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“Life Had Married Death:” Erotics of Difference and Lesbian Reimagination in The Last Man

About the Author: Sara Rottger

Sara Rottger is a junior at Mount Holyoke College, majoring in English Literature and German. She is particularly interested in the Romantic period, abjection, and the varied forms of the monstrous. This piece is the result of a seminar investigating Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley as the core of their own distinct Romantic group, with special attention to how their works construct and conceptualize gender.

By Sara Rottger | General Essays

Through the constant transformation and waning status of an intertwined English family, Mary Shelley’s 1826 post-apocalyptic novel The Last Mantackles the consequences of the Anthropocene and bears particular significance for modern questions of gender and nature. As the narrator, Lionel, recounts his story, he centers his relationship with the romantic, selfless hero Adrien, alternately idolizing and forgoing his own wife. Thus, while critical scholarship on The Last Man has been primarily concerned with relationships between men, ignoring the charged and sometimes indistinct relationships between women in the text replicates exactly the patriarchal narrative that Shelley critiques. According to and advancing the framework set by Frann Michel in “Lesbian Panic and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein,” one can track the areas of hinted lesbian connotations, as well as the erotics of difference in The Last Man that generate “lesbian panic” (Michel 351). This fear facilitates Lionel’s disregard and intense discomfort surrounding instances of lesbian possibility. Different forms and significations of lesbianism appear, moving beyond Michel’s methodology. As she perishes, the disgraced Greek princess Evadne becomes associated with eroticized difference as well as with the vaporous materiality of the plague, which allows for a radical revision of Volume I’s heterosexual focus and generates the concrete and figurative moments of lesbianism later in the text. As the plague sweeps through the text, female figures that appear previously staunchly heterosexual, such as Lionel’s wife Idris, have moments of connection with other women. Ultimately, on a figurative 

level, the plague represents an infectious force that collaborates with nature to supersede traditional modes of language and binaries, which allows Shelley to develop a model of lesbianism that revises societal tenets of emotional exchange, desire and reproduction. 

Within the text, several models of lesbianism arise, due to the figurative and corporeal instances throughout the text. Specifically using lesbian to describe these models, rather than queer, allows for a more definitive focus on the way that such relationships absolutely exclude and decenter men. Queer will signify gender transgression indicative of lesbianism, often associated in the novel with Evadne.1 Utilizing Michel’s historical context, difference becomes a signifier of possible lesbian relations (354). This difference poses an acute danger to the social order, as lesbian relationships were often minimized as friendships based on similarity (Michel 350). Extending this difference to refer to the nonhuman figures of the plague and Nature demonstrates how figurative examples of lesbianism pervade and alter the basis of society. Through this, Shelley allegorizes female-oriented models of queerness that linguistically and visually escape male observation. Rather than interpreting Shelley’s avoidance to portray overtly erotic relationships between women as a product of a conservative time, this paper reads lesbian representations as intentionally obscured and coded, in order to provide a critique of how relationships between women are typically erased. 

Evadne’s death scene in Volume II represents a genesis and renewal of sapphic sexuality, unrealized fully by Lionel. Examining Evadne’s overt signals of difference, one can track the gaps where attraction to women could and would appear, beyond the suppressive heterosexual force of Raymond’s masculinity and her overwrought love for him. As noted by Michel, rather than seeing Evadne as a double of Perdita, another lost character, examining her as a foil reveals the 

“triangulated and mediated relationship --- a relation of differences and perhaps, desire” (Michel 358). While no overt evidence of her possible attraction to Perdita arises in the passage, she appears characterized by difference that opens a possibility for attraction between other women in the text, such as Idris and Lucy. Evadne’s queer presence, in combination with the plague, saturates the text and allows for desire between other women. Evadne’s “wild and terrified exclamations” reveal her inability to access English while caught up in intense affect (Shelley 181). These outbursts solidify her difference from the other English characters in the novel. Her speech is characterized by emotion, rather than definitive language. This lack of meaning created by her “exclamations” in Greek exposes the gap where difference creates a possibility for queerness and different ideas of gender, uninvolved with men. She speaks another language both literally and metaphorically. This recourse to another language mimics the move to a figurative interpretation of lesbianism that Shelley introduces with the plague, which cannot be comprehended in terms of normative language. Her difference reveals her as a sexually dangerous character, a threat to the English domestic paradise established throughout Volume I, and foreshadows her transfiguration into the plague that threatens the institution of heterosexuality overall. 

