[Herman Melville
as a Young Man]

Pierre; or, The Ambiguities

A page from The Life and Works of Herman Melville

Pierre; or, The Ambiguities:

Publishing History

First American edition published August 6, 1852 by Harper & Brothers, New York. Bound and distributed in England in November 1852 by Sampson Low, Son & Co., London. A second American edition of approximately 260 copies was printed in 1855 after a fire at the Harpers' warehouse destroyed most of the remaining first edition stock.

Melville had originally discussed the publication of Pierre with Richard Bentley; after the lackluster reception of Mardi and Moby-Dick, however, Bentley refused to publish anything by Melville unless the author permitted him to "make or have made by a judicious literary friend such alterations as are absolutely necessary to Pierre being properly appreciated [in Great Britain]." Melville refused, so there was no separate British edition of Pierre. Sampson, Low, Son & Co. simply bound copies of the book from imported American sheets and distributed them under its imprint.

Dealing with immensely controversial issues such as incest and moral relativism, and savagely lampooning the American literary establishment, Pierre and its author were mauled by infuriated critics. The book sold very poorly, and the combination of publishing failure and critical hostility may have caused Melville to suffer a breakdown. It certainly affected his approach to writing, causing him to turn to short magazine articles and the almost-forgotten reworking of Israel Potter before attempting one final full-length novel with The Confidence-Man in 1857.

Return to the top of this page
Return to Melville Home Page


There are some strange summer mornings in the country, when he who is but a sojourner from the city shall early walk forth into the fields, and be wonder-smitten with the trance-like aspect of the green and golden world. Not a flower stirs; the trees forget to wave; the grass itself seems to have ceased to grow; and all Nature, as if suddenly become conscious of her own profound mystery, and feeling no refuge from it but silence, sinks into this wonderful and indescribable repose. --opening paragraph

The girl sits steadily sewing; neither she nor her two companions speak. Her eyes are mostly upon her work; but now and then a very close observer would notice that she furtively lifts them, and moves them sideways and timidly toward Pierre; and then, still more furtively and timidly toward his lady mother, further off. All the while, her preternatural calmness sometimes seems only made to cover the intensest struggle in her bosom. Her unadorned and modest dress is black; fitting close up to her neck, and clasping it with a plain, velvet border. To a nice perception, that velvet shows elastically; contracting and expanding, as though some choked, violent thing were risen up there within from the teeming region of her heart. But her dark, olive cheek is without a blush, or sign of any disquietude. So far as this girl lies upon the common surface, ineffable composure steeps her. But still, she sideways steals the furtive, timid glance. Anon, as yielding to the irresistible climax of her concealed emotion, whatever that may be, she lifts her whole marvelous countenance into the radiant candlelight, and for one swift instant, that face of supernaturalness unreservedly meets Pierre's. Now, wonderful loveliness, and a still more wonderful loneliness, have with inexplicable implorings, looked up to him from that henceforth immemorial face. There, too, he seemed to see the fair ground where Anguish had contended with Beauty, and neither being conqueror, both had lain down on the field. --Book III

Impossible would it be now to tell all the confusion and confoundings in the soul of Pierre, so soon as the above absurdities in his mind presented themselves first to his combining consciousness. He would fain have disowned the very memory and the mind which produced to him such an immense scandal upon his common sanity. Now indeed did all the fiery floods in the Inferno, and all the rolling gloom in Hamlet suffocate him at once in flame and smoke. The cheeks of his soul collapsed in him; he dashed himself in blind fury and swift madness against the wall, and fell dabbling in the vomit of his loathed identity. --Book IX

