The following blog post is an excerpt from my book The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption. Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, written in 1826 and set in the future 2081-2100 has never been more relevant than it is now during the coronavirus pandemic.
The Last Man: The Rejection of Romanticism
The Last Man is a more mature expression of the existentialism Shelley developed in Frankenstein, yet it has received less critical attention, largely because the critics condemned it upon its publication in 1826. After the 1833 second edition, the novel was out of print until 1965. One of the major criticisms against the novel was that it merely mouthed the Romantic theories of Percy Shelley, a charge also made against Frankenstein. A close reading of the novel, however, reveals that Mary Shelley did not use the novel to express her husband’s theories, but rather, she created her own uniquely existential and anti-Romantic vision of the future. Written shortly after the deaths of John Keats, Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron, The Last Man mourns the passing of the great Romantic poets and their ideas, but simultaneously, it exposes the severe flaws of Romanticism and its natural supernaturalism. The novel’s negative and apocalyptic vision of the twenty-first century is a repudiation of Romantic millennialism. Shelley further rejects the possibility of God, Nature, or some divine and benevolent force that orders the universe and directs it toward some glorious goal. Even more so than Frankenstein, The Last Man emphasizes that even if God exists, He is not concerned in human affairs and has no plan for human salvation. Shelley’s rejection of a possible hopeful future for humanity is best evidenced in her inversion of the Romantic myth of consciousness. All the Romantic poets had their own versions of this myth which purports that people pass from a stage of innocence in childhood into experience as adults; once in the stage of experience, people long to return to the stage of innocence, but this return is impossible. Most people remain in the stage of experience, while a few progress into wise innocence where they can acquire what Wordsworth termed the “philosophic mind” (“Intimations” 184) to reconcile themselves with the past and use experience for their benefit. Shelley inverts this Romantic belief system in the stages of the main character’s life. Lionel Verney’s childhood begins in the stage of experience where he is an orphaned outcast and wanderer. Lionel passes into a happy stage of innocence as an adult when he marries and has friends; however, he returns to experience when a plague wipes out the human race, leaving him the sole survivor. He is then unable to find innocence again because of the misery he has known and the lack of other humans to console him. Shelley’s inversion of the Romantic myth of consciousness displays her rejection of Romanticism and her existential belief that there is no future happiness for people because there is no divine plan or order to the universe. This perspective, distinct from Shelley’s Romantic contemporaries, reveals that she had her own intellectual abilities and literary talents rather than merely being the mouthpiece of her husband and friends’ Romantic beliefs. Shelley also adapts the Gothic wanderer figure, as in Frankenstein, by creating a main character who is innocent yet suffers from others’ transgressions. Lionel Verney becomes the ultimate example of the existential Gothic wanderer who is isolated in a world without meaning.
The Sibyl: Immortality and Prophecy
The charge that Shelley was her husband’s mouthpiece stems from critical overemphasis upon the extent to which Percy Shelley assisted his wife in editing Frankenstein. While her husband was dead by the time Shelley wrote The Last Man, critics have pointed to the “Author’s Introduction” as proof of Percy Shelley’s influence upon the novel. In the introduction, Mary Shelley creates a fictional source for the novel by using the Gothic mode of discovering a fragmented manuscript which she has merely edited (Mishra 162). Shelley claims that she and her companion (Percy Shelley) came upon this manuscript while visiting the Sibyl’s cave near Naples. The manuscript was a collection of unorganized narrative fragments written on leaves that Mary Shelley had to arrange and decipher. The writing was in numerous languages including “ancient Chaldee, and Egyptian hieroglyphics, old as the Pyramids. Stranger still, some were in modern dialects, English and Italian” (3). The leaves contain prophecies, names of famous people, exultations of victory or woes of defeat (3). From the leaves, Shelley collects all those that detail Lionel Verney’s eyewitness account of how the human race became extinct because of a plague during the last years of the twenty-first century. These leaves are assembled to form the novel’s text.
