Pierre: or, The Ambiguities

Links to the Past: Memory and Memorials in Melville's "Pierre"

Herman Melville's "Pierre" offers readers a world simultaneously driven by and struggling against its relationship with the past. Personal and ancestral histories dramatically affect the present interactions and psychology of the book's main characters, particularly Pierre and Isabel. The link between present and past events appears in the motif of the sins of the father, Pierre Glendinning the Elder, passing down to the second generation. The past binds Pierre and Isabel into a close blood relationship, yet the illicit, ambiguous circumstances surrounding the alleged Glendinning liaison infuses the present with an atmosphere of mystery and decay.

The bizarre brother-sister affiliation alludes to a recurrent proposition in the novel: namely, that a character's self-definition and his subsequent self-projection into his surroundings depend largely on the clarity of his perception of the past. Pierre, in particular, relies on family history to construct his basic personality and the face he shows to the world. He appropriates Glendinning legends as a guide for behavior. The one troubling aspect of Pierre's character at the beginning of the book--his mildly incestuous feelings towards his mother--may be...

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