Our benefits

24/7 customer support

Professional writers

No plagiarism

Privacy guarantee

Affordable prices

94% of return customers

Free extras

Free title page

Free bibliography

Free formatting

Free of plagiarism

Free delivery

Performing history, performing humanity in Mary Shelley's The Last Man

by Jennifer A. Wagner-Lawlor


Critics of Mary Shelley's uncanny novel The Last Man (1826) have long recognized this spectacle of mankind's end as part of a "deeply conflicted" critique of romanticism (1)--even a "repudiation of what might simplistically be termed the Romantic ethos" (2)--that infiltrates much of her fiction. Emily Sunstein remarks that even as early as her first novel, Frankenstein, Shelley, "[w]ith extraordinary clairvoyance and integrity ... recognized that what her father trusted as the promise of humankind--'What the heart of man is able to conceive, the hand of man is strong enough to perform'--was also its gravest threat. It is perhaps her greatest and most characteristic accomplishment in Frankenstein that the issue remains unresolved and unresolvable." (3) As Anne K. Mellor, most notably, and other critics following her have argued, indeterminacy-the "unresolved and unresolvable"--is clearly also at the center of this novel. (4) Here too Shelley delineates a grim vision of William Godwin's promise of the future's historical performance.

 Indeed, Godwin's theater metaphor--itself a figure already deeply associated with the metaphors of political theory--is elaborated into a multidimensional trope in The Last Man, which explicitly takes up romantic utopianism and its performance. This essay will explain how Shelley employs that trope to several ends. First, it allows her to continue her own early perception of the dangerous flirtation with the boundaries between reality and illusion--with the vulnerability, that is, of representation itself. On this, of course, much has been written, both with respect to romanticism generally and to Shelley specifically. But my narrower argument is that figurations of theater and theatricality display themselves everywhere in The Last Man, highlighting the unstable relationships of representation, reality, and illusion. In narrator Lionel Verney's history of the fall of man, these figurations initially characterize the problem of governmental legitimacy and, relatedly, the realization of utopian politics. Later in his narrative, however, the trope changes slightly: the theatrical becomes, more specifically, the tragic, as Verney struggles to represent, and thereby to contain, the nature and effects of the trauma brought on by the collision of a dreamed utopian future with the reality that is the plague. The indescribability of this traumatic eruption of the real into the visionary is the flip side of any utopian representation, and it places at the center of the novel a kind of "vertigo" (5)--at once temporal, hi storical, and ontological--that brings us to the very ends (in the double sense of the word) of representation itself. Verney recognizes these limitations well; he understands his history-as-theater conceit to be only a myth and in that recognition leads us to his narrative's apparent cancellation of the utopian vision of a twenty-first-century English paradise.

If one were to stop with narrator Verney's employment of the theater trope, then this essay would concur with readings, by Morton D. Paley in particular, that see the novel proposing the failure of the imagination, of utopian visionaries, political or poetical--indeed of art itself. But the author's use of theatricality as a structural trope complicates and deepens her narrator's use of it, for the development of this trope is central to the recovery, rather than the failure, of imagination. The novel restages, indeed re-theatricalizes, (6) Verney's story by way of the novel's puzzling frame, which proleptically (re)imagines the audience of human beings that Verney's narrative extinguishes. Through this re-theatricalization, I will argue, Shelley recovers an affirmative view, if not of anything so strong as utopian hope, then at least of the insistence on the primacy of human sympathy and sociality, which had always grounded her critique of romantic politics.




Drama theoretician and director Herbert Blau has written that "[o]ver the course of history there has been more or less anxiety, more or less philosophical, about the possibility that life might be a dream or all the world a stage. That has been the curious substance at the troubled heart of the drama, its essential distrust of the appearances of theater." (7) This "essential distrust" reached one of its high points in the decades after the French Revolution, and the conservative (anti)theatricalism of English romantic intellectual culture, both in its literature and in its political theory, has been well documented in the numerous studies on Edmund Burke's dramatic theory of politics. Julie A. Carlson, Geraldine Friedman, Robert Kaufman, Paul Hindson and Tim Gray, and others detail not only the pervasiveness of the metaphor of drama in Burke's writing itself but also, more fundamentally, the essentiality of that metaphor to his notion of the political. As Hindson and Gray observe, "Burke is insistent that th e stage is more than just a metaphor for the world, and on occasion he actually recommends that politicians emulate characters in plays." (8) Burke conceives of political activity itself as performance, with issues of leadership character as much a matter of staging and style as of essential quality. Furthermore, for Burke the power of the drama as metaphor lies not only in the role(playing) of actors, but also in the role of audience. From Aristotle onward, of course, it has been understood that the power of drama lies in its creation of a complex--even moral--relationship between actor and spectator. Burke sees drama's capacity for creating sympathy, that crucial philosophical concept throughout the eighteenth century and beyond, as the positive connection between plays and politics: "Burke believes that precisely the same process [of vicarious sympathy between character and spectator] takes place in the relationship between the political representative and the people." (9) The active production of sympathy --which according to Elaine Hadley "superseded in importance all other social feelings. . . not a feeling at all but a faculty that denoted the process of human exchange itself" (10) --confirmed theater and theatricality as potent not merely as metaphor, but also as implicit in actual social behavior. Furthermore, as Hadley emphasizes, "theatricalized exchange" did not take place in the theater alone; social virtues, social hierarchies, and indeed individual and social identities are constituted by "theatricalized public exchange." (11)


The danger of deceit is clearly present; as many scholars have observed, Burke and his contemporaries saw the failure of the French Revolution as rooted in its "false theatricalities." (12) Yet for Burke theatricality becomes a way of upholding the status quo and is "simultaneously a defense of monarchy, aristocracy, and other forms of 'civilized' inequality (all of which are threatened, Burke laments, by the new politicization of the socius)." (13) Hindson and Gray add, in this context, "The relationship between Burke's dramatic ideas and his conservatism reflects the classical tradition of drama. Classical tragedy portrayed an hierarchical order of society in which the fate of royalty and aristocracy was more significant than that of the lower orders ... The processes of catharsis, anagnorisis, and hamartia were all designed to reinforce predominant social values by making the audience believe that the social order was unchallengeable." (14)


Nevertheless, the radical implications of associating theater and politics are still there, as drama creates a new imaginative space, stages a transformative vision, and offers a progressive politics that can change an audience. This dynamic--suggested too by Godwin's remark about the performance of the visionary--would inform much actual drama of the romantic period. Carlson, for example, has explained how romantic theater became an essential site, a cultural "for(u)m" (p. 27)--for the representation of the imaginable, and as such became a spectacular agent--even a "psychic structure" (p. 2)--for the promotion and analysis of the age's utopian impulses. "[T]heatre," Carlson argues, "embodies [for the romantics] the challenges of political reform as the canonical poets see it: (dis)avowing the violence of representation; reconciling ideal and real." (15) With the literally spectacular French Revolution serving as its backdrop, much English romantic drama is committed, according to Carlson, to "embodying invi sible processes as a way of facilitating national dreams," (16) self-reflexively probing the complex dynamics of appearance and illusion, of mystification and demystification, that ideology and theater alike may employ to powerful political effects.

 A final touchstone is Shelley's study of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose specific association of theatricalism with the cultivation of sympathy is clearly a factor here. As David Marshall points out, there is "considerable evidence that Rousseau was a formative influence in Mary Shelley's intellectual development...Rousseau was a major influence on... Shelley's parents" and, as Marshall's own work on Frankenstein brilliantly explicates, on Shelley's first novel. (17) Furthermore, Marshall describes the "central and in some ways the paradigmatic" scene of sympathy in Frankenstein as a "scene of theater" (18): "Mary Shelley seems to adopt the theatrical model of sympathy she has inherited from eighteenth-century aesthetics and moral philosophy by placing the monster as an unseen, sympathetic spectator to the tableau de famille of the De Laceys." (19) The monster's lessons from this drama are, of course, famously frustrated as he is rejected by the De Laceys and sets fire to their cottage. But Shelley revisits wha t Marshall calls the "theatrical conditions of sympathy" in The Last Man, where the failure of sympathy is viewed from another perspective. (20) While Shelley's novel traces a sort of rise and fall, from utopia to apocalypse, of the drama-as-history metaphor, apparently endorsing the antitheatricality of those who suspect the drama of revolutionary politics, the theatrical survives in her continued interest in, and insistence on, the theatricality of the social affections.