Shelley uses the Sibyl’s cave as the tale’s source because the Sibyl’s immortality makes her symbolic of a Gothic wanderer. Traditionally, the Sibyl was punished for rejecting Apollo’s sexual advances by being condemned to eternal life without eternal youth and constantly being forced to prophesy the future (Smith 48). As with the Gothic wanderer who achieves life-extension, the Sibyl finds that her extended life is only extended misery. The Sibyl becomes the novel’s doppelganger of Lionel Verney who remains alive while the rest of the human race dies from a plague. While Lionel does not prophesy like the Sibyl, his story of the future is inexplicably found in the Sibyl’s cave three centuries before the occurrence of the events described. Steven Goldsmith has argued that the Sibyl represents Mary Shelley because the Sibyl had Apollo’s prophesies breathed into her as Apollo’s medium. Similarly, Shelley was the medium for her husband’s Romantic vision, which she was attempting to prolong by writing The Last Man (275-7). I believe Shelley did not intend such a symbolic comparison, but instead, she merely compared herself to the Sibyl because she had outlived her Romantic friends. In addition, like the Sibyl, Shelley felt she was prophetic because she was writing about the future. Shelley’s pessimistic prophecy rejects the Romantic belief that the human race will eventually evolve into a state of millennial happiness. Instead, Shelley believed in a form of existentialism in which life is without meaning so no future state of happiness will be likely or lasting. Shelley’s existential ideas are best reflected in her depiction of Lionel Verney’s life as an inversion of the Romantic myth of consciousness.
Lionel Verney as Gothic Wanderer
The Last Man begins with Lionel Verney’s childhood in the stage of experience as opposed to the Romantic belief that childhood is the stage of innocence. Shelley draws on the Gothic tradition by depicting Lionel as a wanderer and social outcast because his father committed the social transgression of gambling. Shelley possibly drew upon her father’s St. Leon to depict Lionel’s father as a gambler who impoverishes his family because of his vice. Lionel’s father was not born a noble, but he worked his way up in society until he became the King of England’s closest friend; however, Mr. Verney became addicted to gambling and fell into debt. Mr. Verney’s adversities were relieved by the king in exchange for promises that he would mend his ways. Mr. Verney failed to keep these promises because “his social disposition, his craving for the usual diet of admiration, and more than all, the fiend of gambling, which fully possessed him, made his good resolutions transient, his promises vain” (6). The king remained indulgent toward his friend, but the queen disapproved of her husband’s friendship. Eventually, the king grew tired of his wife’s complaints and made one last attempt to reform Lionel’s father by paying off his debts. Mr. Verney ruined this final chance for his salvation, as Lionel explains:
“as a pledge of continued favour, he received from his royal master a sum of money to defray pressing debts, and enable him to enter under good auspices his new career. That very night, while yet full of gratitude and good resolves, this whole sum, and its amount doubled, was lost at the gaming-table. In his desire to repair his first losses, my father risked double stakes, and thus incurred a debt of honour he was wholly unable to pay. Ashamed to apply again to the king, he turned his back upon London, its false delights and clinging miseries; and, with poverty for his sole companion, buried himself in solitude among the hills and lakes of Cumberland.” (6-7)
During this exile, Lionel’s father married a lowly cottage-girl and became the father of Lionel and his sister, Perdita. Soon after his children’s births, Mr. Verney died of debt, leaving his children as “outcasts, paupers, unfriended beings” (8).
Lionel grows up in this wilderness exile, himself becoming practically a wild man. He feels victimized by his father’s gambling which has resulted in his being denied his rightful social position. Lionel also hates the royal family for not having further assisted his father. Lionel’s youth is spent as an outcast.
