Saturday, March 19, 2011

A short comment on Mary Shelley's The Last Man

      As I continue to work on academic work, here is an earlier set of notes about Mary Shelley's The Last Man.  I hope that it captures some the genuine strangeness of the book.

            At an initial glance, The Last Man looks like it should be categorized within the genre of science fiction.  Most obviously, the text opens in the year 2073 and moves to the year 2093, which marks the end of humanity.  This eschatological element also ties in with many of the dystopian themes found in science fiction.  The text even imagines the collapse of the monarchy.  However, on close inspection, the text doesn’t fit many of the norms around the genre.  To begin, the narrative does not draw on the genre of travel literature, nor does it replicate similar anthropological tropes of fieldwork.  There is little thought given to either the technological developments of the society or its broader sociological transformation.  The focus remains resolutely character based, and there is little sense of the world being pushed to the foreground.
            If anything, the text operates in the allegorical register that Fredric Jameson is so focused on in his work on science fiction.  For instance, the war on Greece described in the text is a thin allegory for the war of independence that took Lord Byron’s life.  There has also been ample research linking each of the characters with Shelley’s inner circle.  Lord Raymond stands in for Lord Byron, Adrian stands in for Percy Shelley, etc.  With the exception of the resignation of the king, the world we are looking at is of Europe of Mary Shelley’s time.  I would argue that this text and its dependency on thin allegory show some of the weaknesses to Jameson’s theory.  It is precisely the allegorical elements that make this text not operate as science fiction.  Instead, it operates within the norms of romanticism, while challenging some of its English practitioner’s optimism in the possibility of progress.
            So what does the text do?  Perhaps, we should start off with a brief overview of the plot.  The novel begins with the narrator Verney meeting with Adrian for the first time.  Verney portrays himself as a wild youth, without training.  Jane Blumberg argues that this portrayal acts as a parody of Wordsworth’s emphasis on the ideal of the solitary wanderer.[1]  This meeting brings Verney both into an intellectual life and the society of Adrian among others.  This leads to fairly elaborate intrigue with Adrian’s mother, who both disapproved of Verney and his father before him (who was a friend of Adrian’s father, the former king.)[2]  His mother desires that Adrian take up the throne that had been abandoned by his father, but Adrian has responded to his mother’s ambitions by becoming a republican.  His mother responds to this by both putting Adrian into an asylum and trying to tie her fortunes to another character, Lord Raymond, who just came back from a victory in Greece.
            To make a long series of complex intrigues short, Adrian’s mother eventually fails and Raymond marries Adrian’s sister.  Raymond marries Verney’s sister Perdita, and Adrian is rescued from his isolation.  This marks one of the many temporary points of happiness in the text.  However, this moment of bliss ends as Raymond returns to politics in order to run for the position of Protector of England.  At the same time that he is involved in the campaign, he begins an affair with another woman.  Eventually, this revelation leads him to resign his position and to escape his domestic situation to fight another war in Greece.  His eventual plan is to be able to claim the privilege of conquering Constantinople.  The narrative both emphasizes the useless destruction of the war and holds onto a heroic view of Raymond.
            But at the same time, the eventual capture of Constantinople leads to the outbreak of the plague.  The city is found empty, and the plague spreads among the soldiers.  Raymond dies during the entrance of the city, but from a random wall falling down.  The remaining characters return to England, and wait for the plague to come. 
            With the coming of the plague, Adrian eventually takes the position of the Protector of England.  The narrative emphasizes his skill in dealing with the city in a time of plague, but his actions are primarily futile.  Eventually, humanity is reduced to a few thousand people.  It looks as if some sort of egalitarian society can be formed at this point.  As the narrator points out, “poor and rich now were equal, or rather the poor were the superior, since they entered on such tasks with alacrity and experience…”  Eventually, the living travel to the desolate city of Paris, where they fall into combat with a religious sect.  This combat is dovetailed by the return of the plague.  The plot ends with Verney standing alone, Adrian and Clara having fallen into the sea and drowned.  Verney writes this tail for noone and wonders the empty streets of Europe.
            My inclination is not to follow the symptomatic readings of the text that are touched on in both Blumberg and Kari Lokke’s text.  They are not irresponsible readings, and the text bears them out, but I’m not that interested.  Instead, my interest is the way the text operates as an allegory for the aftermath of the French Revolution and the terror produced by it and by Napoleon’s wars of conquest.  This narrative is a familiar one for the English romantics.  There is an early attraction to the possibilities of the revolution, then an eventual revulsion, and either a turning away from politics or a turning to conservatism.
            This text certainly follows this to an extent.  The ideal of the republic cannot save England from the plague, but despite its quotations of Edmund Burke, the grandeur and tradition of England is equally incapable of saving the country.  The text stands in an interesting situation.  There is no possibility of progress available, and at the same time, the old forms as represented by Burke’s concept of tradition have been destroyed.  Shelley seems to be gesturing towards a void between the dead forms of the old and the stillborn forms of the new.

[1] She read his sister in the same manner.  “Exclusive communion with nature has retarded her and it is the effects of civilization… which redeem her.”  On Verney, “I had lived in what is generally called the world of reality, and it was awakening to a new country to find that there was a deeper meaning in all I saw….”  (Blumberg 127-128)
[2] The possibilities to read this as a veiled allusion to Shelley’s life are not a stretch to say the least.

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