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Pierre: or, The Ambiguities (Penguin Classics) Paperback – January 1, 1996

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Editorial Reviews

From Library Journal

This was Melville's 1852 follow-up to the then flop Moby Dick. His publishers, fearing they had another failure on their hands, forced Melville to make additions to the text before they'd publish it. Melville later referred to the original, shorter version as his "kraken" book. Editor Parker has here restored the psychological novel to Melville's intended form. The text is buttressed with 30 full-color illustrations by Maurice Sendak. For serious literature collections.
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

About the Author

Herman Melville was born in August 1, 1819, in New York City, the son of a merchant. Only twelve when his father died bankrupt, young Herman tried work as a bank clerk, as a cabin-boy on a trip to Liverpool, and as an elementary schoolteacher, before shipping in January 1841 on the whaler Acushnet, bound for the Pacific. Deserting ship the following year in the Marquesas, he made his way to Tahiti and Honolulu, returning as ordinary seaman on the frigate United States to Boston, where he was discharged in October 1844. Books based on these adventures won him immediate success. By 1850 he was married, had acquired a farm near Pittsfield, Massachussetts (where he was the impetuous friend and neighbor of Nathaniel Hawthorne), and was hard at work on his masterpiece Moby-Dick.

 

Literary success soon faded; his complexity increasingly alienated readers. After a visit to the Holy Land in January 1857, he turned from writing prose fiction to poetry. In 1863, during the Civil War, he moved back to New York City, where from 1866-1885 he was a deputy inspector in the Custom House, and where, in 1891, he died. A draft of a final prose work, Billy Budd, Sailor, was left unfinished and uncollated, packed tidily away by his widow, where it remained until its rediscovery and publication in 1924.

William C. Spengemann is the Hale Professor in Arts and Sciences and Professor of English Emeritus at Dartmouth College. He edited the Penguin Classics edition of Nineteenth-Century American Poetry.

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Product Details

  • Series: Penguin Classics
  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics; Reprint edition (January 1, 1996)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140434844
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140434842
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.9 x 7.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #228,009 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