“Thus untaught in refined philosophy, and pursued by a restless feeling of degradation from my true station in society, I wandered among the hills of civilized England as uncouth a savage as the wolf-bred founder of old Rome. I owned but one law, it was that of the strongest, and my greatest deed of virtue was never to submit.” (9)
Lionel’s sister grows up in a similar fashion, indulging in “self-created wanderings” inspired by her fancy as a means to escape from her dull common life (10).
Lionel’s existence in this stage of experience ends when he seeks revenge by poaching on royal land. When he is caught for his crime, Lionel is brought before Adrian for punishment. Adrian, who is based on Percy Shelley, is the son of the late king, who abdicated his throne and agreed to the monarchy’s abolishment; however, Adrian retains social prominence with the title Earl of Windsor, and the royal family remains much respected in England. Consequently, while both Adrian and Lionel have been disinherited from their birthrights, Adrian does not feel the same extreme displacement as Lionel. Upon their introduction, Adrian immediately greets Lionel as the son of his father’s friend, thus acknowledging a bond between them. When Adrian asks Lionel, “will you not acknowledge the hereditary bond of friendship which I trust will hereafter unite us?” (17), Lionel feels an instant restoration to his rightful, hereditary position at court, remarking “I trod my native soil” (18). Lionel and Adrian’s friendship thus reestablishes a sort of lost Eden experienced by their fathers. Lionel now enters the stage of innocence, remarking, “I now began to be human. I was admitted within that sacred boundary which divides the intellectual and moral nature of man from that which characterizes animals” (20). Lionel’s happiness culminates in his marriage to Adrian’s sister and his sense of belonging to a family.
The Existential Plague
Lionel remains in the stage of innocence for several years until he is thrust back into experience when a worldwide plague begins to eliminate the human race. As the plague sweeps across the globe, the novel’s main characters watch the world’s population rapidly diminishing. Realizing their own chances of survival are slim, they gamble with the plague by attempting to escape from it. Adrian decides to lead the few remaining English people to Switzerland where the healthy climate may best protect them from the plague’s power. While the journey will have enormous risks and hardships, and the odds are completely against them, the English people agree to make the exodus.
The plague serves as the novel’s vehicle for expressing its existential philosophy. Shelley displays the lack of meaning in human existence by repeatedly showing the impossibility of defining or interpreting the plague. There is no order or reason to the plague’s choice of victims as it kills young and old, rich and poor, wicked and innocent. At the same time, the earth undergoes tumultuous weather suggestive of an apocalypse, but natural events continually resist all attempts to interpret them. An example of the impossibility of interpreting events occurs when the English people are about to cross the English channel. The exodus of the English severely differs from the biblical exodus of the Israelites because the English do not have God to guide them, although they wish to believe God is controlling events. When the English arrive at the channel, rather than the water splitting apart for them to walk across on dry land, the sea is in a furious tumult and burning globes fall from the sky. The people try to interpret these globes as a sign of God’s intention to destroy humanity (270-1). While the people succeed in crossing the channel into France, they remain severely frightened of the supernatural events occurring, and their fears only increase with their inability to read meaning in these events. If God does intend to destroy humanity, He is being inconsistent with Christian belief for He destroys both the evil and the good, thus differing from biblical accounts of the apocalypse.
The plague becomes the ultimate Gothic villain in the novel because the inability to understand it makes it all the more frightening. Continually, characters find that their interpretations are incorrect; what are believed to be supernatural occurrences are rationally explained in the manner of Mrs. Radcliffe (Birkhead 167). For example, a Black Spectre is sighted by the party travelling to Switzerland. The people think they are witnessing a supernatural warning of their approaching deaths, but the Spectre is later revealed to be merely a French nobleman on a horse (299). The explanation for these minor supernatural occurrences only increases the Gothic horror of the plague whose meaning continues to be indeterminable. Most characters continue to interpret the plague as the instrument of God’s wrath to destroy humanity, but the text continually rejects any Christian interpretation of events. The voice of religion in the novel turns out to be that of a fanatic who preaches that the plague will end if humanity repents for its sins. This man gains many followers who protect themselves by hiding in a compound in Paris. The plague enters the compound and kills everyone except the religious leader. The leader then commits suicide after confessing that he knows of no divine plan associated with the plague, and he was merely trying to manipulate people to gain power.
