To Say Nothing of the Dog

A few pages from the end of The Last Man, our beloved narrator Verney stumbles across a dog. The dog has been herding sheep alone, engaged in “his repetition of lessons learned from man, now useless, though unforgotten” (468). This relic of a previous age and an old relationship between humans and the nonhuman is ecstatic to join Verney, and Verney initially names him as “my only companion” (467). (The Adamic language of naming and companionship here is no accident: stay tuned.) Verney says he will take the dog with him to explore the empty world: “I would with a few books, provisions, and my dog, embark” (469). However, slippage occurs over the next few pages, and the dog disappears completely by the final paragraph. When he describes his actual preparations in the final paragraph, he carefully lets us know that all is ready. Notice he mentions the books and provisions again, following the structure of that previous statement—but drops the dog: “I have chosen my boat, and laid in my scant stores. I have selected a few books” (469). The paragraph ends by focusing on Verney alone, and how “angels, the spirits of the dead, and the ever-open eye of the Supreme, will behold the tiny bark, freighted with Verney—the Last Man” (470).

The dog’s absence evokes questions: Why does a dog suddenly appear in the penultimate pages, and then get left out from the final description of our dear narrator braving the seas? With that absence, should we read the dog ultimately as a source of consolation—or as one last sign of alienation?

The absence alone is not the only indication that the dog is limited as a companion. Although Verney and the dog have both been shaped by human society in such a way that exacerbates their loneliness as remnants, and they share a similar fate, Shelley does not detail their tie in such a way that it provides meaningful and lasting solace. Instead, although the dog does provide company, Verney still emphasizes that he is “a solitary being” (468). And when Verney’s reflects on the future, the dog is dismissed from companion-status: Verney declares he is seeking “a companion” without mentioning the dog whom he previously called one (469). The dog is not enough. This may seem an obvious point: a dog is not human, and cannot provide the companionship a human does. But this switch in language combined with the dog’s absence in the final paragraph seems telling, emphasizing the gap between the human and nonhuman, and emphasizing the alienation of Verney.

This companion’s insufficiency seems to echo back to the beginning of Genesis, which is appropriate since Adam—the first human to have animal companionship and to feel that it is lacking—is also connected to Verney in two passages. Verney discusses Adam and Eve back on page 322, when other humans were still alive, crafting a tie between humanity and the first parents: “He is solitary; like our first parents expelled from Paradise, he looks back towards the scene has has quitted. The high walls of the tomb, and the flaming sword of plague, lie between it and him. Like to our first parents, the whole earth is before him, a wide desart. . . . Posterity is no more” (322). When all the others die and Verney is alone and seeking to convey his absolute loneliness, he picks up this language of Genesis and Eden again. He, however, now reaches for prelapsarian language, framing himself implicitly as Adam through comparison with the animals: “Have not they companions? Have not they each their mate—their cherished young, their home, which, though unexpressed to us, is, I doubt not, endeared and enriched, even in their eyes, by the society which kind nature has created for them? It is I only that am alone . . . I only cannot express to any companion my many thoughts, nor lay my throbbing head on any loved bosom, nor drink from meeting eyes an intoxicating dew, that transcends the fabulous nectar of the gods?” (459). Verney thus creatively expands on the language of Genesis 2: “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him. And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof. And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for Adam there was not found an help meet for him” (Gen 2.18-20). Both Adam and Verney are companionless, though they are with animals. Verney thus frames himself implicitly as another Adam: he is Adam before Eve, companionless and without an equal.

But—and this seems key—if we go back to his earlier reference to the first parents, he is also Adam after Eve, and after expulsion, pushed out of his paradise by the plague. He is now alone in an empty natural “paradise,” where beauty abounds and companions do not. Adam in paradise could conceivably be a hopeful connection for Verney and Shelley to make, just as the dog could conceivably be a true companion and a reason to hope. Adam, after all, made connections with animals by naming them, and when he and Eve were expelled from Eden, they survived and built the human paradise that Verney now laments the loss of. But in the world of the text, it seems unlikely an Eve will come.

After all, instead of being given an Eve, Verney was given a dog. And so we are left with the image of Verney and his dog, riding into the waves.

Except—the dog isn’t really there, either, in that final image given by the narrator. The reader could plausibly mentally add in the dog, but the words of the text just describe Verney, the solitary hero and abandoned Adam, wandering and alone.

The reversal of creation is complete: from a peopled earth, to a brave few, to one man and the animals, to “Adam” alone, Shelley has apparently moved us back to the first days in paradise. If the reversal of the steps of creation continues to follow the pattern of Genesis, all that remains is for the only human to disappear, for earth to return to its emptiness, and then for it all to collapse into formlessness. This might not happen: perhaps earth will remain in its beauty without humans. (Verney hints at that.) But to me this examination of the dog makes the consolation of the nonhuman seem ephemeral and slippery…hinting at hope but ultimately ending in nothingness.

 

(For the source of this post’s title, see Willis’s excellent book.)

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