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"In the mean time, what did Perdita?": Rhythms and Reversals in Mary Shelley's The Last Man

  • Richard S. Albright

…plus d’informations

  • Richard S. Albright
    Lehigh University

Corps de l’article

All plot summaries of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's 1826 novel, The Last Man, begin with two elements: the novel is set in the closing years of the twenty-first century and it concerns a plague which destroys all human life on earth except for one man. Although the novel contains a series of intricate puzzles concerning time, of which Shelley's setting in the distant future is only the first, the novel has usually been read as a roman à clef, with the author's late husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron among the contemporary figures modeled. Other critical readings have focused on Shelley's projections of her own guilt, anger and emotional loss into the novel or on the tradition of the Last Man theme.

Lionel Verney, the narrator of the tale, looks back upon the final decades of the human race's existence from the year 2100. Yet his narrative was prophesied thousands of years in the past by the Cumaean Sibyl, who recorded the prophecy (in various ancient and modern languages) on "Sibylline leaves" in a cave visited in 1818 by the "Author" (who may or may not be Mary Shelley, as Audrey A. Fisch has observed).  [1] It falls to this individual to translate the Sibyl's account, which is "scattered and unconnected," to fill in gaps, to "transform" the leaves since "they were unintelligible in their pristine condition."  [2]

Verney's account thus consists of his recollection of events (from a point when time has already lost its former meaning), a series of events prophesied by the Sibyl, recorded as she remembered her prophecy, translated and edited by the frame narrator and finally interpreted by the reader. (Even the individual who entered the cave and scattered the Sibylline leaves has influenced the narrative). This framing process allows Shelley, absent the time machine that H.G. Wells would not "invent" until nearly seventy years later, to use the past tense and establish what Giovanna Franci has termed "one of the most widely used models in science fiction; the use of the past in the narration to describe things which are supposed to happen in the future."  [3]

Gregory O'Dea has observed that "The Last Man is founded upon complex puzzles of time and history; indeed Shelley constructs a basis for the novel so perplexing as to cast its shadow over almost every aspect of the work itself," and proceeds to discuss the "intricacies of source, subject, and authorship" as a means to explore the problem of historical perspective which the novel presents.  [4] Yet there is another aspect of Shelley's use of temporal perspective which has not received any critical attention: Besides the "simple" temporal framing of ancient prophecy/future events/recollection in flashback, the novel is permeated by narrative rhythms that work to complicate constantly the reader's perception of time. Consider Verney's auspicious beginning:

I AM the native of a sea-surrounded nook, a cloud-enshadowed land, which, when the surface of the globe, with its shoreless ocean and trackless continents, presents itself to my mind, appears only as an inconsiderable speck in the immense whole; and yet, when balanced in the scale of mental power, far outweighed countries of larger extent and more numerous population.


Shelley's use of "I AM," (in small capitals), to begin Verney's narrative, suggests the ancient Hebrew name for God. Verney has created this history, his own as well as his country's, and in fact has created this entire world, symbolically dividing the waters from the land. His view of space is vast enough that England is a mere speck to him (when it presents itself to his mind) and his perspective of time is comparably vast. His "I am" affirmation also calls to mind Coleridge's concept of the imagination:

The IMAGINATION then, I consider either as primary, or secondary. The primary IMAGINATION I hold to be the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM. The secondary imagination I consider as an echo of the former, co existing with the conscious will...It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate; or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still at all events it struggles to idealize and to unify.  [5]

In The Last Man we see multiple levels of primary and secondary imagination at work: Verney's act of perception and then recreation is enclosed within the Sibyl's perception and recreation, which in turn is enclosed within the Author's perception of the tale written on the Sibylline leaves and his or her efforts to "model the work into a consistent form" (4); the modeling efforts are equivalent to Coleridge's "struggles to idealize and to unify."  [6]