The first volume of The Lost Man handles the metaphor of theater conventionally enough. Shelley describes pre-plague England as a "mighty theatre on which is acted the only drama that can, heart and soul, bear me along with it in its development." (21) The early part of Verney's story describes a time of personal and political turmoil in the twenty-first century. The questioned legitimacy of England's ruler has upset the political balance. But eventually a new government is established, guided by a utopian vision of the transformation of the country, via the performance of a "perfect system of republican government" (p. 44), into "one scene of fertility and magnificence": "the state of poverty was to be abolished; men were to be transported from place to place almost with the same facility as the Princes Houssain, Al and Ahmed, in the Arabian Nights. The physical state of man would not yield to the beatitude of angels; disease was to be banished; labour lightened of its heaviest burden.., and the mechanism of society, once systematised according to faultless rules, would never again swerve into disorder" (p. 106).


The novel offers several alternative leading men for what Verney describes as a "living drama acted around me," that "drew me heart and soul into its vortex" (p. 174): first, Adrian Windsor, son of the last monarch of England but clearly a man of contemplation, an aesthete rather than of a man of action; second, Lord Raymond, the more defiantly aristocratic leader, a man of Coleridgean "commanding genius." (22) From the opening pages, these leaders working toward a utopian future are described in theatrical terms as "full grown actors on this changeful scene" (p. 42), where "acting" is nothing less than historical agency. But the Shelleyan Adrian yields to the Byronic Raymond the field of action. (23) As Carison explains, "[t]he aesthetic mode is by definilion an intermediate condition whose value is in annulling former habits or principles of action so that one can envision, and then effect, new alternatives," and Adrian remains more comfortable as the visionary. (24)


For a time Raymond fulfills his political promise, having won over Parliament through what can be best described as a stirring political performance that, with "his presence in the house, his eloquence, address and imposing beauty," was "calculated to produce an electric effect" on the audience (p. 96). "Lord Raymond presented himself to the house with fearless confidence and insinuating address," Shelley writes; "He drew a glowing picture of [England's] present situation. As he spoke, every sound was hushed, every thought suspended by intense attention" (p. 98). The effectiveness of this "insinuating address" is further remarked in Verney's observation that "[Raymond's] graceful elocution enchained the senses of his hearers" (p. 98), a description that immediately confirms Raymond's fulfillment of Coleridge's definition of the "commanding genius."


But Verney's suggestions of rhetorical enchantment raise a red flag for the reader, who witnesses what goes on behind the scenes. The duplicity of Raymond's political appearances is evident from the beginning to his wife, Perdita, who bears an interesting, if distant, relationship to her literary foremother. Shelley's Perdita is no hidden royalty, but like her Shakespearean precursor in The Winter's Tale, she is deeply suspicious of the artificial. particularly of the evident theatricality of Raymond's political role as candidate for Lord Protector of England. When Adrian and others inspire Raymond to take up the political mantle once again, only Perdita is "fearful that some evil would betide them" (p. 93); as Raymond's confidence mounts toward election night, "the smile of triumph" illuminating his face, only she is "frightened by his gaiety... If his appearance even inspired us with hope, it only rendered the state of her mind more painful" (p. 97, my emphasis). For only Perdita knows how agitated Raymond is, even to tears, about the possibility of losing the election; only she is aware of his plan to leave England forever (and cut her off from her relations) if he should suffer so great a humiliation. Verney learns only later that Raymond "extorted from her a vow of secrecy," and in doing so, caused "[Perdita's] part of the drama, since it was to be performed alone, [to be] the most agonizing that could be devised" (p. 101). In other words, only Perdita sees what a shallow "shew of composure" the "self-command" (p. 100) Raymond presents to the public actually is. While he is an expert at such performances, Perdita is nearly distracted by the effort of obscuring the "real" Raymond. Like Victor Frankenstein's, Raymond's ambition causes him to neglect his family and their interests; Perdita's antitheatricality rests on her perception that she loses the sympathy of her "real" husband and companion when he puts on the political mask. But as the new Lord Protector, Raymond leads England toward "becom[ing] a Paradis e" (p. 108), and into a peaceful period marked by many improvements. Even the reluctant Perdita is enthused to "enter as it were into the spirit of the drama" (p. 105). (25)


As Carlson notes, romantic drama typically explores the gap that seems inevitably to open between utopian dream and political reality: "[n]egotiating this step [from 'the aesthetic to the logical and moral state'] is the downfall of actors on every stage in this period." (26) And so it is in Shelley's narrative. Though Raymond is at first immensely successful as a leader, he is seduced out of that role by Princess Evadne, daughter of a Greek ambassador, whom he calls, significantly, "his Princess in disguise" (p. 110). Raymond, himself in disguise, visits Evadne only to be almost literally unmasked. This discovery precipitates a scene with Perdita in which he hypocritically defends himself in theatrical terms, comparing the situation to a domestic drama: "Doubtless," he tells her, "you will play the part of the injured wife to admiration"--a remark which cruelly dismisses the authenticity of Perdita's natural feelings of betrayal. But Verney's narration condemns Raymond himself with the same terms and continu es to complicate the trope of theatricality: "Raymond moved towards the door. He forgot that each word he spoke was false. He personated his assumption of innocence even to self-deception. Have not actors wept, as they pourtrayed imagined passion? A more intense feeling of the reality of fiction possessed Raymond" (p. 125). Raymond's inability to distinguish reality from fiction is a kind of temporary madness-a "possession"; acting here is not only deception, but also self-deception. Moments later, Raymond is described as "perhaps somewhat ashamed of the part he acted of the injured man, he who was in truth the injurer" (p. 126), and the narrator, recognizing retrospectively that Raymond's breach is the beginning of the end, notes that consequent to Raymond's exposure, "Truth and falsehood, love and hate lost their eternal boundaries, heaven rushed in to mingle with hell; while his [Raymond's] sensitive mind... was stung to madness" (p. 127). (27)


Raymond's own later summary of his marital discord not only develops the problem of false theatricality but also associates the couple's once blissful life with a naive illusion--a mockery, in the double sense of the word--of a domestic paradise, and, by extension, of an imperial one:


With [Perdita] it was pretty enough to play a sovereign's part; and, as in the recesses of your beloved forest we acted masques, and imagined ourselves Arcadian shepherds, to please the fancy of the moment--so was I content, more for Perdita's sake than my own, to take on me the character of one of the great ones of the earth; to lead her behind the scenes of grandeur, to vary her life with a short act of magnificence and power. This was to be the colour; love and confidence the substance of our existence. But we must live, and not act our lives; pursuing the shadow, I lost the reality--now I renounce both. (p. 153)


The admission of personal guilt has profound national implications; as in Frankenstein, personal betrayals have much wider effects, for in the lives of influential figures the categories of private and public are as confused as the categories of authenticity and deception. Debilitated by remorse, Raymond feels oppressed by his own trappings of power and enslaved by the unreality of his role as actor on the national scene. His discrediting of his own theatricality destroys not only a domestic masquerade, but also his will to continue in his role as representative of England's people. (28) The reins of power are finally transferred back to Adrian, whose transparency of character contrasts to Raymond's obscurity.(29) At the same time, however, Shelley initiates a critique of acting and/as political agency that focuses on the destabilized boundaries of appearance and authenticity. Undermined too is the historical movement toward utopia, for with Raymond's denunciation of illusion and renunciation of power, a shad ow of irony enters the text and seems to undermine nearly every effort to distinguish the border between real and illusory, true and false. (30)

 With the advent of the plague at England's very shores, these difficulties become truly acute for the first time. Even as the first report of a plague victim surfaces, Verney, Adrian, and their families--Raymond has by this time been killed at war in Constantinople, where the plague first appears in the novel (31)-- retreat into a dream of safety and bliss. That spring seems to bring with it "peace through all the world," according to the narrator, and despite the fear of plague from the continent, Adrian, ever the Shelleyan dreamer, renews his utopian visions: "Let this last but twelve months...and earth will become a Paradise...What may not the forces, never before united, of liberty and peace achieve in this dwelling of man?" (p. 219). Court astronomer Merrival supports these visions, affirming the power of a leader such as Adrian, who can turn utopian fantasy into action. Yet this affirmation is itself undermined by the comical characterization of Merrival, and it is eroded even further in the next paragr aph; illusion and reality come face-to-face as news from the East of the spreading plague, now an "invincible monster" (p. 221), "brought us back from the prospect of paradise...to the pain and misery at present existent upon earth" (p. 220). England is eventually herself no longer "a nook of the garden of paradise," but has become rather "a wide, wide tomb" (p. 248). Merrival's own comedy turns irrevocably tragic when his wife and children become infected and die before his eyes.

