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 explained partly as a reaction to Pierre’s alienation from his past. The loss of Pierre’s father, the mature patriarch and the anchor of Glendinning tradition, leaves Pierre lost in deep uncertainty. Suddenly, he must act as both son and father. The displacement of roles blurs his definition of acceptable filial affection. In all other respects, Pierre appears to be a perfect representative of the Glendinning race, prompting Mrs. Glendinning to predict a shining future for her son, the “lofty-minded, well-born, noble boy” (20). He is, she believes, fit for a position of eminence. Considering the immense wealth of the Glendinning dynasty, it is not surprising that Pierre’s memories of the past are largely tied to specific material artifacts, heirlooms passed down through the generations. From early childhood, Pierre has been surrounded by the possessions of his grandfather, a celebrated Revolutionary War Major-General. Pierre drives his ancestor’s antiquated phaeton (12), often tries on the old man’s military vest (29), and regularly contemplates his grandfather’s portrait (30), prominently displayed at Saddle Meadows. These actions constitute Pierre’s attempt to identify himself with this figure of epic proportions within the Glendinning family. Indeed, Pierre’s own mother promotes such comparisons, frequently alluding to the ancestor’s martial accomplishments (13) and often addressing Pierre in similarly elevated and gallant language. Clearly, the young Pierre is being groomed to regard the mantle of his grandfather’s nobility as his birthright; at this stage in his life it settles upon him casually as he picks up the Major-General’s antique, silver-tipped baton (12). The painted image of his grandfather projects all of the positive qualities that Pierre either fancies in himself or hopes to emulate:Never could Pierre look upon his fine military portrait without an infinite and mournful longing to meet his living aspect in actual life. The majestic sweetness of this portrait was truly wonderful in its effects upon any sensitive and generous-minded young observer. For such, that portrait possessed the heavenly persuasiveness of angelic speech; a glorious gospel framed and hung on the wall. (30)In this passage, Melville links Pierre’s reflective nature to the vigorous and spiritual traits exemplified by the ancestral figure, a Christian model of kindness and charity, as well as a courageous soldier. Melville’s selection of church-inspired terminology suggests that the portrait has influence over Pierre not unlike that of a religious icon. Like a devout worshiper dedicating his life to Christ, Pierre seems determined to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps. Through the painted image, his family history gains the solemnity of a religious ideal, worthy of repetition and emulation. The novel places even greater emphasis on the multiple portraits of Pierre’s father: one in which he is a carefree bachelor, and another, in which he is a more sedate, married man. Melville indicates that Pierre prefers the latter image. This partiality arises from the close connection between image and memory. The postnuptial portrait more exactly resembles Pierre’s childhood memory of his father’s appearance and demeanor. Although Pierre does not completely reject the bachelor portrait, it is not reflective of the father-figure he knew from birth until age twelve and, therefore, holds less truth for him. The postnuptial image, on the other hand, approaches the iconic status of the Major-General’s portrait in the Glendinning cult of ancestor worship. Melville’s language when describing the father’s portrait echoes “the gentlest husband, and gentlest father” (30) characterization of the elder patriarch. The later representation of Pierre’s father seems “correctly to convey his features in detail, and more especially their truest, and finest, and noblest combined expression” (72). Although not a grand military hero like the grandfather, Pierre’s father–whether through the natural process of aging or through a trick of the artist’s brush–appears to have grown into his role as dignified head of household, a pattern laid out for Pierre. Again, the visual arts act as an emotional and psychological stimulus for the young man, affixing concrete meaning to Pierre’s memories. Melville uses an architectural metaphor to suggest the result of image-turned-monument. With solid visual evidence of his father’s virtue, to Pierre’s mind “his father’s shrine seemed spotless, and still new as the tomb of him of Arimathea” (69). The tomb reference invites a comparison with Christ; although Pierre is semi-aware of the potential inconsistencies between the art and the living subject (72), the tomb image emphasizes the overriding permanence of his family’s historical constructs. Memory is intimately linked to Pierre’s character throughout the book, and particularly in a visual context. Isabel’s shocking revelation seriously challenges Pierre’s memories of the past. Much of his torment is based on the fact that, other than the evidence of her own sweet