From his view of eternity, Verney quickly narrows his spatial perspective and returns to his youth ("In my boyish days she [England] was the universe to me") before, in the second paragraph of the novel, beginning his own history by describing his father's origins, youth and downfall, and the birth of Verney and his sister, Perdita, thus narrowing his temporal perspective as well. He has entered his own history, the Word made flesh. In her first, brief chapter, Shelley establishes a narrative rhythm which she employs throughout the novel. Her narrator repeatedly employs the technique of taking up an account from a particular point in time, perhaps several months or a year after a previous major event in the novel, briefly summarizing what has occurred in the interim, and then providing greater detail through analepsis; sometimes these detailed accounts involve multiple characters' viewpoints. Instead of employing what Gérard Genette calls the classical rhythm of detailed scene for strong, dramatic portions of the narrative, alternated with summary for the weaker, nondramatic actions,  [7] Shelley uses both summary and scene for many of her particularly dramatic events.

A good example of this technique occurs in chapter 9 of volume 1 , a very complicated chapter, temporally. The preceding chapter concluded on the night of the celebration of the anniversary of Lord Raymond's election as Lord Protector, October 19. On that fateful night Lord Raymond forsook the celebration (and hence his official duties) and remained by the side of the stricken Evadne. Chapter 9 begins "soon after the festival" (98) and it is noted that "We" (i.e., Verney, Idris and Adrian) "in our retirement, remained long in ignorance of [Perdita's] misfortune." The phrase "long in ignorance" implies some length of time, perhaps several months. A visit of Lord Raymond and Perdita to Windsor is arranged, but "it was May before they arrived," thus, some seven months after the night of the anniversary. On the occasion of the May visit, Perdita and her daughter arrive first, early in the morning, and Raymond arrives soon after. Idris and Perdita spend the day with the children while Raymond talks of his plans as Lord Protector to Adrian and Verney. In the evening Perdita plays and sings the music of Mozart, then suddenly, while Idris is playing a "passionate and sorrowful air in Figaro" (99), she leaves the group, sobbing. Verney follows her and Perdita subsequently confides in her brother, recounting the weeks immediately following the October anniversary, and the exchange of letters between Raymond and herself which seemed to spell an end to their relationship. We then return to the "present" (i.e., May), and learn that "in the mean time, Raymond had remained with Adrian and Idris" (104). We have returned to the time just after Verney left the group to hear Perdita's tale, which itself was an analepsis, all enclosed within Verney's extended flashback. Raymond proceeds to narrate the events of the preceding October from his viewpoint, a discussion "which lasted for several hours," and he subsequently departs alone, leaving Perdita "to follow him with her child" (106). An unspecified amount of time then passes as Raymond seeks consolation in a dissolute life style while Perdita endeavors to fulfil his duties as Lord Protector in his place. Verney and Adrian eventually confront Raymond, who reveals that he is about to return to Greece as a soldier and asks Adrian to accompany him. He goes on to say that he has reflected on this step "the live-long summer," so obviously several months have passed since the May meeting.

A temporal analysis of this chapter according to Genette's methodology reveals some 140 changes of position in story time, more than twice the number of shifts per page of narrative than most other chapters in the novel.  [8] The number of temporal shifts and the multiplicity of viewpoints (i.e., Verney's, Lord Raymond's, Perdita's) are disconcerting and produce a sense of fragmentation that contrasts with the unity of the idyllic period three chapters earlier, five years that Verney describes iteratively:

Sometimes we passed whole days under the leafy covert of the forest with our books and music...When the clouds veiled the sky, and the wind scattered them there and here, rending their woof, and strewing its fragments through the aërial plains—then we rode out, and sought new spots of beauty and repose. When the frequent rains shut us within doors, evening recreation followed morning study, ushered in by music and song...Then we were as gay as summer insects, playful as children.


The narrative structure of volume 1, chapter 9, pointedly dramatizes what has been lost. Where there had been one viewpoint and one temporal perspective, and a sense of timelessness conveyed through the use of the iterative, there is now the confusion conveyed by multiple perspectives and a rapidly shifting time line. Time has now become plastic and unreliable.

