Three Faces of Sibyl: Evolving Interpretations of Shelley’s Plague

In his 1978 article “Apocalypse and Indeterminacy in Mary Shelley's The Last Man", Robert L. Snyder attempted to recover The Last Man from lingering inattention by focusing not on its autobiographical qualities, or its depressive effects, but by examining the mysterious nature of Shelley’s plague. “This is the plague itself which, unnamable and preternatural, pursues the refugees of an exhausted world and nullifies all hope of human relationship…As I hope to demonstrate, there is no logically adequate way of construing the plague” (Snyder, 436).

For Snyder, the plague is presented in a manner that is neither naturalistic nor religious. He also denies that the plague functions as a political metaphor like the one in “…[P.B.] Shelley's…The Revolt of Islam, which unmistakably identifies this affliction with the barbarity, fraud, despotism, and reactionary politics of the ‘tyrants of the Golden City’…” (Snyder, 436). Rather, just as Mary Shelley is unable to accept Wordsworth’s pastoral idealism, so she is unable to accept the rationalism of Godwin or the perfectible telos of her husband. Consequently, “her vision is characterized by an austerity and brooding related to the inability to discern any rationale within human destiny...What remains, therefore, is an intuition of the fearful marginality of man in a disjointed and alien universe” (Snyder, 438).

Human impotence in the face of universal alienation is illustrated by Verney’s physical infection and subsequent recovery. Snyder, however, reads this event not as an opportunity for critiquing racism and colonialism [like Hutchings, below], but instead contrasts Verney against the false prophet of Paris. For Snyder, Verney—upon his recovery—becomes a failed prophet. Endowed with superior health after his recovery, Verney nevertheless is unable to either foresee the future, or understand the present or derive any meaning from it. Importantly, Verney fails not from any personal shortcoming, but because prophesy is impossible; the future must remain unknowable when the fate of humanity rests upon no rational cause. “Thus in this novel the apocalypse, which in the Greek means a revelation or unveiling, itself brings no enlightenment; it figures only as a limit-phenomenon disclosing nothing more than the tenuousness of man's ability to reason and his isolation within a Manichean universe” (Snyder, 445).

Snyder concludes that The Last Man should not be viewed either as literary fashion, nor solely as an instance of authorial self-therapy. Rather, it should be viewed as what Georg Lukacs terms the Romantic ‘novel of disillusionment’”—a phrase describing works that appeared “when mythical connections were broken and interiority was elevated to a status rivaling that of a completely autonomous and independent world. But radical subjectivity was found to be as burdensome and problematic as the fragmented sphere outside the self” (Snyder, 449).

The brute indeterminacy of the plague represents the ultimately unconquerable mystery of the universe; and simultaneously it suggests that indeterminacy is (ironically) not the result of some malignancy within the universe, but arises from the limitations of humans’ rational capacity, or perhaps the limitations of rationality itself. “This defines well the dilemma of cognition evoked in The Last Man, for the plague eclipses interpretation of any sort and demands that we reexamine our assumptions about the knowable world. If any integration is possible, suggests Mary Shelley, it comes about only through the chastened imagination” (Snyder, 451).

Similarly, Brian Nellist’s "Imagining the Future: Predictive Fiction in the Nineteenth Century" describes the intellectual turn toward the perfectibility of society, and the teleological view of history—a la P.B. Shelly, Godwin, and to some extent Wordsworth. “The consequence of this belief in an inevitable forward movement of the mind and its inventions is to create a consciousness of the future instead of the transcended past, as appointing the direction of the present” (Nellist, 111).

After an examination of the forward-looking works of George Elliot, Nellist concludes that, “[Elliot’s] futures convict the present rather of the naivety of its calculations and its improvident insufficiency.” For an earlier, transitional example of this new paradigm Nellist cites The Last Man which functions “not as a naturalizing of apocalypse but as a refusal to politicize or moralize its finality” (Nellist, 114).

Nellist praises the novel for its “respectful detachment from rationalist predictions and imagined salvations” which ultimately “makes natural law include life’s arbitrariness, including the possibility that there might simply be no recovery from the plague” (Nellist, 114-15). While admitting both the oft-recognized biographical elements and the apparent “narrative miscellany”, Nellist maintains that: “Irony is the compulsive mode for Mary Shelley. The disparity between the local view and the universal constantly makes the over-determination of meaning from individual perception, the operation of such intelligences as Adrian-Shelley, historically futile” (Nellist, 116).

