Friday, August 4, 2017

Mary Shelley & The Last Man

The 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is coming up. In preparation for an article I'm hoping to write, I've been reading up on her. My main target thus far is her other science fiction novel, the apocalyptic The Last Man (1828). It's . . . . well, it's not that good. Part I describes the narrator's friends, clearly based on Percy Shelley and Lord Byron, plus all their tedious love affairs and marriages. That's to be expected from a novel from that period, I suppose. Part II describes some politics stuff, plus the beginnings of a vast plague. Part III is where the plague finally wipes everyone out.

Where the novel does well is:
  1. Nice portraits of Shelley and Byron. Unfortunately, that doesn't help The Last Man succeed as a novel.
  2. The trepidation of the plague as it begins to sweep over the world. Powerful sense of doom, only slightly ruined by the excessive verbiage in which Shelley likes to say things.
    1. On a related point, it was nice to see Shelley discussing, even if only briefly, Asia, North and South American, and even Africa. A couple times she notes with compassion the downfall of the Aztecs and the Incas. All that shows much more world-consciousness than I've come to expect from fiction of that period.
The flaws, though, are pretty numerous:
  • Ridiculous levels of showing, not telling. Stuff like, "I couldn't do full justice to the impassioned speech Raymond gave Parliament, so I'll just say it was magnificent and describe what happens as a result." So, so annoying -- and a missed opportunity by Shelley.
  • Lack of political drama. Don't get me wrong, tons of political events happen in this novel. It's just that, in line with the "showing not telling" strategy, they're all relegated to the background, a mere backdrop for the personalities of Adrian and Raymond and their love affairs, which are really the main narrative focus of the novel. Raymond's accomplishments, for example, make him a world-historical figure if ever there was one, but the world he affects is presented as so subordinate (in terms of interest) to his personal idiosyncrasies that Shelley simply wastes an opportunity for creating a gripping political novel of the first order. The downfall of aristocracy, after all, shouldn't be relegated to a footnote aimed at showing what a great guy Adrian (based on Percy Shelley) was.
  • Narrative structure. The Last Man is simply someone writing his memoirs -- Lionel Verney basically applies a 1st-person omniscient perspective. That's only a technical flaw, but it's worth noting because of the complicated framing device for Frankenstein.
The science fiction in the novel is also pretty bare.  The future has air travel by balloon, but otherwise Shelley simply takes early 19th-century England and extrapolates it unchanged into the late 21st-century. The future setting gives her greater scope for politics and, of course, the plague, but as mentioned the world Shelley creates takes a distant, distant backseat to the personalities of Raymond, Adrian, and all the endless page-filling love affairs.

Throughout it all, too, is the vague sense that you never quite know why events are happening as they are. Stuff just happens; there's nothing the characters are trying to accomplish from chapter to chapter. Hence there's a major sense of drift as you move along through The Last Man. Clearly, Shelley expects her character portraits and her intense imagery to sustain narrative interest, but that just doesn't quite work for me.  But one thing I thought rather poignant -- in fact, it's striking me pretty intensely just how deeply Mary Shelley was in love with her husband & how much his death traumatized her. It's really heart-breaking, and we can see that, for her as she was writing this novel, she was perfectly well sustained by her personal interest in the characters she was portraying. For example, this final passage, nominally from the "last man" left alive on earth, applies just as much to Mary Shelley herself:
“At first I thought only to speak of plague, of death, and last, of desertion; but I lingered fondly on my early years, and recorded with sacred zeal the virtues of my companions. They have been with me during the fulfillment 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” (III.10 339).
Damn. Poor woman.

Anyway. All in all, I'm glad I read The Last Man, but I'm just as glad that I'm done reading it.

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