Another example of Shelley's summary/scene rhythm occurs in the subsequent chapter, chapter 10 of volume 1. Verney, Idris and Perdita spend a year traveling around England, Scotland and Ireland to take Perdita's mind off her husband's flight. Adrian then returns from Greece, "after the lapse of more than a year" (the same year, presumably that Verney, Idris and Perdita were traveling [115]). Adrian now proceeds to narrate the intervening events since he and Raymond had left England—the truce that had existed when he and Raymond arrived in Greece, the subsequent attacks of the Turks, and the horror and brutality of a Greek massacre of a Turkish city. Back in the primary narrative's "present," more time passes as the four await tidings from Greece, and they learn of Raymond's heroic exploits before he is captured by the Turks. Perdita and Verney resolve to travel to Greece, and they depart in May. Similarly, after the death of Idris, the unforeseen arrival at her tomb of her mother, the Countess, and the reconciliation between her and Verney, the Countess narrates the story of her last parting from Idris and her presentiments of Idris's death which lead to her return to Windsor.

The Last Man also contains a series of stories within Verney's account, which interrupt the flow of the narrative and draw us backward. Most prominent of these is the poignant story of Juliet, whom we meet several times. We first learn of her history, and that of her family's, in volume 2, chapter 8, where she is reunited with a lost lover after the deaths of everyone in her family. She reappears early in volume 3 as the rescuer of Idris, who had been wandering the streets of London, distraught by the death of her son. Later, we are drawn back to her story yet again; at this point, her husband has died of the plague, and both she and her infant daughter become the victims of the impostor-prophet in France.

A similar pattern is employed in volume 3, chapter 3, where Verney tells the story of Lucy Martin, whose lost first love returns to find her unhappily married, but who dies before they can be reunited when Lucy's husband deserts her. She is nearly left behind in England as a result of nursing her invalid mother, and Verney and Idris are on their way to rescue her when Idris dies. We are reminded of Lucy's story several chapters later, when she in turn succumbs to the plague.

These narrative rhythms mirror the larger structure of the novel within which they are enclosed; we already know from the outset that it is a story of the last man alive on earth and any suspense can only be associated with the intermediate events. By using the rhythm of flashbacks within the larger flashback ("In the mean time, what did Perdita?" 118), Shelley continually reminds us, on a subliminal level, that the ultimate outcome has already been fixed, even before we arrive at Verney's speculations on fate which occur with increasing frequency during the final chapters of the novel. Occasional intrusions by the narrator from his vantage point at the end of time also reinforce the tragic conclusion.

These elaborate temporal and narrative frames seem to have served several purposes. As Hugh J. Luke, Jr., has observed, they provided Mary Shelley with a means to fictionally memorialize her dead husband while circumventing Sir Timothy Shelley's prohibition against publishing Percy's poetry or biography. Further, her desire for "the release of self-revelation without its consequences" required "a fragmentation of the complex personality of [Percy] Shelley" (among several characters, including the astronomer Merrival as well as Adrian) and a similar fragmentation "of the complexities of her attitude toward him."  [9] In the same light, Anne K. Mellor believes that the framing provides sufficient distance from Mary Shelley for her to deal with the magnitude and complexity of her pain, including her "unfinished emotional business" with her husband, her relationship with her father and others such as Byron, and even her views on conflicting political philosophies.  [10] Paradoxically, though Shelley's elaborate system of frames may have been a means for her to deal with emotional pain from a safe distance, one effect upon the reader is the relentless building of suspense toward the most ultimate of outcomes, what Giovanna Franci called "a constant awareness of an after, an ending."  [11]

Adding to the complexity of the temporal structure of the novel is the fact that, superimposed upon the rhythm which leads the reader inexorably toward the future, there is a theme of "turning back" that occurs throughout The Last Man. Some of these reversals are physical: For example, after they have left Windsor, presumably never to return, Verney and Idris turn back toward Datchet to rescue Lucy Martin and her ailing mother, and, when Idris dies, Verney returns to Windsor to inter her with her ancestors. Later, when Adrian is detained in Versailles in an attempt to prevent the "accursed Impostors" (292) from seducing any more of Adrian's people to their cause, the officers refuse to obey Verney when he wants to return to Versailles. Despite the fact that at this point the plague has resumed its deadly toll with the advent of warmer weather and their only salvation seems to lie in reaching Switzerland, Verney denounces the refusal of the officers to go backward in the strongest terms, calling them "dastards" and "selfish and lawless men" (293). He alone returns to Versailles in a night-long ride (the exertions of which prove fatal to his horse) and arrives just as the false prophet shoots himself.