64 of 71 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on February 17, 2000
Format: Paperback
Pierre is perhaps the strangest novel of all time: bizarre, to say the least, but brilliant in its extravagence. At a minimum, it is one of Melville's central novels that deconstructs the entire myth of pre-war American society in its explorations of incest, patricide and psychosis. It is almost inconceivable that Melivlle really believed that it would be popular (which he did), for it shows the impossibility of writing as an American author, the impossibility of originality, and the impossibility of self-reliance. Beware: it is not for the faint of heart. It is demanding, relentlessly challenging, and very rewarding.
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58 of 66 people found the following review helpful By Padma Thornlyre on April 5, 2000
Format: Paperback
It's been since grad school, in the early 80s, that I last read Melville's "Pierre", yet it's stuck to my ribs ever since. I recall a quote from Freud, that he ventured nowhere that a poet hadn't preceeded him, and I have to wonder if he had this unfortunately obscure masterpiece in mind. For Melville examines themes of psychology and sexuality as no other writer before him...excepting perhaps the Pagan mystics of old Europe. "Pierre" brilliantly illuminates the darknesses of the human psyche, those tunnels and strange rooms few of us ever explore, lest we be artists and therefore honest and courageous enough to sacrifice our egos. Melville considered "Pierre" his most important work, a suitable novel to follow "Moby Dick" (justifiably considered by many THE great American novel). Yet I find "Pierre" more moving, because more tragic, than "Moby Dick"--Ahab is obsessed and while his obsessions mixed with his intelligence make him complex, he is clearly one-dimensional in his drive. Pierre, however, is drawn by instincts which defy his conscious realization, by desires which emanate from the dark belly of humanity and therefore can't be seen. Ahab wants revenge; Pierre wants fulfillment. For a landlocked person such as myself, "Pierre" is also an easier read: no boggling display of nautical terminology to refer to on every page. Yeah, Freud was right: he owed a great deal to the poets...and while, technically, Melville was more storyteller or novelist than poet, here is a poetry there that's unmistakeable. Embrace this book, and embrace the spirit of the great man who possessed the courage to write it.
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30 of 35 people found the following review helpful By Arch Llewellyn on October 10, 2002
Format: Paperback
Pierre has all the markings of an awful book--flat characters, overblown writing, shameless melodrama. So why is it such a masterpiece? Melville seems to have put all of himself into this work--his despair, his religious doubts, his understanding of human psychology--with an intensity that makes the usual standards of plot, style and character obsolete. The analysis of Pierre's mother as she turns on her husband/son and Melville's agonizing descriptions of the writing process were two of the book's highlights for me. The Beats loved Pierre--maybe they saw a model for their own art, where elegance takes a back seat to energy. The novel was a critical disaster at the time, but look where it ranks on amazon 150 years later. I hope Melville's somewhere watching.
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21 of 24 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on February 25, 1999
Format: Paperback
"Pierre," (written shortly after "Moby Dick") is called "The Book that ruined Melville." In fact, he never wrote another novel after "Pierre," but spent his last 40 years either unemployed or working as a customs official. But by the end of the 20th century a new generation of readers and critics had rediscovered him, and today his reputation is at the front rank of American authors. "Pierre" is a superbly controlled exploration of the deepest psychological motivations which underlie all human beha vior. If it is ambiguous, it is meant to be so, not in the sense of vagueness, but in the sense of many meanings. Melville, like Thomas Hardy is a master at depicting country life. And the conflicts in the novel are very much tied to country versus city living. The novel is Freudian, in its questing after the deepest reasons for human behaviors. Like most of us at some point in life, Pierre sees the father he had idolized as human and capable of error. His own values are put into question by the receipt of a note from his long-lost sister. Melville points out that we all walk "on a razor's edge of security.....that what we take to be our strongest tower of delight, only stands at the caprice of the minutest event-the fallling of a leaf, the hearing of a voice, or the receipt of one little bit of paper scratched over with a few small characters by a sharpened feather." Melville does not spare Pierre from disillusion but continues to open him up0 with an "electrical insight" into the character of his mother. He sees how she has been molded by the culture and how her love for him is not unconditional, but based upon his outward beauty and docile behavior.Read more ›
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27 of 32 people found the following review helpful By D. Cloyce Smith on April 29, 2006
Format: Paperback
"Pierre" is perhaps Melville's most difficult and challenging novel--and that's saying something. Despairing over his inability to support his family, Melville began writing a book designed to be popular--a counterpoint to the sensational novels written and read by contemporary women, using inspiration from French romances and even from Hawthorne's novels. Wavering between psychological melodrama and social satire, Melville ultimately increased the book's length by half again, incorporating his rage against the literary world by adding a subplot about a young man's desperate struggle to become a writer.

The stumbling points for most readers are the novel's opaque prose, the "thees and thous" of its antiquated dialogue, and the labyrinthine hodgepodge of a plot. But the density is broken by colloquial asides, sparkling sarcasm, and an occasional passage that approaches Dickensian mirth, such as Melville's description of the "Preposterous Mrs. Tartan!" and her undercover attempts to play matchmaker between Pierre and her daughter: "Once, and only once, had a dim suspicion passed through Pierre's mind, that Mrs. Tartan was a lady thimble-rigger, and slyly rolled the pea."

Behind the mask of the prose, however, is a modernist--even scandalous--story of a young, somewhat deluded man whose nihilistic descent leads to his destruction. Engaged to Lucy Tartan, Pierre adores his mother (their make-believe brother-sister relationship is almost creepy in its amorous undertones) and worships the memory of his long-dead father. This idyllic world is shattered by a missive from a woman, Isabel, who claims to be his half-sister--a claim supported by a more-than-passing resemblance to a portrait of his father. Complicating matters are his romantic feelings for this alleged half-sister.
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