Furthermore, Evadne’s stated motivation also complicates the seemingly overt heterosexuality that appears throughout Volume I. As she lays dying in Lionel’s arms, she laments her “hopeless love and vacant hopes” that led her to her present state (Shelley 181). Heterosexual love itself becomes absent of possibility, and then possibility, of hope itself, becomes meaningless. Her disastrous affection for Raymond is therefore both in vain and absent of meaningful love. These “vacant hopes” also reference the power discrepancies that appear within the normative forms of attraction between men and women. There is a missing element in her relationship, even more significant than Raymond’s oppressive masculinity; this emotional void differs from the highly charged erotic descriptions of her fever and the subsequent plague. Contrasting this exclamation with the crucial earlier reference that “the feelings that actuated Evadne were rooted in the depths of her being” complicates this seeming devotion (Shelley 113). If these feelings that “actuated” her appear in this later passage as “vacant hopes,” her “being” is instead composed of compulsory heterosexuality, or forced heterosexuality, in order to retain one’s place in society (Rich 1). Her heterosexual subjectivity that exists early in the novel is thus called into question, as she realizes Raymond is an idealized image, rather than a real figure. Previously indicated in Volume I, Evadne views Raymond as the “hero of her imagination,” which demonstrates that she continually constructs him within her own mind (Shelley 113). Upon realizing her attraction to Raymond is “vacant,” she transforms into a figure that challenges the gender order and gives rise to the plague. On a stylistic level, this statement does not originate from Evadne herself, but rather Lionel’s perspective, which he appears to impose as omniscient. Lionel’s perspective also lends credence to the “neglect of women” that appears in male homosocial relationships; Evadne becomes an object between both Raymond and Lionel’s scrutiny (Michel 363). However, she escapes this through her difference and through the danger she poses to the structure of the novel as a whole, both of which align her with queerness and ultimately, lesbianism. The signals of lesbianism only emerge at the moments of most intense male domination, resulting in the plague. 

Evadne continually undermines typical markers of male sexuality and re-ascribes them to a female body through the erotic description of her death. As Steven Goldsmith claims: “In all of her incarnations she is a sexual free-agent [...] always and irredeemably other” (Goldsmith 147). Specifying and appropriating the term “sexual free-agent” to signify lesbian invokes a more significant and dangerous critique; it de-centers men from sexuality and places the source of female liberation and freedom in lesbian ideals, instead of in incessant heterosexual sex. As she dies, her “heavy groans” in combination with her polymorphous gender connote wordless sexual transgression that hints at pleasure beyond typical normative structures; with the radical use of her voice, she foreshadows the coded vocalizations of lesbian desire. Furthermore, while Lionel claims “the wound had deranged her intellects,” this wordless expression of emotion signifies a gap where female eroticism appears, which is then erased by male recourse to reason. As the savior figure, Lionel rationalizes her groans and other expressions of pain as insensibility, rather than transgressive statements. Her “deranged […] intellect” represents a type of emotion that Lionel cannot understand, clouded by lesbian panic. This motif arises again as Evadne’s sighs of pain “penetrate [him] with compassion,” demonstrating Evadne’s ability to metaphorically assume a male sexual role through “penetration” and dominance (Shelley 181). However, she achieves this role firmly through female-coded notions of emotion described as emerging through “a woman's heart” (Shelley 181). Blending “penetration with compassion” and “a woman’s heart,” Evadne signifies a new being that foreshadows the forms of reproduction proposed by the later interactions between the plague and nature. Her utilization of female modes of eroticism simultaneously with male markers of sexuality constitutes a dangerous, queer figure, which additionally prefigures more concrete lesbian dynamics as the society of The Last Mandisintegrates. 

