Response to Elizabeth Fay's keynote essay
"Mary Shelley and Sibylline Drag"
Irena Nikolova

Elizabeth Fay's essay focuses on the process of writing The Last Man, a process that creates on one level an "autonarration" and on another a fiction of the Apocalypse. As Fay has rightly pointed out, Mary Shelley creates its figures from "the memory of her husband's voice and ideas" and from "their textual presence in his poems she had just finished editing." The act of remembering implies, on the one hand, the absence of the prototype, and, on the other, a tendency to idealize the character of Adrian. The act of remembering also entails a selective approach to the prototype and a representation based on the attempt to material ize, i.e. to give verbal expression to what is no longer there, to what is absent and to what has become the object of mourning. This is what explains the monumentalization of Mary Shelley's characters who are designed to act their prescribed roles, rather than to respond to human weaknesses. It is this predetermination that defines the development of the plot in The Last Man as a vision of a bleak future without an exit, or with an exit that breeds death. Elizabeth Fay comments on the allegorical dimension of Shelley's characters: "they are fairy tale figures of good and evil." This seems to be in conformity with the predetermined design of the novel: its characters are destined to play a certain role as messengers of good or evil, but they are exempt from the pressures of circumstances which would determine their lives "for better or for worse." At this point we cannot resist asking the question: what is it that calls for this escape from realism, from the vicissitudes of life itself? The answers to this question are not straightforward, and Mary Shelley's novel leaves the reader pondering over them. We should also ask the question: is this novel in any way an escape from the author's own frustrations and anxieties? Is death in her own life written into this novel of mourning and does the novel simply mourn Shelley's death, or does it emerge from a resistance to death, from a repressed desire to experience death in literature so to forget death in real life? It seems that Shelley writes her own life into this novel which, like Frankenstein, is an act of voicing her own loneliness and of also resisting it.

Fay draws our attention to the fact that Mary Shelley writes in the disguise of Lionel Verney. She transforms herself from a female author into a male character, a device familiar to us from her first novel Frankenstein. The question is, does this transformation serve a different purpose from the one in Frankenstein? Whereas in Victor Frankenstein Shelley creates the figure of Victor Frankensein the creator, who is pursued and victimized by his own act of creation, in Lionel Verney Shelley seems to project herself into what Fay has called the "sole survivor." We keep wondering if this is a figurative way of escaping from her own loneliness , ironically undermined by reasserting herself as a lonely figure especially towards the end of the novel when Lionel has a vision of a depopulated England. Fay has made a very perceptive comment on the gender hybridity that seems to underlie the character of Lionel Verney: "He chooses feminine tears... as proofs of his manhood..." Lionel seems to exist on the verge between what we have come to accept as masculine or feminine, and it is this curious blending of the two aspects in his personality that makes us question our own enforced conceptions of gender distinctions. Just as the whole novel questions the very act of existence and is therefore to be read, as Fay has already suggested, against Frankenstein, "as a revision of its insights about subjectivity, gender, and individual achievement," Verney's gender hybridity questions the feasibility of either a male or a female protagonist. Fay's question "Why not a female protagonist?" and her reflection thereon seem to imply that the author is fleeing from and trying to disguise her own identity. If Verney is "neither gender" then this is not an authorial identification. But doesn't the end of the novel continue to question our notions of subjectivity and of human endurance? Doesn't the denial of gender in the character of Lionel Verney transcend what is humanly possible? If, as Fay has suggested, Verney transcends literary remains, he also transcends suffering, death, and even history itself. If he be comes the Sibylline leaves, he is dematerialized into the voice of prophecy by resisting and transc ending his own humanity. This argument brings us back to the beginning of this response and to the allegorical dimension of the novel, an allegory of destruction, vengeance, and of a humanly impossible future.

IN, 9/97

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