It was a thin, tattered, dried-fish-like thing; printed with blurred ink upon mean, sleazy paper. It seemed the opening pages of some ruinous old pamphlet -- a pamphlet containing a chapter or so of some very voluminous disquisition. The conclusion was gone. It must have been accidentally left there by some previous traveler, who perhaps in drawing out his handkerchief had ignorantly extracted his waste paper....
Doubtless, it was something vastly profound; but it is to be observed, that when a man is in a really profound mood, then all merely verbal or written profundities are unspeakably repulsive, and seem downright childish to him. Nevertheless, the silence still continued; the road ran through an almost unplowed and uninhabited region; the slumberers still slumbered before him; the evil mood was becoming well nigh insupportable to him; so, more to force his mind away from the dark realities of things than from any other motive, Pierre finally tried his best to plunge himself into the pamphlet. --Book XIV

"All's o'er, and ye know him not!" came gasping from the wall; and from the fingers of Isabel dropped an empty vial -- as it had been a run-out sand-glass -- and shivered upon the floor; and her whole form sloped sideways, and she fell upon Pierre's heart, and her long hair ran over him, and arbored him in ebon vines. --concluding paragraph

Return to the top of this page
Return to Melville Home Page

Contemporary Criticism and Reviews

Mr. Melville has received considerable attention from those whose hard fate it is, to "notice" new books; and as emanating from the writer of Typee, Mr. Melville's subsequent works, ranging from fair to execrable, have been held worthy of lengthy critiques, while critics have been at some pains to state, in detail and by means of extracts, their various merits and defects. But we think it full time to stop this mode of treatment. The author of one good book more than offsets the amusement derived from it by the reading public, when he produces a score of trashy and crazy volumes; and in the present case, and after the delivery of such stuff as Mardi and the White Whale, are not disposed to stand upon much ceremony. Mr. Melville's latest books, we are pleased to say, fell almost stillborn from the press, and we opened the volume under notice with the hope and almost the expectation that he would not again abuse the great gift of genius that has been bestowed upon him. We hoped and almost expected that he had sown his literary wild oats, and had now come forth, the vivid and brilliant author that he might be, if he chose to criticise himself, and lop off the puerility, conceit, affectation and insanity which he had previously exhibited. But we reckoned without our host. Pierre; or the Ambiguities is, perhaps, the craziest fiction extant. It has scenes of unmistakeable power. The characters, however false to nature, are painted with a glowing pencil, and many of the thoughts reveal an intellect, the intensity and cultivation of which it is impossible to doubt. But the amount of utter trash in the volume is almost infinite -- trash of conception, execution, dialogue and sentiment. Whoever buys the book on the strength of Melville's reputation, will be cheating himself of his money, and we believe we shall never see the man who has endured the reading of the whole of it....
Comment upon the [plot] is needless. But even this string of nonsense is equalled by the nonsense that is strung upon it, in the way of crazy sentiment and exaggerated passion. What the book means, we know not. To save it from almost utter worthlessness, it must be called a prose poem, and even then, it might be supposed to emanate from a lunatic hospital rather than from the quiet retreats of Berkshire. We say it with grief -- it is too bad for Mr. Melville to abuse his really fine talents as he does. A hundred times better if he kept them in a napkin all his natural life. A thousand times better, had he dropped authorship with Typee. He would then have been known as the writer of one of the pleasantest books of its class in the English language. As it is, he has produced more and sadder trash than any other man of undoubted ability among us, and the most provoking fact is, that in his bushels of chaff, the "two grains of wheat" are clearly discernable. --Charles Gordon Greene, in Boston Post, August 4 1852

Dedicated in form to the mountain "Greylock," is this last work of Melville. Dedicated in spirit to the mystical Greylock, is the tangled skein of narrative which the work develops. Of mist-caps, and ravines, and sky piercing peaks, and tangled underwoods, and barren rocks of language and incident, the book is made. Genteel hifalutin, painful, though ingenious involutions of language, and high-flown incidental detail, characterize the work, to the uprooting of our affection for the graceful and simple writer of Omoo and Typee. Melville has changed his style entirely, and is to be reckoned a new author. -- We regret the change, for while the new Melville displays more subtleness of thought, more elaborateness of manner, (or mannerism), and a higher range of imagination, he has done it at a sad sacrifice of simplicity and popular appreciation. His present story, although possessing the characteristics we have ascribed to it, is readable to all those who, like us, possess a forgiving spirit, and who entertain the hope that the author, seeing his exceeding sinfulness, will return to the simple and beautiful path of authorship so graced by his early footsteps. --Spingfield, Massachusetts Republican, August 16 1852