Verney himself comes to describe the epidemic's implacable progress through civilization as a series of "tragedies" (p. 268), each death itself a synecdochic scene "acted harrowing to the soul" (p. 268). For Verney, the tragic element clearly lies in the irreconcilable collision of the ideal and the real, fantasy and action, in the fall from future-oriented utopian images to desperate delusions of survival. While he and his companions "imparadiz[e themselves] in the present hour" (p. 274), willfully pulling the veil over reality again and pretending a suspension of temporality, the delusions of happiness they create are not long left intact as the plague and time alike march implacably forward. In his effort to control England's panicked populace, Verney notes that these "endeavors were directed towards urging [the people] to their usual attention to their crops, and to the acting as if pestilence did not exist" (p. 284, my emphasis). The reference to theatricality once again points toward the blurred line be tween illusion and delusion, performance and reality, but this sort of acting is detrimental, as it denies the need to act.


At this moment in Verney's narrative, the figuration of theatricality begins to sharpen. The delusion of England's common, willful avoidance of the fatal reality of disease ruptures in a central scene that takes place in one of the capital's own theatrical establishments. Londoners have been piling into the theaters each night, looking for the escape of fictive drama, and particularly of "[tragedies] deep and dire," since comedy "brought with it too great a contrast to the inner despair" and, when attempted, too often resulted in on-stage "pantomimic revelry [changing] to a real exhibition of tragic passion" (p. 278). One evening, Verney wanders into the Drury Lane Theatre, even though it was "not in my nature to derive consolation from such scenes; from theatres, whose buffoon laughter and discordant mirth awakened distem- pered sympathy, or where fictitious tears and wailings mocked the heart-felt grief within" (p. 278). The "false varnish" of theater is stripped away on this night, however, when Verney fin ds himself watching Shakespeare's Macbeth (p. 278). The "scenic delusion" that Verney seeks is abruptly extinguished when he and the audience involuntarily identify with the action on stage (p. 282). For as the actors reach the scene that begins "Stands Scotland where it did?" which figures Scotland as "our grave," Verney recalls that, "Each word struck the sense, as our life's passing bell; we feared to look at each other, but bent our gaze on the stage, as if our eyes could fall innocuous on that alone. The person who played the part of Rosse, suddenly became aware of the dangerous ground he trod. He was an inferior actor, but truth now made him excellent; as he went on to announce to Macduff the slaughter of his family, he was afraid to speak, trembling from apprehension of a burst of grief from the audience, not from his fellow-mime" (pp. 282-3).


The voluntary acceptance of theatrical illusions, which as Frederick Burwick explains allows a simultaneous "aesthetic immediacy (participating in the illusion) together with aesthetic distance (detached attention to the performance)," becomes suddenly involuntary; the audience "make[s] no distinction between illusion and delusion." (32) This perceptual error takes in Verney himself; as the actor playing Macduff laments the murder of his children "with well acted passion: 'All my pretty ones? Did you say all?"' Verney records the "pang of tameless grief wrench[ing] every heart" (p. 283). The narrator's consciousness of the "false" medium (p. 278) of the theatrical is thus driven out by identification; vicarious response mediated by drama becomes actual reaction as "nature overpowered art" (p. 278), and Verney flees from the house: "I had entered into the universal feeling--I had been absorbed by the terrors of Rosse--I re-echoed the cry of Macduff, and then rushed out as from an hell of torture, to find calm in the free air and silent street. Free the air was not, or the street silent" (p. 283). The mediated suffering offered by Aristotelian drama depends for its effectiveness on emotional sympathy coupled with rational judgment-but reason at this moment falls victim itself to the purely emotional charge of what seems an essentially melodramatic moment. (33)

 Indeed this moment greatly complicates Shelley's employment of the figure of the theater. What Verney and the Drury Lane audience experience is the traumatic return of a repression that would avoid the inevitability of the plague. The fourth wall is suddenly permeable; the boundary between reality and illusion is blurred. The theatrical space, including stage and audience, becomes universal as reality itself seems to become actual tragedy. The history-as-drama metaphor is literalized here in the minds of the traumatized audience members, who become a synecdoche of the national corporate body and psyche. (34) The issues of representation in the double sense--political and theatrical--reemerge as the fictional performance suddenly re-presents to this audience its own doomed future in a homeland that is becoming, like Macbeth's Scotland, "our grave." More importantly, and ironically, in this moment English citizens momentarily achieve a common identity as a nation, an integrity for which Adrian's civilized visio n had always hoped. Nevertheless, Verney himself continues to read his general situation in terms of the tragic: "Farewell to the well-trod stage: a truer tragedy is enacted on the world's ample scene, that puts to shame mimic grief: to high-bred comedy, and the low buffoon, farewell!--Man may laugh no more" (p. 322). (35)



Much of the remainder of Verney's story is itself plagued by personifications of the representational crisis outlined above. The Drury Lane Theatre episode foreshadows twin problems of credibility and credulity that become critical with the appearance (in Paris, where all survivors have gathered) of a new leader whom Verney calls "the impostor" (p. 375). This fanatical "self-erected prophet, who ... strove to get the real command of his comrades into his own hands" (p. 375) claimed a sort of divine right of political legitimacy. With Adrian, the true representative of the body politic, away from the city, this "wolf assumed the shepherd's garb, and the flock admitted the deception" that by following this prophet and becoming part of the so-called "Elect" (p. 376), they would be immune from the plague's ravaging (pp. 375-6). The ease with which this man takes his audience demonstrates the danger of political theatrics. (36) The impostor plays out his role to the bitter end: "It is likely that he was fully awar e of the lie which murderous nature might give to his assertions...At any rate he resolved to keep up the drama to the last act" (p. 406). As Verney foretells, it is the reality principle, the plague itself, that "destroyed the illusion" of the impostor's alternate utopia, "invading the congregation of the elect, and showering promiscuous death among them" (p. 406). His mask wrenched away, the impostor kills himself, and the "deluded crowd" (p. 405) who gave him his audience "appeared before Adrian, and again and for ever vowed obedience to his commands, and fidelity to his cause" (p. 407). Unlike Satan's misled "flock," "allur'd...with lyes," (37) this one returns to its legitimate leader, but the incident underscores the narrative's acknowledgment of the facility with which we are taken in by false theatricalities.


The other major personification of representational dissonance in Shelley's novel is the plague itself. Frequently personified by Verney, it takes shape in the novel's final volume as a series of theatrical figurations that seems to exist at the very boundaries of reality and illusion. Among the ever-dwindling population of humankind there are numerous "extravagant delusions" (p. 409) of supernatural appearances--but Verney concludes that "in truth, of such little worth are our senses, when unsupported by concurrent testimony, that it was with the utmost difficulty I kept myself free from the belief in supernatural events...Sometimes realities took ghostly shapes; and it was impossible for one's blood not to curdle at the perception of an evident mixture of what we knew to be true, with the visionary semblance of all that we feared" (pp. 409-10). The narrator already distrusts our dependence on the senses, particularly on the faculty of sight. Seeing is no longer believing--the plague's invisibility is its m ost terrifying aspect. But by this time, even the skeptical and eminently sane Verney has difficulty protecting himself from the sting of the collective wound and from the presence of the fantastical visions.


