Radical Imaginings: Mary Shelley’s The Last Man
Betty T. Bennett, The American University[reprinted from The Wordsworth Circle 26.3 (Summer 1995), 147-52; copyright: Betty T. Bennett]
Mary Shelley’s 1826 novel, The Last Man, has been characterized as a rejection of Shelleyan Romanticism–and thereby, of Shelley himself; as an agenda for the nuclear family in opposition to a larger, political agenda; as grief work; as an example of the problems female authors of the era faced; as roman à clef; and as apocalyptic vision without determinacy or millennium. [l] The third novel elicits as many variant interpretations as Frankenstein, her first, each view offering an odd amalgam of explication and apologia. All the interpretations reflect to some degree the work itself. The difficulty is that they also largely function outside of the actual life and intellect of the author. To represent Mary Shelley as rejecting Shelleyan Romanticism or to narrow her politics exclusively to women’s issues, to depoliticize Mary Shelley, to tame her into a proponent of the nuclear family, to dismiss her as mere biographer, are all inconsistent with Mary Sheiley before and after she wrote The Last Man. Moreover, these limited assessments preclude understanding the essential Romanticism–and Radicalism–of The Last Man, from fully understanding the novel itself. And it is the novel’s essential Romanticism that engenders significance both to the title of the work, as well as to the theory and philosophy that permeate it.
Set in the twenty-first century, the novel revolves around six characters whose lives, over time and continents, are among the supposedly final generation of humans on earth, destroyed by an uncontrollable plague.  The narrator and sole survivor, Lionel Verney; his sister, Perdita, who marries Lord Raymond, adventurer, hero, nobleman, and, eventually, head of state; Adrian, Earl of Windsor, son of the last King of England (England is now a republic governed by an elected Lord Protector); Adrian’s sister, Princess Idris, who defies her mother (the Countess of Windsor) and marries Verney; and Evadne, a Greek princess, loved by Adrian, but rejecting him in favor of her passion for Raymond, which results in an adulterous affair. The characters’ lives are played out in a context in which personal, domestic interests are superseded by political exigencies; and political exigencies are superseded by an uncontrollable plague that engulfs the human species
However, in a series of critical commentaries, Mary Shelley clarifies what she regards as the appropriate role of biography in fiction and poetry. In commenting on the author’s “intrusion of self in a work of art,” she argues that the “habit of self-analysation and display” results in books in which “the human heart” is as “the undiscovered country” and leads to works that are the favorites among men “of imagination and sensibility” (“Giovanni Villani,” The Liberal, no. 4  283); and that “Works of art belong to the imagination, certain forms of which they realize; those who do not possess this portion of mind are incapable of perceiving the excellence of the objects created only to be understood by it–their criticisms stand for nothing” (“Modern Italy,” Westminster Review,” , 131). Add to these a third, and telling, caution on autobiographical writing: “Merely copying from our own hearts will no more form a first rate work of art, than will the most exquisite representation of mountains, water, wood, and glorious clouds, form a good painting, if none of the rule of grouping or coloring are followed (Review of Godwin’s Cloudesly, Blackwood’s, 27 [May, 1830], 712). Following such rules “transforms and transmutes life into art, what William Hazlitt and Mary Shelley call “keeping”; or what Samuel Taylor Coleridge calls in the Biographia the secondary imagination’s struggle “to idealize and to unify;” or what Percy Shelley in A Defense of Poetry calls “the creation of actions according to the unchangeable forms of human nature, as existing in the mind of the creator, which is itself the image of all other minds.” Consistent with Mary Shelley’s own theories, the characters in The Last Man must be looked on as synthesized characteristics, reshaped toward her goal not of biography, but of Romantic dislocation.
