Towards rehabilitating 'the long blighted tree of knowledge': Mary Shelly's revolutionary concept of self-governance and dominion in The Last Man

Ackland, Michael (2011) Towards rehabilitating 'the long blighted tree of knowledge': Mary Shelly's revolutionary concept of self-governance and dominion in The Last Man. In: Cousins, A. D., Napton, Dani, and Russo, Stephanie, (eds.) The French Revolution and the British Novel in the Romantic Period. Studies on Themes and Motifs in Literature, 112 . Peter Lang Publishing, New York, USA, pp. 153-177.

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Abstract

[Extract] Like its alleged inspiration, the fabled leaves of the Cumaean Sibyl, Mary Shelley's The Last Man has seemed to invite conflicting readings, and proved at times frustratingly cryptic. The reasons for this lie presumably, in part, with its alleged source material which, according to the authorial 'Introduction', consisted of 'scattered and unconnected' fragments. This obliged Mary Shelley 'to add links, and model the work into a consistent form'.1 Yet even this imposed coherence has left key incidents interpretatively elusive, none of them more so than the source of the plague itself and the survival of Lionel Verney, who alone emerges from its otherwise fatal fevers to become the book's narrator.2 Medically, in Shelley's age, the plague was a scourge of mysterious origins, which respected the boundaries of neither class nor nation state.3 In the novel this enigma is magnified, the stakes raised astronomically, by its mutation into the ultimate pandemic that annihilates the entire human race bar one individual. The fact that the epidemic enters the narrative when Christian forces besiege the Turkish stronghold of Constantinople has encouraged readings of the novel as a critique of man's will-to-power, as a scathing indictment of British imperialism and 'white subjectivity', or as an encounter with 'the absolute Other', which human 'measures can neither foresee nor master'.4 Rare, and usually less persuasive, have been attempts to reconcile these dire events with the general Romantic project for individual and social amelioration, or to link them with the fact that Verney 'attributes to art the function of interrogating "the internal principles" of human action and exploring the inmost reaches of the human mind'.5 The issue of motivation, be it of the author or of the plague, remains contested. Important, neglected clues to both, however, can be found conjecturally in the novel's first volume. There, in what is frequently treated too simply as a roman a clef,6 man's mental and moral constitution is explored with exemplary precision, in an effort to lay bare the potential fault-lines and resources of society, and to demonstrate the need to rear again the much maligned tree of knowledge, if individuals and the species as a whole are to escape the threat of violent eclipse that lours over them?

Item ID: 19356
Item Type: Book Chapter (Research - B1)
ISBN: 978-1-4331-1639-1
ISSN: 1056-3970
Date Deposited: 05 Mar 2012 02:02
FoR Codes: 20 LANGUAGE, COMMUNICATION AND CULTURE > 2005 Literary Studies > 200503 British and Irish Literature @ 100%
SEO Codes: 95 CULTURAL UNDERSTANDING > 9505 Understanding Past Societies > 950504 Understanding Europes Past @ 100%
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