These reversals of physical direction mirror a kind of temporal reversal. Brian Nellist has pointed out that in The Last Man "history goes into reverse. Survivors from the U.S.A. land in Ireland and the Irish savagely invade England. The few English survivors muster under Adrian to seek warmer lands to die in and in effect invade Normandy."  [12] Yet the temporal reversal is far more extensive, literally constituting a "rolling back" of the tides of civilization, as the plague progresses and the population declines. Distinctions of economic class are lost when the plague renders rich and poor equal, for "The grave yawned beneath us all..." (231). The declining population causes the survivors to become equal also in the labor which must be done—in fact, where the tasks of daily life are concerned, "the poor were the superior, since they entered on such tasks with alacrity and experience" (223). This theme of the dissolution of economic classes is echoed in references to rich and poor exchanging stations in death, in yet another reversal:

The wretched female, loveless victim of vulgar brutality, had wandered to the toilet of high-born beauty, and, arraying herself in the garb of splendour, had died before the mirror which reflected to herself alone her altered appearance. Women whose delicate feet had seldom touched the earth in their luxury, had fled in fright and horror from their homes, till, losing themselves in the squalid streets of the metropolis, they had died on the threshold of poverty.


Shelley's theme of the unraveling of civilization (and the reversal of the progress of time) is depicted especially dramatically in two chapters which contain a series of "farewell to" statements in which civilization appears to lose attributes approximately in the reverse order of their acquisition. First comes the farewell to "the patriotic scene" and to nationalism; then to:

the giant powers of man—to knowledge that could pilot the deep drawing bark through the opposing waters of shoreless ocean,- to science that directed the silken balloon through the pathless air,—to the power that could put a barrier to mighty waters, and set in motion wheels, and beams, and vast machinery, that could divide rocks of granite or marble, and make the mountains plain!


Then Verney bids farewell to "the arts,—to eloquence...to poetry and deep philosophy" and to architecture, sculpture, music, drama and finally to joy. Later, Verney states that:

We had bidden adieu to the state of things, which, having existed many thousand years, seemed eternal...government, obedience, traffic, and domestic intercourse...patriotic zeal, to the arts, to reputation, to enduring fame, to the name of country...all expectation, except the feeble one of saving our individual lives from the wreck of the past...


There appears to be a definite sequence in what is lost: nationalism (when all her inhabitants have left her, Verney observes that "England remained, though England was dead" [264]), then scientific knowledge, then the arts. Poetry, sculpture, music and drama, presumably being the most "primitive" of civilization's attributes (or at any rate the longest held), the arts are the last to be lost. William Walling suggests Pope's The Dunciad was most likely the source for Byron's poem "Darkness," which in turn influenced Shelley, and calls attention to line 640 of that poem, "Art after art goes out, and all is Night."  [13] The sequence of attributes lost at the end of The Dunciad is: Fancy, Wit, Art, Truth, Philosophy, Metaphysics, Mathematics, Religion, Morality, until finally, "Nor human spark is left, nor glimpse divine!"  [14] But in Shelley's version, the arts continue with Verney's recording of his history, before he abandons writing altogether at the end of the novel.

Also lost in this great unraveling of civilization are generational distinctions:

The world has grown old, and all its inmates partook of the decrepitude. Why talk of infancy, manhood, and old age? We all stood equal sharers of the last throes of time-worn nature. Arrived at the same point of the world's age...


