Wherefore the Sybil?

If a reader, frantically eager to begin reading Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, were to inadvertently skip her prologue she would not intuit that she had missed anything. Admittedly, the same could very nearly be said for a number of other, not unsizable, portions of the novel throughout, but it is particularly true of the prologue, which feels awkwardly fitted to the succeeding story. In the prologue, Shelley, or a fictional persona she adopts, claims that she stumbled upon the scattered Sybil’s leaves while flagrantly flouting the directions of her Italian tour guides, and it is through the fruits of this transgressive spelunking that the author manages to piece together and then relate the tale of humanity’s end which makes up the novel proper.

The result of this peculiar framing device is a rather complex layering of narration in the novel. Lionel Verney is the narrator of the novel proper and the titular “last man,” but he is writing this account well after the time at which the author finds (apparently) a transcription of Verney’s future book recorded centuries earlier by the mythic Sibyl. Certainly an odd turn of affairs! Verney’s narration is told through the Sibyl’s leaves as translated by the author, and the author makes it clear that she performed a significant work of interpretation in piecing together the leaves, claiming, “Certainly the leaves of the Cumaean Sibyl have suffered distortion…in my hands” (7). Presumably all of this business is meant to somehow shape the reader’s experience of and engagement with the novel, but answering exactly how it is supposed to shape that experience is not easy. The prologue might seem insignificant or even distracting upon first glance (and possibly still after further inspection), but considering the influence of the multi-layered narration does suggest some possible ways that Shelley might have hoped to alter the reception of the text by the reader.

One effect of the author-Sybil-Verney narration could be to render Verney’s account ambiguous enough to make the novel a warning of potential danger rather than a statement about a certain future. Frequently, futuristic and dystopian novels seek to depict a terrible outcome in the future in order to warn about errors in the present. As a forerunner of the dystopian novel genre, Shelley would not have been drawing on this generic tradition as such, but she might nonetheless have tapped into a similar impulse. Perhaps she hoped to write about a catastrophic future for humanity without removing all hope of changing that future, so that her audience might feel compelled to act in order to change the outcome of humanity.

However, this reading is complicated by the fact that the novel does not seem to be primarily, or even very significantly, focused on highlighting humanity’s errors and warning about their destructive tendencies. To be sure, Verney has his fair share of critiques leveled at human foibles and follies, and Shelley does use the collapse of civilization to point out the absurdity of class distinctions and other such distinctions (although the protagonists remain rather distinctly aristocratic in their own perception). But it is never suggested, explicitly or implicitly, that human error is the catalyst of the catastrophe. To the contrary, the origins of the plague are entirely unknown and human conduct, good, bad, or somewhere in between, is all equally incapable of speeding or slowing the spread of the disease. Those who band together in the face of disease, die. Those who selfishly take advantage of the disease, die. Human action is not highlighted as an agent initiating or exacerbating the apocalypse; instead the novel emphasizes humanity’s lack of agency in relation to the plague. The point is not that humanity could have prevented the plague; the point is that they could not have done so.

Thus, rendering the account of the future ambiguous might play a part in Shelley’s motivation, but it does not seem to be a major part. So why else might Shelley employ this complex, rather unintuitive, narrative structure?

Well, perhaps she was simply trying to find a way to write about potentially “unbelievable” events in a future world. In the mid-nineteenth century, the novel was still a relatively young genre, and many novelists had chosen to somehow couch their story in the guise of a true account in some way. Shelley employs such a technique but is hampered by the fact that she cannot very plausibly present the text to her readers as an authentic recording of true events if those events take place in the future. And who better to relate the future than the Sibyl? There is no point dealing with second-rate future-gazers when you can just send your author straight into the Sibyl’s cave. This practical strategy for evoking a sort of “truthiness” might well explain Shelley’s layered narration in part.

However, we ought also to consider the inverse of the first possible answer we pondered. We have asked whether Shelley might have wanted to make Verney’s account questionable by the ways in which she drew it from the future to the present, but she might also have wanted to obscure her novel’s biographical elements by pushing present and recent past into a far-off future. Clearly, Shelley is not laboring to conceal the parallels between Lord Raymond and Lord Byron or between Adrian and the similarly sailing-accident-prone Perce Shelley. However, she is also not writing a straight biography or some kind of biographical allegory. She could have expressed her complex feelings about Byron and her somewhat perplexing feelings for Shelley by writing about them as themselves, but such writing is, in some ways, uncomfortably confined by facticity. To simultaneously write about and not write about the passing of the Late Romantics, who made up so significant a part of her life, she may have had to create enough distance between her fictional subjects and factual friends so that her readers would not draw too direct a correlation between them. Lord Raymond resembles Byron in many ways, but he is not Byron. As such, he can be better than Byron, while still modeling his faults and his fall. And the divorce between the angelic Adrian and the errant Perce seems much greater. Perhaps, by placing these departed figures in the future, Shelley was able to not only reflect on what they were but also imagine what they might have been. In some ways, dark though her plague-wracked future is, it at least allows her drowned Perce a chance to shine in a new light.

Shelley’s novel is many things. It’s a bit of biography. A bit of tragic romance. A bit of social critique. And a lot of apocalypse. And perhaps that variety is, in the end, what her framing device enables her to accomplish. The novel feels a bit oddly patched together at times, but then she frames it as something almost literally patched together from leaves and scraps of leaves gathered off the floor of an Italian cave. Her layered narration secures her freedom, and, while there is probably much more we could say about what Shelley might be doing with that freedom, we could at least perhaps conclude that that freedom is likely, to some extent, an end in itself.

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