With the omissions and instability of gender and attraction that lead up to Evadne’s ultimate scene of prophecy and death, the plague materializes as an erotic, vaporous embodiment of the pent-up entanglement of panic and attraction that characterizes lesbianism in the novel. The Last Man presents a complicated perspective on lesbianism that demonstrates how its existence depends simultaneously on panic resulting from both male homosocial and heterosexual domains, as well as sexual energy between women and relations of difference. While Evadne may not signify a fully actuated lesbian figure, she does destabilize heterosexuality as well as prefigure and allow for the plague’s role as the vengeful return of lesbianism from its prior suppression in Volume I. This interpretation dovetails with McGavran’s reading of Sedgwick, who claims that homoeroticism appears as more dangerous and disruptive than homosociality. During Evadne’s perplexing, frenetic meeting with Lionel, “her dry, hot hand pressed [his], and her brow and lips burned with consuming fire” (Shelley 181). Recalling Weiss’ argument regarding Wollstonecraft’s Short Residence, blush represents a symbolic area where attraction between women can appear within a male dominated matrix. In this manner, lesbianism or “affective bonds between women” appear in The Last Man as a bodily reaction and form of barely tangible materiality (Weiss 211). Suffering can contain the erotic, but rather than the normative consumption of female suffering for male pleasure, this instance represents erotic bonds between women based on language coded in fever and illness. Sites of thought (“brow”), erotic affection (“lips”), and work (“hand”) appear as contaminated by fever and “consuming fire.” This demonstrates that the plague replaces her earlier infatuation with Raymond and constitutes a more intense relationship with a form of nebulous feminine materiality, which is still rooted in the body. Her being is wholly invaded by the plague, which represents the vengeful return of suppressed lesbianism. This “fire” connotes passion, but furthermore, a dangerous form of passion that devours and destabilizes. Evadne and the plague share a moment of blurred erotic tension, as they both exist within the same body. As two female-coded figures, Evadne and the plague’s moment of interaction represents the clearest depiction of lesbian eroticism yet in the novel.

As the plague ravages, Idris becomes a locus of concrete manifestations of lesbianism, demonstrating the shifting societal order and externalizing lesbian pressures under the surface of the text. Through these interactions, the plague’s ambiguous nature of contagion comes to reflect the cultural misconceptions and myths surrounding the transference of lesbianism as infection. The sustained interaction between Idris and Lucy Martin emphasizes the potentiality for erotic difference. In Lucy’s desperate letter, she addresses Idris as “Honoured Lady,” which highlights her deference, but also isolates her audience to Idris (Shelley 350). While Lionel states that “we” (referencing himself and Idris) assisted Lucy earlier in the text, this letter is intended only for Idris (Shelley 350). After establishing this intimate correspondence, Lucy continuously uses language of intense affect to solicit sympathy and enact a bond between her and Idris. She opens the letter with an apology to “pardon my manner of writing, I am so bewildered” (Shelley 350). Read as a stylistic maneuver that shapes her entire solicitation, her plea becomes a site for moving beyond normative usage of language. Closing the letter, she claims, “I feel as if my heart must break, and I do not know what I say or do,” emphasizing that the letter represents a breakdown of formality and inhibitions (Shelley 351). Panic obscures her non-normative request as she excuses herself, claiming “I do not know what I say or do;” desire for help becomes a complex blend of possible erotic desire and fear surrounding it. This disorganization of language echoes Evadne’s fragmented speech as the plague overwhelms her. Throughout the letter, Lucy interrupts an explanation of her dire situation to interject frantic, emotive questions. On one such tangent, Lucy asks “---What will become of us?” using a dash to indicate her disruptive emotions (Shelley 351). Highlighting her difference from the eloquent, royal Idris, Lucy emerges as a figure of difference that not only poses a threat to Idris physically, but also to the prescriptivist use of language as a whole.

