Master of Arts (MA)
Semester of Degree Completion
Randall L. Beebe
In my thesis, I explore how Mary Shelley's The Last Man (1826) continues a critique of Romanticism that she began in her more well-known novel Frankenstein. Although Frankenstein has been read many different ways through a variety of critical methodologies, one of the central questions continually asked about the novel is whether (and to what extent) Frankenstein challenges or extends the romanticism of her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and others in the Byron-Shelley circle. Another way to investigate this lingering question is through a comparative study of The Last Man. My preliminary thesis is that a comparative study reveals not only close thematic connections between the novels, but, perhaps more importantly, reveals Shelley moving, in The Last Man, toward a more profound critique of Romanticism. The Last Man can be best read as a sequel to Frankenstein.
In The Last Man, Mary Shelley tells a tale of friendship, love, and "undying" commitment to others in her futuristic, science-fiction novel. Shelley plays off of the Romantic ideal of the individual's place in community by creating a plague by which the entire human population is exterminated — everyone except Lionel, the Last Man. In her work, Shelley surpasses the thinking of her well-known parents and marital partner, putting their Romantic ideals to the test in the Victorian era, as well as the twenty-first century (the story takes place in the middle of the twenty-first century and ends precisely in the year two-thousand one-hundred).
The larger context of my study is to contribute to the rediscovery of the "other" Mary Shelley, work begun by such scholars as Betty Bennett, Audrey Fisch and Anne Mellor. By "other" Mary Shelley, I mean she who listened to the debates of the Romantic era with absolute interest and who would not buy into the idealism of the self at that time, anticipating through her writing Victorian and contemporary issues still present today. Some of the questions that The Last Man forces on the reader include: How should we (or should we not) reevaluate gender and family roles? Can the human condition survive solitary existence, knowing that nature is no longer a comfort? Is nature, rather, a killer of human thought and existence, going against Romantic notions of nature as nurturer? What roles does science play in saving human life? Can it save human existence? Can it redeem human existence? How did Shelley use the conversations her contemporaries were having to best their works?
My thesis is a thematic and biographical comparative study of Frankenstein and The Last Man, focusing on how Shelley questions the state of the individual's mind and spirit, a person's place in society and a sense of community with other members of society. Frankenstein defines the horrors possible in creativity, historicism, politics, and scientific thought, all of which were being examined during the Romantic and early Victorian periods of literary history. The Last Man expands upon these horrors and applies them one step further, to the end of the human race.
Phillips, Shannon, "Reanimating the Creature: The Last Man as a Sequel to Frankenstein" (1999). Masters Theses. 1512.