The dislocation begins with the introduction in which an unnamed narrator and companion discover the leaves of a manuscript in the cave of the Cumaean Sybil. We are to understand that this remarkable find takes place in the era in which the novel is written; that the leaves, in many languages, were written by a Sibyl, a prophetess of classical legend, whose last three volumes of oracular utterances were said to have been destroyed by fire in 83 B.C.; that the events depicted in the leaves would occur two centuries after the story is told. The dislocation occurs in the unequivocal belief in the Sibyl; the juggle of time, in which flying balloons for transportation are counterpoised with an ongoing Greek war for independence; a prophesy, to be disbelieved at peril, emanating from a religion prior to, and in conflict with, Christianity; and, equally dislocating, the non-identity of the “I” author and the companion in the introduction.
The Shelleys actually did visit the Sibyl’s cave in 1818. Mary Shelley commented: “The Bay of Baiae is beautiful but we are disappointed by the various places we visit” (The Journals . . . ed. Feldman and Scott-Kilvert  I, Dec. 8, 1818; hereafter cited as MWS Journal) and Shelley writes only that they “passed into the cavern of the Sybil (not Virgil sybil) which pierces one of the hills which circumscribe the lake” (Letters, ed. Jones, hereafter cited as PBS Letters, I 488). But the conflation of this actual visit with the “I” author’s visit allows Mary Shelley further to create the indeterminacy that is at the heart of the novel, in which the actual author is also associated. Precluded by her father-in-law from using the Shelley name publicly in exchange for an allowance, repayable on inheriting Shelley’s estate, the author on the title page is given as: “The Author of Frankenstein.” Therefore, readers know and do not know the author; that the introduction tells of a visit with Shelley or not Shelley; that a visit actually did or did not occur. In short, the reader is positioned in a cave of insecurities, requiring a torch to find the path, and uncertain, at best, what will be found at the end of the journey of the novel. It is a dangerous, uncomfortable journey into which readers are invited, a novel in which, as Bruce Snyder in his 1978 essay “Apocalypse and Indeterminacy” aptly maintains, “the plague eclipses interpretation of any sort and demands that we reexamine our assumptions about the knowable world” (SIR, XVII; 451). Regrettably, however, Snyder posits Mary Shelley in this work as “an intuitive visionary,” though in fact parallel visions, in different guises, are at the core of all of Mary Shelley’s major fiction.
The torch illuminating The Last Man is reconstruction itself. Traditional–and even some non-traditional–social, political, religious, and sexual norms are evoked only to be dislodged. Even the idea of the hero is modified from perfection into process. Adrian and Raymond–the first, a hero for poets and intellectuals; the second, a man’s (and a woman’s) man–are destroyed while Verney, as narrator, survives. But Verney also represents deconstruction, in fact, his life is a bildungsroman played out in a series of deconstructions in a macabre world in which humans perish while animals and vegetation continue to thrive. Beginning as a reckless, impoverished youth poaching in the Cumberland countryside, obeying the “law” of the strongest, Verney’s “plastic soul is remoulded” (I, 20) through love, which is true power; and he metamorphoses into an educated, sensitive, human-sized heroic figure in the end about to set sail from Rome, a modern Robinson Crusoe with copies of Homer and Shakespeare as well as a dog to search out the possibility of another survivor. In structuring the fates of the three men, Mary Shelley abrogates the ideal of the etherealized poet, the figure often identified as Shelley but obviously not the involved political poet-philosopher she knew but rather only one aspect of Shelley, the Alastor figure he himself rejected. She also nullifies the Napoleonic hero (Byron, in biographical readings) and the Wordsworthian ideal as well: the innocence of youth “trailing clouds of glory” is demythisized in Wordsworth’s own Lake District landscape in favor of Godwinian education.