As it turns out, these "visionary semblance[s]" are not in fact delusions, but rather actual instances of the disease itself. Verney relates the particular appearance of a figure "all in white, apparently of more than human stature" (p. 410). This "lonely spectre"--dancing wildly and acrobatically before the group, and suddenly bowing low before the appalled spectators--turns out to be an infected opera dancer, who "in an access of delirium...had fancied himself on the stage, and, poor fellow, his dying sense eagerly accepted the last human applause that could ever be bestowed on his grace and agility" (p. 410). The duplicity of theatricality once again confuses this audience, the members of which witness an image of their own future of delirium and death. Each of these illusions is yet another representation of the social and individual trauma that the novel as a whole relates, the plague's dramatic appearance on the world's stage. Each is a figuration of the real-as-alterity, but alterity here is more than uncanny. The realm of the theatrical is now the realm of doomed facticity, or, to call it something more Shelleyan, of "Necessity. " (38) As if to underscore the point, Verney records, again with a stage metaphor, that thereafter the body of eighty human survivors sought merely "a scene ... whereon to close the drama" (p. 424); they head toward the Alps, into a sublime natural background that "gave as it were fitting costume to our last act" (p. 425).

 Shelley acknowledges the tenacity of the human capacity for hope when she allows her characters, in the face of near-certain death, to indulge in the enjoyment of art, both "fiction, which wandering from all reality, lost itself in self-created errors," and also the "poets of times so far gone by, that to read of them was as to read of Atlantis and Utopia" (p. 431). In the illusion of art lies, still, the possibility of life, but by this time the reader knows to interpret this gesture ironically. Verney refers to the beautiful mountain surroundings as their "paradisaical retreat" (p. 432); but he has already described nature, which is breaking into spring beauty once again, in terms of theatricality: "her fertility was a mockery," he says, "her loveliness a mask for deformity" (p. 329). Verney condemns the appearance of nature itself as "a mockery" in the double sense, not only a taunting of mankind, but also an unkind imitation or masquerade of normality. Pointing to the plague's origin in nature, he remarks on the tragic irony that nothing but her crowning achievement, mankind, is destroyed by it.

The children alone maintain the ability to forget and to indulge in the illusory, once again in the mode of the theatrical. Raymond's daughter Clara, under Verney's care since her father's death, frequently adorns herself "with sunny gems, and [apes] a princely state... her youthful vivacity [makes] her enter, heart and soul, into these strange masquerades" (pp. 429-30). Her little shows pathetically reiterate the former aristocracy and privilege of her political parentage, now that the plague has quite literally leveled all and made any form of social self-fashioning among the survivors a ridiculous pretense. Soon thereafter Verney's own son succumbs to disease, and such hopes and respites as the group afford themselves are now, to Verney, but "some vain imagination or deceitful hope, which will soon be buried in the ruins occasioned by the final shock" (p. 435).


The sphere of the historical contracts further and further as the novel continues, finally narrowing to the perspective of the Last Man. (39) Verney's narrative began as a recording of the nearly successful creation of a utopian England, but its presentation of the eruption of the real into the imaginary vision of peace renders the earlier part of the novel merely nostalgic. "Utopia" is just an illusory dream now, the earlier political actions toward it only part of a fatal history that Verney tropes consistently as tragic drama. From the perspective of ultimate hindsight that Verney enjoys, however, such a characterization of history as tragedy is itself clearly ironical; he goes on to describe the earth, "late wide circus for the display of dignified exploits, vast theatre for a magnificent drama," as now "a vacant space, an empty stage--for actor or spectator there was no longer aught to say or hear" (p. 308). The narrator clearly recognizes his employment of the theater trope as precisely that: a rhetori cal figuration that merely organizes his account of a history beyond the capability of any man to represent. The trope participates in a kind of myth, of the sort that Paul Ricoeur describes as "capable of extension and transformation to the point where it can be applied to the whole narrative field ... The tragic muthos is set up as the poetic solution to the speculative paradox of time." (40)

 Verney himself comes to recognize his own representation of human history--his myth--as the failure of what Victor Turner calls "social drama," wherein "large-scale social actions [are] viewed performatively." (41) Richard Schechner is interested in the "transformative" aspect of this kind of performative narrativity, by which "whole communities act through their collective crises." (42) The hoped-for result of such a social drama is eventual "reintegration" of the original breach. Schechner adds that, "[a]s in all tragedy (and in some farce, the genre closest to tragedy), redressive action doesn't make life comfortable for the heroes: they end up dead, maimed and/or exiled, separated from the community, but also sacrificed on behalf of the community. This sacrifice constitutes the occasion of the integration." (43) The transformative power of social drama in this narrative is short-circuited first by the kind of breakdown of illusion and reality traced in Verney's history, and second by the extermination of the entire community of mankind. Accepting this fact, Verney also accepts that the time for such a myth is vanished. Tragedy can no longer exist, for all notions of hierarchical order, causality, and intentionality on which that genre depends are now irrelevant. (44)

Verney's entire narrative is therefore, as he acknowledges, little more than a sentimental and nostalgic inscription of experience back into the symbolic realm of language and image, and he chides himself for continuing, in his utter solitude, his delusory hope of actually communicating with anyone again. It seems to him that in some "real" way, life is no longer representable: the real has taken over as the only authentic mode, and words--especially, he says, words like "fame, and ambition, and love"--are "void of meaning" (p. 322). When it comes to history writing, Verney is initially paralyzed by the inadequacy of language either for locating the real, or for representing what has occurred: "How express in human language a woe human being until this hour never knew! ... I smile bitterly at the delusion [of companionship] I have so long nourished, and still more, when I reflect that I have exchanged it for another as delusive, as false, but to which I now cling with the same fond trust" (p. 467). (45) Iron y disrupts the comfort of that final word "trust," its connotation of absolute belief undone by the word "fond," which means not simply "cherished," but also, etymologically, "foolish." Necessity forces Verney to disavow what Carlson calls "the reality of illusion and the degree to which the self is haunted by past affiliations and identifications." (46)


We see this struggle for disavowal in Verney's final uses of the drama trope. In the end, surrounded by the statues and monuments of Rome, the solitary Last Man describes himself as left to act out to the end "my deplorable tragedy" (p. 457)--all the more tragic since he remains completely sane, his brain, "tenacious of its reason, refusi[ing] to lend itself to such imaginations," and also refusing, as he puts it, to "play the antic to myself" (p. 449). Verney has not even Hamlet's ironical comfort of theatrical madness. He attempts one last act of fancy--"to force myself to see the Plebeian multitude and lofty Patrician forms congregated around" (p. 462). But by now Verney is too well trained to resist such delusions, and we see this in his description of this bit of imaginative play as a "Diorama of ages [passing] across my subdued fancy" (p. 462). This is a final figuration of theatricality that betrays Verney's sense of a vertiginous historical temporality: the passing ages are represented as a fixed spe ctacle. Effects of movement in contemporary diorama (an optic spectacle only recently introduced to England in 1823) were obviously that, effects, which as William Galperin has explained, left spectators at once skeptical of its illusions and impressed with the "apparent reality" of the images. (47) Furthermore, the position of the diorama's audience, confined in a darkened room, had the effect, says Galperin, of "remov[ingl viewers from the scene, and . . . [leaving] them excluded from the very space they simultaneously inhabited." (48) As "sole remaining spectator" (p. 462) Verney inhabits with the painful self-consciousness just this liminal position, sensing his (dis)placement in and out of history, and resisting imagination and reality alike. While he is afraid, he says, to "truly picture the future to myself" (p. 458), his last days are spent casting off "my waking dreams" of hope (p. 463). and he eventually reproaches Rome's statues themselves for their mockery of companionship. (49)


What a far cry this is from Verney's participation in the "living drama" (p. 174) of utopian politics. The transformative power of political theatricality--"What the heart of man is able to conceive, the hand of man is strong enough to perform"--is short-circuited; the utopian visions it offered become entirely retrospective, nostalgic, monumental. With this final figuration of history-as-diorama, Verney freeze-frames his story, understanding now that the idea of history-as-progress--indeed the concept of history itself--is peculiarly empty.