While such scenes demonstrate the plague’s resistance against all attempts to define it, critics have nevertheless insisted upon attaching symbolism to the plague, thus overlooking Shelley’s existential purpose. Barbara Johnson has interpreted the plague in relation to democracy and the French Revolution by calling it “a nightmarish version of the desire…to spread equality and fraternity throughout the world” (264). Johnson cites a minor scene in the novel where a high born girl, Juliet, loves a man from the lower class. Juliet’s father separates the couple, but the plague then kills Juliet’s family, allowing her to be with her lover, and symbolically breaking down class lines. Johnson’s reading is unconvincing because eventually the plague kills Juliet, her beloved, and their child. Johnson argues further that the plague is “lethal universality” and that it “deconstructs” boundaries between countries and people (264). While the plague appears to spread equality, ironically, when it ceases, the three people left alive are members of the English nobility. Steven Goldsmith and Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar have tried to depict the plague as a feminist protagonist who wishes to wipe out human history because men have denied women a voice (Goldsmith 313, Gilbert and Gubar 247). This argument weakly rests upon the novel’s female authorship. The text fails to support this feminist interpretation because not only is human history not erased, but it is a man, Lionel Verney, who writes down the end of human history to preserve it.
Shelley’s use of the plague is best described as a symbol of existentialism that allows for the elimination of the entire human race except for Lionel Verney. Mary Shelley felt total isolation after the death of her husband and friends, so she felt she could best express her feelings by depicting one man alone in the world as she felt herself to be alone; consequently, she needed a way to eliminate all but one human, and the plague was a logical means for human extinction. Shelley may have derived the idea of the Last Man from contemporary poems that had used the theme, including Byron’s “Darkness” (1816), Thomas Campbell’s “The Last Man” (1823), and Thomas Hood’s “The Last Man” (1826). Anne Mellor remarks that all these works “invoke a Judaeo-Christian framework and the possibility of a finer life elsewhere, either on earth or in heaven. Mary Shelley explicitly denies such theological or millennial interpretations of her plague” (Introduction xvi). Paley in agreement, adds, that death and the plague both exist in The Last Man “somewhere between personification and myth in a borderland where causality seems nonexistent” (120). Mary Shelley intends the only meaning of the plague to be its meaninglessness, so that its destruction of humanity will reflect life’s futility.
The plague’s mode of operation is as inexplicable as its meaning. The only people who survive the plague are Adrian, Clara, and Lionel—all English, noble, and related by marriage or blood. Of these three, Lionel is the only one to catch the plague and recover, while Adrian and Clara remain immune. Surprisingly, Lionel catches the plague from a black man, although he is in England and could easily receive it from a multitude of English people. The event occurs during a scene of Gothic horror as Lionel returns home to his family after a long journey. As he enters the house, he hears a groan and,
“without reflection I threw open the door of the first room that presented itself. It was quite dark; but, as I stept within, a pernicious scent assailed my senses, producing sickening qualms, which made their way to my very heart, while I felt my leg clasped, and a groan repeated by the person that held me. I lowered my lamp and saw a negro half clad, writhing under the agony of disease, while he held me with a convulsive grasp. With mixed horror and impatience, I strove to disengage myself, and fell on the sufferer; he wound his naked festering arms round me, his face was close to mine, and his breath, death-laden, entered my vitals. For a moment I was overcome, my head was bowed by aching nausea; till, reflection returning, I sprung up, threw the wretch from me, and darting up the staircase, entered the chamber usually inhabited by my family.” (245)
