The Last Man (1826): Shelly’s Plague Vision

Current events being as they are, Mary Shelley’s The Last Man is fascinating because it’s presented as a prophecy that was made by a “sibyl” from ancient times. Sibyls were women who predicted the future and this one in particular concerns the Cumaean Sibyl, an oracle well-recognized by the Ancient Romans because of its location south of the great city of Rome. What makes this all so fascinating, or more plainly, a bit disturbing, is how the prophetic details speak directly to what we’re going through: rumors of plague are first mentioned; people believe it can’t really happen; deaths start to occur that are too close for comfort; symptoms are described; panic begins; widespread pandemonium unfolds; and then the after-effects become too hard to believe. Reading this novel, in real-time with the Covid-19 Pandemic, has been a thought-provoking if unsettling experience to say the least.

Stylistically speaking, the novel is a very different animal from Frankenstein (1818/31). Mary Shelley’s mind by this point in time has been both, riddled by the specter of death in her personal life, and saturated by the tremendous knowledge and research of the day in publication which enhanced her capacity to write. This is to suggest that reading The Last Man can be likened unto reading what I might call “brainiac literature.” Mary Shelley’s ability to consider high-powered concepts during the process of creating even the simplest sentences presents a reading experience that is — impeccably and pleasurably cumbersome. She is the master of eloquence which forces you to take time and think about what you’re reading, a phenomenon decried in the advice Jerry Jenkins gives when he tells fledgling writers to “omit needless words” and to “choose the simple word over one that requires a dictionary.” Of course, Shelley’s novel was written before courses in creative writing ever existed, but she really takes it to the hilt with her ability to intellectualize the hell out of her narrative form — effortlessly.

When Shelley wrote Frankenstein she was fresh out of the gate with a vivid idea as to how the novel should affect readers. She had that verve which accompanies youthful expression, coupled with the input of her literary-genius lover and husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Mary Shelley followed this performance with Valperga (1823), which did relatively well, only to overstep the mark with The Last Man by combining the magnitude of her intellectual prowess with a lack of help from someone like Percy to help her smooth out the rough edges of her manuscript. What I envision nowadays, and in the spirit of my sincerest sincerity, is a task created by the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in which The Last Man is presented to students for an exercise in revision from which polished forms of the novel take shape; but obviously, these are views that come from an era 200 years later into the evolution of novel-writing.

Make no mistake, The Last Man is no minor work of art to be scoffed at. Her contemporaries complained about the thematic material, its grim attributes, its culmination in the depressive aspect of isolation; but it’s not the case from a historicist point of view. That I notice the intellectuality of Shelley’s linguistic style is a mere circumstance of reader-response theory and the passing of time. The fact remains: the passages that flow from the pen in The Last Man are at times, downright breathtaking. People don’t write like this anymore; and it’s always simply and purely amazing to me that a novel like this, clocking in at approximately 175,000 words, was written by hand without the luxuries of word-processing software. To be sure, The Last Man is yet another of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s masterworks of canonical English literature.

The novel has been labelled a roman à clef for reasons that are easy to see for someone who studies Romanticism, which materializes most pointedly in the character of Lord Raymond, who is meant to represent the “mad, bad and dangerous to know,” Lord Byron. The narrator, Lionel Verney, has been noted for representing Mary Shelley herself, with the character of Adrian representing the all-encompassing glory that was her deceased husband Percy. This particular character could do no wrong, apparently, created in light of the fact that Mary had been mad at Percy for his infidelity, but came to feel bad about her feelings after he drowned in a boating accident. From here we have the rest of the group: Perdita, who is Lionel’s little sister; Idris, younger sister to Adrian; the Countess of Windsor being Idris and Adrian’s cold and calculating mother; Princess Evadne, who is a visitor at court; with Lord Raymond being the factor that seems to tie it all into a neat bow.

Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley were popular figures of the Romantic Era, circa 1780-1832.

