Mary Shelley and the Purpose of Power

Matthew Turnbull

Blog Post Two

ENG/REL 5362

1 October 2018

Mary Shelley and the Purpose of Power

In Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, the character of Raymond emerges as a man of power.  Yet, the way he (and the narrator) define power, the way he is vexed by the conflict between external versus internal power, and the way he uses his power, all present difficulties and questions.

First, Raymond seems to seek the kind of power defined as political leadership and acclaim. Like Achilles, he seems willing to sacrifice nearly everything for the classically Greek values of kleos and time. As Raymond is introduced into the story, the narrator describes his motive: “power therefore was the aim of all his endeavors; aggrandizement the mark at which he for ever shot;” whatever his action, his “end was the same—to attain the first station in his own country” (40).  Early on, possession of power, itself, seems to be his goal.

After early military success in the Greek wars, he returns to England to strive for the highest office in the country. Paradoxically, even when he successfully acquired the political power he desired, when his goals are fully realized, he is not at rest. He holds the absolute admiration of the English. He is adored by his wife, Perdita, with whom he shares the most satisfying intimacy.  Raymond possesses every traditional conception of power: social, political, and military. Yet, at this zenith of honor and glory and earthly happiness, he sacrifices it all. Why?

The ostensible cause seems to be his attraction to Evadne. What is it about Evadne that merits the potential sacrifice of all he possesses?  Was it simply that he was “struck by the fortitude and beauty of the ill-fated Greek” (121)? Was it the inevitable result of the expressions of Evadne’s “constant tenderness” toward him? Is Mary Shelley making the simple point that people in power are vulnerable to misusing the privileges of their office to engender and to cover up a liaison? Or is she implying that earthly happiness and personal-fulfillment approaches to power are unsustainable and necessarily ephemeral?  These explanations are plausible, but also possibly too superficial.

According to the narrative, there seems to be a deeper cause of Raymond’s demise. This cause has to do with the idea of external versus internal power. Though he “appear[s] to have strength, power, victory,” as he tells Verney, in reality he knows he is “a reed” (64). While he rules the world around him, he recognizes that his own “over-ruling heart” is the “rebel” and “stumbling block” to which he is enslaved (64).  What does this declaration imply regarding earthly forms and motives of power?  What is Shelley teaching the reader when the heroic character is simultaneously politically powerful and a slave to his own passion?  Isn’t this an ironic contradiction in a single soul?  Is this a further judgment made by the author that Raymond-like motives to power are evanescent and corrupt?

That Raymond is enslaved to certain passions seems apparent from his response to the discovery of his relationship with Evadne. In haughty pride he refuses to be “watched, cross-questioned, and disbelieved” by Perdita. Rather, he tells his wife that they should separate because his “honor is not yet so tarnished” as to tolerate her suspicions (124). Thus, he would rather sacrifice his marriage and the warm of their fellowship than humble himself. This seems like a man enchained to pride. Moreover, when his liaison with Evadne is made known he descends into a series of licentious indulgences.  As the narrator describes it, “love of pleasure . . . made a prominent part of his character, conquering the conqueror, . . . making him forget the toil of weeks for the sake of one moment’s indulgence of the new and actual object of his wishes” (148). Thus, pleasure and immediate satisfaction seem to govern Raymond, as opposed to Raymond governing his pleasures. In other words, there is an internal flaw apparent in Raymond’s character that makes his relationship to power problematic.  Are we to take Raymond as Mary Shelley’s creation of a doubly-Byronic hero?

Considering his relationship with Evadne, his conquering of her affections was, ironically then, her conquering of his. While Lord Protector of the nation and former military hero, by following his desire for her, Raymond manifests outwardly his own inner powerlessness.  Indeed, he confesses this much to Adrian: “I cannot rule myself. My passions are my masters.” (152).  What does Shelley mean by creating a character blatantly great according to every customary index of earthly greatness, who is yet a “slave” “conquered” and “mastered” by his tyrannical impulses? What are we intended to think about Raymond?

Whatever it is, the narrative seems to pronounce judgment on his character through his inglorious end. Before his death, he is fraught with anxiety. He calls himself “the sport of fortune” (194). His final, solitary “invasion” of unguarded Constantinople, “galloping up the broad and desart street” to die, alone, as the victim of a landmine appears tragic and ludicrous. Surely this is not the death an author gives to a character they wish to glorify.

Perhaps the most significant questions arise when Adrian’s conception and use of power is contrasted with Raymond’s.  What does it mean for our understanding of Shelley’s treatment of power when Adrian is, throughout the novel, in a classic sense, weak and sickly? What does it mean when, in moral and even political terms, he exercises more influence than Raymond? What does it mean that Adrian, not Raymond, ably leads the desperate people of England and surrounding countries through the worst of hardships, through the deepest test of national and international character: the decimation of the Plague? What does it mean that Adrian, not Raymond, is one of the final three survivors of the human race?  Is Mary Shelley giving us a vision of power properly conceived and properly used when she has Adrian pronounce his aims as Lord Protector in his conversation with Verney?

“I can bring patience, and sympathy, and such aid as art affords, to the bed of disease; I can raise from the earth the miserable orphan, and awaken to new hopes the shut heart of the mourner . . . courage, forbearance, and watchfulness, are the forces I bring towards this great work. . . . To England and to Englishmen I dedicate myself. . . . if I can ward disease from one of her smiling cottages, I shall have not lived in vain” (247).

When, after his death in the Adriatic, Verney reflects on Adrian’s power and influence over his countrymen and his friends, he recognized it was from Adrian he learned that “goodness, pure and single, can be an attribute of man” (451).  At the very least, this is a radically different vision of power and its purpose than the one Raymond pursued.

 

 

 

 

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