The dwindling and plague-beset remainder of humanity in the final volume of Mary Shelley’s The Last Man struggles to make sense of and find comfort amid its suffering. Among the narratives that the survivors seek to impose on their experience are predictable appeals to man’s indomitable spirit, his duty to his fellow man, and the hope of survival. Adrian, for example, makes lofty appeals to his responsibility to mankind, declaring, “I have believed it to be my destiny to guide and rule the last of the race of man, till death extinguish my government; and to this destiny I submit” (Shelley 397). Others cherish the hope of survival, and of becoming the parents of a new human race. Shelley writes that with “pertinacious optimism,” each member of the group bound for Switzerland “trusted that their beloved family would be the one preserved” (409).
Conspicuously absent among the narratives by which the survivors make sense of their plight is an appeal to man’s transience on earth and his permanent citizenship in heaven. Idris and Verney consider such an appeal, but eventually dismiss it. In an attempt to comfort Verney while he is infected with the plague, Idris wistfully conjures an image of heaven in which the dead are “revived with the same companions, the same affections” that they enjoy on earth (Shelley 339). But Idris concludes that she does not believe in the afterlife she has envisioned. She sadly admits to her husband, “the same strong feeling which makes me sure that I shall not wholly die, makes me refuse to believe that I shall live as wholly as I do now” (Shelley 339). Verney echoes his wife’s inability to find consolation in the promise of heaven, saying, “This present moment, short as it is, is a part of eternity, and the dearest part” (Shelley 340). So, while both believe in a sort of heaven, it is to them a poor substitute for earthly life, and an insufficient comfort for their present sufferings.
While Verney makes frequent reference to the divine throughout the novel, his understanding of God’s providence on mankind’s behalf is not primarily in the promise of heaven, but in the equipping of mankind to survive in the increasingly inhospitable earth. Verney addresses the frightened masses at Windsor, urging them that since “God has placed the means for our preservation in our own hands, we will use those means to our utmost” (Shelley 246). He has hope, but it is not that particular species of hope that reduces the earth to man’s miserable and temporary dwelling place—a hope which the skeptic may be tempted to call escapism. And, where such a hope does crop up in the religious faction in Paris, Verney emphatically disavows it.
Instead, the last survivors (and Verney in particular) feel strongly that they are citizens, not of the world to come, but of the present one. I am interested in how Verney’s deep sense of belonging to the earth informs the hospitality he extends to others. Is it a nobler thing to offer the use of your home to another when you view your earthly home as so profoundly and permanently yours? Indeed, is it possible to extend true hospitality when you view your earthly home as transient—to lend for temporary use what you understand to have been temporarily lent to you?
One might expect a worldview which privileges earth over heaven as man’s proper dwelling place to result in a tightfistedness with one’s earthly possessions. Or one might not expect it—I realize that the correlation between a sense of ultimate belonging to earth and an increased proprietary attitude towards one’s earthly belongings is by no means a given. But doesn’t it make sense? Isn’t there a sort of mutuality to belonging? We belong to a particular country, and also call that country “ours.” We belong at home and home belongs to us. In the same way, isn’t it reasonable to expect that a person with such a strong sense of belonging to earth would also feel strongly that earth belongs, in some degree, to him?
But Verney does not begrudge the use of Windsor Castle to the suffering multitudes. He reflects that “It was impossible to see these crowds of wretched, perishing creatures…and not stretch out a hand to save them” (Shelley 236). Compelled by a deep sympathy, he extends the use of his property to those in need, and the castle “became an asylum for the unhappy” (Shelley 236). How can we account for the openhandedness of a man who feels so deeply his belonging to the earth and, presumably, the earth’s belonging to him? It seems to me that the best explanation is not one that diminishes Verney’s proprietary feelings toward the castle, but rather, one that highlights his uncommon capacity for recognizing the shared earthly citizenship of his fellow sufferers.
Verney’s hospitality is noble in the extreme—he offers to others the use of that which he understands to be his true home, and not merely a temporary earthly lodging. However, the worldview which underlies his extension of hospitality, if uncoupled with Verney’s extraordinary sensitivity to the plight of others, seems inclined toward a bitter inhospitality instead. In the previous paragraph, I called Verney’s empathy “uncommon”, and I meant it not only in the sense of its extremity, but also in the sense of its rarity.
Perhaps, then, it would be helpful to read this novel, not as an apology for the worldview that earth rather than heaven is our home, but as exemplary of how best to live if indeed you subscribe to such a worldview—with a great deal of empathy, and with a view to the earthly citizenship of others. Such a reading demands that we see Verney, not as a generic representative of mankind (as the title may suggest), but as an exemplar of mankind’s best qualities. He is not only the last man, but also an extraordinarily good one.