Truly is there "but one step from the sublime to the ridiculous," and as truly hath Mr. Melville herein accomplished it. Such a mass of incongruities, "ambiguities," heterogeneities, absurdities, and absolute impossibilities, as the two covers of this volume enfold, it has rarely been our fortune to light upon. Now and then we strike upon something that reminds us of Typee, Omoo, &c., but it is speedily swallowed up in the slough of metaphysical speculation, which constitues the largest portion of the work. The characters are absurdly paradoxical and greatly overdrawn; the incidents are impossible, in real life, and the whole book is utterly unworthy of Mr. Melville's genius. It unquestionably contains a vast deal of power, but it amounts to nothing, and accomplishes nothing but a climax too horribly unnatural to be thought of.
Mr. M. has evidently taken hold of a subject which has mastered him, and led him into all manner of vagaries. He is more at home in the manifold intricacies of a ship's rigging than amid the subtleties of psychological phenomena. --Washington National Era, August 19 1852

Ambiguities there are, not a few, in this new work by a popular author; but very little doubt can there be, touching the opinion which the public will entertain of its merits. It must, we regret to say, be pronounced a dead failure, seeing that neither in design or execution does it merit praise, or come within any measurable distance of Mr. Melville's well-deserved reputation....
In noticing that bold, original work Moby-Dick, we remember showing that Mr. Melville could never make his characters talk. It is the same here. Almost every spoken word reminds you of the chorus of the old Greek tragedies. With the exception of some few sentences very naturally suited to the mouth of the Revd. Mr. Falsgrave, a sleek, smooth-tongued clergyman, there is scarcely a page of dialogue that is not absurd to the last degree. It would really pain us to give extracts, and we decline doing so; but the truth is as we state it. We allow the greatest stretch to the imagination of an author, so far as situations and persons are concerned; but if they can't speak as such men and women would be likely to speak, under such and such circumstances, the reader cannot sympathise with them. We repeat our opinion that this is an objectionable tale, clumsily told; and if we had any influence with Mr. Melville, we would pray him to wash out the remembrance of it by writing forthwith a fresh romance of the Ocean, without a line of dialogue in it. Thereon is he at home; thereon he earned his literary laurels; theron may he regain his literary standing, which he must have perilled by this crazy rigmarole. Do, Sir, give us something fresh from the sea; you have power, earnestness, experience, and talent. But let it be either truthful or fanciful; not an incoherent hodge-podge. Peter Simple is worth a ship-load of your Peter the Ambiguous. --William Young, in New York Albion, August 21 1852

The purpose of Mr. Melville's story, though vaguely hinted, rather than directly stated, seems to be to illustrate the possible antagonism of a sense of duty, conceived in the heat and impetuosity of youth, to all the recognized laws of social morality; and to exhibit a conflict between the virtues....
Mr. Melville may have constructed his story upon some new theory of art to a knowledge of which we have not yet transcended; he evidently has not constructed it according to the established principles of the only theory accepted by us until assured of a better, of one more true and natural than truth and nature themselves, which are the germinal principles of all true art....
... In a word, Pierre is a psychological curiosity; Isabel, a lusus naturae; Lucy, an incomprehensible woman; and the rest not of the earth nor, we may venture to state, of heaven. The object of the author, perhaps, has been, not to delineate life and character as they are or may possibly be, but as they are not and cannot be. We must receive the book, then, as an eccentricity of the imagination.
The most immoral moral of the story, if it has any moral at all, seems to be the impracticability of virtue; a leering demoniacal spectre of an idea seems to be speering at us through the dim obscure of this dark book, and mocking us with this dismal falsehood. Mr. Melville's chapter on "Chronometricals and Horologicals," if it has any meaning at all, simply means that virtue and religion are only for gods and not to be attempted by man. But ordinary novel readers will never unkennel this loathsome suggestion. The stagnant pool at the bottom of which it lies, is not too deep for their penetration, but too muddy, foul, and corrupt. If truth is hid in a well, falsehood lies in a quagmire.
--Evert or George Duyckinck, in New York Literary World, August 21 1852

