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SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 42.4 (2002) 753-780
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Performing History, Performing Humanity in Mary Shelley's The Last Man
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. [End Page 753] 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, historical, 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.
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