Essay: Sentiment Breeds Contempt -

Essay: Sentiment Breeds Contempt

“But this whole world is a preposterous one, with many preposterous people in it.”
— Herman Melville, Pierre: or, the Ambiguities

Although the popularity of the sentimental novel had begun to wane by the end of the nineteenth century, the ideals that fueled such texts had not. These stories were meant to reflect society, hence its focus upon emotion and character rather than action and plot (“Sentimental novel”). Herman Melville’s Pierre can be construed as a parody of sentimental novels in that Melville criticizes the standards of the time by pointing out how flawed they are and thus deconstructing the entire sentimental genre. Also, he exaggerates the ridiculousness of certain moral principles, especially in the realm of family. The prominent method of attack is the motif of incest, which Romanticist Diane Long Hoeveler describes as putting “the lie to the comfortable belief in a society presided over by wise and loving fathers or chaste and loving mothers” (“Beatrice Cenci…”).

Women markedly govern Pierre’s life: lacking a father, his one male guiding figure, Mr. Falsgrave, turns out to be a bumbling doormat. Though this may seem to be actually supporting the system of patriarchy that deems women to be inferior rolemodels, it is Pierre’s desire for a father persona that sends him to his doom. Without that need, he could have moved on with his life, accepting his mother as the sole authority figure in his life. Calling his mother “sister” and she in turn referring to him as “brother” seems to devaluate the vital bridge of respect demanded between mother and child. The names place them upon the same level of power, though as a man, Pierre would dominate such a hierarchy. Lessening the authority of his mother in order to compensate for a lack of a father is not necessarily Pierre’s goal, however. Hoeveler postulates that that desire is projected upon Isabel, “who will reflect the ‘darker,’ masochistic aspects of himself” (“Beatrice Cenci…”).

To love a woman that a man calls “sister,” regardless of actual blood ties, had been used as a romantic trope before, solely as a term of endearment and possibly as a reference to the Biblical belief of all being brothers and sisters in Christ, which includes husbands and wives. Melville takes this a step further by implying that the love Pierre has for Isabel is actually incestuous, heightened by his equally suspect relationship with his mother: “Marrying Isabel becomes a way of marrying his mother by proxy, so to speak” (Hoeveler). The validity of this becomes irrelevant as there are descriptions of such, but that Melville consistently and constantly makes references to incest furthers his critique of the idea of true womanhood and the Christian gentleman, both aspects of nineteenth century society.

Such ideals did not protect the Glendinning family from the sin of Pierre’s father, and they do not protect Pierre either. Ideally, true Christians live a sort of idyllic life: free from the burden of sin, they live to serve God with worldly possessions being mere auxiliaries. Obviously, Christians suffer from the same temptations as anybody, as much as certain sentimental novels may beg to differ. Clergyman Falsgrave is an overt example of this, as he is unable to stand up to Pierre’s rather severe questioning about the birth of an illegitimate child and its mother, retreating from the conversation by saying he is “absolutely incapable of a definite answer, which shall be universally applicable” (Melville). Although Mrs. Glendinning holds Falsgrave up to Pierre “as a splendid example of the polishing and gentlemanizing influences of Christianity upon the mind and manners,” Pierre himself sees the man as pitiful, his profession too “unavoidably entangled by all fleshly alliances” (Melville). Pierre tries to be the savior for Isabel and the unfortunate Delly, whose bastard child dies, but in the end, everyone else gets sacrificed, an ultimate deconstruction of a typical Romantic story.