We know not what evil genius delights in attending the literary movements of all those who have achieved great success in the publication of their first book; but that some such companion all young and successful authors have, is placed beyond dispute by the almost invariable inferiority of their subsequent writings. With strong intellects, there is little danger that the influence of this unhappy minister will be lasting, but with far the greater number it continues until their reputation is wholly gone, or as the phrase runs. --they have written themselves out. Mr. Melville would really seem to be one of this class. Few books ever rose so rapidly and deservedly into popular favor as Typee.... But from the time that Typee came from Mr. Melville's portfolio, he seems to have been writing under an unlucky star. The meandering nonsense of Mardi was but ill atoned for even by the capital sea-pieces of Redburn and White Jacket; Moby Dick proved a very tiresome yarn indeed, and as for the Ambiguities, we are compelled to say that it seems to us the most aptly titled volume we have met with for years....
... The observant reader will at once see the absurdity of the principle upon which the [plot] has been constructed. Pierre discovers a sister whose very existence is evidence of a father's sin. To treat that sister with kindness and to cover over the father's shame, is without doubt a most laudable thing. But to accomplish it, Pierre is led to do things infinitely worse than it would be to neglect it. He not only acts like a fool in severing the most sacred ties and making the dearest sacrifices to purchase what he might have obtained at a much lighter expense, but he justifies his conduct by a sense of duty, false in the extreme. He wishes to uphold the just and true, and to do this he commences by stating a lie -- his marriage with Isabel. It is in the cause of affection and consanguinity that he is content to suffer, and for this cause, he breaks off the closest and holiest bond that exists on earth, the bond of filial love, thus causing the mother that bore him to die a maniac. For every duty he performs, he is compelled to commit a dozen outrages on the moral sense, and these are committed without hesitancy or compunction. The truth is, Mr. Melville's theory is wrong. It should be the object of fiction to delineate life and character either as it is around us, or as it ought to be. Now, Pierre never did exist, and it is very certain that he never ought to exist. Consequently, in the production of Pierre, Mr. Melville has deviated from the legitimate line of the novelist. But badly as we think of the book as a work of art, we think infinitely worse of its moral tendency. We have not space left us to enter upon this view of the volume, and we must therefore leave it with the remark that if one does not desire to look at virtue and religion with the eye of Mephistopheles, or, at least, through a haze of ambiguous meaning, in which they may readily be taken for their opposites, he had better leave Pierre or the Ambiguities unbought on the shelves of the bookseller. --John R. Thompson, in Richmond Southern Literary Messenger, September 1852

Mr. Herman Melville, the author of Typee and Omoo, we know; but who is Mr. Herman Melville, the copyist of Carlyle? Most men begin by treading in the wake of a known author, and timidly seeking for shelter under the cover of his costume. Mr. Melville ventured his first flight on his own unaided pinions, and now that their strength has been fully tested, voluntarily descends to the nursery, and catches at leading-strings. No book was ever such a compendium of Carlyle's faults, with so few of his redeeming qualities, as this Pierre. We have the same German English -- the same transcendental flights of fancy -- the same abrupt starts -- the same incoherent ravings, and unearthly visions. The depth of thought -- the unerring accuracy of eye -- the inflexible honesty of purpose, are wanting, at least, nothing outwardly reveals their presence. Mr. Melville seems to have attributed a large share of Carlyle's popularity to his bad English.... --New York Herald, September 18 1852

