Pulling Up a Sibyl by Her Own Bootstraps: Narrative Contradictions in “The Last Man”

by Sørina Higgins

The Last Man is constructed as a tri-partite narrative whose fictions are mutually contradictory, lacking closure, inhospitable to the reader, and difficult to interpret. The three putative narrators are “Mary Shelley,”[1] the Cumaean Sibyl, and Lionel Verney. “Shelley” begins by claiming: “I visited Naples in the year 1818.”[2] She describes her explorations of a cave complex in Baiæ Bay that turns out to be the ancient haunts of the Sibyl. Here, “Shelley” collects leaves “traced with written characters” (3).[3] She spends time “deciphering these sacred remains,” editing, translating, organizing, adding material, and shaping the fragments into a narrative (3). Indeed, she admits: “Sometimes I have thought … they owe their present form to me, their decipherer” (4). Shelley thus uses this first frame to plant suspicion in the reader’s mind about the accuracy of the story displayed within: not a welcoming move.

The second narrator is nearly subsumed into the first: the Cumaean Sibyl is not allowed to speak for herself, but only as channeled through “Shelley” (who is, of course, channeled through Shelley). Within the frame, the reader is meant to believe that the main components of the story originated in Sibylline oracular writings—i.e., that they are divinely inspired and inescapably true. This origin story renders the embedded tale of humankind’s devastation by the plague as a warning. Many predictions of disaster include a comforting caveat; after Jonah’s declamation to Nineveh—“Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4)—repentance led to God’s “relenting” and holding back “the destruction he had threatened” (3:10). The readers of The Last Man, however, have no such option. No repentance is called for. No method of avoiding destruction is offered. Their only hope, oddly, is to disbelieve the story and put its inaccuracy down to the distortions introduced by “Shelley” during her process of “adaptation and translation” (4). This is a strange way to frame a novel: By encouraging readers to disbelieve it. Clayton Carlyle Tarr writes that frame narratives “frequently disturb narrative cohesiveness,” and that is certainly the case here.[4] From the very opening of The Last Man, the reader is encouraged to trust its veracity as a divinely-inspired prophecy of the future and simultaneously to suspect its accuracy due to its dubious reconstruction.

The third narrator is Lionel Verney, the main character, and his account contradicts the other two. Those may be harmonized with each other (the Sibyl could have written the leaves and “Shelley” could have transcribed them), but if his account is true, theirs must be ignored and erased to make space for his supposed authorship. When he is the last person alive on earth (as far as he knows), he decides to write a book dedicated “to the illustrious dead,” speculating that “the children of a saved pair of lovers” somewhere will re-populate the globe and read his book (339). In it, he narrates his life from solitude through young love, domestic life, and political action to solitude again. His writing of the book introduces a strange loop somewhat similar to the variously-named bootstrap paradox that bedevils time travelers. If the Sibyl wrote the leaves and “Shelley” edited them, then Lionel did not write the book; but then the prophecy is false, because the prophecy includes and is in some way predicated upon the book’s being written. If Lionel did/will write the book, then the Sibyl did not write it, and it is not a divine prophecy.

The Last Man’s frames, then, contradict one another; the first two are historical, the last is prophetic. One scholar asks: “Do prophecy and history contend as narrative modes?”[5] They certainly do in Shelley’s novel. This book “complicates conceptions of history and authenticity, and, because the opening frame never returns, Shelley leaves us with a perplexing understanding of what we have read and how we have read it.”[6] Have we read a prophecy of our own future? Or a fictional account of future we need not fear? The most crucial question raised by these debating narrative personae may be: Why did Shelley write a book whose conflicting frames alienate a reader via skepticism?

Scholars have wrestled with the destabilizing implications of The Last Man’s narrative frames. They may be merely a pragmatic writing technique, allowing the past-tense narration of events in the future.[7] But more is going on. Morag Veronica McGreevey thinks that “the novel’s annihilating conclusion denies the possibility of an audience,” which then forced Shelley to create the Sibylline frame as an excuse for the book’s creation in the past so that it may have an audience in the present (before the plague-ridden apocalypse).[8] But this ignores Lionel’s hope that survivors might still exist to be fruitful and multiply. Emily Steinlight takes the opposite approach, arguing “The Last Man does not foretell a destiny, much less an end of history,” because it assumes a present audience.[9] This ignores the story’s claim that it was written (by the Sibyl) in ancient times and edited by “Shelley” in 1818 and thus could easily be read in the nineteenth or twentieth centuries.

Many scholars read the open-ended narrative frame, with its account of questionable editing practices, as a destabilization of faith in authors, editors, or publishers.[10] The most dramatic of these is Tarr, who argues the lack of closure is “an enduring horror.”[11] This reading sees the conflicting frames as Shelley’s intentional device, either to protest her mistreatment by the literary industry of her day or to question her role as Percy’s literary executor.

There is a way to reconcile the varying frames, but it is inhospitable to narrators and reader alike. It requires believing (contrary to her report) that “Shelley” copied the Sibyl’s prophecy exactly—that’s what we are reading—and the prophecy will be fulfilled in our future, when Lionel Verney will write, word-perfectly, the book predicted by the Sibyl, constructed by “Shelley,” and written by Shelley. It could all be true, and we are awaiting our doom. It’s coming soon, in 2100.


[1] I use the quotation marks to distinguish this character from Mary Shelley and to acknowledge the many scholars who read this narrator as an ungendered fictional figure.

[2] This is, in fact, true of Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley.

[3] I am using this edition: Shelley, Mary. The Last Man. New Introduction by Brian Aldiss. London: The Hograth Press, 1985.

[4] Tarr, Clayton Carlyle. “The Force of a Frame: Narrative Boundaries and the Gothic Novel.” University of Georgia Dissertation, 2013. Abstract.

[5] ENG 274 notes: “Mary Shelley in Context.” web.stanford.edu/class/english274a/originals/lastman.doc.

[6] Tarr 36

[7] Franci, Giovanna. “A Mirror of the Future: Vision and Apocalypse in Mary Shelley’s The Last Man.Mary Shelley: Modern Critical Views, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1985) p. 186., qtd. in Albright, Richard S. “‘In the mean time, what did Perdita?’: Rhythms and Reversals in Mary Shelley’s The Last Man.Romanticism on the Net. Issue13, February, 1999.

[8] McGreevey, Morag Veronica. “Reading Apocalypse: Ruptured Temporality and the Colonial Landscape in Mary Shelley’s The Last Man.” B.A. Hons, The University of British Columbia, 2013. 1.

[9] Steinlight, Emily. Populating the Novel: Literary Form and the Politics of Surplus Life. Cornell University Press, 2018. 72.

[10] Zolciak, Olivia. “Mary Shelley’s The Last Man: A Critical Analysis of Anxiety and Authorship.” Thesis, Bowling Green State University, 2017. 50-51. Webb, Samantha. “Reading the End of the World: The Last Man, History, and the Agency of Romantic Authorship.” Mary Shelley in Her Times. Ed. Betty T. Bennett and Stuart Curran. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2000. Webb, Samantha Christine. Literary Mediators: Figures of Authority and Authorship in English Romantic Prose. Temple University, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 1999. 129. Tarr 36, 138.

[11] Tarr, Clayton Carlyle. Gothic Stories Within Stories: Frame Narratives and Realism in the Genre, 1790–1900. McFarland, 2017.

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