If this were truly the end of the story, this analysis of the metaphor of theater and theatricality in The Last Man could only lead to the conclusion that Shelley joins the side of those who remained suspicious of theatricality and its very real effects on social and political behavior. This reading would support those critics who locate in this novel only Shelley's "ideological compromises" in her recognition of the limits of representation, and a consequent profound and reluctant skepticism. (50) The novel would then itself enact the tragedy of many romantic attempts to realize the imaginative or visionary, and one would have to concur with Paley's view that the novel represents the failure of imagination and art. But other critics--such as Mark Canuel, Giovanna Franci, William Lomax, Hartley Spatt, and Lynn Wells--point at the novel's peculiar opening frame as a way of resisting these readings. (51) While the strange circularity of Shelley's text is surely symptomatic of the inability of this version of s ocial drama to end in reintegration--the text can only repeat its "probing [of] the wound and exploring [of] the effects of the repetition of the trauma" (52)--these critics argue that very structural circularity can offer a way out of an obsessive repetition, (53) even to the extent of seeing the possibility of a kind of restoration in a utopian, or at least future-oriented, politics of deferral.


If we consider the implications of the drama figures this essay has been tracing, then my own conclusions fall into the camp of these latter critics. There is nothing overtly related to stage metaphors in the novel's opening pages, an "Author's Introduction" which posits the discovery, by an outside narrator who invites identification with Shelley herself, (54) of Verney's narrative among the Sibylline leaves in a cave near Naples. But the very fact of this narrator's editing and re-presentation of these manuscripts has the effect of staging the Verney narrative. As if proleptically re-opening the diorama figure for history with which Verney concludes, the outside narrator discovers this script of literally performative language (the prophetic words of the Sibyl) and re-presents it--indeed reanimates it--for an audience Verney supposes to be extinct. As Steven Goldsmith notes, Verney's narrative gains its power from its adherence to an apocalyptic sublime, his history endorsing the primacy of the "masculine ideal of self-presence." (55) While Goldsmith does not discuss theatricality per se, he does pick up in passing the dynamics of the trope I am examining: he remarks that the last-man theme so fashionable in the 1820s "represents the sublime in all of its theatrical tendencies; in imagining the unimaginable ... it stages fear in order to produce the effect of subsequent invigoration." (56) But Shelley suggests the invigorating pleasures of sublime horror are not enough--they encourage the pleasures of solitude, not of society, and the Last Man by definition draws these pleasures to an extreme. Surely for Shelley the Last Man's almost triumphal assumption of solitude can only be the most nightmarishly narcissistic version of romantic egoism, and arguments that Verney finally achieves a "self-transcendence" (57) do not fit well with what we know about Shelley's critique of the aesthetics of the sublime and the psychology it brings with it.


I argue, then, that The Last Man's frame functions to re-present the narrator's mediated version of the story, insisting that this tale of a dead-end history be opened back up to reader respon-siveness, back to that most important of human feelings, sympathy. The value of the story now becomes the animation of the reader's sympathetic identification with Verney's losses of utopian government and of domestic sociality. Returning to the earlier discussion of the importance in eighteenth-century political thought of theatricalized public exchange and its relation to politics--specifically its moral and ethical functions--we then can regard Shelley's move here as something more than empty, endless deferral. The conclusion of the frame narrator's introduction to the Verney history guides our own response and points to both moral and ethical effects:


My labours have cheered long hours of solitude, and taken me out of a world, which has averted its once benignant face from me, to one glowing with imagination and power. Will my readers ask how I could find solace from the narration of misery and woeful change? This is one of the mysteries of our nature, which holds full sway over me, and from whose influence I cannot escape. I confess, that I have not been unmoved by the development of the tale; and that I have been depressed, nay, agonized, at some parts of the recital, which I have faithfully transcribed from my materials. Yet such is human nature, that the excitement of mind was dear to me, and that 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. (p. 7)


The mysterious "influence" to which the narrator refers is what Shelley (and many of her contemporaries) believed to be a natural or innate sympathy whose effects are various: on the one hand sympathetic identification could, as Marshall says, "convert fellow feeling into aesthetic pleasure"; on the other, sympathetic influence "also [seems] to represent a loss of self: a self-forgetting that threatens the concept of a stable identity and blurs the boundaries that define and differentiate both self and other." (58) We see this blurring in the narrator's description of this story's cathartic effect. The ideality of Verney's sorrows absorbs the mortal sting of the narrator's own real ones as s/he--and in turn we ourselves--become what Marshall calls a "compassionate beholder" (p. 179). In this passage Shelley seems imaginatively to re-create Godwin's remark in his Enquiry concerning Political Justice that "[w]e find by observation that we are surrounded by beings of the same nature as ourselves. They have the same senses, are susceptible of the same pleasures and pains . . . We are able in imagination to go out of ourselves, and become impartial spectators of the system of which we are a part." (59) The boundary between self and other, real and fictional sorrows dissolves as the frame narrator falls under "full sway" of this "influence I cannot escape."


This rhetoric of domination and inescapability is not casually employed: it anticipates--and proleptically subverts--Verney's delineation of the plague as civilization's final, tyrannical ruler, whose grisly system Shelley's frame re-forms. And while Marshall notes that for some (namely Denis Diderot and Pierre Marivaux) sympathy itself "seems to become a contagious disease which is dangerous for both victim and compassionate beholder... [putting] one in the position of victim," (60) for Shelley this is a benign infection that would do well to plague mankind. The imagining of the compassionate beholder implies the possibility of a sympathetically reintegrated society--a reintegration that the frame narrator momentarily experiences in the reworking of Verney's literally dis-integrated text.


The frame is Shelley's effort--against Verney's--to retheatricalize, as sympathetic exchange, the relationship of text and audience. The power of this text, which incorporates Verney's own, lies not in the masculine ideology of the romantic sublime, which grounds so many of the last-man pretexts from which Shelley worked, but rather in a feminizing insistence on sentiment, sympathy, and sociality designed to short-circuit a masculine narrative of the sublime. In describing Shelley's move in these terms, I have particularly in mind G. J. Barker-Benfield's analysis of the eighteenth-century notion of civilization as itself a feminizing process toward sensibility and (particularly familial) sociality, a process whereby men are taught the supposedly feminine virtues of sensibility and community in opposition to the narcissistic vanity of a masculinist ideology of power. The "culture of reform" (p. 215) that he describes depends upon the creation of a "moralized taste" (p. 275) that ultimately insists on "regenera ting the social affections" (p.216)--and Barker-Benfield details the period's own acknowledgment of the important role that theater, literature, and the arts played in educating their audience-in reforming civilization. (61)

 This insistence on the social affections, I would argue, is ultimately what Shelley gains from her broad employment of the drama trope in The Last Man. Survival--whether her own psychological survival after the death of so many friends, or of civilization at large--seems always to depend for Shelley on what Mellor calls a precarious "relational identity"; Mellor goes on to characterize Shelley's deepest conviction that "only if men as well as women define their primary personal and political responsibility as the nurturance and preservation of all human life ... only then will humanity survive." (62) To return momentarily to Frankenstein: if one agrees with Mellor, Marshall, and others that this first novel traces the dire consequences of the failure of sympathy, then we might see Shelley's return to the problem here as a counterproposition that once again insists on the primacy of sympathy. Admittedly, Shelley's proleptic move to re-civilize the world with compassionate beholders cannot be said to constitute anything so coherent as an alternate vision to the utopian efforts launched by Adrian, Raymond, and other political figures in the novel. The difficulty of even interpreting the temporal status of Verney's story after taking into account Shelley's frame suggests ambivalence on the author's part with regard to any future-oriented politics. But the discovery and re-presentation of Verney's narrative is the staging that allows humanity back in and offers a hope that Verney does not. Shelley's trust in the moral possibilities of humanity--particularly in its imaginative capability for sympathy and its enlightened capability for community--survives, however tentatively, so long as sympathetic exchange between two persons, modeled by the relationship of frame narrator to reader, actor to audience, remains possible.



The early research on theatricality and utopianism for this essay began during the summer of 1994, when I was supported in part by the University of Memphis's Faculty Research Grant program. I'd like to thank Peter Manning. who generously, as usual, found the time to read and comment helpfully on an earlier draft during a particularly busy summer.

(1.) Paul A. Cantor, "The Apocalypse of Empire: Mary Shelley's The Last Man," in Iconoclastic Departures: Mary Shelley after "Frankenstein," ed. Syndy M. Conger, Frederick S. Frank, and Gregory O'Dea (Madison NJ: Associated Univ. Presses, 1997), pp. 193-211, 202.

