Lionel opens Volume 3 of The Last Man in despair, suggesting a loss of humanity itself: “Once man was a favourite of the Creator, as the royal psalmist sang, ‘God has made him a little lower than the angels, and had crowned him with glory and honour. God made him to have dominion over the works of his hands, and put all things under his feet.’ Once it was so; now is man lord of creation? Look at him—ha! I see plague!” (316) Within his bitter complaint is an assumption that humanity is meant for power. Lionel mourns not only that people die, but that when plague takes humanity’s lordship, humanity is less than it should be. Whereas humanity once traveled the world to pursue luxuries, in the face of plague, people struggle simply to survive. Gone are the glories of national achievement, progress, and the arts (320-1). In these ways, “We were surely sufficiently degraded” (316). Lionel concludes at the end of this mournful chapter that he must leave England (323).
Yet as soon as Lionel and Adrian begin planning their emigration, another picture emerges in which Lionel, and what’s left of humankind, seemingly remains empowered. “Let us go,” Lionel narrates, “the world is our country now, and we will choose for our residence its most fertile spot…we may come upon health, and committing our loved ones to its charge, replant the uprooted tree of humanity” (326). Though he acknowledges the possibility of death, Lionel’s words express hope for dominion. He is not a powerless refugee but a man who can find and claim a better home in which humanity might flourish again.
It is difficult not to sympathize with Lionel in at least some ways—he loses nearly everything. But on the point of humanity’s lost dominion, should we mourn with him? Is humanity’s dominion truly lost, and is such a loss so tragic?
In some respects, it indeed seems the plague has foisted upon humankind a newfound vulnerability that degrades existence. The dwindling numbers of the remnant—which are nearly a refrain until only Lionel is left—paint a bleak picture of a powerless human race shrinking despite its best efforts. Lionel’s many references to the plague and death as sorts of rulers reinforce this sense of hopeless toil. And if Lionel, in his resistance and outrage, falls short at times in evoking the reader’s sympathy, his wife’s response to the plague’s destruction does not. After learning of the plan to leave England, Idris weeps, “mothers lament their children, wives lose their husbands, while you and my children are left to me. Yes, I am happy, most happy, that I can weep thus for imaginary sorrows [of potential loss]…where you and my children are, there shall be Windsor, and every country will be England to me. Let these tears flow not for myself…but for the dead world—for our lost country—for all love, and life, and joy, now choked in the dusty chambers of death” (328). Though she does not share Lionel’s masculine attention to the lost glory of “man” in England, both vulnerability and the loss of a previous, fuller life in England grieve Idris deeply. As does Lionel, Idris mourns not only death but degradation, which might indeed correspond with a loss of power over the world.
At times, however, it is not clear that humanity has altogether lost its glorious dominion, but only certain manifestations of it. Though the plague’s survivors are ultimately only 4, humanity does outlast the plague, triumphing over this deadly force of nature. And though pleasures may not be enjoyed in the same way as before, the luxuries of the world are entirely open to humanity in abandoned homes and cities, as we see both for the remnant in England and for Lionel & company in Italy. Indeed, in both Milan (431) and Rome (448) Lionel finds literature, a testament to humanity’s intellectual achievement and the remaining possibility of life beyond mere survival. These remainders call into question Lionel’s emotional assessment of humanity’s state. Could it be that not all glory and power is lost? Should his opening laments be understood as maudlin hyperbole, an expression of some sort of masculine fragility unable to bear even partial loss of power?
Or could it be that the tensions in the narrative around human dominion point beyond Lionel’s grief as he expresses it? In the final chapter, Lionel finds happiness in “Rome, the capital of the world, the crown of man’s achievements” as he wonders at the architecture and literature (460-2). Man’s greatness is present to him in its most potent form since the plague struck. Yet he cannot appreciate it for long: suddenly he realizes he “was alone in the Forum; alone in Rome; alone in the world. Would not one living man—one companion in my weary solitude, be worth all the glory and remembered power in this time-honoured city?” (463). Without a companion, our narrator decides once again to emigrate. The value of dominion appears relativized in solitude. It seems either dominion’s value requires human relationship also, or dominion simply carries less meaning for humanity than Lionel’s original lamentation suggests.
At this point, Idris’s words prior to leaving England come to mind again. Facing humanity’s lost greatness, Lionel leaves England with hopes of recovering humanity’s greatness elsewhere. At the time, Idris’s response to the plans—which grieved the loss of her home country and the potential loss of her loved ones, in whom alone she found hope—is presented as weakly feminine. As Lionel narrates, “we—yes, my masculine firmness dissolved—we wept together consolatory tears” (328). Yet in the final pages of The Last Man, deep need for others consumes Lionel’s existence. There is no suggestion that ambition for dominion caused Lionel’s hopeless situation, but his hope turns out to have been at best a palliative comfort, a temporary distraction from the greater losses Lionel in fact faced. Perhaps Shelley wants us to see humanity’s loss of dominion as less tragic than the hope Lionel puts in reclaiming it.