The Last Man's Burden: A Response to Alan Richardson's "The Last Man and the Plague of Empire"
Liz Rackley

I find myself in easy agreement with Alan Richardson's perceptive account of The Last Man as a novel written in the service of British colonial interests and of Mary Shelley as an individual swept up in the collective arrogance of nineteenth-century imperial England. In one striking example of the novel's colonialist complicity, Lionel Verney presumptuously declares that England's prime resource is its people (its "children" [323]) whereas the greatest assets of the equatorial regions are their commodities--their spices, plants, and fruits. Verney further sentimentally recalls Britain's history of unshrinking exploration (read colonization and economic exploitation) of foreign nations under the crown's sponsorship, as he grieves for lost "times when man walked the earth fearless, before Plague had become Queen of the World" (346). It appears crystal-clear that The Last Man contains fewer sites of resistance than are present in Frankenstein and more moments of racism, jingoism, and religious contempt; therefore, in order to facilitate conversation, I will address here primarily the possible meanings of the novel's few heteroglossic moments, including the "ironic twist or two towards the end" that Alan Richardson mentions, in addition to posing some suggestive, or polemical, questions.

The horror of The Last Man may for Shelley lie in its revelation that the operations of nature obliterate both civilized and barbaric, Christian and Mahometan, with the same moral neutrality. In the end, Adrian, the sophisticated "blue-eyed boy" (27), a stand-in for Percy Shelley, succumbs along with the lawless Irish and the uncouth Americans, those who inspire the narrator with what Alan Richardson characterizes as "disgust at the colonial other." (An undiscriminating mounting tide of epidemic consumes the gentle Adrian much like an ocean swell, in reality, drowned Percy Shelley. A description of Percy's corpse strengthens the comparison: "The exposed flesh of Shelley's arms and face had been entirely eaten away" [quoted in Holmes 730]; further, after washing ashore, Shelley's body was first covered in quick lime then retrieved and destroyed by fire to satisfy quarantine ordinances.) If Shelley in The Last Man, as in Frankenstein, indicates that even the most civilized are weak before nature's savagery (a conclusion reinforced by her real-life experience), what does this cynicism do, if anything, to our impression of the novel as confident imperialist discourse?

Perhaps Shelley in the end shares something of the late Victorian skepticism, or its sense of a "white man's burden." Though she praises imperialism as a noble enterprise, she also implicitly warns of the perils of traveling to tropical climates and mingling with "inferior" races. Taken to the extreme, one could argue that Shelley, like Rudyard Kipling long after her, characterizes the Englishman's appetite for living in the tropics, immured amongst barbarous peoples, as noble though treacherous idealism.

Again, even in her pessimism, like Kipling, Shelley remains colonialist and Anglo-centric in her sympathies. As Alan Richardson notes, The Last Man depicts England as on the receiving end of contagion facilitated by its role as a trading empire, while suppressing Britain's role in disseminating infectious disease globally. The other's contamination of the English masks the British invaders' actual culpability in the hundreds of thousands of deaths resulting from their transmission of new viral strains to the colonized populations. In a parody of Kipling's poem "The White Man's Burden," Ernest Crosby comments on just this hypocrisy:

Take up the White Man's burden;
Send forth your sturdy sons,
And load them down with whisky
And Testaments and guns.
Throw in a few diseases
To spread in tropic climes,
For there the healthy niggers
Are quite behind the times.
(New York Times Feb. 15, 1899 1-8)
In his chapter on The Tempest in Learning to Curse, Stephen Greenblatt reveals that the seventeenth-century Hurons similarly felt the white man accountable for the pestilence that stung them. They believed their invaders to be wizards capable of casting affliction among them with spells plucked from magic books, much like Shakespeare's Prospero.

On the subject of The Tempest, Alan Richardson's mention of Verney's playing Friday to Adrian's Crusoe and his later acting as Crusoe to his own Friday calls to mind the mentor/subject, exile/savage relationship of Prospero to Caliban. The Tempest, perhaps then deserves a closer look in conjunction with The Last Man's imperialist vision and sense of a white man's burden. Though, of course, there is little space to do so here, I will try to touch on a few points. As the rightful Duke of Milan relies on his books for hegemony over the beastly Caliban, Verney depends on the civilizing authority of literature to safeguard him from regression. (Verney, even at his most untidy and threadbare, however, shares more of the natural purity of the likes of Miranda than he does the barbarity of Caliban, and none of his rage as a colonized subject.) Caliban's avenging hex on Prospero never materializes in The Tempest; however, it is perhaps the basis for the plot of The Last Man:

You taught me language; and my profit on't
Is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you
For learning me your language! (I.ii.353-67)

True to Greenblatt's view of linguistic colonialism (as expressed in his discussion of The Tempest), when the imperialist hears the voice of the subaltern in The Last Man it sounds to him like a string of profanities: a Muslim soldier shouts to his vanquishers, "Take it, Christian dogs! take the palaces, the gardens, the mosque, the abode of our fathers -take plague with them" (191). The curse of this "Caliban" is realized; nature destroys empire, and at last "The nations are no longer" (321). We should recall, however, that even as the colonized margins close in on the center, the last man resists by recounting the history of a nation he calls "the triumph of man!" (323).

Works Cited

Crosby, Ernest. "The Real 'White Man's Burden.'" New York Times (Feb. 15, 1899). In Jim Zwick, ed., Anti-Imperialism in the United States, 1898-1935. http://www.accinet.ent/~fjzwick/ail98-35.html (December 1995).

Greenblatt, Stephen Jay. Learning to Curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture.New York: Routledge, 1990.

Holmes, Richard. Shelley: The PursuitLondon: Penguin,1974.

Kipling, Rudyard. "The White Man's Burden." McClure's Magazine 12 (Feb.1899). In Jim Zwick,ed., Anti-Imperialism in the United States, 1898-1935. http://www.accinet.ent/~fjzwick/ail98-35.html (January 1996).

Richardson, Alan. Romantic Circles: "The Last Man and the Plague of Empire." (September 1997).

Shelley, Mary W. The Last Man. Betty T. Bennett and Steven E. Jones, eds.