(2.) Morton D. Paley, "The Last Man: Apocalypse without Millennium," in The Other Mary Shelley: Beyond Frankenstein, ed. Audrey A. Fisch, Anne K. Mellor, and Esther H. Schor (New York and Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1993). pp. 107-23, 111. For more on The Last Man as a critique of romanticism, see Mellor, introduction, The Lost Man, ed. Hugh J. Luke, Jr. (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1993), pp. vii-xxvi, xv.

(3.) Emily Sunstein, Mary Shelley: Romance and Reality (Boston: Little, Brown, 1989), p. 132.

(4.) There is at this point a long tradition of deconstructionist readings of this novel; in addition to Mellor, see Betty T. Bennett's "Radical Imaginings: Mary Shelley's The Last Mad' (WC 26, 3 [Summer 1995]: 147-52), which calls Verney's tale a "series of deconstructions" (p. 148); Fisch, "Plaguing Politics: AIDS, Deconstruction, and The Last Man." in The Other Mary Shelley, pp. 267-86; Barbara Johnson, "The Last Man," in The Other Mary Shelley, pp. 258-66; William Lomax, who calls the narrative an "indeterminate sequence that turns back upon itself and never ends," as opposed to a narrative of Christian teleology ("Epic Reversal in Mary Shelley's The Last Man," in Contours of the Fantastic, ed. Michele K. Langford [Westport CT: Greenwood Press, 1987], pp. 7-17, 8); Gregory O'Dea, "Prophetic History and Textuality in Mary Shelley's The Last Man," PLL 28, 3 (Summer 1992]: 283-304; and Robert Lance Snyder, "Apocalypse and Indeterminacy in Mary Shelley's The Last Man," SIR 17, 3 (Fall 1978): 435-52.

(5.) I take this word from Susan Stewart, Crimes of Writing (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 1991), p. 280.

(6.) Theatricality has received much attention of late-but obviously relevant here is Joseph Litvak's important study of theatricality in the nineteenth-century novel, which helped me to understand this particular turn in Shelley's novel. Litvak defines theatricality broadly, "owing its value as a critical term to this very open-endedness ... the trope of 'theatricality' enables us both to unpack subjectivity as performance and to denaturalize-to read as a scene-the whole encompassing space in which that subjectivity gets constituted" (Caught in the Act: Theatricality in the Nineteenth-Century English Novel [Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1992], p. xii). Thus we can not only read those places in novels where characters actually perform on stage their own scenarios, but we can also consider how our relationship to the narrative itself is theatricalized as authorial strategy.

(7.) Herbert Blau, "The Theatrical Fact," in To All Appearances: Ideology and Performance (New York: Routledge, 1992), pp. 38-86, 38.

(8.) Paul Hindson and Tim Gray, Burke's Dramatic Theory of Politics (Aldershot: Avebury, 1988). p. 173. On the connection between politics and theatricality in Burke, see also Julie A. Carlson, In the Theatre of Romanticism: Coleridge, Nationalism, Women (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1994), pp. 10-1, 136-44: Geraldine Friedman, The Insistence of History: Revolution in Burke, Wordsworth, Keats, and Baudelaire (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1996), pp. 12-43, 51-6; Robert Kaufman, "The Madness of George Ill, by Mary Wolistonecraft," SIR 37, 1 (Spring 1998): 17-25; Kaufman, "The Sublime as Super-Genre of the Modern, or Hamlet in Revolution: Caleb Wilhams and His Problems," SIR 36, 4 (Winter 1997): 541-74; and Peter H. Melvin, "Burke on Theatricality and Revolution," JHI 36, 3 (July-September 1975): 447-68. Finally, see Steven Blakemore's edited collection, Burke and the French Revolution (Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1992), Particularly useful in this context are the first three essays, by Christopher R eid, "Burke's Tragic Muse: Sarah Siddons and the 'Feminization' of the Reflections" (pp. 1-27); Franz DeBruyn, 'Theater and Counter-Theater in Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France" (pp. 28-68); and Tom Furniss, "Stripping the Queen: Edmund Burke's Magic Lantern Show" (pp. 69-96).

(9.) Hindson and Gray, p. 175.

(10.) Elaine Hadley, Melodramatic Tactics (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1995), p. 17.

(11.) Hadley, p. 17. Also relevant here is G. J. Barker-Benfield's The Culture of Sensibility: Sex and Society in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1992), a fascinating study that teases out the relationships of manners and moral reform to theatricality.

(12.) Hindson and Gray, p. 177.

(13.) Kaufman, "The Madness of George III, by Wolistonecraft," p. 19.

(14.) Hindson and Gray, p. 178.

(15.) Carlson, p. 2. Carlson's book is part of a general reassessment of romantic drama, and while she tends to stress the connection between theater and the political, she also stresses the other major connection: between theater and the mind. Other critics, especially Alan Richardson (see his A Mental Theater: Poetic Drama and Consciousness in the Romantic Age [University Park: Pennsylvania State Univ. Press, 1988]), take up this second crux more fully. Other important studies that have added to my understanding of the context of theatricality in the romantic period include: Frederick Burwick's illusion and the Drama: Critical Theory of the Enlightenment and Romantic Era (University Park: Pennsylvania State Univ. Press, 1991); Jeffrey Cox's In the Shadows of Romance: Romantic Tragic Drama in Germany, England, and France (Athens: Ohio Univ. Press, 1987): William Jewett's Fatal Autonomy: Romantic Drama and the Rhetoric of Agency (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press 1997); Judith Pascoe's Romantic Theatricality: Gende r, Poetry, and Spectatorship (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1997); and Daniel P. Watkins's A Materialist Critique of English Romantic Drama (Gainesville: Univ. Press of Florida, 1993).

(16.) Carlson, p. 3.

(17.) David Marshall, The Surprising Effects of Sympathy: Marivaux, Diderot, Rousseau, and Mary Shelley (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1988), p. 182. Marshall's appendix details his argument that, although the evidence is circumstantial, Shelley was almost certainly familiar with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, both through her parents and from reading his works directly (see pp. 228-33).

(18.) Marshall, p. 214. For more on the connection between sympathy and theatricality, see Marshall's wonderful chapter on Mary Shelley's rereading of Rousseau in Frankenstein (pp. 178-233, esp. 178-82).

(19.) Marshall, p. 214. Throughout her study, Sunstein supplies useful evidence and analysis of Shelley's disillusionment with Godwinian and Shelleyan utopianism. A more recent discussion of this aspect of the novel appears in Lynn Wells's "The Triumph of Death: Reading and Narrative in Mary Shelley's The Last Man," in Iconoclastic Departures, pp. 2 12-34, esp. 2 13-9. Wells points to the novel's "[fluctuating] meaning" (p. 213), the "disrupt[ion of its] illusion of representational stability" (p. 215), and its resistance to closure (p. 219). Finally, see Greg Kucich's "Mary Shelley's Lives and the Reengendering of History," in Mary Shelley in Her Times, ed. Bennett and Stuart Curran (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2000), pp. 198-213. Particularly relevant to my argument is Kucich's analysis of Shelley's "more humanized historical epistemology" (p. 202), with her attention in the Lives to "individual sufferings and sympathetic communities" (p. 203). He mentions The Last Man, in this context, as a fictional text that exemplifies Shelley's effort to "reengender the past" and "personalize history" (p. 204). Kucich also refers to the pressure of a "redemptive 's ympathy"' (p. 211) in the Lives; I see that same "redemptive 'sympathy"' shaping The Last Man.

(20.) Marshall, p. 216.
(21.) Mary Shelley, The Last Man, ed. Morton D. Paley (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1994), p. 41. All subsequent references to the novel appear in the text parenthetically by page number.