Why Shelley chooses to have Lionel receive and then become immune to the plague is hard enough to explain, since no one else who acquires it gains immunity. Even less comprehensible is why Lionel receives the plague from a negro. Perhaps being plague-stricken and black makes the negro a double outcast who foreshadows the intense isolation Lionel will later know. Of the few critics who have written upon the novel, none have succeeded in providing convincing interpretations of this scene. Vijay Mishra suggests it is Lionel’s compassion that causes him to receive the plague and his recovery is a symbol of Christ’s passion and resurrection (177-8). However, because Shelley rejects the Christian myth, and Lionel is never able to redeem anyone, he is an unlikely character to associate with Christ. Furthermore, Lionel’s treatment of the negro is completely lacking in compassion. Anne Mellor argues that “From this unwilling but powerful embrace of the racial other (significantly, this is the only time that a ‘negro’ is specifically mentioned in the novel), Verney both contracts and, recovering, becomes immune to the plague” (Introduction xxiv). Mellor’s statement attempts to find a racial purpose in the scene, but she fails to elaborate upon her statement that the scene is significant, suggestive that she is unsure of its significance. The negro is never mentioned again, but on the same page, Lionel’s son dies, so the negro’s black skin may equate him with the blackness of Death that has entered Lionel’s home. Lionel’s lack of compassion in the scene should not be read as bigotry but rather as fear of catching the plague. He is so frightened after inhaling the negro’s breath that he may automatically assume he caught the plague when in reality, he merely suffers from exhaustion. Lionel is only ill for a few days, so he may have merely needed rest and not contracted the plague after all. Whether Lionel ever actually contracts the plague, the scene further emphasizes the inexplicable purpose of the plague and the existential world in which it operates.
The Gamble with Death
After the plague completes its rampage, leaving only Clara, Adrian, and Lionel alive, the novel again uses the gambling motif to depict Lionel as a Gothic wanderer victimized by others’ transgressions. The remaining three characters realize they have outlived the plague by the time they reach Venice. Because Adrian and Clara are not blood relatives, they are the only two people who are capable of repopulating the earth. Shelley’s interest in rewriting Paradise Lost is reflected, therefore, in her placing Adrian and Clara in the potential position of a new Adam and Eve. Shelley then revises the Eden story by making Adrian and Clara feel no responsibility or desire to create a new human race. Rather than a God or an angel to warn them against sin, Adrian and Clara are warned by Lionel against foolhardiness when Clara wishes to travel to Greece where her parents are buried. The easiest way to make the journey from Venice would be by boat, but Lionel objects to the dangers of travelling by sea rather than land. His companions nevertheless persuade him to make the journey with them. They are willing to gamble with their lives, and consequently, the future of the human race, for the mere whim of visiting Greece, and subconsciously perhaps, from a desire to die. At the same time, they believe their survival of the plague may mean that Fate has preserved them for some future purpose, so their lives are charmed against potential harm. Even when a storm arises while they are at sea, Clara, like a typical gambler, denies the possibility of losing her life by refusing to consider the seriousness of the danger. She remarks, “Why should I fear? neither sea nor storm can harm us, if mighty destiny or the ruler of destiny does not permit. And then the stinging fear of surviving either of you, is not here—one death will clasp us undivided” (321). Despite the continual failure of attempts to find meaning in events, Clara retains a belief in destiny and the order of the universe. Similarly, a gambler convinces himself of his chance to win despite the odds being that he will lose. Lionel is aware that Clara and Adrian’s past success in surviving the plague has transformed them into gamblers who are unwilling to believe they can tempt Fate and lose. Lionel himself experiences the gambler’s numbness at moments of great risk when he is surrounded by the dangers of the storm at sea.