also follow irregular paths. Perdita, who retains more of her direct link with nature than her brother, is consumed by her love for Raymond, her husband. Though at first they are deeply in love, Raymond falls uncontrollably in love with Evadne. Perdita, feeling betrayed, leaves Raymond. Typical enough. But the difference in this story is its complexity. Perdita and Raymond’s love is not privileged over Evadne’s and Raymond’s, reminiscent of Shelley’s theories of unlimited love and even Mary Shelley’s however tentative love experiments with Hogg in 1815. Raymond’s final break with Evadne in book two is more apparent than real; in book three, she reappears, not as the exotic woman but as a soldier, who, to be near Raymond, has fought with his troops against the Turks to free Greece. Dying from wounds, she is recognized and after her death compassionately buried, in her soldier’s garb, by Verney, Perdita’s brother, who is well aware of his sister’s suffering because of Evadne’s affair with Raymond. As for Perdita, she forgives the dying Raymond, determines to remain at his grave-side for the rest of her life, and commits suicide when she is drugged and forcibly removed. Her passion supersedes her role as parent; and, while Verney mourns his sister’s death, he does not moralize on her suicide as religious or un-maternal. Perdita and Evadne’s strength is mirrored in Verney’s wife as well. To marry him, the Princess Idris defies her despotic mother, the Countess of Windsor, who dreams only of restoring the monarchy to England and who bears more than a passing resemblance to wicked witches in any number of fairy-stories. When Idris falls victim to the plague, Verney is appropriately disconsolate, but by the end of the story she is one of a series of losses. Each one feels unbearable to him, but each becomes part of the fabric of his life that allows him to undertake the last venture in which we see him.
The roles of women and men are consciously displaced throughout, beginning with the ungendered narrator and the ungendered companion. Verney often comments on female versus male responses to emotional experiences, self-consciously fearful of being “unmanly” but, in the end, gratefully responding with ardent emotion (see, for example, III, 295) and tears (III, 324) and thereby blurring female/male behavior. The Countess of Windsor is depicted as tyrannical and unprincipled. Evadne’s warrior-role is acted out in male disguise, but there is also a string of vignettes about other young women heroically undaunted in the face of deprivation and death as well as a band of female religious fanatics “more eager and resolute than their male companions” to engage in battle (III, 277). The Last Man presents a radical world that does not reject men or women per se, but rather offers a restrictive rendering of their personal and societal roles. In Mary Shelley’s next novel, Perkin Warbeck (1830), she again places a woman in male garb in combat. And in 1827-28, she participated in an actual re-gendering charade by assisting her friend, Mary Diana Dods, to pass as a man as I related in Mary Diana Dods: A Gentleman and a Scholar (1991). The Last Man, according to Audrey Fisch, is an attack on the male leader (“Plaguing Politics . . . , Other Mary Shelley, p. 273). Rather, I would suggest, the novel attacks all conventional stratifications. civic as well as individual.
A further destabilization occurs in Verney’s hope, expressed almost at the end of the book, for the existence of a brother and sister, the “children of a saved pair of lovers” (339), who would survive to repeople the earth. A triumphant “Laon and Cythna,” an awakened Victor Frankenstein, who with his cousin Elizabeth (Frankenstein, 1818) are suggested in Mary Shelley’s parody of Adam and Eve, which functions as an irreverent reminder of the incestuous beginnings of humanity in the Judeo-Christian tradition and thereby an irreverent parody of the tradition itself. But even that beginning may take on an amorphous form, according to Verney: “We talked of what was beyond the tomb; and, man in his human shape being nearly extinct, we felt with certainty of faith, that other spirits, other minds, other perceptive beings, sightless to us, must people with thought and love this beauteous and imperishable universe” (III, 248). “Other spirits, sightless to us” may suggest the alien invaders from other planets who inhabit our media world, but more importantly suggest that the egocentricity of human beings must yield to a new, imaginative way of perceiving existence, the future of the universe, the cosmos. Mary Shelley’s future-setting has been criticized for its limited air-travel, for not investing more high-tech speculation into the story. But it may be argued that her “other spirits,” her “degendering” of male/female roles, are far more inventive and daring than material technology, as we, nearing the twenty-first century, so often recognize.