Through additionally explicating the content of the letter, Lucy’s overwhelming desire to save her mother appears as a triangulating force through which she expresses her desire for Idris. While one could place Lucy’s relationship with her mother, for whom she “live[s] for and in,” on Adrienne Rich’s lesbian continuum, it is useful to examine how this relationship also allows Lucy to connect with another woman, specifically a woman extremely different from her (Rich as cited in Michel 354). Directly following her assertion that she “knows [not] what I say or do,” Lucy abruptly switches to discussing “my mother --- mother for whom I have bourne much.” She then claims, “Preserve her, Lady, and [God] will bless you” (Shelley 351). Shifting rapidly between eroticized pleas for help and references to her mother, the letter revises Sedgwick’s homosocial triangle to explore how women can function as triangulating forces for other women. Lucy’s ailing mother functions as a device for her to connect with Idris. However, this model evinces lesbian panic through women’s indirect expressions of desire, rather than demonstrating exchange of women, which Sedgwick’s triangle reveals (Sedgwick 25-6). In this instance, “a phobic reaction to [lesbian] sexual desire” appears through indirect desire itself, rather than through a disruption of the bond between two women (Michel 351). This indirect locution allows Shelley to comment on lesbian suppression and demonstrate a unraveling of such repression. Through this untangling, a pedagogical strategy for examining the pervasiveness of lesbian panic emerges; The Last Man can serve as an exercise in exploring how desire between women is not subordinate to heterosexuality, but ultimately how it functions as a distinct form of powerful affect that revises language and plot structure.

The letter’s intense effect on Idris evinces the emotional potency of communication between women and reintroduces the danger of the plague as a lesbian force into the narrative. As the novel shifts back into Lionel’s narrative perspective, he notes that “the letter deeply affected Idris,” awakening her sympathy and spurring her to action (Shelley 352). Rather than relying on Lionel to help Lucy, Idris insists on traveling with him to initiate contact, highlighting the power of physical presence. Although Lionel attributes this desire to Idris’ bond with him, she also references Lucy’s feelings. Lionel notes that in her reasoning for the journey, “she spoke with vivacity, and drew a picture after her own dear heart, of the pleasure we should bestow upon Lucy” (Shelley 351). This statement retraces emotion generated by Lucy through Idris and circulates it back to Lucy, transformed into pleasure. Infused with the extreme, urgent emotions of Lucy’s letter, Idris speaks with “vivacity,” paralleling Lucy’s unstemmable tears (Shelley 351-2). Using this “vivacity,” she intends to “bestow pleasure” to Lucy. “Pleasure” blatantly connotes eroticism, but furthermore, “bestowing pleasure” objectifies it as a substance that can be exchanged. Similar to Evadne’s encounter with the plague, emotion circulates between two bodies, almost as a form of materiality.2 Idris also characterizes the rescue as one that directly opposes “coldness or inhumanity,” demonstrating its inherent sympathetic motivation (Shelley 352). Through this sympathy, which necessarily implies difference, as Idris retains higher social standing, erotics of difference emerge repeatedly.

Slightly earlier in the text, Idris becomes the center of another charged, physical encounter with another woman that is inextricably tied to the plague. Thematically, this episode moves towards the figurative encounters between the plague and the land that pervade the text and prove so incomprehensible to Lionel. Their interaction reveals how concrete cases of lesbianism can simultaneously reflect fear and desire. As Idris flees the house in search of help for the dying Alfred, she falls in the street. Yet, “while she lay, life almost suspended she felt a warm, soft hand on her brow and a gentle female voice asked her, with expressions of tender passion, if she would not rise?” (Shelley 336). Connecting this encounter with Evadne’s death, the brow again appears as the site of bodily contact between two female-coded characters. As Juliet touches Idris’s symbolically resonant brow, she connects with the area of the body typically associated with thought and also serves as a reviving force. This signifies that the erotic and embodied relationship between the two women, as well as between Evadne and the plague, affects not only emotional exchange, but promotes a change in thinking and language. Echoes of lesbianism not only bewilder Lionel due to his fear surrounding relationships that are not dependent on men, but also confuse him due to their basis in new forms of nonverbal language. With Juliet’s “expressions of tender passion,” she utilizes emotion as a rejuvenating force. Similar to the “pleasure” that Idris believes Lucy will receive, “passion” connotes intense, erotic fascination. These “expressions” also function as a form of sympathy that requires difference between the two women and furthermore, facilitates their erotic connection. As the two women exist outside the home, in the milieu of the plague-stricken city, they share a moment of connection unburdened by heteronormative domesticity.

