Academic journal article Leviathan

We Are Family: Melville's Pierre

Academic journal article Leviathan

We Are Family: Melville's Pierre

Article excerpt

Despite the fact that, today, Melville's reputation and readership is greater than those of Caroline Lee Hentz's or Mary Jane Holmes's, two very popular antebellum writers, and despite Pierre's harangues against "the countless tribes of common novels," Pierre was (and is) desperate to be one of them. (1) On the most practical level, Melville wanted to write a popular novel that would make money. On a more theoretical level, "common novels" begin with absent parents who leave their children alone, a condition to which Pierre aspires. Although the separation between parents and children is painful and often inexplicable--why can't Ellen Montgomery in Susan Warner's The Wide, Wide World go with her mother and father? what takes Gerty's father in Maria Susanna Cummins's The Lamplighter so long to find her?--these young girls become women. They develop precisely because they have been freed from their biological parents. Gerty and Ellen grow, they learn, they live. If we can use Pierre as counter-factual evidence, we find that Pierre shrivels up, deludes himself into thinking he's learned something about "the all-comprehending round of things" (NN Pierre 111), and dies. Why the difference?

One decisive reason is that the plots of many sentimental novels depend upon their protagonists' ability to create new affections based on choice, allowing the scope of the novel to extend beyond the limitations of consanguinity. By contrast, Pierre tries and fails to generate voluntary relations, painfully constricting the novel to a world of "blood relation" (NN Pierre 218). For some critics, Pierre's inability to be a sentimental novel registers Melville's own success as an author of novels not plagued by the ideological and characterological problems of sentimental fictions, undoubtedly a conclusion Melville would have been happy to embrace. But Melville's relation to sentimental novels is more complicated than this scenario suggests. One look at the novel and its critical reception reveals that there is enough evidence to prove that Pierre is as much a sentimental novel as it is not, and both positions are, paradoxically, correct. Because Pierre is neither a sentimental novel nor an anti-sentimental novel, and yet both, I would like to approach the text from a slightly different vantage point to argue that the story Pierre offers us is a pre-history of the sentimental novel. Pierre is the story that takes place before most sentimental novels begin, and this pre-condition helps to explain not only why a sentimental protagonist like Gerty might be happier not being enmeshed in a biological family but also the necessity of the family's absence. At Pierre's end, there is no alternative to the family; there is no Gerty-figure with which to start. Pierre, Isabel, and Lucy are dead, taking with them the nightmare of consanguinity, which is the nightmare of Pierre. Pierre conducts an archeology of the sentimental novel; it lays bare the novel's foundations, and in the process, destroys it. But Why? (2)

All of the children in Pierre seek to embrace an ideal of choice only to find that biology, indeed incest, awaits them. The novel thus begins to attack itself because the only available choices are negations of relation. But even the negations become attestations of consanguinity. Children choose not to have parents, and parents choose to disown children, thus setting the stage for a reconstitution of family based on choice, but the "unimpairable blood-relation" (NN Pierre 224) survives. This survival kills Pierre, the character and the novel. Unlike Ellen's or Gerty's recovery, Pierre's is not from the loss of parental relation, but a failed recovery from never having lost them. From Pierre's point of view, most sentimental protagonists are in the enviable position of having lost their parents. They begin (or quickly become) free from parental ties, whereas Pierre must divest himself of all "kith and kin" (89). They get to choose new parental figures, whereas Pierre can only disown his. …

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