(22.) According to Carlson: Coleridge gives a name to romantic ambivalence about the poet's worldly power: commanding genius...For "men of commanding genius," he explains, are those in whom the "impulse" to realize the "conceptions of the mind" is "strongest and most restless." Possessing more than "mere talent" they "want something of the creative and self-sufficing power of absolute Genius."...That kind of genius "rest[s] content between thought and reality, as it were in an intermundium of which their own living spirit supplies the substance, and their imagination the ever-varying form"; commanding geniuses "must impress their preconceptions on the world without, in order to present them back to their own view with the satisfying degree of clearness, distinctness, and individuality." (pp. 21-2)

(23.) For discussion of the relationship of this novel's characters to Shelley's biography, see Hugh J. Luke Jr., "The Last Man: Mary Shelley's Myth of the Solitary," Prairie Schooner 39, 4 (Winter 1965-66): 316-27; Elizabeth Nitchie, Mary Shelley: Author of Frankenstein (New Brunswick: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1953): Paley: Walter E. Peck, "The Biographical Elements in the Novels of Mary Wolistonecraft Shelley," PMLA 38, 1 (March 1923): 196-220: Lee Sterrenburg, "The Last Man: Anatomy of Failed Revolutions," NCF 33, 3 (December 1978): 324-47, 327-8); Constance Walker, "Mary Shelley and the Art of Losing," in Mary Shelley in Her Times, pp. 134-46: and Samantha Webb, "Reading the End of the World: The Last Man, History, and the Agency of Romantic Authorship," in Mary Shelley in Her Times, pp. 119-33, 119-20. For a more general discussion of the relation of autobiography to Shelley's work, see Gary Kelly, "Politicizing the Personal: Mary Wolistonecraft, Mary Shelley, and the Coterie Novel," in Mary Shelley in Her T imes, pp. 147-59.

(24.) Carlson. p. 76.

(25.) I am grateful to Peter Manning for prompting me to consider this connection more carefully.

(26.) Carlson, p. 76.

(27.) Carlson's remarks on romantic male protagonists and "tragic heroism" are relevant here: "In the case of male protagonists, seduction is a feature of mind that affirms their heroism because It proves their powers of imagination. It may constitute tragic heroism but none the less attests to the greatness of the mind that has fallen...[A]t least they have visions and, moreover, are deemed capable of dreaming as well as philosophizing on the nature and danger of dreams" (p. 196). Raymond well fits this characterization, down to his philosophizing about the deceptiveness of both domestic and national dreams.

(28.) Kate Ferguson Ellis discusses Raymond's extramarital affair as only one of the types of "infection" that seem to foreshadow or parallel the infection of the plague ("Subversive Surfaces: The Limits of Domestic Affection in Mary Shelley's Later Fiction," In The Other Mary Shelley, pp. 220-34, 225).
(29.) I borrow this word from Carlson, whose contrast of heroic "types" in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's drama is clearly relevant: "Increasingly, Coleridge's critique of action is made through a thematized resistance to acting. What marks characters as evil is their status as actors, made manifest in their histrionics, impetuosity, and duplicity. In contrast, good characters are univocal, patient, and transparent, serving as models of mind to the extent that they do not let matter get in the way" (p. 108; my emphasis). Marshall makes a more explicit link between "mutual transparency and sympathy" (p. 178). On the centrality of the matter of representation to romantic theater, see Carlson's introduction, in which she argues that "revolutionary politics--and its theatre--become a 'matter of establishing just who represent[s] the people' and who is capable of keeping that 'symbolic position'" (p. 9).

(30.) Paley discusses the "teasing" nature of imagination in The Last Man: "It presents itself as a savior only to be revealed as a creator of phantasms" (p. 113).

(31.) Various critics have commented on the significance of the plague's apparent origin in the East, seeing it either as part of the novel's complex and self-conscious critique of British imperialism (see Cantor, pp. 196-9), a trope for revolution (see Sterrenburg, pp. 328-37), or as an unconscious revelation of Shelley's complicity in a general British fear of cultural alterity. For a more general discussion of the trope of infection in this novel, see Fisch, pp. 267-86.

(32.) Burwick, p. 2. For further discussion of the theories of voluntary versus involuntary aesthetic experiences, see pp. 2 if. This book provided useful theoretical background for my thinking about illusion, delusion, and their relation to the stage. Marshall's discussion of sympathy-as-spectacle, and the dangers as well as attractions of such spectacles, is also clearly relevant to my reading of this scene: [Denis] Diderot, who appears to be anxious about the effects of sympathy on both actor and spectator, rejects the belief that actors should forget themselves in their roles--as if, like Rousseau, to exorcise the self-forgetting that characterizes some of his self-portraits as an artist; yet Diderot remains preoccupied with scenes in which either spectator or actor forget theater in a moment of sympathy that denies the inevitable partition that divides actors from both their parts and their audience. Indeed, all of the texts we have considered reveal the deeply ambivalent investment of their authors in acts and spectacles of sympathy: whether works of fiction or aesthetic theory or both, these texts seem compelled to deny, counteract, or warn the reader about the dangerous consequences of the sympathy that they advocate or even seek to elicit. (p. 180) This scene clearly is one of those moments--and Verney's own response indicates such ambivalence. I would not go so far as to say that Shelley herself is rejecting such moments: indeed, my reading of the frame in the last section of this essay will argue the opposite: that Shelley precisely encourages the "investment"--for the moral profit outweighs the risk.

(33.) Hadley includes among melodrama's distinctive features these attributes: "familial narratives of dispersal and reunion, its emphatically visual renderings of bodily torture and criminal conduct, its atmospheric menace and providential plotting, its expressions of highly charged emotion, and its tendency to personify absolutes like good and evil" (p. 3). If melodrama is, as she claims, a "behavioral and expressive model" (p. 3) for much of the nineteenth century, we might see Shelley here employing just this melodramatic model for this novelistic moment, particularly in the Drury Lane audience's sense of a personified absolute evil.

(34.) For a discussion of the "permeability" of the "two houses" of representation--theatrical assemblies and national bodies--see Carlson, pp. 9-12.

(35.) On Verney's "recognition of this diseased refraction of creativity" in the populace at large, and his "vital discrimination" between the "reality of fiction" and "the higher reality of imaginatively created life," see Hartley Spatt, "Mary Shelley's Last Men: The Truth of Dreams," SNNTS 7, 4 (Winter 1975): 526-37, 535.

(36.) On this figure, see Webb, pp. 130-1.

(37.) John Milton, "Paradise Last," in The Complete Poetry of John Milton, ed. John T. Shawcross, rev. edn. (Garden City NY: Anchor Books, 1971), book 5, line 709.

(38.) P. B. Shelley's adherence to the doctrine of Necessity dates from his earliest works. In Queen Mab (1813), "Necessity" is addressed as "spirit of Nature! all-sufficing Power, /... thou mother of the world" (6.198-9). His note to these lines remarks that "we are taught, by the doctrine of Necessity, that there is neither good nor evil in the universe, otherwise than as the events to which we apply these epithets have relation to our own peculiar mode of being" (qtd. from Shelley's Poetry and Prose, sel. and ed. Donald Reiman and Sharon B. Powers [New York: W. W. Norton, 1977], p. 50).

(39.) Julia M. Wright, "'Little England': Anxieties of Space in Mary Shelley's The Last Man," in Mary Shelley's Fictions: From Frankenstein to Faulkner, ed. Michael Eberle-Sinatra (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000). pp. 129-49.

(40.) Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, trans. Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer, 3 vols. (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1988), 1:38. Ricoeur also, following Aristotle, describes the genre of tragedy as characterized by "the paradigm of order."

(41.) Richard Schechner, Performance Theory (New York and London: Routledge. 1988), p. 282.

(42.) Ibid.

(43.) Schechner. p. 189.

(44.) For a similar argument, see Snyder, who argues that Shelley's vision "is characterized by an austerity and brooding related to the inability to discern any rationale within human destiny" (p. 438). The plague itself he calls a "grotesque enigma mocking all assumptions of order, meaning, purpose, and causality" (p. 436), and adds that it "constitutes a phenomenon which defies all referential sense" (p. 440). He also connects this with the novel's "dystopian cast" (p. 448). Johnson's provocative "The Last Man," in The Other Mary Shelley (pp. 258-66), argues as well that "[t]he Plague is at once that which stops all systems of meaning from functioning and that against which those systems are necessarily erected" (p. 264). Ellis comments that "the Plague is more powerful than national or personal imperatives" (p. 226). Also see Webb, who calls the plague "a fulcrum on which to scrutinize the act of interpretation itself" (p. 127).