In order to recognize his wife after her rescue by the shadowy figure of Juliet, Lionel must use “a kind of second sight, a reflection back again on my senses of what I had seen but not marked,” demonstrating how his masculine perspective obscures Juliet and Idris’ physical bond (Shelley 337). With his invocation of “second sight,” Lionel unknowingly switches lenses and refers to the distinct space that lesbianism exists in, separate from typical society. His “reflection back again on my senses” indicates a complex pattern of thought. The interaction between the two women is only visible through an indirect reflection. Alternatively, or perhaps simultaneously, Lionel must consider and examine his own previous observations. Thus, only by involving himself in the situation can he recognize his wife and her savior. Potential lesbian relations only become relevant and legible when he inserts his own perspective. 

Following Weiss’s model of nature as an area where attraction between women can materialize, nature itself, upon interaction with plague, becomes a female-coded agent of lesbian desire. This demonstrates that nature does not just function as a canvas or triangulating form, but can independently generate eroticism. Lionel attributes significant discomfort to the notion that, with the arrival of the plague, nature no longer functions as a mother figure. As Lionel first notes the plague’s impact he claims that “nature, our mother and our friend, had turned on us a brow of menace” (Shelley 232). Characterized as an anthropomorphic figure, nature appears as a previously benevolent force with its own agency. However, Lionel’s separation of “mother” and “friend” represents a fracturing in the human conception of nature; nature already operates within different categories simultaneously. 

“Mother” becomes unanchored from the notion of “friend.” Furthermore, the plague eliminates the entire concept of nature as maternal, which signifies the cultural idea of lesbian relationships as non- fertile and unconducive to a reproductive future. Tracking linguistic references to the “brow” as a particular part of the body indicated in previous lesbian subtext, nature disdains humanity with a “brow of menace.” This reference ties emotion in the form of “menace” to thought processes (“brow”) and indicates that through their incorporation of fear and desire, lesbian figures embody both thought and feeling differently. Tying the concrete lesbian subtext to the figurative, plague and nature also appear as explicitly bonded forces. Amid his torrent of concerns following the death of his son, Lionel claims that “life had married death” (Shelley 338). Previously established as female-coded figures, plague and nature join in a matrimonial unit. This metaphorical marriage between two female-coded figures redefines the typical heteronormative marriage contract. The invocation of marriage between plague and nature suggests Shelley’s assertion that existing society must be completely razed in order to redefine marriage as commitment that does not center around ownership of women. Explicating this dynamic further, Lionel notes that “plague is the companion of spring, of sunshine and of plenty” (Shelley 316). “Companion” subtly hints at coded, more acceptable forms of lesbian relationships, but demonstrates how they still dangerously disrupt heteronormative society. As companions, the two figures mutually benefit each other and indicate a new form of cyclicality. “Plenty” attains significance as the tension between plague and nature produces sustenance that is disconnected from humanity. 