The momentum of the story is triggered when Lionel crosses paths with Adrian, by which the lowly Lionel and Perdita are thrust into the lives of the aristocracy in a post-monarchal England. It’s a device that offers narrative life while at the same time, dragging it all down, for its service as a platform for the authoress to discuss politics, which is always a story-telling mistake [unless it’s intended to be the specific point; but even then, consider a book like Felix Holt, the Radical (1866) by George Eliot]. In spite of the drag, we do manage to feel like we’re getting to know the group, which is really all we have with regard to a subject in which total annihilation is the name of the game. Adrian, for example, is the type of person who approaches hillsides with a view and launches into glorious elocution:

“O happy earth, and happy inhabitants of earth! A stately palace has God built for you, O man! and worthy are you of your dwelling! Behold the verdant carpet spread at our feet, and the azure canopy above; the fields of earth which generate and nurture all things, and the track of heaven, which contains and clasps all things” (Vol. I, Ch. IV).

It’s so very traditionally English, so very Shakespearean. Mercy, what a dour literary agent in the modern age might think of this in a submission.

Our impression of Adrian is nuanced by the illustrious Princess Evadne from Greece, who taunts him with a spell of unrequited love. Evadne is certainly interesting in that she is pitted as experiencing a fall from grace, Shelley’s way of chipping away at the aristocrats of her day. Not only does Evadne meet with a life of despair, but her behavior comes to suffer from the effects of near-derangement. In contrast with a person like Lionel, who endures the trials of war and plague with calm and reserve, Evadne is depicted as one whose semblance of strength has been subjected to the ultimate cracking point and she loses, a spin on the notion that someone truly aristocratic doesn’t understand the real world.

Between Adrian and Idris, the engines are forever turning in the mind of their mother, the Countess of Windsor. The story goes that, in the noble hope for establishing a democratic-republic for England, the husband of the Countess, the ex-king, had abdicated his throne, much to her dismay. In this manner, she forever views her children as potential stepping stones for restoring the monarchy, for restoring her position as royalty. Ultimately speaking, it’s all slightly less than deliciously-demonic, where the goal is more-or-less to paint life-portraits of the characters, whether realistic or fancied, before the plague comes along to demolish everything. And it’s hard to say whether or not this makes the overall story interesting or not; I suppose it depends on whether you’re reading the book for college, or during an actual pandemic. It was certainly uncanny to find myself reading about life at Windsor Castle during a fictional plague, even as Queen Elizabeth II was delivering a very real speech from that very spot amid the turmoil in England during those first few days of April 2020. Very eerie.

From Windsor Castle, Queen Elizabeth II delivered a speech to the citizens of Great Britain and the world on April 5, 2020.

As a work of futuristic story-telling, we have to be tender considering the year was 1825 when The Last Man was written. The fictional years provided are 2073 through to the millennia, and yet the most we get technologically speaking is when balloons are taken for transportation — the rest is essentially Victorian England. But Mary Shelley doesn’t entirely let us down so far as the fantastical is concerned. A curious moment unfolds when she describes a “black sun” that terrifies the peoples of the east, which is obviously a total solar eclipse — it’s one that occurs not far in time from one that is actually set to occur on September 23, 2090, according to NASA.

However, she additionally allows for a moment that is, in essence, an astronomical impossibility, when she describes an event which astonishes the emigrating group as they proceed to vacate the island of England. Standing at the edge of the English Channel facing France, “suddenly, a wonder! three other suns, alike burning and brilliant, rushed from various quarters of the heavens towards the great orb; they whirled round it” (Vol. III, Ch. IV). It’s a welcome diversion, a venture into the realm of pure and joyous fantasy; yet it’s alarming: the end of mankind is unfolding and the heavenly bodies are taking note with rapturous glee.

