The Last Man and the Plague of Empire
Alan Richardson
Boston College

I want to concentrate on only one aspect of The Last Man for this brief presentation. Without pretending to do justice to the novel in all its dimensions, I will argue that The Last Man belongs squarely in the tradition of British colonialist discourse. Frankenstein is a much more ambivalent text in this regard. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak sketched out that novel's colonialist sympathies some years ago in "Three Women's Texts and a Critique of Imperialism," a lead that other critics have since followed with significant results. Yet Frankenstein has its anti-colonialist moments as well--from the explicit condemnation of the Spanish conquest of the Americas to a range of tacit connections between the creature (who initially appears to Walton as an Arctic native of some sort, is linked with the Turkish-Arabian Safie, and at one point offers to exile himself to the wilds of South America) and the British colonial other. The Last Man seems rather to participate in the growing imperial confidence of its moment, though not without an ironic twist or two towards the end.

To begin with, it is already a mark of the novel's colonialist tone that, around the end of the 21st century, the British empire is still alive and well. Anna Barbauld, in "Eighteen Hundred and Eleven," had imagined a not-too-distant future in which North American and Australian tourists would visit the faded glories of London, the civilizing spirit having long since moved its home across the Atlantic to the rising South American republics. Mary Shelley, envisioning a time nearly three centuries from her own, still locates England at the center of a trading empire, with major outposts in North America, Greece, Egypt, and India, and with room for further colonial expansion in the seemingly infinite stretches of North America, and in Australia and Tasmania ("Van Dieman's Land"). England owes its continuing imperial sway to its disproportion of "mental power," far outshining the intellectual wattage of larger countries--and continents. Lionel Verney, an internal "savage" from the Lake District (apparently the nascent tourist industry there has fizzled long ago), exemplifies the benefits of English civilization, having been himself reclaimed from the American wilds of the untutored mind, a grateful and accomplished Friday to Adrian's Crusoe.

England seems to be the leading power in a European confederation against Asia, which is still dominated by the Turks. The opposition between Europe and the Turks, the cross and the crescent, could hardly be starker. Greece, on the cusp between the "Mahometan" and Christian spheres, hosts a "mighty struggle" between civilization and "barbarism" of the East; while every European nation has continued to "advance," Turkey has "stood still, a monument of antique barbarism." Lord Raymond returns to Greece not only to fight for Greek independence but with vague hopes of conquering Asia, and dies in a remorseless effort to humiliate Turkey by planting the cross on Constantinople's principal mosque. Only the plague, it seems, prevents the Christian overthrow of the "empire of the Mahometans in Europe" from leading to a final (and long deferred) tightening of the "silver net of civilization" around Asia. Not that Asia is all that easy to delimit--Georgia and Circassia are evidently still Muslim territories at the novel's end (just where does Europe end and the East begin?) and European women constitute an Oriental fifth column of sorts. We might expect the aristocratic bad girl Evadne to play the "Sultana," but even Perdita (Dorothy to Lionel's William) can find herself in the role of "Sybarite on a luxurious couch," for all her Westmoreland rusticity.

The plague, of course, has Afro-Asiatic roots. It begins in Africa (the "shores of the Nile"), just like the plagues in Outbreak, The Hot Zone, and in the official (and probably accurate) Western accounts of the AIDS virus--though some Africans and African-Americans begin the narrative differently. Soon, though, it becomes generalized as the "contagion from the East," a "native" of Asia and a "nursling of the tropics." Particularly given the narrator's hubris ("It drinks the dark blood of the inhabitant of the south, but it never feasts on the pale-faced Celt") it is tempting to think of the plague as a representation of the colonies' collective revenge on the metropolitan center; it first reaches England, after all, in a ghost-ship from North America. Perhaps. But Shelley's plague seems, in large measure, a reflex of English disgust at the colonial other, a disgust inextricable from commercial domination--and dependence--as John Barrell has noted in relation to De Quincey. The most striking, and painful, image of this disgust is the mysterious "negro" who infects Lionel with the plague: "he wound his naked festering arms around me; his face was close to mine, and his breath, death-laden, entered my vitals." These are the sorts of images Victor Frankenstein uses to describe his monster. But the "half clad negro," unlike the creature, never gets to tell his half of the story.

Another episode of the imperial margins striking back at the center is similarly underscored with anxiety and disgust. Lionel finds little sympathy for the rag-tag army of North Americans, Irish, and poor Scots who descend on England as though to avenge a "long detail of injuries" that the English, at least, had considered "forgotten." Their "barbarian shouts," however, are quietly but firmly put down by Adrian's lordly speech--backed up by a disciplined remnant of the British regulars. Thanks, apparently, to its "pale-faced" Celtic stock, the invading horde proves almost as susceptible as had Lionel to Adrian's civilizing mission, following his instructions and finally helping to bring a semblance of order to the end of the human race, their intended bang mellowed to a despairing whisper.

Once the end has all but come, the ironies become keener. Adrian and Lionel lead the surviving English to find a warmer and more fertile clime, one better sited for a second Eden, though the plague seems to gain in virulence with every mile southward. They see themselves, not surprisingly, as a "colony . . . borne over the far seas": the model here clearly the Aeneid. There is finally nothing, however, epic about this last colonizing venture, despite the final hollow ascendance of the civilized, Christian English over the rest of the globe ("the world is our country now"). At the very end Lionel finds himself become Robinson Crusoe--yet without a Friday in sight. Or perhaps at once Crusoe and Friday: the "wild-looking, unkempt, half-naked savage" he encounters in a full-length mirror is Verney himself. Lionel will preserve civilization (his accessories include a Homer and a Shakespeare once he resumes a more kempt outfit) yet his own survival depends on skills learned as a Wordsworthian "savage" in his "uncouth" pre-Adrian years. The polarities of savage and civilized are finally reconciled, but only because there is in the end a single subject to fill both positions.

We could take this final conflation of savage and sophisticate as an index of The Last Man's ambivalence regarding empire and colonization. Such a reading would certainly bring the novel more into line with Frankenstein, which balances Clerval's hope to make a fortune in the East Indies with the creature's lament for the defeated Indian empires of the West. But we should not lose sight of the later novel's almost jingoistic Anglo-centrism, its evident disgust at the spectacle of the colonial other, and its strident Orientalism. The Last Man guarantees Shelley a noteworthy place in the ranks of nineteenth-century British colonialist writers. The last man, for Shelley, must be an Englishman, and a chauvinistic one at that.