Sunday, September 2, 2012

Let's Read Pierre: Books V & VI

(Image stol'n from here.)

And so Pierre's plot thickens, as rich, atramentous molasses in a one-gallon pickle jar congeals and condenses, forming a....and....uh....

Obviously a prime reason for my being so impressed by Melville's epic similes arises from my own inability to match them.

Since I plan to be away from my desk for most of the weekend, I'm typing this up much earlier in the week (Wednesday) and telling Blogger to automatically post it on Sunday. My apologies if this post seems fragmentary and rushed.

We begin again with Pierre's perfectly happy little life, which is fast becoming more complicated. To use an overblown metaphor (of which Melville surely would have approved), Pierre's acquisition of knowledge now threatens to expel him from the American Eden of Saddle-Meadows. If we want to stretch the analogy a little further, we could say that as Adam and Eve at the apple and acquired knowledge of good and evil, the revelation of Isabel and its consequences have made Pierre acutely aware of heretofore unperceived facets of his parents' characters: his upstanding, blameless father was a philander who seems to have knocked up and then practically discarded some poor French servant girl, and his tenderhearted mother becomes downright vicious when her pride and authority are challenged.

If I had to venture a guess, this is only the beginning of the unraveling. The exposures of the blemishes on his parents' characters are only the first of the illusions set to be rent. (Perhaps it will turn out that Pierre's expulsion from Eden will occur as a shift in his perceptions: he will learn that his charmed life is only charmed as long as he remains ignorant of its darker underpinnings.)

Pierre rather reminds me of Hamlet. And Pierre rather reminds me of Hamlet. (DO YOU SEE WHAT I DID THERE?)

Both Hamlet and Pierre are about a young noble uncovering a dark family secret and being compelled to take action at the risk of ruining their lives. They're also intensely psychological -- the real meat of Hamlet and of Pierre (so far) is in the stuff that happens in their titular characters' heads. (Melville was perhaps a careless writer, but he deliberately plants the phrase "sea of trouble" in a passage about his hero pondering his next move.) 

Hamlet is a very long play. Pierre is a much longer book. Six hours isn't nearly enough stage time to drill as deeply into Pierre's head as Melville wants to.

So -- good news if you're into stories about princes planning, stalling, and privately wrestling with their doubts and passions. And of course you are, so we won't speak of any accompanying bad news.

So if Pierre is Hamlet, I guess that would make Lucy our Ophelia. He's not certain how, but he's already guessing that in order to help out Isabel, he'll have to screw over Lucy. And, like Ophelia, Lucy's getting shafted will be entirely avoidable and pretty much the hero's own stupid fault for not thinking things sufficiently through (even though all he does is think).

Hmm. Back when we looked at the first two chapters (er, books), Mr. Angevine commented on Melville's narrative style reminding him almost of a film or television voiceover. Well, the extent of his involvement in the narrative is certainly a far cry from the usual authorial voice in modern fiction, but in 19th century literature -- especially where those damn Romantics were concerned -- the author often didn't restrict himself to telling the reader what was going on, but also suggesting how he should feel about it.

Actually, more than Rocky & Bullwinkle narrator, Melville's running commentary on events rather reminds me of the chorus in ancient Greek theatre. Given how this is a novel whose characters soliloquize like Shakespearean figures and speak in anachronisms, why the hell shouldn't Melville provide a running commentary on the drama a'la Sophocles or Euripides?

Strangest feelings, almost supernatural, now stole into Pierre. With little power to touch with awe the souls of less susceptible, reflective, and poetic beings, such coincidences, however frequently they may recur, ever fill the finer organization with sensations which transcend all verbal renderings. They take hold of life's subtlest problem. With the lightning's flash, the query is spontaneously propounded -- chance, or God? If too, the mind thus influenced be likewise a prey to any settled grief, then on all sides the query magnifies, and at last takes in the all-comprehending round of things. For ever is it seen, that sincere souls in suffering, then most ponder upon final causes. The heart, stirred to its depths, finds correlative sympathy in the head, which likewise is profoundly moved. Before miserable men, when intellectual, all the ages of the world pass as in a manacled procession, and all their myriad links rattle in the mournful mystery. 