If the roles of men and women and the depiction of love in The Last Man are not the usual stuff of novels expected from women writers, religious deconstruction is even less so. On the first page of the first chapter, Verney writes: “So true it is, that man’s mind alone was the creator of all that was good or great to man, and that Nature herself was only his first minister.” Mary Shelley presents religion in a variety of guises: one god, an unnamed spiritual power, and gods-plural; good and evil religious leaders; consolation and corruption. The traditional God dissolves in a world in which the plague appears as absolute as deity. In its place, many faiths are possible. When Adrian tells a fanatic religious leader, “pray to your God in your own mode” (III, 278), he is simply evincing a relativist faith located in the humanist perspective of the individual that permeates The Last Man. Mary Shelley’s religious philosophy in the novel–and I hasten to add that she was not an atheist but had constructed her own belief in a larger spiritual force in the universe–was not specifically commented on by reviewers, although two noted that Shelley had been an atheist.
In the same way, the political significance of the novel received little notice, no doubt because women were not expected to deal with politics. One of the major barriers Mary Shelley encountered in her audiences then–and often now–was a failure to see how all of her major works are structured around politics, both civil and domestic. Almost all critics rejected as a failure this novel which in recent times is being favorably compared to Frankenstein by some critics. The Literary Gazette considered the futuristic setting as “affording scope for much matter not connected with the catastrophe, and enabling the writer to indulge in every possible (and impossible) flight of her anticipative imagination, touching the nature of human society, and of all other mundane matters, a hundred and fifty years hence!” This reviewer concludes: “When we repeat that these volumes are the production of a female pen, and that we have not ceased to consider Mrs. Shelley as a woman and a widow, we shall have given the clue to our abstinence from remarks upon them. . . . Why not the last Woman? she would have known better how to paint her distress at having nobody left to talk to: we are sure the tale would have been more interesting” (February 18, 1826). The Ladies’ Monthly Museum wished the “highly-talented writer” would “exercise her powers of intellect on subjects less removed from nature and probability” (March, 1826). The Monthly Review dismissed the novel as the “offspring of a diseased imagination, and of a most polluted taste. We must observe, however, the powers of composition displayed in this production, are by no means of an ordinary character. They are indeed uncontrolled by any of the rule of good writing; but they certainly bear the impress of genius, though perverted and spoiled by morbid affectation . . . The descriptions of the operations of the pestilence are particularly objectionable for their minuteness. It is not a picture which she gives us, but a lecture in anatomy, in which every part of the human frame is laid bare to the eye, in its most putrid state of corruption” (March, 1826).
I believe the reviewers, and readers, of the era found not only the graphic descriptions and flights of imagination but also the politics and religion of The Last Man unsettling. The reasons for their rejection are clear: in a post-Napoleonic age, when conservative Europe restored monarchs to thrones, when a middle-class wanted its share of power within a newly established order that it could control, when both classes in England were frightened by working-class uprisings, the idea of a republican government replacing the monarchy was disruptive enough. The Last Man, however, suggests that even a republican government could prove to be inadequate, which Barbara Johnson recently cited in her essay “The Last Man” as proof of Mary Shelley’s critique of Shelley’s and Godwin’s reformist politics (The Other Mary Shelley, p. 264), or a “critique that pinpoints some of the blind spots of masculine Romanticism” (p. 267).
But one needs to analyze the reasons for the failure of that republican government. First, I would suggest, is that even when a seemingly capable leader is chosen–Raymond for a while, then Adrian, as compared with Ryland–there is an endemic failure in the parliamentarians, who function much as congresses and parliaments function today, enthralled by politics and power. Further, England is presented as politically insular (p. 163), a nation that initially believes if it can remain within its own shores, it will be safe from the plague. What is lacking in Verney’s England, but critical to its success, is a system that prepares the populace for republican government; and a republican government, that like Mary Shelley and her circle, was genuinely engaged and concerned with world politics. That system is embodied in the concept of universal education, strongly advocated by the Shelleys, Godwin and Wollstonecraft, and envisioned as the source of an evolutionary conversion that over time would condition nations and individuals for self-governance, that would lead to global peace and well-being.
