Quest for Eden or March Into Canaan?

At the end of Volume II of The Last Man, Verney declares his solution to the plight of the dwindling population: to “seek some natural Paradise, some garden of the earth, where our simple wants may be easily supplied, and the enjoyment of a delicious climate compensate for the social pleasures we have lost” (312). Verney’s vision of seeking an earthly paradise foreshadows the plan Adrian will eventually adopt, when the “spirit of emigration crept in among the few survivors” and the nation sets out “to leave England forever” (325). But in leaving England, are the refugees looking for a return to an Edenic paradise to unite the remnants of humanity and rekindle the human species, as Verney suggests? Or are they pressing forward while retaining their sense of nation, looking for the “promised land” for a “chosen,” special people in the midst of a doomed world—a secular parallel to the people of Israel’s march into Canaan? In either case, is there still a potential for hospitality during this final journey? Or are such “social pleasures” indeed lost?

There are hints in the leadup to the emigration from England that there could be a sort of return to Eden through a unified remnant of humanity starting over in a paradisiacal location. Verney declares that “the nations are no longer” (321). All humans should be united towards a single goal: the survival of the human race. Indeed, as the third volume progresses, there are fewer references to England and the English and more references to humanity at large. There has also, apparently, been some incorporation of other remnants into the English population before their departure. Various groups of Americans and Irish have joined the English after Adrian prompts a change of heart through appealing to their shared humanity and common plight (296, 303). “The name of England died when we left her” (326), Verney claims, indicating that the country is no more, despite the existence of a remnant of its people.

While this evidence might suggest that the English were leaving their nation behind and adopting a globalized perspective of humanity, what unfolds in Volume III complicates this reading. After presenting his initial idea of seeking out a paradise, Verney confesses that he “spoke without much heed, and the very conclusion of what I said brought with it other thoughts” (313). The volume ends with his determination that “Hope is dead!” (313), precluding the possibility of a return to Eden. However, this impossibility does not seem to be solely due to the plague. Even when faced with the extinction of all humans, there remains a sense of Englishness surrounding the band of survivors. They still insist on calling Adrian the Lord Protector of England, although he “had long discarded the empty title” (373). Although the remnant is purportedly the last of humanity, not only the last of the English, the languishing “human race” still looks uncannily like the English race. Peter Melville points out that the terms are often used synonymously in the novel (Melville 164). To the very end, the quest seems to be more about the existence and unity of the English people, not necessarily humanity as a whole.

If not a quest for Eden, perhaps the English journey lines up better with a different Biblical search. Like the Israelites marching towards the Promised Land, there is a sense of a “chosen people” about the English. Of course, in explicitly religious terms, the cult that arises in opposition to Adrian sees themselves as the “elect” chosen out by God for salvation. But there may also be a sort of secular chosenness apparent throughout the ending of the book. Shelley seems to support this through her plot development by allowing the English to be the “last” people group after all other races have (supposedly) vanished. The last man is an Englishman, who—for no apparent reason other than the continuity of the narrative—miraculously recovers from the plague when no one else does. Although Verney refuses to acknowledge a sovereign presence in the unfolding of his fate, the reader cannot help but notice the convenience of the plague’s favoritism. A core group of his family survives the plague, again inexplicably. Like the English, Verney and his family are singled out as survivors.

Another parallel to Israel is the English people’s taking over formerly populated human cities rather than an uninhabited “natural Paradise” (312). Verney recounts that “The English took uncontested possession of Paris” (374), despite the surviving French they encounter. What happens to the French? Perhaps they are assimilated, or perhaps the plague makes short work of them, but the reader cannot tell. If the first option is the case, there is never a sense of multiculturalism within the surviving groups. They are still English, or at the very least Anglophone, in Verney’s account. Evidence of multiculturalism and multilingualism are largely absent from descriptions of the travelers, although later there is a mention of ghost-like wanderers being added to their numbers as they progress through France (409). If the second is true, surely those French are still among the English even as they take over the “uncontested” city. Nevertheless, the French and other non-English individuals fade silently from the scene, only to be mentioned as corpses or—in the case of the eerie French nobleman they see riding behind them—Gothic objects of fear who are afraid to entertain the potential for hospitality (411).

The English dominate the narrative in culture, language, and especially in the final cast of surviving characters. They are searching for paradise, but they often end up acting as invaders on a special mission for their country, sidelining the original inhabitants or assimilating them into Englishness. Within their quest, whether for Eden or for Canaan, what happens to hospitality? When the majority of homes lie vacant and borders lie unprotected, who is left to be the host? The remnant take up their residence in “foreign” lands, but not because they are welcomed there. The spaces they inhabit are made available to them not by welcome or even by conquest, but by an eerie vacancy. Verney does make one final attempt at hospitality in an empty land at the end of the novel, when he writes in multiple languages “Friend, come! I wait for thee!” finally including the non-English in his consideration of potential survivors (although he then writes his story in English). However, Shelley’s ending confirms the futility of his action, for just as hospitality cannot happen without a host, it is also impossible without a guest.

 

Works Cited

Melville, Peter. “Hospitality without end: Visitation and Oblication in Mary Shelley’s Last Man.” Romantic Hospitality and the Resistance to Accommodation, 2007, 139-174.

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

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