1. 3.The Avenging Dream: Melville’s War on Domesticity in Pierre

3.The Avenging Dream: Melville’s War on Domesticity in Pierre

Taras Alexander Sak 安田女子大学


With Pierre; or, The Ambiguities (1852), a gothic tale of incest, betrayal and violent retribution, Herman Melville pushed the conventions of domestic fiction to their absolute limit. But what motivated him to write this type of novel in the first place, returning to land, as it were, after writing a series of sea adventures? This question seems especially germane when we consider the fact that everything Melville had written up to this point had been about escaping the domestic sphere, thereby avoiding precisely this setting. Several scholars maintain that Melville had simply exhausted his own personal experiences, which he had drawn upon extensively for his fiction, while others-most notably Hershel Parker-argue that Melville had sincerely set out to write a domestic melodrama, in order to make a living as a professional author, but something had caused him to greatly miscalculate his chances.

It may prove more productive, however, to build upon the insights of Michael Paul Rogin, who long ago stressed the intentionally provocative nature of this text. As Rogin writes, “George Washington Peck excoriated [Pierre] for nine pages in the American Whig Review [in which he wrote that] Pierre ‘strikes with an impious… hand, at the very foundations of society.’ These foundations, Pierre’s subversion made perfectly clear, lay in the family […] Peck was right to see Pierre as a declaration of war against domesticity” (Subversive Genealogy 160). This idea of Pierre amounting to Melville’s “declaration of war against domesticity” is the starting point of my investigation. In my presentation, I will attempt to trace the manner in which Melville wages this war, following the course of what I term (following Gilles Deleuze) Pierre’s “bachelor machine” and the series of sisters/lovers that attend him in his desperate struggle. For Melville, as for the character Pierre, the stakes were extremely high-for this war against domesticity is one simultaneously against the mother and father, against property and inheritance, and, as Peck was correct to point out, against “the very foundations of society.” Rather than relegating Pierre to the dustbin of failed artistic experiments, perhaps we will better serve both Melville and the “heaven assaulting” spirit of the text if we attempt to retrieve the explosive potential-what Melville calls the “avenging dream”-of this still-shocking work.