The arrangement and flow of The Last Man are really its only shortcomings, such that to say that its impressions and fascinations profusely compensate feels an odd thing to declare, because it’s basically an understatement. As mentioned, Adrian’s hilltop elocution is definitive of the English mindset, to make every moment, even the most trivial, to feel as though great things have been achieved. This is the art of apostrophe defined, appearing throughout so that it’s not plot or story or character that we care about so much as we feel the emotion of the expression, such that we want the moments in our own lives to feel equally as important. In addition, as I perpetually consider the definition of “great literature,” I always find myself at some point finding the argument between “showing” and “telling” a petty thing when I consider metaphor and its ability to convey meaning. The Last Man is rife with metaphor: I scrolled for less than a minute, at random, encountering several similes, before learning about Lionel’s high-anxiety about his family via pure metaphorical device: “I might heap high the scale with logic, courage, and resignation—but let one fear for Idris and our children enter the opposite one, and, over-weighed, it kicked the beam” (Vol. II, Ch. VI). Great literature is found in the writing that comes from one who entices the mind intuitively with the power of metaphor.

Animals roam the empty streets during the Covid-19 Pandemic of 2020.

The lasting impression of The Last Man, as its contemporary critics have noted, does appear in the nihilistic, pervasive erosion of humanity as the plague spreads, obliterating everything that is specifically human in its path, focalizing the final acts of the novel. Cows are seen going about their business, sheep are free to roam at will, birds continue to flutter about, and the fish carry on as though nothing of any particular interest is occurring at all. It’s a nasty concept to consider, that nature abhors us, to the extent that tiny organisms exist that can wipe us out from the face of the planet. The thought doesn’t escape Shelley’s mind when she likens our existence to a hill of ants, by which, its destruction engenders not the slightest shred of empathy the universe may have to offer. We have to shudder off the feeling, delude ourselves if necessary; we have to assure ourselves and our children that we do, in fact, matter. I think the point is that we have to do so in accordance with and respect for nature itself, lest Mother Nature inform us who’s really the boss. Well before and long after events like the Spanish Flu of 1918, or the SARS scare of 2003, Mary Shelley’s The Last Man comes off as an interesting, albeit, frightening piece of fictional literature; but if you happen to perform a reading during the real thing as it unfolds all around, the implications can be more than difficult to grasp.

And so it is, at the very least, remember as best as you can the guidelines provided by the CDC during this very trying time, and if you’ve made it this far, thank you for reading and stay safe out there.

Sharp Objects (2006)

The expert magician knows how to keep his audience focused on a specific object, so as to allow for his magic trick to unfold with precision in a different part of the visual spectrum. And so it is with the writer of mysteries, coloring her linguistic canvas with red herring detours of plot so that by the end of her novel, one can only blame oneself for the outcome they didn’t see coming.

Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects is just such the novel, going so far as to take a page from Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (1934) to secure that which was unexpected, whether intentionally or not. Even as I suspected from the outset a certain character’s dubious disposition, I have to admit that I, too, was taken in by the element of surprise in the final act, though it’s nothing to be ashamed of; it’s what Flynn would’ve wanted. Of course, what followed came the spotting of all the markers, replete with the feeling that it all should’ve been so obvious.

With that we have Flynn’s debut into the world of genre writing, impressive as it is. Following on the success of the movie adaptation of her third novel Gone Girl (2012), Sharp Objects was filmed as a ten-part series for HBO, and it was through this medium that I was driven to read the novel, because after the third episode, I was no longer able to allow myself to get strung along for another car ride with a spaced out Amy Adams.

What unfolded was that I had been, indeed, drawn in to reading a genre novel, but additionally, that I was reading something that was slightly more introspective than other genre novels that I’ve read. While the immediate claim is that the protagonist is the subject of focus for her inability to commit to a relationship, the writing does well to delve into the psychological underpinnings which facilitate her reluctance. Big time money in a small town, hellish coping mechanisms, drug abuse and peer-pressure are among the list of factors which contribute to the murder of two young girls.

If anything, Flynn provides an excellent contribution of thought to the realm of actual police detective work. Throughout the novel, Detective Richard Willis repeatedly insists that he is looking at anyone and everyone, and that it could be an outsider or a local, some transient or even a family member. It points to notions of seeking truth and justice in a manner that is not rushed and hurried; guilt can only be determined by the facts, and when the facts are slim, the need for patience is key. Sharp Objects is nearly an ode to the hundreds even thousands of those who have been wrongfully convicted by pressured detectives in a hurry to solve a case.

