In the introduction to her paper Elizabeth Fay makes several interesting comparisons between Frankenstein and The Last Man, focusing primarily on the ways in which Frankenstein reflects the "realistic weaknesses and frailties" of Shelley's predominantly male coterie while The Last Man functions as an escape from realism. Fay implicitly suggests a different definition of realism than the traditional one, which would tend to categorize both novels as romances. Fay's emphasis on the roman a clef aspects of both novels leads her to this alternate definition of realism, and to a number of assertions about gender in the novel, most importantly that Verney is "without gender." I will focus on the ways in which reading these novels as Fay does--as fiction, as a commentary on romanticism, and as a testimony of her grief--complicates the definition of realism and illuminates the role played by gender in the novel.
Traditionally, realism in the novel has been defined much as Ian Watt defines it in his classic (though oft-revised by critics) study of the novel. It is founded on the belief that "truth can be discovered by the individual through his senses" and involves a plot "acted out by particular people in particular circumstances" rather than "general human types against a background primarily determined by the appropriate literary convention" (12,15). According to Watt's definition Frankenstein and The Last Man are primarily romances. In terms of plot, both novels share the premises of romance; the creation of an animated being from the remains of the dead is mythic in its implications, as is the account of the heroic struggles of one man, the last man, against a plague which purportedly destroys the rest of humanity. Fay uses complexity of character to distinguish between Frankenstein and The Last Man. She shows that the female characters in The Last Man are idealized figures. Mary Shelley describes Elizabeth, the primary female character in Frankenstein, in the same manner: "none could behold her without looking on her as of a distinct species, a being heaven-sent, and bearing a celestial stamp in all her features" (20). The male characters are a different matter; I will turn to them in a moment. Though both novels are set in real time and in particular places, their settings may still be described as romantic: Victor is saved by a ship traveling northwards into uncharted waters and Verney inhabits a desolate world where traditional political boundaries have no meaning. The otherworldly creatures in both novels, the creature in Frankenstein and the sibyl in The Last Man, also place these novels squarely in the camp of romance, at least according to Watt's definition.
Fay brings up an important question about realism which makes distinguishing between romance and realism more difficult: how do we judge the realism of novels like these in which the characters signify both themselves and specific individuals outside of the novel? Fay examines the ways in which certain characters in both novels reflect Mary Shelley's ideas and feelings, embody ideals of romanticism and its failings, and memorialize Percy Shelley and other members of Mary Shelley's coterie. Fay classifies Frankenstein as more realistic than The Last Man because of its "ambiguities." The characters and plot of Frankenstein reflect more accurately Shelley's conflicted feelings about the masculine circle which surrounded her than does the "sentimentalization" of romantic ideals and her former companions in The Last Man.
Fay's insights into gender also reflect her interest in the roman a clef aspect of both novels. Fay agrees with past critics that "Verney is the clearest location for Shelley's own textual presence." Fay does not view Verney as a male protagonist, the last man, but as a "feminized ideal" combining masculine and feminine traits in such a way as to confute traditional notions of gender. This is true not only for the reasons cited by Fay, but also because Verney is alone at the end of the novel, and gender is a social construction. Fay examines the scene in which Verney sees himself reflected in a mirror. Without another person, neither masculinity nor femininity can exist because they are socially defined and relative traits. In the absence of these categories Verney can only describe himself, as Fay notes, as a "half-naked savage." The mirror, however, reminds him that he is an "English gentleman," though England and its class system are gone. Verney recreates his lost society and its categories while looking in the mirror. He sees himself as an imagined "visionary being" would see him, and this visionary being apparently holds traditional notions about gender.
Fay moves outside the novel and examines its context, further complicating gender in The Last Man. Verney is not alone precisely because Mary Shelley (supposedly) translates his story from the sibyl's leaves. Without a translator Lionel's plight would remain unknown. Fay comments that "without readers literature does not really exist." In the case of The Last Man Verney cannot find himself alone and desolate without a reader. Both Mary Shelley and her readers have an understanding, though necessarily different, of the categories of masculinity and femininity. They take on the role of the "visionary" companion imagined by Verney. Verney sees himself as Idris, Adrian, or a "civilized" stranger would see him when he encounters his reflection in the mirror. Mary Shelley sees him, possibly, as the "textual presence" of Percy Shelley, now forced not only to "stay put," but also to survive, as she already had, the loss of his closest companions. The reader sees a lone figure attempting to retain his sanity by writing to an imagined reader. In each case, the possibility of existing alone, in the complete absence of social categories like gender, proves to be an impossibility. Perhaps Verney's "sibylline drag" is an act of survival; in the absence of others, he must preserve the idea of difference within his own person.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Ed. Diane Johnson. New York: Bantam Books, 1981.
---. The Last Man. Ed. Morton Paley. New York: Oxford UP, 1994.
Watt, Ian. The Rise of the Novel. Berkeley: U of California P, 1964.