Phantom Figures

Loss and disease. Loneliness and isolation. These are terrible things, things we fear as much in our day as at any time in human history. We fear these things for many reasons, but it seems we fear them most for the toll they take on our conception of our identity, our awareness of what it means for us to be human. The Last Man dramatizes this effect of disease and isolation in countless ways, but its depiction is at its most haunting when the survivors traveling towards Switzerland encounter seemingly supernatural figures.

The setting: Lionel and Adrian have at long last set out from Versailles towards Switzerland with a train of around 1500 people, the plague dogging their steps the entire way. As they travel, Lionel describes a strange shift in perception: the world becomes haunted, a place of ghosts and fears (409-410). Yet, as the narrative progresses, we find that this shift seems to be located less in the world itself and more in the relation of the last few humans to the world. Lionel gives us an early hint in this vein when he says that they would occasionally find one or two natives wandering through larger towns “like ghosts” (409). However, the fullest expression of this shift comes in the appearance of two figures.

The first is a figure clad entirely in white. He is seen from a distance, seems to be impossibly large, and dances and cavorts across the empty landscape.  The seemingly supernatural visitation is revealed to have a more natural, but still unsettling and macabre explanation: the man is an opera-singer, dancing out the final moments of his delirium in his final performance, craving his last chance at human applause (410). When he encounters the group of survivors, he gives a low bow and dies (410). The second figure is even more ominous. Only Lionel’s description can do it justice: “At another time we were haunted for several days by an apparition, to which our people gave the appellation of the Black Spectre. We never saw it except at evening, when his coal black steed, his mourning dress, and plume of black feathers, had a majestic and awe-stirring appearance . . . “ (410-411). He is eventually identified by the survivors with “Death himself” (411). We again encounter a sign of the unearthly, a portent, a separation from the regularity and stability of nature. This dark figure is later found to be a nobleman whose whole town succumbed to the plague and who now follows at a distance because he desires company but fears contagion. He too eventually succumbs to the plague and is found by the survivors upon his death (411).

What are to make of these elements of the supernatural, these breaking-ins of the uncanny, in a novel that largely sticks to naturalistic explanations of events? How come these men to be both men and phantoms, wretches and supernatural giants? We can begin to consider these questions by recognizing the larger significance these men carry. Both of these men, while being revealed to be mere men, nonetheless retain the sense of the uncanny, the sense of a break in nature’s rhythms. They both presage and prophecy, spelling out the coming end of humanity like the fragments of the sibylline leaves. Their isolation and strangeness gives them a significance beyond what is normally carried by an individual person.

Both signify in their own ways. The first supernatural figure gives his last performance before the last human crowd. He bows his last bow, and his fall symbolizes the fall of humanity. In his person, he recapitulates the earlier lament of Lionel for the loss of much of humanity’s greatness: “Farewell to the arts . . . Farewell to the well-trod stage; a truer tragedy is enacted on the world’s ample scene, that puts to shame mimic grief . . .” (321-322). This dancer, both “goblin” and giant, dramatizes the end of the human drama, and his final act is suffused with more meaning than a single, “natural” human life could ever bear.

The second figure also takes on a significance beyond his individuality. He is death: the reaper, a human symbol of fear and despair that himself dies as humanity fades into the shadows. He fears community and sets himself apart. Because of this, he dies as the Last Man must die: estranged and alone. How can either of these men hold so much meaning? Shelley’s portrayal suggests the necessity of the symbol in the face of disaster, of the over-abundance of meaning, of the super-abundant nature of those figures that signify far more than they can hold. Must those who hold such meanings be strangers? Must they be outcasts and foreigners to the community? It seems that in their isolation, these figures become something less than human, but also something loaded with meaning. Isolation separates them from the world and creates portentous phantoms.

Lionel himself takes on the role of a phantom haunting the ruins by the end of the book. In his isolation, he loses his connection with nature and becomes something like a threatening spectre, as is dramatized in the violent response of a family of goats to his attempt at hospitality (459-460). Their reaction causes him to flee towards the desolated cities, attempting to escape both “wild nature” and his “miserable self” (460).  He is made into a phantom, haunting ruins, cast out of the world by his lack of real communion with any of his kind. He takes on a significance far too great for any man to bear. Shelley suggests that there is a depth of meaning to humanity that one man cannot bear on his own. Such a man will be made into a portent, a shade haunting the living world, cut off from joy and the vibrant cosmos. She suggests that estrangement carries not emptiness but meaning, and that it is a meaning that is too much for any human to bear.

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