Stylistically speaking, Flynn’s novel moves at steady pace that is in keeping with the fundamentals of standard novel writing, though it must be stated, that the final reveal was out-of-step and awkward. Flynn offers insight into the writing process in her “Acknowledgements,” in which she states that she had “whittled” the book into shape. Multiple readers and readings were involved, along with law enforcement and medical consultations. The ending in this light seems to indicate the desire she had simply to finish the book.

At its heart, Sharp Objects is a “page-turner,” the craft of which is an important one to learn for the aspiring writer in this day and age, for as Stephen King once put it, loosely quoting, “literary fiction no longer sells.”

In the case of this novel, the introspective edge allowing for a glimpse into the darker behaviors of humankind render it something of a unique addition to the genre canon, for make no mistake, Sharp Objects is dark reading. Its tantalizing depiction of rural American Midwest evokes sensations of wariness as to its inhabitants, prompting Flynn herself to remark concerning people she knew in Missouri, of whom she was happy to say “were absolutely no inspiration for the characters in this book.”

Sharp Objects, most pointedly (pardon the pun), draws attention to one of the more confounding of teenage defense mechanisms against the world which traumatizes them. It’s no spoiler to highlight how the protagonist Camille Preaker is a “cutter,” someone who cuts themselves in superficial fashion so as to block the pain of a particular reality. Camille’s distinct style of cutting involves the inscribing of words into her flesh, providing a curious linguistic tension to what is already harrowing authorship. But when we consider the thought of one of our young loved ones taking a razor or a knife, or any “sharp object” to their flesh, it forces us to register, in all the wrong ways, just how painful certain experiences can be for young people. Sharp Objects lays bare what the world can do to the teenage mind, allowing us to consider more thoughtfully how to respond to someone who is young and experiencing trauma.

The Voyage Out (1915)

If any one sentence could describe Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out (originally entitled Melymbrosia), it might read, “It’s the book with a protagonist that doesn’t realize it has a protagonist.” I attribute this description to the writing style Woolf applies to her debut narrative form, a kind of specialized version of the third-person omniscient that is observed by one encyclopedia, “While Joyce and Faulkner separate one character’s interior monologues from another’s, Woolf’s narratives move between inner and outer and between characters without clear demarcations” (Source). It is an odd way of writing, but something to be appreciated for its drive to break the so-called “rules” of writing.

The Voyage Out, I must admit, sat on my bookcase for nine years. I bought it believing that I was going to dive right in, joining the ranks of those who’ve been enlightened by the majestic insight that precedes Woolf’s reputation. And then my undergraduate courses began, where I was charged with the task of reading Mrs Dalloway (1925); although it was homework, I simply couldn’t finish it. And after racing through To the Lighthouse (1927), I realized The Voyage Out might be shelved unattended to for quite some time. Woolf’s literary accomplishments may be fascinations of genius, but are nonetheless an acquired taste.

The day finally arrived, however, eight years later, when I sensed that I would have to give The Voyage Out some attention, and I’m glad I did. As it turns out, because it was her first novel, it’s been dubbed the simpler of her works (remarkable in and of itself since it went through seven drafts). As Pagan Harleman tells us, since “Woolf was still writing under the shadow of E.M. Forster and the traditional novel, she was not ready for new terrain. One can see her experimenting, slowly honing the style that was to become her hallmark, but where later she was fearless, here she is tentative, depending on plot, not style, to drive the narrative” (XIII). For this fact I am grateful. I was able to experience the beauty and power of Woolf’s ingenuity and prowess with something like a standard narrative to carry me through.

The surprise came when I discovered how the story does not take place in England, which contributed to my enthusiasm to continue reading. Of course, Woolf’s characteristic style stood out immediately, the intricacies of human behavior, emotions described with such poetic clarity, all replete with commentaries on the conditions and idiosyncrasies of English life at the time.

But the story initiates with adventures at sea, the described intensity of the experience intermixed with character activities and reactions that read with a subtle realism that made it hard to believe the authoress had never actually traveled on a ship. When we reach the fictional town of Santa Marina, South America, her descriptive power intensifies, with every conceivable detail attended to with visceral prose that is remarkable to absorb; there is something oddly otherworldly in the notion in how The Voyage Out stands as her “simpler” work, yet requires such keen perception to comprehend the profundity of the writing present within its pages.