This work is generally considered a failure. The cause of its ill-success is certainly not to be sought in its lack of power. None of Melville's novels equals the present in force and subtlety of thinking and unity of purpose. Many of the scenes are wrought out with great splendor and vigor, and a capacity is evinced of holding with a firm grasp, and describing with a masterly distinctness, some of the most evanescent phenomena of morbid emotions. But the spirit pervading the whole book is intolerably unhealthy, and the most friendly reader is obliged at the end to protest against such a provoking perversion of talent and waste of power. The author has attempted seemingly to combine in it the peculiarities of Poe and Hawthorne, and has succeeded in producing nothing but a powerfully unpleasant caricature of morbid thought and passion. Pierre, we take it, is crazy, and the merit of the book is in clearly presenting the psychology of his madness; but the details of such a mental malady as that which afflicts Pierre are almost as disgusting as those of physical disease itself. --Philadelphia Graham's Magazine, October 1852

A bad book! Affected in dialect, unnatural in conception, repulsive in plot, and inartistic in construction. Such is Mr. Melville's worst and latest work.
Some reputations seem to be born of accident. There are commonplace men who on some fine day light, unknown to themselves, upon a popular idea, and suddenly rise on the strength of it into public favor.... Mr. Melville has experienced some such success. A few years back, he gave to the world a story of romantic adventure; this was untrue in its painting, coarse in its coloring, and often tedious and prolix in its descriptive passages. But there was a certain air of rude romance about it, that captivated the general public.... Nor were appeals to the grosser instincts of humanity wanting. Naked women were scattered profusely throughout the pages, and the author seemed to feel that in a city where the ballet would be admired, Typee would be successful. Mr. Melville thought he had hit the key note to fame. His book was reprinted in all directions, and people talked about it, as much from the singularity of its title as from any intrinsic merit it possessed.
This was encouraging, and Mr. Melville evidently thought so, for he immediately issued a series of books in the same strain.... [T]he foolish critics, too blind to perceive that the books derived their chief interest from the fact of the scenes being laid in countries little known, and that the author had no stock in trade beyond tropical scenery and eccentric sailors, applauded to the very echo. This indiscriminating praise produced its usual effect. Mr. Melville fancied himself a genius, and the result of this sad mistake has been -- Pierre.
As a general rule, sea-stories are very effective, and to those versed in nautical lore, very easy writing. The majority of the reading public are landsmen, and the events of an ocean-life come to them recommended by the charm of novelty. They cannot detect the blunders, and incongruity passes with them for originality.... The scope for events is also limited, and this very limitation renders the task of writing a sea-tale more simple....
Mr. Melville's previous stories, all sea-born as they were, went down the public throat because they were prettily gilt with novelty.... We have a shrewd suspicion that the uncouth and mysterious syllables with which Mr. Melville baptized his books had much to do with their success....
... It is not much matter if South Sea savages are painted like the heroes of a penny theatre, and disport themselves amid pasteboard groves, and lakes of canvas. We can afford Mr. Melville full license to do what he likes with Omoo and its inhabitants; it is only when he presumes to thrust his tragic Fantoccini upon us, as representatives of our own race, that we feel compelled to turn our critical Aegis upon him, and freeze him into silence.
... The author, doubtless puffed up by the very false applause which some critics chose to bestow upon him, took for granted that he was a genius, and made up his mind to write a fine book; and he has succeeded in writing a fine book with a vengeance. Our experience of literature is necessarily large, but we unhesitatingly state ... that ... we never met with so turgid, pretentious, and useless a book as Pierre. It is always an unpleasant and apparently invidious statement for a critic to make, that he can find nothing worthy of praise in a work under consideration; but in the case of Pierre we feel bound to add to the assertion the sweeping conclusion, that there we find every thing to condemn. If a repulsive, unnatural and indecent plot, a style disfigured by every paltry affectation of the worst German school, and ideas perfectly unparalleled for earnest absurdity, are deserving of condemnation, we think that our already expressed sentence upon Pierre will meet with the approval of every body who has sufficient strength of mind to read it through....