“resignation had conquered every fear. We have a power given us in any worst extremity, which props the else feeble mind of man, and enables us to endure the most savage tortures with a stillness of soul which in hours of happiness we could not have imagined. A calm, more dreadful in truth than the tempest, allayed the wild beatings of my heart—a calm like that of the gamester, the suicide, and the murderer, when the last die is on the point of being cast—while the poisoned cup is at the lips,—as the death-blow is about to be given.” (322-3)
Lionel applies the gambling metaphor to the many choices and risks in life. Clara and Adrian allow the gambler’s resignation to descend upon them because they feel that it can hardly matter if they die since the plague has so drastically changed the world. If there is meaning to life or some intended destiny for them, then they believe they have nothing to fear. As with most gambles, they lose when the ship sinks, and they both drown. Lionel manages to swim to shore, realizing he is now the Last Man upon earth.
This conclusion brings the novel full circle by its repetition of the gambling motif. Earlier Lionel had been exiled from his birthright because of his father’s gambling; now he has become exiled from all humanity because others were willing to gamble with their lives, never considering his own happiness. In both cases, gambling has destroyed the family unit. Clara and Adrian, as a new Adam and Eve, bring about a second fall of humanity, but this time the fall is more serious, for while Adam and Eve’s transgression introduced death for humanity, Clara and Adrian’s transgression results in human extinction.
Lionel’s solitary position marks his return into a stage of experience that completes Shelley’s inverse of the Romantic myth of consciousness. Lionel acknowledges that he has returned to the earlier stage of his life by comparing the present to his youth and feeling his burden will be easier to bear because he long ago learned to survive without depending upon others (338). Nevertheless, Lionel mourns the loss of the human race. To assuage his loneliness, he writes the history of the end of humanity, which becomes the novel. When the novel is completed, he decides he will wander the earth on the small chance of finding another human who has also survived the worldwide plague. Clara and Adrian’s gambling transgression has resulted in Lionel’s return to his childhood role of Gothic wanderer as he recognizes, “A solitary being is by instinct a wanderer, and that I would become” (341). Lionel differs from earlier Gothic wanderer characters, however, because he wanders as the result of others’ transgressions rather than his own.
Lionel’s final isolation reflects Mary Shelley’s personal grief over the deaths of her husband and Lord Byron. Adrian’s drowning is a direct parallel to the drowning of Percy Shelley (Mishra 185), and earlier in the novel, Lionel’s sister, Perdita, had drowned herself because her husband, Lord Raymond, was dead, a scene reflecting Shelley’s own wish for death so she might join her husband (Mellor, Introduction xi). Shelley might also have chosen for Clara and Adrian to die together as a way to rewrite her own life, herself taking on Clara’s role so she could die with her husband. Shelley, however, identified most fully with the main character, Lionel Verney, as evident from her journal entry of May 14, 1824: “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” (Paley 109). The grief Shelley feels for her former companions inspired her to write The Last Man, as Lionel Verney, to solace the grief of his solitary existence, records the events that resulted in his complete isolation.
The End of Human History: Deconstructing Lionel’s Manuscript and Shelley’s Novel
Lionel Verney’s manuscript is the history of his life and an eyewitness account of how the plague destroyed humanity. He writes without an audience to read his work, yet his act of writing assumes he will have readers since the purpose of writing is to communicate (Paley 121; Mellor, Introduction xiv). Lionel realizes no one will ever read his work, yet he attempts to remain positive by stating that he will write on the chance that the world will be re-populated by people of whose existence he may not know, and someday, they will want to learn how earlier humanity had become extinct (339). In writing the final chapter of human history, Lionel seeks to make history’s end memorable and meaningful to the reader even if in essence, his task is pointless because his work will not be read. Lionel attempts to enforce meaning upon his experience, but the more he writes and tries to explain what has happened, the more unclear the meaning of the plague becomes. He questions why he should live and considers suicide, but then rejects it, choosing instead to believe that there is some reason for why he is the only human survivor.
