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The Last Man And The Plague Of Empire

1258 words - 5 pages

The Last Man and the Plague of Empire

 
     I find myself in easy agreement with Alan Richardson's perceptive account of The Last Man as a novel written in the service of British colonial interests and of Mary Shelley as an individual swept up in the collective arrogance of nineteenth-century imperial England.

 

In one striking example of the novel's

colonialist complicity, Lionel Verney presumptuously declares that England's

prime resource is its people (its "children" [323]) whereas the greatest assets

of the equatorial regions are their commodities--their spices, plants, and

fruits. Verney further sentimentally recalls Britain's history of unshrinking

exploration (read colonization and economic exploitation) of foreign nations

under the crown's sponsorship, as he grieves for lost "times when man walked the

earth fearless, before Plague had become Queen of the World" (346). It appears

crystal-clear that The Last Man contains fewer sites of resistance than are

present in Frankenstein and more moments of racism, jingoism, and religious

contempt; therefore, in order to facilitate conversation, I will address here

primarily the possible meanings of the novel's few heteroglossic moments,

including the "ironic twist or two towards the end" that Alan Richardson

mentions, in addition to posing some suggestive, or polemical, questions.

 

The horror of The Last Man may for Shelley lie in its revelation that the

operations of nature obliterate both civilized and barbaric, Christian and

Mahometan, with the same moral neutrality. In the end, Adrian, the sophisticated

"blue-eyed boy" (27), a stand-in for Percy Shelley, succumbs along with the

lawless Irish and the uncouth Americans, those who inspire the narrator with

what Alan Richardson characterizes as "disgust at the colonial other." (An

undiscriminating mounting tide of epidemic consumes the gentle Adrian much like

an ocean swell, in reality, drowned Percy Shelley. A description of Percy's

corpse strengthens the comparison: "The exposed flesh of Shelley's arms and face

had been entirely eaten away" [quoted in Holmes 730]; further, after washing

ashore, Shelley's body was first covered in quick lime then retrieved and

destroyed by fire to satisfy quarantine ordinances.) If Shelley in The Last Man,

as in Frankenstein, indicates that even the most civilized are weak before

nature's savagery (a conclusion reinforced by her real-life experience), what

does this cynicism do, if anything, to our impression of the novel as confident

imperialist discourse?

 

Perhaps Shelley in the end shares something of the late Victorian skepticism, or

its sense of a "white man's burden." Though she praises imperialism as a noble

enterprise, she also implicitly warns of the perils of traveling to tropical

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