As plague does not arise as a solitary force but depends on nature to generate physical and emotional devastation, the plague is not monstrous solely because of its characterization as female, but because of its interaction with another female-coded figure. Michel’s argument critically supports this as she claims that “the difference between women is also itself monstrous; it is what helps make possible an erotic relation between them” (Michel 361). The symbiotic relationship between plague and nature proposes a reimagined world where the power of desire between women is recognized. Theoretically tangling with the existence of the plague, Lionel exclaims, “---but how to believe the ominous voice breathed up with pestiferous vapours from fear’s dim cavern, while nature, laughing and scattering from her green lap flowers and fruits, and sparkling waters, invited us to join the gay masque of young life she led upon the scene” (Shelley 275). Characterized by an overwhelming tone of confusion, Lionel’s statement invokes the contradictions he perceives between flourishing nature and the infectiousness of the plague. Allegorized as a disfigured human body, the plague has an “ominous voice” but a “dim cavern” in the place of a mouth. Tracing the movement of “pestiferous vapors” from the mouth of the plague to the body of nature, represented as a joyful human figure, reveals the exchange of erotic, vaporous materiality that repeatedly characterizes lesbian interactions in the text. Echoing Evadne’s fiery blush, “ominous vapors” connote pervasive destruction. This passage also elucidates the tension between lesbianism as non-reproductive and simultaneously presents it as a new symbolic form of reproduction that excludes normative male bodies. In the reimagined world, love and desire are not only valuable based on their reproductive qualities. While “flowers and fruit” seem to represent a frivolous form of offspring, the interaction between the plague and nature imbues them with renewed significance. Although often associated with fragility and ephemerality, “flowers and fruits,” defy the pestilence that terrorizes humanity.

Unbounded from human form, the plague and nature form a lesbian force that simultaneously inspires fear and reveals the coded possibilities for non-normative desire between women in the text that rewrites and moves beyond language. Tracing this development from the queer figure of Evadne demonstrates how her body changes upon contact with the plague and initiates lesbianism as a force that is both bodily and immaterial. This tension between tangibility and incorporeality further emerges through Idris’s erotic interactions with other female figures within the plague-ravaged world. Lucy and Juliet’s relationships with Idris crucially incorporate physical closeness and interplay between their bodies and also reveal how lesbian desire circulates as intangible emotion. Explicating the immaterial elements of lesbianism, the plague and nature appear as figurative allegories for how lesbianism and lesbian dynamics function to destroy human reproduction but also create new reproductive possibilities, redefining the negative connotation of contagion. Throughout the text, the coded and embedded concept of lesbianism provides a steady examination of how language and male thought processes hide desire between women. By creating an allegory of the plague and nature as lesbian, Shelley incisively exposes the ideologies used to demonize and diminish female desire. 

1 Additionally, her Grecian lineage links her historically with the term “sapphist,” which was contemporary to The Last Man (Michel 351). 

2 Even after Idris’ death, she reappears in association with Lucy as Lionel asks “did the spirit of sweet Idris sail along the moon frozen crystal air [outside Lucy’s cottage],” demonstrating the non-normative nature of their relationship that is unbounded by physical form (Shelley 264). 

Works Cited

Goldsmith, Steven. "Of Gender, Plague, and Apocalypse: Mary Shelley's Last Man." Yale Journal of Criticism, PDF ed., vol. 4, no. 1, 1990, pp. 129-73.

McGavran, James Holt. "“Insurmountable Barriers to Our Union”: Homosocial Male Bonding, Homosexual Panic, and Death on the Ice in Frankenstein." European Romantic Review, vol. 11, no. 1, 2000, pp. 46-67.

Michel, Frann. "Lesbian Panic and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein." A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, PDF ed., 1995.

Rich, Adrienne. "Compulsory Heterosexuality and the Lesbian Existence." 1980. Feminism and Sexuality, edited by Stevi Jackson and Sue Scott, PDF ed., Columbia University, 1996.

Shelley, Mary. The Last Man. Oxford World's Classics ed., Oxford University, 2008.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. “Gender Asymmetry and Erotic Triangles.” Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. PDF ed., Columbia UP, 1985.

Weiss, Deborah. "Suffering, Sentiment, and Civilization: Pain and Politics in Mary Wollstonecraft's 'Short Residence.'" Studies in Romanticism, vol. 452, Summer 2006, pp. 199-221.