But this [suicide] I would not do. I had, from the moment I had reasoned on the subject, instituted myself the subject to fate, and the servant of necessity, the visible laws of the invisible God—I believed that my obedience was the result of sound reasoning, pure feeling, and an exalted sense of the true excellence and nobility of my nature. Could I have seen in this empty earth, in the seasons and their change, the hand of a blind power only, most willingly would I have placed my head on the sod, and closed my eyes on its loveliness for ever. But fate had administered life to me, when the plague had already seized on its prey—she had dragged me by the hair from out the strangling waves—By such miracles she had bought me for her own; I admitted her authority, and bowed to her decrees. (337-8)
Against all hope, Lionel continues to insist that there is a reason why he has not been destroyed by the plague, and since Fate has saved him, he must obey her. When Lionel finishes his history and decides to write no more, but rather to search for other survivors, it marks the defeat of language and meaning because he has told his story to himself and is now left without anyone else to communicate. Lionel remains hopeful that there are other survivors who will read his manuscript, but in this hope, he is seeking to delude himself rather than to be realistic. Even if his writing is meaningful because it consoles Lionel, without other readers, the work will be worthless when he dies. The end of Lionel’s writing demonstrates that meaning only exists in communication and human relationships (Paley 121; Mellor, Introduction, xiv, xxii). Mellor interprets the novel as a reflection of Derrida’s theory that human history is dependent upon language. While Lionel continues to live, human history has not ended, but there is no reason to record it because without Lionel being able to communicate his story to others, it can have no meaning (Introduction xii). Mellor suggests that the futility of Lionel’s writing makes The Last Man the first example of a work that is fully conscious of how its language can be deconstructed as it continually attempts to place meaning upon what is meaningless (Introduction vii). Mellor concludes that the novel suggests “all conceptions of human history, all ideologies, are grounded on metaphors or tropes which have no referent or authority outside of language” (Mary 164). The novel becomes Shelley’s rejection of the Romantic belief in imagination’s ability to create lasting meaning.
Lionel’s return to the stage of experience is the final step in Shelley’s rejection of Romanticism. While the novel is partially written to mourn the loss of the great Romantic poets, it also clearly reveals the flaws in Romantic theories. Shelley rejects the belief of her father, William Godwin, that human life could be extended by the evolution of reason, as he expressed in St. Leon. Shelley’s novel reveals the inability of reason to fend off accidents and disease which cannot be prevented or explained logically. Shelley also rejects Godwin and Percy Shelley’s belief in millennialism, which argues that the human race slowly evolves and progresses. Mary Shelley completely erases this possibility by causing the human race to become extinct. Shelley most harshly criticizes Romanticism’s exaltation of Nature as having salvific value for people. Wordsworth believed that with Imagination, one could interpret Nature as benevolent. Early in The Last Man, Lionel uses his imagination to see Nature as benevolent, but he is already aware that it is his imagination that so defines Nature. “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” (5). By the novel’s conclusion, however, Lionel realizes the danger of the human imagination’s distortion of Nature. Mellor notes that here Shelley’s criticizes the two main points of Romanticism: “that nature can be the source of moral authority and that the human mind can create meanings of permanent value” (Mary 164). Lionel experiences Nature’s sadistic personality when the plague destroys all but one member of the human race, yet allows other creatures to survive in multitudes upon the earth. In despair, Lionel exclaims, “Shall I not bestow a malediction on every other of nature’s offspring, which dares live and enjoy, while I live and suffer?” (334). Yet Lionel still attempts to believe in a Romantic Nature that is benevolent. In words reminiscent of the Ancient Mariner’s blessing of the sea serpents, and Wordsworth’s blessing upon the creatures in the “Intimations Ode,” Lionel declares his love for the earth’s remaining creatures.
“Ah, no! I will discipline my sorrowing heart to sympathy in your joys; I will be happy, because ye are so. Live on, ye innocents, nature’s selected darlings; I am not much unlike to you. Nerves, pulse, brain, joint, and flesh, of such am I composed, and ye are organized by the same laws. I have something beyond this, but I will call it a defect, not an endowment, if it leads me to misery, while ye are happy.” (334)
However, Lionel’s moment of Romantic sensibility is immediately destroyed.
