Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Time and the Sibyl in Mary Shelley's the Last Man

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Time and the Sibyl in Mary Shelley's the Last Man

Article excerpt

Eleven years ago, the late Betty T. Bennett asserted that Mary Shelley's 1826 novel The Last Man epitomizes its author's belief that "through imagination one can re-see the world" (54) because the work "enfranchises a new world order and a new world understanding" (82) facilitated by the natural and vital power of creative thought. On this basis, Bennett cautioned against pointedly selective readings of the piece since such treatments "often uncritically replicate the [unfavorable] reception history of the novel when it was first published" and are "inconsistent with the abiding philosophy in Mary Shelley's works" (73). Shelley's philosophy, for Bennett, involves a commitment to sociopolitical critique guided by an unwavering faith in the imagination's ability to better the world. In her best fiction generally, and in The Last Man especially, Shelley engages the timely and the topical not simply for their own sakes but as a way to spark in her readers the visionary alacrity that revolutionizes the self and so forever transforms a part of humankind.

Bennett's optimistic reading of Shelley's third published novel may at first seem startling, given that The Last Man recounts how by the year 2100 a virulent pandemic kills all human life on earth save the narrator, an Englishman named Lionel Verney, who chronicles the history of the disease from its provenance to its cessation. Belonging in part to a body of European literature that includes Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron, Daniel Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year, Albert Camus's The Plague, and Ingmar Bergman's film The Seventh Seal, The Last Man has been most commonly read over the last decade as a critique of empire, a chilling requiem for an England ineluctably entangled in the shared fate of all brutal and chauvinistic imperial states. (1) Insofar as it registers the imperialist mindset of the time, the novel indeed "rehearses longstanding concerns about the Asiatic corruption of the British body politic, along with more immediate fears about the potentially global ramifications of 'colonial disease'" (Watt 139). But to read The Last Man solely as an index of its day's anxieties and ideologies is to risk the sort of selective analysis against which Bennett warned. In contrast, Anne K. Mellor incisively mediates between what the novel reveals of pre-Victorian England and what it says regarding the timeless promise of human renewal. By studying the moment when Verney contracts plague from a dying black man vis-a-vis the protagonist's surprising recovery, Mellor recognizes the redemptive possibility implicit in the work: "This episode suggests that if human beings were forced to embrace the racial Other rather than being allowed to define it exclusively as 'foreign' or 'diseased,' then they might escape the final destruction threatened by both the biological and the sociological plague" (144) of which Verney writes. In The Last Man, the potential for universal solidarity in the face of nightmarish distress becomes realizable because Shelley blends contemporary critique with her vision of the ameliorative imagination and so fosters, in Mellor's words, "the possibility of alternative beginnings, of never-ending new births" (144).

Taken together, Bennett's and Mellor's comments remind Shelley's twenty-first-century readers that, for as much as it reflects the sociopolitical and cultural milieu of late Romantic England, The Last Man serves principally to dramatize its author's theory of the human imagination as a legitimate source of both personal and public reformation. I assert this point not to discredit current trends in Shelley scholarship but to recast them in light of the idea that Shelley's denunciation of empire in The Last Man gestures beyond the particulars of the pre-Victorian moment to the recurring historical challenge of shaping new and better human communities against paradigms of violence, repression, and despair. For Shelley, the imagination is crucial to answering this challenge because creative thought inspires and sustains new sociopolitical paradigms; in this sense, she finds in the imagination a transformative quality, or, more precisely, the power to effect lasting and meaningful renovation both within the mind and beyond it. …

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