Nature in the Time of Plague

Mary Shelley uses variant meanings of the word “nature” throughout The Last Man. Even when she applies it to describing Nature as the surrounding world and its forces, its characterization varies. Nature is credited as a force behind the plague, while still being described as maternal. Nature simultaneously mocks and comforts the remnants of the human race. After becoming the last man, Lionel Verney describes Nature as “the enemy of all that lives,” but then the novel concludes with him venturing out into the dangerous nature that killed his last companions (460). What then is Nature’s relationship to humanity in the time of plague, particularly in Lionel Verney’s view?

Nature’s relationship with the plague seems to complicate the idea of mother nature. As the plague’s domain expands in the second book of the novel, Lionel explains the general human feeling about nature at this point: “Nature, our mother, and our friend, had turned on us a brow of menace. She shewed us plainly, that though she permitted us to assign her laws and subdue her apparent powers, yet, if she put forth but a finger, we must quake” (232). In this passage, the plague is operating at Nature’s will. Furthermore, her allowance of the plague is described in part as her reminder to humanity of her power. This passage implies a causal relationship between Nature and the plague. Furthermore, Lionel, as he characterizes the plague as having “entwined herself with [man’s] being,” suggests that man can no longer be considered “lord of the creation,” which implies that the plague is part of the creation and which now lords its authority over man (316). From these two passages, it seems as though Nature and Plague are cooperating to put humanity in its place. Though it is not entirely clear why Nature is now allowing retaliation in response to human dominion, these passages suggest that humanity’s understanding of and attempted control over nature are in some way related to the spread of the plague.

And yet, Nature is also a comforter. As Lionel and the small remnant of people traverse the Alps, Lionel and Adrian receive some comfort from Nature: “Nature, or nature’s favourite, this lovely earth, presented her most unrivalled beauties in resplendent and sudden exhibition.…Carried away by wonder, I forgot the death of man, and the living and beloved friend near me….An enthusiastic transport, akin to happiness, burst like a sudden ray from the sun, on our darkened life” (418-419). This sublime aesthetic moment does not actually resolve the problem facing humanity or have a lasting effect on their happiness, and yet this moment allows them to momentarily forget their pain. Soon after this moment and after more deaths in their small party, he writes again, “Nature, true to the last, consoled us in the very heart of misery. Sublime grandeur of outward objects soothed our hapless hearts, and were in harmony with our desolation” (424). In these passages, Nature positively affects those who witness her sublimity, though in one passage she causes people to forget their mourning and in another, she adds majesty to their tragic experiences. However, Nature’s abundance and beauty are also presented as causing further pain. As the seasons pass through the initial years of plague, Lionel portrays nature thus: “Nature was the same, as when she was the kind mother of the human race; now, childless and forlorn, her fertility was a mockery, her loveliness a mask for deformity” (329). While in some passages, this beauty is restorative, this passage describes the beauty as a haunting reminder of her own flourishing amidst human destruction.

These accounts of Nature’s relationship with humanity are not necessarily incompatible, as humanity’s relationship to nature is complex and consequently presented in seemingly contradictory ways, and much of literature acknowledges this tension. Still, it is unclear what Lionel’s overall view of nature is, especially as this account as depicted as his personal account written in Rome after he becomes the last man on earth (467). He is likely looking back on and re-interpreting his past experiences with Nature in light of his current understanding of what has happened to the human race. Despite witnessing Nature’s destruction of humanity through plague and stormy seas, Lionel, when remembering his encounters of the sublime, still imagines Nature as having the capacity to comfort the very people she has brought destruction upon. Because he views the plague as Nature’s instrument, what does it mean that he rejoices in the sublime even as he has seen firsthand the destruction Nature has caused? Furthermore, how does Lionel’s view of nature relate to the Romantic view of nature? With the autobiographical influences on the characters and interpretations relating to Mary Shelley’s views of Romanticism more broadly at this point her life, how are Shelley and her characters relating to nature?

Shelley, Mary. The Last Man. Oxford UP, 2008.

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