Yes, this was the earth; there is no change—no ruin—no rent made in her verdurous expanse; she continues to wheel round and round, with alternate night and day, through the sky, though man is not her adorner or inhabitant. Why could I not forget myself like one of those animals, and no longer suffer the wild tumult of misery that I endure? Yet, ah! what a deadly breach yawns between their state and mine![i]
As the existence of humanity dwindles under the effects of the plague in Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, nature—and more specifically, animals—reflects the gradual forgetting of humanity and humans’ place in the world. Nature is indifferent to the extinction of humankind, as Verney implies in the epigraph, and there is no refuge from the plague nor from death, no prospect of hospitality left in the world for the last man.
Yet, in the final volume of The Last Man, there are acts of hospitality between Verney and the animals he encounters. Interestingly, these moments are framed by forgottenness and remembrance. Three encounters within the text exemplify this: the first two encounters involve hospitality and forgottenness, in which the subject (animal or human) bestowing hospitality is met with the forgetfulness of the other and is forgotten; while, in the third and final encounter, hospitality is marked by unforgottenness, or remembrance, on the part of the animal subject toward the human other.
The first encounter takes place during the remnants’ migration to Switzerland. Verney having reached Villeneuve-la-Guiard and hearing of Adrian’s delay in Versailles, decides to return to Versailles out of concern for his friend. He chooses his favorite horse for the journey; however, ignorant of his horse’s fatigue and thirst during the return, Verney rides the horse to death upon reaching Versailles: “I saw him expire with an anguish, unaccountable even to myself, the spasm was as the wrenching of some limb in agonizing torture, but it was brief as it was intolerable.”[ii] In his haste to meet Adrian, Verney even admits that he immediately “forgot” this proud and noble creature, this “poor fellow.”[iii] The horse had given his life to carry Verney to his friend, only to be forgotten the very moment after his death.
The indifference with which Verney regards the life of his horse seems to be reflected in the indifference animals show toward those aspects of humanity left behind after the plague. Animals, in short, had forgotten humankind:
In the towns, the voiceless towns, we visited the churches, adorned by pictures, master-pieces of art, or galleries of statues—while in this genial clime the animals, in new found liberty, rambled through the gorgeous palaces, and hardly feared our forgotten aspect.[iv]
However, nature’s indifference is never felt more strongly by Verney than after the deaths of Adrian and Clara. Not quite a month after their deaths, in the second encounter covered here, Verney comes upon a “family” of goats. Verney, perhaps feeling a hope for such innocent life, offers the goats a handful of grass; however, the goats reject him—furthermore the ram attempts to attack him. Peter Melville rightly acknowledges this as “a most heartbreaking hospitable encounter” that “powerfully captures the anguish of his newfound situation of isolation and non-relatedness.”[v] According to Melville, Verney’s encounter with the goats tests the human-animal relational ideal, that of creaturely kinship: “Interpolating these creatures as human-like, Lionel posits a hospitable relation that enables him to interact with the goats. He compensates for a lack of other subjects by subjecting a group of non-subjects whose very otherness resides partly in their impossibility as subjects.”[vi] Nevertheless, in Verney’s desperate search for other relational subjects, he ultimately finds himself alone and facing that “deadly breach” between humans and animals, that “great vastness of absolute otherness.”[vii]
At this point in the narrative, Verney resolves to seek out towns with their “stupendous remains of human exertion,” and where he will not “find every thing forgetful of man.”[viii] And it is after this decision that we come to our third and final scene in his wandering of Campagna near the end of the book. Here Verney finds his final companion, his last friend: a dog whom he found herding sheep. Though the dog’s master was dead, still he continued to fulfill his shepherding duties, those “lessons learned from man, now useless, though unforgotten.”[ix] It is in the dog’s remembrance of humankind, his greeting of Verney, that we see what could be said as the final act of hospitality in the book:
His delight was excessive when he saw me. He sprung up to my knees; he capered round and round, wagging his tail, with the short, quick bark of pleasure: he left his fold to follow me, and from that day has never neglected to watch by and attend on me, shewing boisterous gratitude whenever I caressed or talked to him.[x]
This final scene seems to complicate Melville’s notion of animals as “non-subjects”—can we identify animals as subjects capable of providing and accepting hospitality? Moreover, what do these encounters, taken together, suggest about the role of animals in The Last Man? Also, framed by forgottenness and remembrance, these encounters speak to questions about the relationality of hospitality: must their be some commonality, something shared or remembered, for hospitality to occur?
[i] Mary Shelley, The Last Man, ed. Morton D. Paley (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 459.
[ii] Ibid., 404.
[iv] Ibid., 430.
[v] Peter Melville, “Hospitality without End: ‘Visitation’ and Obligation in Mary Shelley’s The Last Man,” in Romantic Hospitality and the Resistance to Accommodation (Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2007), 148.
[viii] Shelley, 460.
[ix] Ibid., 468.