In effect, all have arrived at what Verney called "the abyss of the present" (337), or what Shelley herself termed "the tyranny of the Present," in a journal entry from 31 December 1822. As she looks back at the year in which she lost her husband, she exclaims, "That the present should be the present!—that I should not be able to fly from it as a beast from the hunter."  [15]

In The Last Man, civilization evaporates as the remnant of humanity reverts to primitivism, though there is a kind of Wordsworthian celebration of this simpler life. During a long and particularly cruel winter, society reverts to what Verney calls "patriarchal modes," "as in ancient times":

Youths, nobles of the land, performed for the sake of mother or sister, the services of menials with amiable cheerfulness. They went to the river to break the ice, and draw water: they assembled on foraging expeditions, or axe in hand felled the trees for fuel. The females received them on their return with the simple and affectionate welcome known before only to the lowly cottage—a clean hearth and bright fire; the supper ready cooked by beloved hands; gratitude for the provision for to morrow's meal: strange enjoyments for the high-born English, yet they were now their sole, hard earned, and dearly prized luxuries.


Wandering across the Continent, the declining remnant of humanity is reminiscent of the Biblical Israelites wandering in the wilderness, but as if they were returning to slavery, rather than escaping it. Moses-like,  [16] Adrian is literally referred to as "our lawgiver and our preserver" (272). Their "tribe" is organized into "bands" and "at each of the large towns before mentioned, we were all to assemble; and a conclave of the principal officers would hold council for the general weal" (288), which is again reminiscent of the gatherings of the congregation of the Israelites. As they continue to wander and their numbers continue to dwindle, they dream more and more of a kind of Eden:

In the beginning of time, when, as now, man lived by families and not by tribes or nations, they were placed in a genial clime, where earth fed them untilled, and the balmy air enwrapt their reposing limbs with warmth more pleasant than beds of down. The south is the native place of the human race;


Their hope is to find a place on earth which has not been touched by the plague, and as this concept lays hold of their minds, their visions grow increasingly romantic and utopian: "Perhaps in some secluded nook, amidst eternal spring, and waving trees, and purling streams, we may find Life" (237).

As the human population in The Last Man continues to dwindle, societal concepts disappear. Time itself loses its meaning as the four survivors of the plague wander through Italy, though they do establish daily routines. (Verney notes that the four survivors "made laws for ourselves, dividing our day, and fixing distinct occupations for each hour" [313]). Even gender disappears as an attribute, once Clara, who was the last to have all the "feminine and maiden virtues" (328), is dead.

The ultimate unravelling of time occurs when Verney is left alone on earth. As William Lomax has observed, "as the Last Man, he is also automatically the First Man."  [17] Once alone, Verney attempts to keep a record of the passage of time by marking the days on a willow wand, as did Robinson Crusoe (even comparing his situation to Crusoe's) but gives up only twenty-five days after the deaths of the others. In the absence of all human society, there is no longer any need for objective time, which he decisively rejects when he breaks his willow wand in despair. His own voice begins to sound strange to his ears, so little does he use it, and eventually all discourse ceases, including writing, once he has committed his history to paper. In a sense he has returned to a time before Adam could "write."

The turning back of time occurs also at a physiological level for Verney. Verney first experiences an interruption in the progress of time when, "on the third night" of his illness, "animation was suspended" (249). In effect, he has died and has been reborn, Christ-like, after three days. His recovery, remarkable for his being the only person in the novel who contracts the plague and does not die, is the more miraculous in that it results in his health being significantly improved in comparison to what it had been before his illness: "the wheels and springs of my life, once again set in motion, acquired elasticity from their short suspension" (250). He prospers in recovery, with "renewed vigour" and "cheerful current" of blood, even while Idris's health fades alarmingly.  [18] Verney had previously used the same mechanical imagery to describe Idris's consumption: "she felt, she said, as if all the wheels and springs of the animal machine worked at double rate, and were fast consuming themselves" (219). But for Verney, the plague seems to have renewed him by first stopping the progress of his life and subsequently resetting his biological clock to a younger and more vigorous age.  [19] He is almost a superman:

methought I could emulate the speed of the racehorse, discern through the air objects at a blinding distance, hear the operations of nature in her mute abodes; my senses had become so refined and susceptible after my recovery from mortal disease.


