For a novel that is at least in part about grief and consolation (or lack thereof), Mary Shelley’s The Last Man features a tension between the civic and the natural – between sub-creations of man and creation itself. At points, nature has the capacity to soothe, but at others the potential comforts of nature are passed over for written texts. While Adrian and Verney abandon books to find comfort in the natural world and its beauty, the narrator in the novel’s introduction finds relief from pain when she contemplates the written text of Sibyl’s prophecies. Yet, even in the introduction, the narrator’s imagination fixates on facets of nature within texts, and the novel’s end finds Verney with copies of books.
The Last Man begins with the narrator finding comfort primarily in the act of translating and reading Sibyl’s prophesies, but it is unclear whether the source of consolation can be attributed to nature or art. The narrator states, “Their meaning, wondrous and eloquent, has often repaid my toil, soothing me in sorrow, and exciting my imagination to daring flights through the immensity of nature and the mind of man” (6). After transcribing the materials from Sibyl’s leaves, she further reflects, “such is human nature, that the excitement of mind was dear to me, and that the imagination, painter of tempest and earthquake, or, worse, the stormy and ruin-fraught passions of man, softened my real sorrows and endless regrets” (7). For the narrator, sorrows are softened by imagining the narratives and scenes predicted by Sibyl, which include “exclamations of exultation or woe, of victory or defeat” (5). These are not solely poetic descriptions of the natural world, but include depictions of humankind. Art seems to be the source of consolation, here, but neither is nature entirely absent. The narrator’s imagination paints “tempests and earthquakes,” and flies through “the immensity of nature” as well as the “mind of man” and his “stormy” passions. It is possible that humanity functions as a sub-category of nature, as its “storms” parallel natural “tempests.” Contemplating humankind through art could be an indirect means of contemplating nature. However, the examples of Verney and Adrian indicate that reading art is insufficient for consolation, and that reading about man’s passions can actually increase sorrow rather than heal it.
Both Verney and Adrian retreat from reading text to instead view nature as a source of consolation for their griefs. During the final travels of Verney and his companions in the novel’s third volume, Adrian at one point abandons the “inanimate page” for those of the natural world, which are “more pregnant with meaning, more absorbing.” The reason nature absorbs, in this case, seems to be in part because it can soothe, with its “tranquil” nook where “the purling brook kissed the green sward” (417). Contrasting much of the characterizations of nature as hostile or savage in other parts of the novel, here it is given tender qualities. Even the scholarly Adrian puts down his text to be consoled by the peaceful scene. If written text is neutral in this instance, it takes on an explicitly negative connotation by Verney further on. He states, “There were few books that we dared read; few, that did not cruelly deface the painting we bestowed on our solitude, by recalling combinations and emotions never more to be experienced by us” (431). For the narrator, reading the storms of man’s passions softens her sorrows, while for Verney such readings are cruel reminders of what has passed and can never be reclaimed. This is puzzling, as the stirring of imagination and passion is precisely what comforts the former. Why should it not do the same for Verney? Does a pathetic engagement with art enable catharsis, or does it resonate with and therefore enhance pain? Are there any ways to predict whether pathetic art will sooth or spark grief? If it works for one character in the novel, whey not the other?
The conclusion of the novel creates further parallels between the narrator and Verney, but fails to indicate whether or how nature or art is the better balm for grief. In the penultimate page of the book, Verney departs St. Peter’s with Homer and Shakespeare, taking some comfort from the fact that he can “in any port … renew [his] stock” (469). Such choices of text seems deliberate on Shelley’s part. She could easily have selected the works of Plato and Aristotle, or any other text of abstract philosophy, but Verney takes with him two writers that seminally depict the “stormy” and “ruin-fraught passions of man.” If Verney had rejected books earlier, why does he take them now? His isolation is not a satisfactory answer, as isolation is what deters the narrator from finding comfort in her readings (6). Furthermore, Verney demonstrates a turn towards nature in his final declaration when he states “I long to grapple with danger, to be excited by fear … I shall witness all the variety of appearance, that the elements can assume – I shall read fair augury in the rainbow – menace in the cloud – some lesson or record dear to my heart in everything” (470). That Verney expresses something as “dear” to him is interesting. It directly reflects the narrator’s expression when she finds the excitement of her mind “dear.” The kind of text that they read is also parallel, as Verney “reads” omens in nature, while the narrator reads the omens of Sibyl’s prophesies. Excitement over even the foreboding aspects of nature, or those which indicate some kind of “lesson or record,” appears to have a strangely comforting quality for both Verney and the narrator. Paradoxically, when countering grief, reading the cloud’s menace, Achilles’ wrath, or Othello’s fury might be more effective than contemplating nature’s or humanity’s brighter aspects.
Shelley, Mary. The Last Man. Oxford World’s Classics, 2008.