Property and selfhood in Herman Melville's Pierre

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In Pierre; or, the Ambiguities (1852) Herman Melville analyzes the intricacies of subjectivity and economics by way of two concrete and quite different forms of antebellum American property relations-the residual estates of the landed gentry in upstate New York and the emergent urban market economy of New York City. A condition of unassailability, of timelessness and imperviousness, infuses the family estate in Pierre, while incessant exchange characterizes the novel's urban finale. Taken together, these opposed economic arrangements represent Melville's meditation on how the very concept of alienability, the definitive aspect of modern property relations, impacted forms of non-slave identity in the antebellum United States. The condition of inalienability that structures the patrimonial estates presents the initially attractive possibility of removal from the turbulent world of property relations, exchange, and commodification, but it turns out to be an ideological fantasy supported primarily by violence and death. Melville, always one to brood about selfhood, and faced in Pierre with his realization of the rottenness at the core of his fantasy of a subjectivity not riven by alienability, responds with the novel's urban section. This second portion of the novel presents market relations as a horror wreaked principally on the self. Pierre, ultimately, represents Melville's monument to the desirability, and his dismay at the impossibility, of imagining identity outside the syntax of a market economy's version of property relations.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)171-199
Number of pages29
JournalNineteenth-Century Literature
Issue number2
StatePublished - Sep 2006


  • Economics
  • Herman Melville
  • Pierre
  • Property
  • Selfhood

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Literature and Literary Theory


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