Cf. the "chorus" parts in pretty much any extant ancient Greek tragedy. Melville's meditations are more involved and rhetorical, but the idea is the same.

Distinction wherein this analogy might collapse: in Greek theatre, the chorus members were still characters in the play -- characters who played very passive roles, commenting and narrating rather than participating. Melville, as a narrator within the narrative, does not claim physical presence within the narrative.

But for a Melville novel, this is rather an odd thing.

There's a passage at the end of Book V that aroused my interest:

So let no censorious word be here hinted of mortal Pierre. Easy for me to slyly hide these things, and always put him before the eye as perfect as immaculate; unsusceptible to the inevitable nature and the lot of common men. I am more frank with Pierre than the best men are with themselves. I am all unguarded and magnanimous with Pierre; therefore you see his weakness, and therefore only. In reserves men build imposing characters; not in revelations. He who shall be wholly honest, though nobler than Ethan Allen; that man shall stand in danger of the meanest mortal's scorn.

First: here Melville "speaks" not as a chorus, commentator, or narrator, but rather addresses the reader as the book's author. He's done this before in his other novels -- but in his other novels he writes in the first person as an actual player within the narrative. (Even if Ishmael had basically no involvement in Ahab's saga, he was on the ship.) And this fourth-wall breaking is a little jarring, considering some details about the man's life and literature. Think on the commercial and critical failure of Moby Dick, a book which he knew was a masterpiece; and think that in printing Pierre, Harper ignored Melville's request to publish the book without his name on it. And if you've read Moby Dick, recall the message of Father Mapple's sermon.

The chip on Melville's shoulder betrays itself.

All this and we've barely mentioned Isabel yet! I think I'll leave that to you folks. How are we feeling about Pierre's dark and strange sister? Are we buying her story? What role do we see her playing in Pierre's impending fall? Tell me how and why she weirds you the hell out!

And do please post any epic similes that might have caught your fancy.

My favorite pitched metaphor of these chapters might be:

It was one of his fond mother's whims to perfume the lighter contents of his wardrobe; and it was one of his own little femininenesses -- of the sort sometimes curiously observable in very robust-bodied and big-souled men, as Mohammed, for example -- to be very partial to all pleasant essences. So that when once more he left the mansion in order to freshen his cheek anew to meet the keen glance of his mother -- to whom the secret of his possible pallor could not be divulged; Pierre went forth all redolent; but alas! his body only the embalming cerements of his buried dead within.


  1. I also noticed the parallels between Pierre and Hamlet; both seem to be stuck in the planning stages of whatever grand scheme they're working on, and I have no doubt that Pierre's lack of initiative is going to harm him more than it helps the situation.

    The breakfast with Pierre, his mother, and the pastor was goofily tragic. It was like something you would see in a modern comedy, it's always nice when Melville gives us a wacky tableaux like that, you could see the scene ending with Pierre grinning and shrugging to the camera.

    The first paragraph of book VI was absolutely amazing, one of those uniquely Melvillian lines that makes you shake your head at his omnipotent eloquence:

    "Half wishful that the hour would come; half shuddering that every moment it still came nearer and more near to him; dry-eyed, but wet with that dark day's rain, at the fall of eve, Pierre emerged from long-wanderings in the primeval woods of Saddle Meadows, and for one instant stood motionless upon their sloping skirt."

    That is awe-inspiring prose, there.

  2. Isabel's upbringing reminded me a lot of Les Miserables, with her being basically an orphan, living in France, raised by two old people who seem to despise her, etc. I really enjoyed her "learning to become human," although the lack of communication during most of her life makes one wonder how the hell she ever attained such an excellent grasp of the English language.

  3. Because she's having her words put in her mouth by a guy who couldn't just use two-syllable words if his life depended on it :D