Response to "The Last Man and the New History" (Greg Kucich)
Anne Mellor

Greg Kucich's informative and theoretically sophisticated analysis of the differences between masculine and feminine historiography in the Romantic period provides a crucial context for THE LAST MAN, I think. He is absolutely right in seeing the writings of Macaulay, Aikin, Hays, Wollstonecraft and other female historians as "brushing history against the grain" by emphasizing human subjectivity and especially the experiences of loss and suffering - but also joy and creativity - that characterise the lives of both male and female subjects.

Since I have no quarrel with Greg's eloquent remarks, I would only like to add a few points. First, the obvious point that THE LAST MAN is not history but a self-conscious fiction: it is about the possibilities of human history, not about the past as such. As such, I would like to suggest, it opens up the possibility for a new kind of history, the not-yet-written story of a new kind of society. I would like to focus on what is to me the most troubling moment in the text as a whole, the moment when Lionel Verney himself contracts the plague. Recall that Verney succumbs to the plague when, hearing a moan, he compassionately but imprudently rushes into a dark room where he is "clasped" by "a negro half clad, writhing under the agony of the disease" who convulsively embraces Verney: "I strove to disengage myself, and fell on the sufferer; he wound his naked festering arms round me, his face was close to mine, and his breath, death-laden, entered my vials" (p. 245 in U of Nebraska paperback edition). From this unwilling but powerful embrace of the racial other (this is the only time in the text when a "negro" is specifically mentioned), Verney both contracts and, recovering, becomes immune to the plague.

Why does Verney alone recover from the plague? Can we see in this episode a suggestion that another human history, different from the Gibbonesque account of universal destruction and the death of all mortals that we have been reading, might be possible? If one could embrace the racial and foreign "other," might one escape the "plague" of a socially-constructed disease that defines the self as different from all "others" (whether animal, racial, or even extra-terrestrial), that defines all "others" as "infectious" or "contagious"? Recall that in the "Author's Introduction," the Editor insists that THE LAST MAN is a PROPHECY, only one POSSIBLE vision of the future years 2073-2100 AD, one arbitrarily and perhaps even inaccurately assembled from fragmentary sibylline leaves.

The innovative structure of the novel - which anticipates many twentieth-century science fiction novels - establishes three simultaneous time-scapes (the classical era of the Sibyl's oracle, the early 19C in which the Author finds the sibyulline leaves, the 21C in which Verney's narrative is located). By fragmenting historical chronology, Mary Shelley may be writing not so much the end of history as the possibility of alternative beginnings. In this novel the narrators are male, the political leaders are male, and all foreigners are defined as "diseased." But another novel, another story, another history might be possible, one which grows out of the embrace of the European with exactly that which most deeply repulses him. I am thinking here especially of Octavia Butler's DAWN, the best portrait I know of the necessity for the embracing - even the mating - of the white female narrator with that "alien" life-form that most disgusts her in order to preserve some version of humanity and hence of human history.

In the same way, the deliberately ambiguous status of the gender of the Author (we cannot tell whether this author is male or female) raises the possibility for a new kind of human subject, one for whom gender is either absent or at the very least fluid, unstable, unimportant. As Audrey Fisch has provocatively suggested, such a fluid subjectivity enables a new kind of politics, what she calls "a politics of imperfection" (1), in which political and social systems might become as mutable, fragmentary and open to deconstruction/reconstruction as the dispersed leaves on the Sibyl's cave-floor.

In conclusion, then, Kucich's essay reminds us that history is, as Hayden White has long insisted, a "meta-narrative," a fiction that can be re-written not only according to the gendered constructions Kucich tracks, but also according to the full panoply of narratives released by a post-modernist unstable subjectivity. The brilliance of THE LAST MAN, to my mind, lies in Mary Shelley's completely self-conscious awareness that the history she had to tell (even the history of the deaths of Byron, Shelley and her own children encoded in the text) was only one of multiple versions of human history. Hence her history - Verney's narrative - leaves Verney's end untold.

AM, 9/97

Works Cited
(1) Audrey Fisch, "Plaguing Politics: AIDS, Deconstruction, and THE LAST MAN," in THE OTHER MARY SHELLEY - BEYOND FRANKENSTEIN, ed. Audrey Fisch, Anne Mellor and Esther Schor (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993) 267-286.