It is through this ironic dualism that Mary Shelley “…turns her husband’s vision of history inside out; where for [P.B.] Shelley the foreground is dark and his imagination journeys in search of a vision beyond occlusion, Mary presents figures who achieve local victories on the way to final defeat.” And consequently, “It is less her skepticism about the future than her claim that it literally cannot be thought which makes her different from later nineteenth-century writers and The Last Man is in that respect alien to the premises of science fiction” (Nellist, 117).

Further refining this critical thread, Kevin Hutchings’ "'A Dark Image in a Phantasmagoria': Pastoral Idealism, Prophecy, and Materiality in Mary Shelley's The Last Man applies Foucault’s idea of pastoral technology—the process by which individuals surrender their physical autonomy, or physicality or desire, to administration by pastoral society enforced by internalization of social mores.

In this analysis Adrian is the pastoral idealist, repressed by his own intellectual turn away from nature and the body. “According to Adrian's causal logic, if we strive with all our might to will a paradisiacal telos, we will inevitably actualize such an outcome here on earth” (Hutchings, 234). Adrian’s teleology functions as prophecy by its suggestion that the future can be known, because it can be decided. In this way Adrian approximates the false prophet of Paris—who is false both because he cannot, in fact, see the future, and because his religious beliefs (Calvinist) lead him to believe in predestination while he simultaneously offers his followers the (false) opportunity to choose their destiny. This false prophecy is metaphorically connected to the plague threatening human existence, because “false prophecy creates a 'pestilential atmosphere', because, like a rigidly apocalyptic view of history, it ultimately renders entirely vain all human efforts to generate positive historical change, thus inculcating a despairing sense of hopeless apathy that 'destroy[s] all conscientious feeling'” (Hutchings, 236).

But Hutchings seeks to recuperate The Last Man from its reputed hopelessness. He first suggests that Shelley’s criticism of Calvinist theology offered a framework by which to examine contemporary political debates. Second, Hutchings offers a reading of the African origins of the plague, and Verney’s infection through physical embrace by a racial other (an action that both infects him and ultimately makes him immune), that allows the possibility Shelley may have been questioning racial/colonialist stereotypes.

Verney’s story is, at first, like Adrian’s. Verney overcomes his “savage” self of childhood in favor of an intellectualized idealism. Later he attempts to recover his physicality but never fully reintegrates his intellectual/moral (“civilized”) and physical (“savage”) selves.

If Africa functions in Western colonialist discourse as a scapegoat…and if, as I have been< arguing, the dualistic rejection of physicality carries profoundly negative psychological and material ramifications in The Last Man - this troubled 'embrace' might itself represent the beginnings of Verney's real humanization, perhaps even an antidote to the pestilential concept of human identity he had earlier embraced as part of his rarefied intellectual pastoralism” (Hutchings, 240).

However, as Snyder pointed out, “Several times over in the novel Shelley] advances various hypotheses, only in the end to realize how inadmissible each is” (Snyder, 438). Consequently, Verney is ultimately denied full humanity as he regains physical autonomy but his social idealism is rendered moot by aloneness. “But the extreme aversion to physicality implicit in Verney's culturally conditioned rejection of his 'animal wants' (p. 309) leads to a violent return of that which has been repressed, significantly resulting in the manifestation of pathology and pestilence in the external world. Thus, the plague and its physical destructiveness, far from being at odds with the seemingly benign and benevolent pastoral milieu, are in The Last Man unwonted productions of pastoral idealism” (Hutchings, 241).

Contributor: Derek Hyatte

Works Cited

Hutchings, Kevin. "'A Dark Image in a Phantasmagoria': Pastoral Idealism, Prophecy, and Materiality in Mary Shelley's The Last Man." Romanticism 10.2 (2004): 228-244.

Nellist, Brian. "Imagining the Future: Predictive Fiction in the Nineteenth Century." Anticipations: Essays on Early Science Fiction and its Precursors, ed. David Seed (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1995) p 116 (1995).

Snyder, Robert Lance. "Apocalypse and Indeterminacy in Mary Shelley's The Last Man." Studies in Romanticism Boston, Mass. 17.4 (1978): 435-452.


See Also

[http:// Luke, Hugh Jr. "The Last Man: Mary Shelley's Myth of the Solitary." Prairie Schooner 39.4 (1965): 316-327.]