apartment complex called The Church of the Apostles. There, Pierre enters into a deeply ambiguous relation with Isabel, flouting social conventions to champion someone who is markedly needy, likely foreign, possibly Black, and certainly alone.1 However, despite what might well strike readers as laudable about Pierre's embrace of his ostracized sibling, Pierre ultimately commits the same sins as his father. At the eleventh hour, Pierre fails Isabel. He doesn't support Isabel's claim to kinship. Indeed, in the novel's final book, he decides he doesn't even believe her.

That said, it's not all bad with Pierre, at least not at first. Readers, in fact, might find much to sympathize with in Pierre's initial attempts to wrestle with Isabel's identity. After all, Pierre is properly outraged by what he guesses will be polite society's dismissal of a sister who is [End Page 115] coded as indigent, alien, and dark. When he brings his concern to the family's spiritual advisor, the Reverend Falsgrave, Pierre is vocal and unsparing. Knocking on the Reverend's door in the middle of the night, Pierre announces that no less than "Every thing is the matter; the whole world is the matter."2 Who has not felt similarly? Nor does Pierre limit his outrage to a single outburst. After the Reverend offers him only a tepid response, Pierre, unimpressed, determines to write a book that will defend his orphaned sister and overcome society's prejudice. "I will gospelize the world anew" he declares. "[I will] show them deeper secrets than the Apocalypse!—I will write it! I will write it!" (272).

So far so good, but things become more complicated. Soon we begin to suspect that Pierre's ardor for social justice might not have much to do with Isabel at all. It might be more self-serving. In fact, Pierre's ardor might well be meant to mitigate the threat Isabel poses to him. Pierre flees to New York City hoping to create a new life, but the past follows him into the present. He tries to erase his personal history, even as he ignores those who show themselves most willing to help. Melville's hero spends more and more time alone, getting not just appropriately outraged but inappropriately resentful. Although surrounded by childhood friends like Charlie Millthorpe, "as affectionate and dutiful a boy as ever boasted of his brain" (278) and companions like his former fiancée and his supposed sister, each of whom "who would have laid down her life for him" (334), Pierre is...


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pp. 115-119
Launched on MUSE
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