Is Mary Shelley trapped in an unconscious–or conscious–psychological renunciation of her husband and her parents and their shared socio-political ideals which she, in all her major writing, before and after, celebrated? Not at all. In 1830, we find three letters extolling the French Revolution advocating that England must reform or revolutionize,  her novel Perkin Warbeek, published in 1830, argues against governments based on power; her final work, published in 1844, Rambles in Germany and Italy, denounces the hold the Austro-Hungarian Empire had over Italy and calls on Italians, and others, to support Italian liberty. In a letter of January 16, 1833, commenting on the possibility of war in the United States, she said: “What is the use of republican principles & liberty, if Peace is not the offspring” . . . if war is also the “companion” not only of Monarchy but of freedom, “the gain is not much to Mankind between a Sovereign & a president.” For Mary Shelley, true to her egalitarian convictions and those of her husband and parents, the aim of all government should be the well-being of its populace, a belief she repeated many times in her writings.
The Last Man is in keeping with these Shelleyan, Godwinian, and Wollstonecraftian politics in its efforts to alter ordinary perspectives. It destructs expected values–genuine love of wife and children, traditional religion and traditional government–in order to compel readers to reconsider those values–by analogy, to meditate a world view that above all else permits possibility, a very Shelleyan idea. This horrific perspective encompasses the deaths of loved ones. With them, Verney would have remained locked in a nuclear family, just as without expanded perspectives the world would be locked in self-interest, and would fail to achieve the larger concern for society as a whole–the Godwinian most good for the most people.
This might suggest that Mary Shelley was rationalizing the deaths of Shelley and her children in the name of that greater good, like Godwin’s hypothetical story of the Bishop Fenelon. But biographical assumptions such as this can occur only if we disregard that The Last Man, in its science, in its slippery time and place, in its complexities of male/female relationships, and its politics, is consciously premised on a fabular realm. We have been guided, from the dubious Sibyl’s cave, into an unstable fictional world through an unstable text: the leaves of the manuscript are not ordered; the manuscript’s many languages require translation; the anonymous author within the introduction admits to being “obliged to add links, and model the work into a consistent form. But the main substance rests on the truths contained in these poetic rhapsodies, and the divine intuition which the Cumaean damsel obtained from heaven” (I, 3-4). In short, we are in a world in which anything can happen, which after all turns out to be the whole idea.
Mary Shelley’s use of the fable is not accidental. In an era in which books for children schooled them in absolutes–absolute obedience to parents, church, king–Godwin had written children’s books postulated on the importance of freeing children’s imaginations. His version of Aesop’s tales, as well as his histories of Rome, Greece, and England; and his introduction to Bible stories, were intended to expand the minds of young readers and were part of Mary Shelley’s childhood reading, and his theory of opening the imagination was at the core of her upbringing. In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley reflected not only the political and societal issues of Godwin’s Caleb Williams, but the chase and flight structure of the book as well. It is reasonable to speculate that her father’s ideals expressed in those childhood tales as well as the other readings to which she was exposed, provided her with another model in which to contextualize the egalitarian philosophy she shared with her parents and her husband.
The Last Man is an adult fairy-story of plague-destroying deaths, graphic battle-scenes, and impassioned love, in which Mary Shelley reinvents what she lamented in the loss of in much literature of the day. Her 1824 essay “On Ghosts” lists some of that loss as the “empire of the imagination” that permitted enchantresses, “dungeons of palpable darkness,” fairies and their wands, “witches and their familiars,” and “ghosts, with beckoning hands and fleeting shapes” of a “wiser age” (The London Magazine 9  253-56). More dire than anything in the tales of the Arabian Nights, which she cites, or Grimm or Aesop, The Last Man carries with it a most complex and challenging lesson to be learned. When Verney calls on his reader “whoever thou art, wherever thou dwellest, whether of race spiritual, or, sprung from some surviving pair” to “here read of the acts of the extinct race” and “learn the deeds and sufferings of thy predecessors” (III, 291), readers are encouraged to ask themselves who they are, to question their origins and their destinies.