(45.) On the failure of words in Shelley's work, see William D. Brewer, "Mary Shelley on the Therapeutic Value of Language," PLL 30, 4 (Fall 1994): 387-407. Brewer's conclusion that "Mary Shelley's fictions return repeatedly to the predicament of a suffering human being torn between the impulse to communicate and the urge to retreat into isolation and death" (p. 404) is obviously relevant.

(46.) Carlson, p. 114.

(47.) William H. Galperin. The Return of the Visible in British Romanticism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1993). Galperin's study of conceptions of visibility in romantic culture dovetails in interesting ways with the problem of theatricality. Among the relevant confluences here are his discussions of panorama and, especially, of diorama in England in the early nineteenth century (see chapter 2, "The Panorama and the Diorama: Aids to Distraction," pp. 34-71).

(48.) Galperin, p. 66.

(49.) For a discussion of the significance of the statues in the context of this novel's attention to "artifacts" as representations of the past in the face of a doomed future, see Anne McWhir's "'Unconceiving Marble': Anatomy and Animation in Frankenstein and The Last Man," in Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley: Writing Lives, ed. Helen M. Buss, D. L. Macdonald. and Anne McWhir (Waterloo ON: Wilfrid Laurier Univ. Press, 2001), pp. 159-75, esp. 168-73.

(50.) See, for example, Fisch, Mellor, and Schor's introduction to The Other Mary Shelley, pp. 3-14, 8. Mellor, in her introduction to the novel, refers to "Shelley's philosophical skepticism" regarding romantic idealism (p. xv). See also Mellor's Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters (New York: Routledge, 1988), pp. 164-8. Cantor also discusses in detail Shelley's retreat--perceptible certainly in Frankenstein--to a kind of domestic, even quasi-feudal, paradise, which he sees as a response to her rejection of romantic egotism, on the one hand, and of modem market economics and imperialisms on the other (pp. 196-200). Also see Lomax, pp. 11-2. For a relevant and useful discussion that contextualizes Shelley's emphasis on the domestic within a concern for "the Everyday," see Laurie Langbauer, "Swayed by Contraries: Mary Shelley and the Everyday," in The Other Mary Shelley, pp. 185-203. Webb provides a useful counterargument here, charging that the critical near-consensus on Shelley's "Victorian" conservatism has the effect of "implicitly plac[ing] her later work outside the Romantic canon and amounts to a political indictment whose yardstick is the men in her life, William Godwin and P. B. Shelley" (p. 120); she reminds us that Shelley is nevertheless "working out new ways of achieving self-identity as an author in the wake of her personal loss of her primary audience" (p. 120), and implicitly suggests that we widen our sense of her authorial projects.

(51.) Readings of the frame are found in Mark Canuel, "Acts, Rules, and The Last Man," NCF 53, 2 (Sept. 1998): 147-70: Giovanna Franci, "A Mirror of the Future: Vision and Apocalypse in Mary Shelley's The Last Man," in Mary Shelley: Modern Critical Views, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House, 1985), pp. 181-91. 183-4; Lomax, pp. 7-9; O'Dea, pp. 292-4, 301-2; Mellor, Mary Shelley, pp. 158-9: Paley, pp. 110-1; Sophie Thomas, "The Ends of the Fragment, the Problem of the Preface: Proliferation and Finality in The Last Man," in From Frankenstein to Faulkner, pp. 22-38, 33-7; Webb, pp. 120-5, 131-3; Wells, pp. 215-20: and Wright, p. 145.

(52.) Stewart, p. 280.

(53.) Lomax argues provocatively for a kind of way out of the impasse. Out of the irony that takes over this narrative, he proposes, lies the generic root of science fiction: "With the collapse of the great myth system of Christianity, new metaphors and new myths had to be found. They are necessarily located in other worlds and future times, for those are the only places new myths can settle; the dead past is the home of the old myth. Thus out of Romantic pessimism and its artistic demolition of the past, science fiction arose. It is the dramatization of the search for new myths that characterizes science fiction" (p. 15). This proposal usefully complicates Franci's conclusion that "the book moves from a negation of utopia into its own utopic dimension, from being an apocalypse with no eschaton or definitive ending It takes on more precisely eschatological forms. Lionel now becomes the artist who, recognising the failure and nullity of both preceding historical experience and of its recording, projects himsel f instead into the future of imagination and prophetic vision" (p. 191). Wells takes a middle ground, seeing the narrative structure of this novel as "Itself also enact[ing] the mourning process: it functions both as a site of recovery, through the buildup of potential narrative action, and of loss, through the elimination of that same action. The Last Man becomes a 'triumph of death'...as Lionel calls his story, in several ways at once, including the sense of triumphing over death, similar to how Jacques Derrida rereads the title of Percy Shelley's The Triumph of Life to encompass the notion of 'surviving beyond.' The plague can be thought of as an agent of narrative annihilation" (p. 214).

(54.) Paley points out, though, that this narrator is "nameless and genderless" (p. 110). suggesting that we should not assume the narrator to be the author; the "conditionality of the introduction." according to Wells, depends upon our remembering this (p. 215) and she goes on to describe the narrator as a "provisional identity" through which Shelley can explore her situation (p. 216). But in either case, Verney, the "I-author," and Shelley herself are, as Bennett points out, consonant with one another in that each is clearly a "survivor" who shares "the same redemptive experience" (see p. 151).

(55.) Steven Goldsmith, "Of Gender, Plague, and Apocalypse: Mary Shelley's Last Man," YJC 4, 1 (Fall 1990): 129-73, 137.

(56.) Goldsmith, p. 134 (my emphasis). Elsewhere, Goldsmith observes that "[p]ut simply. The Last Man dramatizes the incompatibility of the terms apocalypse and novel" (p. 131).

(57.) Spatt, for example, argues that the imagination permits Verney's final "self-transcendence" (p. 536). But relevant to my point here is Canuel's observation that "[i]n general, The Last Man continually contrasts with Rasselas in refusing to provide consolation for tragedy through recourse to privacy or solitude--there is no happy valley" (p. 163). Indeed, Verney's acceptance of his nomadic state, in which national boundaries are irrelevant, every port, every country, "thrown open to me" (p. 469), is particularly punishing. Verney fulfills Coleridge's notion of the nationless man, without the "resisting and returning outline" of his country, as "a Phantom ... lost in vague space, a mere striving at Being" (qtd. in Carlson, pp. 35-6). The nomadic life becomes the only possible authentic life, as he puts aside the theatrical figurations of history in his writing, abandoning any effort to contain the real and giving up any faith in the non-real in dreams, art, utopias, and any imagining of the future: "I for m no expectation of alteration for the better; but the monotonous present is intolerable to me. Neither hope nor joy are my pilots--restless despair and fierce desire of change lead me on" (p. 470). Verney's nomadism aptiy reflects his rejection of any teleology.

(58.) Marshal, p. 179. This discussion of sympathy and Rousseau introduces Marshall's chapter on Frankenstein, pp. 178-227. Also relevant is the appendix to this book, "Mary Shelley and Rousseau," pp. 228-33.

(59.) William Godwin, Enquiry concerning Political Justice and Its Influence on Modern Morals and Happiness (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1985), p. 381. Marshall discusses this passage, and Godwin's relation of the "imaginative transport of sympathy to the perception that other beings are like ourselves" (p. 201). Also see Hindson and Gray's discussion of Burke's understanding of tragedy, its cathartic effects, and its relevance to his own social and political theory (pp. 113-72).

(60.) Marshall, p. 179.

(61.) more on the relationship of theater to cultural reform, see Barker-Benfield, pp. 297-9. Also relevant here is Goldsmith, who argues that in The Last Man's opening chapter Shelley partakes of "an alternative line of prophecy, a feminine line" (p. 139).

(62.) Mellor, "Introduction," pp. Vii-xxvii, xii, x. Mellor similarly argues that this novel "tests Mary Shelley's ideology of the family against the realities of human egotism and temporal mutability" (Mary Shelley, p. 148).

Jennifer A. Wagner-Lawlor is professor of English at the University of Memphis in Tennessee.

< Prev   Next >

Service features

24/7 customer support

Written from scratch papers only

Any citation style

Fully referenced

Never resold papers

275 words per page Courier New font