- The "victim of too much loving":Perdita Verney's Self-Destructive Sympathy in Mary Shelley's The Last Man
I have lost you, myself, my life.—Perdita Verney (The Last Man 124)1
In Mary Shelley's fiction, sympathy is represented as a curious and dizzying paradox, her novels conspicuously and vividly registering its sometimes puzzling ambiguity. Although several of Shelley's influences and contemporaries were also grappling with the complexities of sympathy, exhilaratingly enigmatic as it is, Shelley surpassed all others in her sustained, rigorous, and painstaking engagement with its meanings, mechanisms, and purpose. Conventionally understood as a prosocial emotion capable of connecting self to other, individual to society, and so of expanding our sphere of ethical consideration and encouraging altruism, sympathy, in Susan Lanzoni's words, "install[s] the social at the heart of the individual" (284). Indeed, in the nineteenth century, sympathy was considered "a powerful emotion enlisted to serve many agendas: it provided an evolutionary basis for ethics, offered a model of emotional imitation, and was instrumental to sociality" (284).2 Shelley's particular insight, however, was to recognize the precarity of sympathy's role as a prosocial emotion. According to her, when felt too excessively, sympathy can become pathological, its positive potential negated, and it may instead inflame the passions and precipitate madness, alienation, and suicide.
Moreover, Shelley suggests that the tendency to feel too much—which, she argues, can provoke suicidal thoughts—is linked to femininity. Like "hysteria," "the most commonly diagnosed 'female malady'" of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, hyper-sympathy is, in Shelley's novels, typically associated with women (Ussher 63). Because women in the nineteenth century were excluded from the realms of education, work, and travel and were forced to define themselves within the traditional classifications of daughter, wife, and mother,3 their ability to develop autonomous identities independent of their prescribed gender roles was severely [End Page 61] limited. Consequently, women were, according to Shelley, especially vulnerable to the dangers of sympathetic excess. Shelley's mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, argues something similar in her Vindication of the Rights of Woman: "only taught to look for happiness in love, [women] refine on sensual feelings, and adopt metaphysical notions respecting that passion"; if they were allowed "to share the advantages of education and government with man," Wollstonecraft asserts, women would "grow wiser and become free" (330, 310). Hyper-sympathy in women is thus a symptom of patriarchal society, an argument presented powerfully in Shelley's The Last Man through the character of Perdita Verney, who explicitly embodies the pathological possibilities of sympathy. Exhibiting her sympathy to an "extreme" and "psychologically unhealthy" degree, Perdita loses her self in her pathological love for her husband Lord Raymond, a metaphorical annihilation of self that eventually leads to a literal annihilation of self, one signalled by Perdita's name, meaning "lost" in Italian ("pathological" colloq. def. 4).
Importantly, this threat to selfhood borne of the unstable boundary between self and other in the sympathetic relationship is implicit in one of the many definitions of sympathy, its meanings as diverse as its effects. As Nancy Yousef observes, the term "sympathy" "is at once ubiquitous and conceptually unstable" (4). In the eighteenth century, for example, sympathy was described, in Ildiko Csengei's words, as "a moral and emotional response and a social bonding force," a "mechanistic and magnetic attraction, a communication or transfusion of feeling, [a] sympathetic bond," and as a form "of imaginary identification" (9). It is with the latter conception of sympathy as a form of "imaginary identification" that this study is concerned. As Adam Smith writes in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, through our imaginations, "we place ourselves in [another's] situation, we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person" (3). That is, when we sympathize with another, we are "merged in" their "feelings, inclinations, or temperament," and to "merge" is "to be absorbed and disappear, to lose character or identity by absorption into something" ("sympathy," defs. 2, 3a.; "merge" def. 2a). Thus, in sympathizing with another, our identities may become entangled with, and sometimes...