At the end of the novel, he describes his project to write the history of the Last Man as an "occupation best fitted to discipline my melancholy thoughts, which had strayed backwards, over many a ruin, and through many a flowery glade, even to the mountain recess, from which in early youth I had first emerged" (339). Thus Verney's narrative itself constitutes a reversal of time. At the end of the novel he is in a state quite similar to his early, rebellious youth as a shepherd, as he prepares to roam, not the fields and valleys of England, but the oceans of the world, once again accompanied by a faithful shepherd dog. (Even the dog, whom Verney had discovered still tending sheep long after its master had died, has participated in the temporal reversal as he too has reacquired a companion.)  [20] For Verney and his new companion, the "time after...is an image of the time before."  [21]

In one of the many paradoxes that add dramatic tension to The Last Man, all these examples of the apparent reversal in the flow of time occur in opposition to repeated statements that time cannot be rolled back. The concept of the inability of mortal man to reverse time is first introduced in the context of interpersonal relationships, specifically when Lord Raymond realizes that he is in love with Evadne:

Genius, devotion, and courage; the adornments of his mind, and the energies of his soul, all exerted to their uttermost stretch, could not roll back one hair's breadth the wheel of time's chariot; that which had been was written with the adamantine pen of reality, on the everlasting volume of the past; nor could agony and tears suffice to wash out one iota from the act fulfilled.


After Lord Raymond departs suddenly for Greece, Verney attempts to console Perdita:

...until I could persuade her that the Past could be unacted, that maturity could go back to the cradle, and that all that was could become as though it had never been, it was useless to assure her that no real change had taken place in her fate.


Later, man's inability to reverse the flow of time is demonstrated even more dramatically when Perdita drowns herself and her body is pulled aboard the vessel: "No care could re-animate her, no medicine cause her dear eyes to open, and the blood to flow again from her pulseless heart" (155). Similar echoes of this frustration occur as loved ones die throughout the novel. When Idris dies, Verney lifts her from the carriage where she had slumped over and observes that "her heart was pulseless, her faded lips unfanned by the slighted breath." Yet he still brings her into the cottage, lights a fire and chafes her "stiffening limbs...for two long hours" in a futile attempt to revive her (258). Mary Shelley's own experience with the death of her first child lends this description authenticity and power. Compare her journal entry dated 19 March 1815, less than two weeks after she finds her baby dead: "Dream that my little baby came to life again—that it had only been cold & that we rubbed it by the fire & it lived—I awake & find no baby..."  [22]

In a sense, what Verney achieves by the end of the novel is a kind of temporal reversal, a qualified version of what he had earlier used as an example of the impossible, that "the past could be unacted, that maturity could go back to the cradle, and that all that was could become as though it had never been" (112). But unlike his early days as a rebellious shepherd boy, this time his hair is "nearly grey" (340) and he has the full and painful knowledge ("self-knowledge...tenfold sadness" [337]) of what he has lost, much as Wordsworth revisiting Tintern Abbey.

Even nature participates in the temporal reversal. The seasons rarely behave as they should, from the first moment of the "Author's Introduction," where the winter is actually spring-like ("Though it was winter, the atmosphere seemed more appropriate to early spring" [1]). Phenomena such as a black sun that rises in the west and sets in the east depict occasional reversals of the normal progress of the celestial bodies. At several points in the novel, the narrator achieves an ultimate perspective which encompasses all of time and history, as is the case shortly after his first encounter with a plague victim, a solitary cottager, and while looking out over England on a wintry midnight following the discovery of the plague among Idris's servants. Verney's narration, from a vantage point which takes in all of history, yet is actually a prophecy from ancient times, (a subsequent narrative embedded within a prior narrative) represents still another reversal of perspective. The numerous temporal and spatial reversals are held in tension against the signs of time's inexorable forward movement: deaths, recurrent descriptions of ruins, and small details such as the rotting meal in the deserted Italian cottage, or the discovery of Lord Ryland's body devoured by insects.