face, Isabel cannot offer any visual proof of her lineage. The many ambiguities have severe implications for Pierre’s sense of place in the world. As a result, he increasingly distances himself from the Glendinning line. Pierre’s loss of identity is strongly expressed in the scene in which he meditates on his grandfather’s bed, shortly after arriving at the Church of the Apostles. Melville’s narrator, probing Pierre’s thoughts, sighs, But ah, Pierre, when thou goest to that bed, how humbling the thought, that thy most extended length measures not the proud six feet four of thy grand John of Gaunt sire! (271)Despite the early accounts of his extraordinary athleticism (17), Pierre cannot compare physically with his grandfather, much less conform to the high expectations imposed on him by his family’s collective memory of the Glendinning lineage. Invoking the historical John of Gaunt, fierce knight and founder of a royal line, emphasizes the elevation of Pierre’s grandfather from man into myth: protector of the colonial frontier, founder of a new American aristocracy. Pierre’s sense of his own truth and virtue runs counter to the Glendinning culture he has absorbed since birth. His break with the past essentially leaves him a nonentity and his ultimate solution becomes suicide. In this manner, he is able to remove himself entirely from the chain of history. In contrast to Pierre, Isabel seems handicapped by her faulty memory. While Pierre can identify himself with the Glendinning pedigree, even if he falls short of its ideal, his sister has been deprived of familial connections. She has no real knowledge of her origins and cannot remember a single feature of her mother’s face. The mystery of Isabel’s birth forms the core of her psychological development. Having no memories of a normal upbringing, she characterizes herself as something other than human. She admits to Pierre, “I seem not of woman born” (114). Projecting this self-image enhances the otherworldliness of her sylph-like physical appearance; Pierre’s first impression of her is one of supernatural beauty, calmness, and sadness (46), compelling but ultimately “death-like” (112). The confusion between the mundane and the fantastic also manifests itself in Isabel’s narrative. Vague about the details of her past, she can merely describe a series of disjointed images. Her story has none of the clarity of Pierre’s recollections of his father’s deathbed, accurate down to the temperature and color of the dying man’s hands (70-71). Isabel, when trolling in the past, appears merely befuddled. She doubts the truth of the events she can recall from her childhood; indeed, Isabel has significant difficulty distinguishing between fact or fiction. Although Isabel’s memory is unreliable at best, her mind appears to work much like Pierre’s: her most detailed recollections focus on tangible objects. When describing a cottage, possibly her residence in France, she recalls a surprising number of architectural details, her memory of this place having been stimulated by plates depicting the exterior of French chateaux. The actual connection to her life has been lost, leaving only a hazy and uncertain sense of a similar structure and its habitants: No name; no scrawled or written thing; no book, was in the house; no one memorial speaking of its former occupants. It was as dumb as death. No grave-stone…betrayed any past burials of man or child. And thus, with no trace then to me of its past history, thus it hath now entirely departed and perished from my slightest knowledge as to where that house so stood, or in what region it so stood. (115) The cottage Isabel describes contains no physical monuments around which to order her memories. Not even attributable to any specific region or country, the structure exists outside of time and space, as if springing from an imperfectly remembered fairytale.Isabel projects a far greater degree of clarity and confidence when she speaks of her acquisition of Mr. Glendinning’s handkerchief. The piece of cloth becomes her link to the past, although its significance is not immediately revealed. She instinctively calls the owner of the handkerchief “father”, and the object becomes the means by which she divines the truth about her birth (at least, the truth as Isabel sees it). The handkerchief allows her to adopt an identity that at least partially pulls her out of the obscurity of her childhood.Pierre, supported by modern psychology experiments, comes to the conclusion that visual stimuli play an important role in the creation and preservation of memories. The objects and heirlooms that fascinate Pierre and Isabel take on deep symbolic meanings as their connections to family history are incorporated into the characters’ thoughts and emotions. In this way, mental images and memories intertwine with their material representatives to influence personality and, ultimately, create a sense of one’s place in society.Source cited:Melville, Herman. Pierre, or The Ambiguities. Ed. Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker, and G. Thomas Tanselle. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1971.