The long-lost sister being found again is supposed to be a tale of happiness and family, but Pierre forces it down into the realm of reality: Isabel is not instantly accepted into the family; Pierre loses his mother and his inheritance; he is unable to marry Lucy; since there’s no proof of blood relations, he ends up doubting Isabel’s story; and finally, he kills his cousin in a fit of confusion and self-hatred. This downward spiral into madness stems from overbearing societal ethics, because Pierre can not simply tell the truth about Isabel without fear of deleterious scandal, and also possibly due to fear of incest accusations. The Glendinnings apparently did not make it secret about their pet names for each other, and therefore, Pierre’s futile desire to have a sister may have been well known. His obsession with Isabel, both before and after running away, indicates his relationship with her transcends mere familial affection, possibly describable “as psychological incest, a love affair between the ideal light and the actual or masochistic dark elements in Pierre’s mind” (Hoeverel). Also, a hint of exoticism pervades his attraction, given the fact that Isabel is a foreigner and not Western white, with a “dark, olive cheek” and “soft tresses of the jettiest hair” (Melville). For nineteenth century readers, Isabel challenged the entire institution of marriage, which was ideally intended to be between a white man and a white woman. Pierre should be with Lucy, the delicate, blonde, submissive girl entering the cult of true womanhood.

Melville enraged certain members of his audience by exaggerating Pierre’s overall apathy and discomfort toward Lucy. Another staple of the sentimental novel is the Christian woman moving into a domestic space of submission. Lucy embodies the ideal woman, but Pierre twists the concept of what it means to be a mother, a sister, and a wife. The three identities are intertwined almost inseparably between Isabel and the other two women, Mrs. Glendinning and Lucy, given that Isabel basically becomes all three for Pierre in that “he sought to replace his father in loving his mother as a ‘sister,’ and second, he embraced his sister as his wife” (Hoeverel). Lucy drops out of the realm of importance for him, as she could be never be anything more than Wife, and Hoeverel theorizes that Pierre is a victim of “virgin worship” and the belief that “the sanctity of woman, who, as virgin, was untouchable and forever above the reaches of common mortality” (“Beatrice Cenci…”). Indeed, he cannot even enter her bedroom without being overwhelmed with “feelings of a wonderful reverentialness…the carpet seemed as holy ground. […] Here his book of Love was all a rubric, and said—Bow now, Pierre, bow” (Melville). Lily-white Lucy may be more socially acceptable than the enigmatic Isabel, but she is unobtainable and in the psychologically perverse areas of Pierre’s mind, unsuitable for his purposes. The purity of Lucy causes her actually to die at the mere suggestion of incest.

Despite — or as Hoeverel indicates, because of — nineteenth century ideals, Pierre does not live happily ever after with his newfound family member but destroys all that he holds dear, his best efforts toward the opposite further dragging him downward. That he actually believes himself to be above public opinion leads to his fall, as pride is wont to do. Hoeverel offers a neat summary of his situation: “In his prison cell Pierre comes to the realization that his pattern of repression, rationalization, and idealization has led him to the madness that derives from an adherence to nineteenth-century attitudes” (“Beatrice Cenci…”). Though the relentless cosmic punishment of Pierre during the last chapters of his life are clearly exaggerated by Melville to prove a point, it remains that sentimental novels prove to be unrealistic, as well as the so-called Christian values on which they are based.

Works Cited

  • Hoeverel, Diane Long. “Beatrice Cenci in Hawthorne, Melville and her Atlantic-Rim Contexts”.
  • Romanticism on the Net, Number 38-39, May 2005: n. pag. Web. 21 May 2013.
  • Melville, Herman. Pierre: or, the Ambiguities. Amazon Digital Services, Inc., 2011.
  • Web. May 2013.
  • “Sentimental novel.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 10
  • May 2013. Web. 22 May 2013.



Ah, it’s good ol’ Pierre again. Such a shame I don’t remember more about this book. This is one of the last essays I would write in my college years, and I like to think it’s clear how much progress I made in that time — look, proper paragraphs! no long, meandering block quotes! There’s still quite a bit of fluff, but that’s to be expected when you care very little for the material. x)

Here’s my professor’s (TA’s) feedback:

Hayley, this essay engages with the sentimental novel genre by pointing to key features, such as the ideal and pure woman (Lucy), and by demonstrating how those key features ultimately fail in the novel. You need to more clearly foreground your analysis of these sentimental failings throughout the essay. Is the novel suggesting that it is madness to adhere to these outmoded ideals? You imply that at times, but it needs to be stated more clearly. Grade: 85


“Oswego, New York” by Doug Kerr is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s