Mary Shelley almost certainly drew on another model for her world that seems to be destroyed but is not. Earl Wasserman, in discussing Shelley’s poem “The Sensitive Plant,” postulated that what “appears to be simply a flower fable with an Aesopian moral” is actually a representation of the belief that “existence is never concluded, despite the wintry disappearance of the flowers” (Shelley  p. 155). He argued that the “elements of fable are patently allegorical, like those of any Aesopian fable, and are represented in a fashion that calls for their interpretation in universal terms.” Ironically, Wasserman regarded The Last Man as demonstrating Mary Shelley’s “parody of Shelley’s optimism” (p. 262) rather than a retelling of the fable with the same objectives.
We can see this further in Mary Shelley’s remaking of another Biblical tale. She describes the peopling of the earth from Ararat as a “mere plaything of nature, when first it crept out of uncreative void into light; but thought brought forth power and knowledge; and clad with these, the race of man assumed dignity and authority” (III, 300). When Verney cries out that “the game is up! We must all die; nor leave survivor nor heir to the wide inheritance of earth” (III, 300), he draws on that first peopling “out of uncreative void” to disaffirm to himself that extinction: “Surely death is not death, and humanity is not extinct; but merely passed into other shapes, unsubjected to our perceptions” (III, 301). Thus Verney becomes a seer, like the Sibyl, his cave the cave of the world; the Sibyl’s leaves found, Verney’s–and by extension, the seer Mary Shelley’s, will be. And, in the readers of the volume, they are.
This reaffirmation, as well as the other affirmations in the closing pages of the novel, which each time counter Verney’s despair, are only consonant with a context that enfranchises a new world and a new-world understanding. In Verney’s decision to go to Rome: “sovereign mistress of the imagination, survivor of millions of generations of extinct men” (III, 335), Mary Shelley offers not only another meaning to the notion of extinction, but to what she regards as the life-force of existence itself: the imagination. Morton Paley posited that by 1826, the Last Man had become “ridiculous” rather than apocalyptic in light of the plethora of “last man” poems and books, but that “behind the ridicule . . . there is a suggestion that the imagination resists the idea of Lastness, an idea that presupposes a recipient or reader whose very existence negates the Lastness of the narrating subject” (“The Last Man: Apocalypse without Millennium,” The Other Mary Shelley, p. 107). But this notion that “Lastness” or anything “resists imagination” was precisely what the works of Mary Shelley, as well as Shelley and Godwin, refuted.
The “I-author” of the introduction speaks of her writing as taking her “out of a world, which has averted its once benignant face from me, to one glowing with imagination and power . . . such is human nature, that the excitement of mind was dear to me, and the imagination, painter of tempest and earthquake, or, worse, the stormy and ruin-fraught passions of man, softened my real sorrows and endless regrets, by clothing these fictitious ones in that ideality, which takes the mortal sting from pain” (I, 4). Thus, the “I-author” and Verney share the same redemptive experience: through writing, through imagination, they reshape their sorrows into an “ideality.” Is this Mary Shelley, in the process of what Fiona Stafford has called griefwork, as when she wrote Mathilda and found “the inspiration was sufficient to quell” her unhappiness temporarily? Yes, but it is not an ordinary mourning process. It is Mary Shelley who even in mourning indicates her belief that her destiny was to write (MWS Journal, Oct. 27, 1822), who immediately after Shelley’s death wrote of her confidence in her own ability to maintain herself and Percy Florence through writing; who collected, edited and published Shelley’s Posthumous Poems; who repeatedly, in letter and Journal, spoke of imagination as the fulcrum of her life and who struggled to sustain that imagination; who called on that imagination from her early childhood to almost the end of her life, intent on finding adequate expression for her own special way of seeing. One Journal entry is much cited by critics in reference to The Last Man: “The last man! Yes I may well describe that solitary being’s feelings, feeling myself as the last relic of a beloved race, my companions extinct before me” (MWS Journal, Oct. 2, 1822). But there is another Journal entry, which resonates in Mary Shelley’s works throughout her life, and in which she found enduring companionship: “What should I have done if my imagination had not been my companion?” (MWS Jour nal, Dec. 2, 1834). It was that imagination that allowed her to characterize herself in 1824 as having “made a part of the Elect” (MWS Letters, Oct. 3, 1824), to echo Shelley’s use of imagination as agent,  and I would suggest that rather than deny Shelley’s and her parents’ political ideologies in The Last Man, she continued to voice them as survivor, as does Verney.