... Mr. Melville has done a very serious thing, a thing which not even unsoundness of intellect could excuse. He might have been mad to the very pinnacle of insanity; he might have torn our poor language into tatters, and made from the shreds a harlequin suit in which to play his tricks; he might have piled up word upon word, and adjective upon adjective, until he had built a pyramid of nonsense, which should last to the admiration of all men; he might have done all this and a great deal more, and we should not have complained. But when he dares to outrage every principle of virtue; when he strikes with an impious though, happily, weak hand, at the very foundations of society, we feel it our duty to tear off the veil with which he has thought to soften the hideous features of the idea, and warn the public against the reception of such atrocious doctrines. If Mr. Melville had reflected at all -- and certainly we find in him but few traces of reflection -- when he was writing this book, his better sense would perhaps have informed him that there are certain ideas so repulsive to the general mind that they themselves are not alone kept out of sight, but, by a fit ordination of society, every thing that might be supposed to even collaterally suggest them is carefully shrouded in a decorous darkness. Nor has any man the right, in his morbid craving after originality, to strip these horrors of their decent mystery. But the subject which Mr. Melville has taken upon himself to handle is one of no ordinary depravity; and however he may endeavor to gloss the idea over with a platonic polish, no matter how energetically he strives to wrap the mystery in a cloud of high-sounding but meaningless words, the main conception remains still unaltered in all its moral deformity. We trust that we have said enough on this topic....
... Mr. Melville's style of writing in this book is probably the most extraordinary thing that an American press ever beheld. It is precisely what a raving lunatic who had read Jean Paul Richter in a translation might be supposed to spout under the influence of a particularly moonlight night. Word piled upon word, and syllable heaped upon syllable, until the tongue grows as bewildered as the mind, and both refuse to perform their offices from sheer inability to grasp the magnitude of the absurdities....
The author of Omoo has his own pecularities. The English language he seems to think is capable of improvement, but his scheme for accomplishing this end is rather a singular one. Carlyle's compound words and Milton's latinic ones sink into insignificance before Mr. Melville's extraordinary concoctions. The gentleman, however, appears to be governed by a very distinct principle in his eccentricities of composition, and errs systematically. The essence of this great eureka, this philological reform, consists in "est" and "ness," added to every word to which they have no earthly right to belong....
Perhaps one of the most remarkable features in Pierre, is the boldness of the metaphors with which it is so thickly studded. Mr. Melville's imagination stops at nothing, and clears a six-barred simile or a twenty-word antithesis with equal dexterity and daring. It is no light obstacle that will bring him up in his headlong course, and he scoffs alike at the boundaries of common sense and the limits of poetical propriety....
We have dwelt long enough upon these "Ambiguities." We fear that if we were to continue much longer, we should become ambiguous ourselves. We have, we think, said sufficient to show our readers that Mr. Melville is a man wholly unfitted for the task of writing wholesome fictions; that he possesses none of the faculties necessary for such work; that his fancy is diseased, his morality vitiated, his style nonsensical and ungrammatical, and his characters as far removed from our sympathies as they are from nature.
Let him continue, then, if he must write, his pleasant sea and island tales. We will be always happy to hear Mr. Melville discourse about savages, but we must protest against any more Absurdities, misnamed "Ambiguities." --George Washington Peck, in New York American Whig Review, November 1852

Return to the top of this page
Return to Melville Home Page

Please address all correspondence on this Site to jmadden@mail.multiverse.com
The Life and Works of Herman Melville is brought to you by Multiverse.