The young Rachel Vinrace is the centerpiece of the story but as mentioned, Woolf’s version of the third-person omniscient kept the form from focusing tightly on her. We’re met with an assortment of characters and with them, Woolf brings forth their behaviors and emotions with every mention, distracting us from Rachel’s plot line. The form is so very unusual, abstract and yet revealing for the multitude of ideas Woolf desires to impart, aside from simply telling a story. Luckily for the readership, she is so gifted that the style is not bothersome, much to the extent that the joy of reading is not hindered at all. She even manages to employ that traditionally English writing habit of inserting epigrams, for example telling us that when matters pertain to love, how “That, of course, was what came of looking forward to anything; one was always disappointed” (Woolf 271).

The temptation stands to try and identify the downsides of The Voyage Out, but there are none; great writers often begin their careers with works that are subject to the arrows of criticism (though hers was met with a fair amount of praise). For instance, the English characters are followed throughout the narrative with great avidity while the native peoples of Santa Marina take a serious backseat; the primary peripheral characters are many and they drift in and out so that it’s sometimes difficult to discern them from one another when conversations and descriptions are taking place; and for as thick as the book is, what we learn of Rachel is borderline deficient — but not to the detriment of the novel. To be sure, the novel’s defects are what seem to be the very attributes which render it an exceptional work of literature, its “downsides” to be wholly forgiven.

This may be in addition due to its most peculiar aspect: interwoven throughout its shifting panoramic form there flows a love story. Rachel has been described with the appropriate amount of characterization so that when the moment arrives when we learn how she feels, we find our spirits moved with a sense of intrigue. She’s naïve to the world because of her upbringing, but she is a prodigy at the piano; she’s vulnerable enough to allow the actions of certain people to overwhelm her, but she holds her own when the time comes for intelligent conversation; and she’s old enough to know how marriage is that daunting institution of the unknown, yet her youthful spirit endows her with the inspiration to explore what it might be all about for herself. Rachel’s character development is truly a marvel, because we learn just enough about her to feel that she could be a person taken from the pages of real life.

The finalizing factor that bolsters the novel’s integrity rest not entirely in how the plot line concludes (no spoilers here), because that would’ve been a drastic cliché. It’s in the emotive type of nonchalance that fill the many pages that follow these climactic circumstances that do the grabbing. Where the distracting shifts between characters had once been something of an authorial curiosity, the form appears to have been a strategical maneuver all along. People have to go on with their lives, and of these feelings we are shown. It seems that in reality, we can never tell how people truly feel under such conditions, but with the natural gift of Woolf’s writing, we get as close to the real thing as can possibly be imagined, given especially that such realities can be both heartbreaking as they are unsettling in a disturbing kind of way. With this kind of writing, we can look across the room at someone we love and not only want to reach out and hug them, but we can come a touch closer to understanding them so that we can love them even more.

Harleman, Pagan. Introduction. The Voyage Out. Barnes & Noble, 2004.

Woolf, Virginia. The Voyage Out. 1915. Barnes & Noble, 2004.

Moby Dick (1851)

Moby Dick

Before I decided to perform an official reading of Herman Melville’s magnum opus, my previous experience with Moby Dick entailed that in which the novel was given to me as a gift, in hardback form. It was a big, thick book. I didn’t know what to do with it. Since I didn’t immediately dive into it, the person who gave it to me decided to give it a go. I distinctly remember the hours she spent on the bed, in a seeming state of torture, the cuss words emerging from her lips at times, before she ultimately tossed the book aside three-quarters of the way through. From that point the book became an item to chew on for her half-pug/half-chihuahua dog. In taking note of the teeth marks, ultimately I opted to donate the fabled tome to charity without ever once perusing a single page. That was ten years ago.

The novel reemerged in my life when I performed miserably on the GRE subject test. Ishmael? Queequeg? Who were these guys? Of course I knew about Captain Ahab, and something about a whale, but after completing my thesis and deciding to retake the GRE, I decided it was time to simply sit down and read the darn thing. My oh my, what an experience this has been.