If the novel is biographical, it is not as roman à clef but in her assertion of this imagination. In 1823, when she was forced to return to England, she found herself in a society that was quickly solidifying around a materialistic value system in which women’s lives were increasingly restricted. Her response to this was to depict herself as an “exile” in her own country. The socio-political agenda in the fiction of The Last Man leaves possibilities open that appeared to be closing in reality. The Last Man was disturbing to readers because its vision underscored the need for a different kind of meta-story that could be subscribed to by an egalitarian, educated world rather than one that seemed to be merely shifting the pockets of wealth and power. It is a world that allows for daring imagination, which her critics sorely lacked, and which prevented them from joining Verney at the end, when he sets out, “Neither hope nor joy” his pilots, led on by “restless despair and fierce desire of change” but still expecting to “read fair augury in the rainbow–menace in the cloud–some lesson or record dear to my heart in everything” as he goes in search, because “it was still possible, that, could I visit the whole extent of earth, I should find in some part of the wide extent a survivor.”
As I have indicated, The Last Man does have biographical resonance for Mary Shelley’s life, but one that reviewers fail to remark. For all her recognition of loss, and in spite of at times equivocal feelings, Mary Shelley was extraordinarily creative and assertive, in her writing, her constant battles with Sir Timothy about support for Percy Florence, and her reshaping of her own life. That new life was dependent on her imagination and on her abiding reformist beliefs that she shared with Shelley and her parents and which she maintained throughout her life.
In Frankenstein, Maly Shelley constructed a being from parts to startle the world from its complacency; in The Last Man, she again constructs from parts, this time, the written word. Her purpose, the same. In this anxiety-driven story, she associates herself with the visions of both the Sibyl, who was the “advisor” of political leaders, as well as with the visions of Shelley and her parents. Her Journal entry of April 23, 1830, sheds particular light on her fusion of imagination and anxiety: “In a situation like mine, however energetically one helps oneself, one is subject to frequent set-backs, and all these brief respites that one procures for oneself are very precarious. The soul only enjoys them in passing and knows well that it can reach serenity only through a trick of the imagination which it should maintain but which constrains it too much, so that it always comes back to the state it finds more suitable, a state of agitation.” The reviewer who sarcashcally caviled that the story should have been about the “Last Woman” would have been far more perceptive to realize what I helieve Mary Shelley herself knew full well: Mary Shelley’s Last Man reflects the fears and hopes of the “last Romantic,” who like Verney was setting out in search of other survivors.
- Examples of such readings appear in The Other Mary Shelley, ed. Audrey A. Fisch, Anne K Mellor and Esther H. Schor (1993), hereafter cited as Other Mary Shelley. Citations to the Novel, ed. Hugh J. Luke (1965).(up)
- I am indebted to Frederick Burwick for pointing out that Mary Shelley’s use of plague to represent “social contagion” may have been influenced by Charles Brockden Brown’s novel, Arthur Mervyn (1799), which Mary Shelley read in 1817. In 1825, she read William Dunlap’s Life of Charles Brockden Brown (1825) (MWS Letters, I, 498); in 1826, she referred to the author admiringly as “poor dear Brown,” (MWS Letters, III, 402, 404).(up)
- MWS Letters, to General Lafayette (I, 117), Robert Dale Owen (I, 122), Francis Wright (I, 123).(up)
- See, for examples, Epipsychidion, II.162-73; and most importantly, Prometheus Unbound in its thesis as well as its form.(up)