The Last Man's emphasis on the desire to reverse time despite overwhelming evidence that time cannot be rolled back owes much to Mary Shelley's own circumstances, including the losses of her husband, three children and half-sister during the preceding years. Time continued to bring fresh tragedies, and the desire to master it, to stand it on its head, is hardly surprising. But it is so easy to see Mary Shelley's life in her fiction that one can lose sight of her skills as an artist. As Gregory O'Dea has observed, purely biographical readings of The Last Man "tend to ignore the novel's philosophical and thematic content, and implicitly resist the thought that Shelley had ideas to examine independent of her circumstances and acquaintances."  [23] On the other hand, her life and her fiction were clearly interrelated, certain significant events in her own life apparently serving as catalysts for her writing, which provided a means of emotional survival as well as financial support. In other words, The Last Man isn't "about" Percy Shelley and Lord Byron- in the sense of a roman à clef—as much as it is about Mary Shelley's examination of the nature of time, though the lives and deaths of her husband and Lord Byron may well have propelled her inquiry.

Lionel Verney admits that he has used the writing of his history "as an opiate; while it described my beloved friends, fresh with life and glowing with hope; active assistants on the scene, I was soothed" (192). The limbs of Verney's friends have been chafed by the fire and they have lived, but their reanimation is transitory, ending at the very moment in which he concludes his task and the narrative approaches the story:  [24]

I...recorded with sacred zeal the virtues of my companions. They have been with me during the fulfilment of my task. I have brought it to an end—I lift my eyes from my paper—again they are lost to me. Again I feel that I am alone.


Verney's act of causing the past to live again by systematically recalling it is reminiscent of Shelley's journal entry of 7 October 1822. Her old writing desk had just been shipped to her, and in the course of reading the letters it contained, she notes:

My William, Clara, Allegra are all talked of—they lived then- They breathed this air & their voices struck on my sense, their feet trod the earth beside me—& their hands were warm with blood & life when clasped in mine. Where are they all?  [25]

Verney's use of the word "opiate" and the dramatic rendering of the moment at which his narrative ends and he experiences his loss afresh, strongly suggest Shelley's awareness that the consolation offered by narrative is limited. Yet despite its limitations as an emotional outlet, she clearly had a fascination with the power of narrative. Depressed after her return to England subsequent to her husband's death, her depression deepened by her inability to write, she recorded in her journal on 8 June 1824, just three weeks after learning of Lord Byron's death in Greece:

The lamp of thought is again illumined in my heart—& the fire descends from heaven that kindles it...

I feel my powers again—& this is of itself happiness—the eclipse of winter is passing from my mind—I shall again feel the enthusiastic glow of composition—again as I pour forth my soul upon paper, feel the winged ideas arise, & enjoy the delight of expressing them—study & occupation will be a pleasure not a task—& this I shall owe to sight & companionship of trees & meadows flowers & sunshine...  [26]

This Promethean entry reveals that for Mary Shelley, narrative is not an opiate to assuage personal grief but is a power, and there is pleasure in its exercise. She was soon to begin The Last Man, in which she combined the work of grieving with the exploration of new novelistic techniques. Where she experimented with the "Chinese box" narrative structure in Frankenstein, a variation on the Gothic style, in The Last Man, Shelley was more ambitious: Instead of a symmetrical structure of interlocked narratives, she experimented with multiple timescapes, with her own recent past enclosing a remote past that in turn enclosed a distant future. But The Last Man's framing is curiously asymmetrical and all of its narratives are open ended. Verney's account ends with his preparation to embark on his sea voyage; we never return either to the time of the Sibyl or to the time of the "Author." In fact, the Introduction has emphasized the possible unreliability of the pattern formed by the Author's arrangement of the leaves, rendering the "future...already in wait for us to reach it"  [27] uncertain. The closest we come to narrative symmetry is Verney's experience of what we would call deja vu as he gazes over the once familiar, now deserted, landscape of Windsor to which he has returned so that Idris could be entombed with her royal ancestors:

To this painful recognition of familiar places, was added a feeling experienced by all, understood by none—a feeling as if in some state, less visionary than a dream, in some past real existence, I had seen all I saw, with precisely the same feelings as I now beheld them—as if all my sensations were a duplex mirror of a former revelation.