Moby Dick 2

Since I chose to work my way through in one series of sittings, I felt like the book owned me. I couldn’t get on with the other things in my life. And a feeling developed in which I felt as though I, too, were at sea, only my world was an ocean of words and concepts, philosophies and religions, characters and, of course, whales. As I read, I had to do much referencing to understand the material and invariably, I stumbled across not only a myriad of critical essays regarding the piece, but a few opinions as well.

I tend to agree with those who felt the work was tedious and disproportionate. Having an understanding of a well-structured, plot-sequenced novel, I was keenly aware of the disrupted flow of the story. I was drawn in by the Ishmael/Queequeg character developments only to realize, as everyone else who’s read Moby Dick, that I was being seriously sidetracked by an immense amount of seemingly irrelevant details about whaling. I understand, now, that everyone knows this, and that I have simply arrived late to the party.

One opinion piece, however, felt he’d been short-changed by the ending, and on this point, I couldn’t agree. I felt the power of language and I felt the Shakespearean undercurrent. I felt the power of the story and accordingly, I felt purpose in Melville’s many digressions as they seemed to converge to render the ending entirely appropriate. I sense that modern day editors would skewer the book, try and whittle it down to a standard 75,000 word narrative pronounced with the absurd mandate most notoriously known throughout post-modern publishing — that everything must be SHOWN and not told. And in light of this fact, I am glad the novel is just the way it is. Without the detours and side-shifting of the narrative perspective, the novel would not be renowned as a unique American classic.

Captain Ahab, of course, occupies the centrality of the story. Wherever a critique is found about him, the aspect of his “monomania” is pervasive. But what is monomania? The Free Dictionary defines it as a “pathological obsession with one idea or subject” or “intent concentration on or exaggerated enthusiasm for a single subject or idea.” Undoubtedly, this figures into Ahab’s fixation on the whale, but the term denotes a negativity that is hard to avoid.

Moby Dick 4

I agree with the idea that Ahab was fixated, but I didn’t view it quite as negatively as maybe I should have. I saw his need to get Moby Dick as a representation of the need to set goals and achieve them. Ahab was determined to succeed in his goal, and I don’t believe he intended to harm others in his endeavor. He had no idea that The Pequod was going to sink, and his affection for Pip displays a sense of humanity that lies within him. And because the venture included the capture of other whales, I didn’t view Ahab’s orders as wholly authoritarian. They traveled east, caught some whales, and towards the end of the novel, they got on to Moby Dick’s trail. Ahab wanted to control matters, but the voyage seemed not altogether abnormal; and I don’t get the sense that he wanted to kill people needlessly.

Ahab offers the doubloon as a reward to manipulate his crew into his service, and even though this a mental maneuver, I think it stands as an attribute of his ability to think critically. It is a diplomatic tactic that helps him move towards completion. And that he has his harpoon baptized in the blood of his mates who have opted to help him, I see this, along with the doubloon offering, as symbolic of the teamwork that is often required to achieve goals. Captain Ahab is fanatical and ritualistic about it, but such behaviors reinforce the framework of his strategy to reach the level that is accomplishment.

Moby Dick 3

At this point it is important to understand that I am not out to produce a critical essay on Moby Dick; I save that for my 18th Century studies. With that being said, I can understand that casting a positive light on Ahab’s obsession to catch the white whale may seem unorthodox. It’s just that as I was reading, I could not help but feel the valiance of the man and his mission. Captain Ahab was determined to succeed, and this determination in an American novel reflects the determination ingrained in the spirit of America and its citizens. The tragedy that is Ahab’s story, that he lost everything and the whale got away, does not sum up Melville’s novel from my perspective. Ahab’s attitude of perseverance, the ongoing meditations outside his cabin, his willingness to give up addiction (when he tosses the pipe), the continuous rhetoric and psychological tactics he employed, these all lead me to believe that Captain Ahab and the spirit of America is not one of quitting or shying away from a challenge, but one of the willingness and the drive to succeed.