“Just then, there emerged from a near copse two goats and a little kid, by the mother’s side; they began to browze the herbage of the hill. I approached near to them, without their perceiving me; I gathered a handful of fresh grass, and held it out; the little one nestled close to its mother, while she timidly withdrew. The male stepped forward, fixing his eyes on me: I drew near, still holding out my lure, while he, depressing his head, rushed at me with his horns. I was a very fool; I knew it, yet I yielded to my rage. I snatched up a huge fragment of rock; it would have crushed my rash foe. I poized it—aimed it—then my heart failed me. I hurled it wide of the mark; it rolled clattering among the bushes into dell. My little visitants, all aghast, galloped back into the covert of the wood; while I, my very heart bleeding and torn, rushed down the hill, and by the violence of bodily exertion, sought to escape from my miserable self.” (334)
Lionel’s intense emotions reflect that even the Romantic belief in Nature is contrary to Lionel’s experiences of reality. Nature cannot be a solace to him, so he decides, “I will not live among the wild scenes of nature, the enemy of all that lives. I will seek the towns” (335). By declaring that Nature is the enemy of all that lives, Lionel has completely rejected Romanticism’s value of Nature, in favor of the value of human relationships, although he cannot benefit from them. Lionel leaves the country and travels to Rome where the buildings still proclaim the one time existence of humanity; it is the only environment where Lionel can retain any sense of meaning because it retains the memories of those with whom he once communicated.
Despite all he has suffered, Lionel continues to long for an explanation of his situation. He still wonders whether other human beings live or whether a God exists. In the novel’s final paragraph, Lionel sets off in his boat, alone save for a dog he has befriended, describing his future as “Thus around the shores of deserted earth, while the sun is high, and the moon waxes or wanes, angels, the spirits of the dead, and the ever-open eye of the Supreme, will behold the tiny bark, freighted with Verney—the LAST MAN” (342). Paley suggests that Lionel’s solitary journey is a reference to Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner (121). Shelley cruelly parodies the Ancient Mariner’s continuous need to tell his story, by placing Lionel in a position where he writes from a desire to communicate, although there is no one to read or hear his tale. Consequently, unlike the Ancient Mariner, Lionel will never even know momentary relief of telling his story. Lionel’s reference to the Supreme as existing and even having an “ever-open eye” suggests his hope that he will still someday understand the miseries he has endured. His desire to continue hoping is a refusal to acknowledge what he fears, that there is no meaning and there is no God. The novel’s opening epigraph from Paradise Lost foreshadows this conclusion: “Let no man seek / Henceforth to be foretold what shall befall / Him or his children” (XI, 770-2). These words are spoken by Adam after the Fall when Michael, showing Adam the future, reveals to him the flood that will destroy humanity. Shelley focuses upon this moment in Paradise Lost because it foretells the future, but fails to foresee God’s divine plan of salvation for humanity by Christ’s death and resurrection. By using this reference to the Flood, Shelley is suggesting that human extinction is the eventual future of humanity. Lionel realizes humanity is fated for extinction, yet to the end he continues to hope, only to be tortured with memories of the happiness he once knew but now has lost forever (Paley 114-5). Lionel’s final quest marks his role as a Gothic wanderer alienated from the world. His determination against all hope to find other humans represents the continual human need to search for meaning and to have someone with whom that meaning can be communicated.
Of additional interest is a previous blog post I wrote on a French novel on the Last Man theme that may have influenced Shelley’s novel: https://thegothicwanderer.wordpress.com/2017/05/16/the-last-man-cousin-de-grainvilles-dernier-le-homme-and-mary-shelley/
Tyler Tichelaar, PhD, is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, The Children of Arthur novel series, and Haunted Marquette: Ghost Stories from the Queen City. Visit Tyler at www.GothicWanderer.com, www.ChildrenofArthur.com, and www.MarquetteFiction.com.
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