264, emphasis added

The temporal framing that characterizes The Last Man, the tendency to embed stories such as Lucy Martin's and Juliet's, and the framing in Frankenstein all suggest a fascination with embedded narratives; there is always one more level of embedding to be discovered. A clue to this fascination may lie in Shelley's 1829 review of Anna Brownell Jameson's The Loves of the Poets:

[A Poet's] soul is like one of the pools in the Ilex woods of the Maremma, it reflects the surrounding universe, but it beautifies, groupes, and mellows their tints, making a little world within itself, the copy of the outer one; but more entire, more faultless.  [28]

Thus, the monster's narrative in Frankenstein is more "idealized" (as Coleridge would have put it), more "faultless" or true, than Victor's (and Safie's letters are even more so),  [29] and Verney's narrative in The Last Man , and the stories it encloses, are themselves faultless, but the medium on which they are recorded, and the process of ordering the events, are corruptible, because they belong to "the surrounding universe." The secondary imagination struggles, as Coleridge noted.

Shelley's fascination with metanarrative may have been informed by unfulfilled childhood desire. Motherless, in a relationship with her stepmother that was anything but nurturing, worshipping a father who apparently loved her but who was remote in his affection,  [30] a desire to be enfolded in the arms of a loving parent may have found its way into a desire to enfold stories within stories. Part of her joy in narrating, what she calls the "enthusiastic glow of composition," may stem from the enfolding of her "little world[s]."

That Shelley could realize joy in the midst of the profound personal sorrow she experienced at the time she wrote The Last Man was remarkable, and the novel's characters sometimes reflect this spirit. Although Verney, Adrian, Clara and Evelyn are alone, they have complete freedom: "Of what consequence was it to our four hearts, that they alone were the fountains of life in the wide world?" (312). And at the end of the novel, Lionel Verney is determined to face his future and improve himself through study, much as Shelley in 1823 was determined to continue to improve herself in the face of widowhood, financial difficulties and her rejection by polite society. Resolving to "sit amidst the ruins and smile" (290-91), to create his own future, and accompanied only by his dog and his books, Verney sails away on the same ocean that took his companions from him, a way of confronting his fears that was characteristic of Mary Shelley as well, who used her emotional conflicts to energize her fiction.

In The Last Man, Shelley envisions a world stripped of all human relationships, and through Verney, she even allows herself to imagine a future without her "powers." When Verney abandons writing and sails away into myth, he also abandons the secondary imagination. It has served its purpose. All that remains, all that he needs, it would seem, is Imagination in its pure and primary form: "I shall witness all the variety of appearance, that the elements can assume" (342). But he will not write of it.

When he abandons discourse, Verney re-emerges from history and also abandons the past tense. His plan to sail away to the south is yet to happen at the time of his last writing—it is the future tense, the tense of the Sibyl, and hence one more representation of the myriad uncertainties which permeate the novel. During the sea voyage which claimed the lives of Adrian and Clara, Verney was terrified by his vision of the smallness of their craft upon the vast ocean:

The vast universe, its myriad worlds, and the plains of boundless earth which we had left—the extent of shoreless sea around—contracted to my view—they and all that they contained, shrunk up to one point, even to our tossing bark, freighted with glorious humanity.


The contraction of Verney's universe to a single point hauntingly anticipates the twentieth-century cosmological view of the universe in the moments before the Big Bang—the ultimate unraveling of time and space, and thus the ultimate dissolution. Yet another cycle of creation is implied here; now Verney embraces what he then feared, using the same terms. Abandoning his "height from which [he] can comprehend the past as a whole" (192-93) in favor of sea level and a future he comprehends not at all, no longer "I AM," he is only the "freight" of a "tiny bark," beneath the "ever-open eye of the Supreme."

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