UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Reading apocalypse : ruptured temporality and the colonial landscape in Mary Shelley’s The Last Man McGreevey, Morag Veronica


This thesis examines the process of reading in Mary Shelley’s novel The Last Man (1826). The novel illustrates a limiting conception of reading, as characters become bound to the futures that they consume via literature. However, there is a breach between the type of reading represented in the novel, and the model of reading that Shelley demands of her audience. By analysing the text’s competing aesthetics of ruin and artifice, I argue that Shelley advocates for a system of reading that recognizes the audience’s potential for agency and intervention. Just as Reinhart Kosseleck theorized that the post-French Revolution world marked a new sense of time, Neuzeit, which corresponded with the burgeoning era of modernity, Shelley advocates for a uniquely modern system of reading. By reading The Last Man in this way, the novel’s critique of imperialism expansion is transformed from a prophetic vision of the future into a practically actionable critique. There exists much scholarship concerning the novel’s criticism of England’s early-nineteenth century project of colonial expansion. Notably, critics like Paul Cantor, Alan Bewell and Siobhan Carroll have conceptualized the plague as a cosmopolitan imperial force, spreading disease just as late-Romantic explorers, politicians, and merchants spread ideas, bodies, plants, and consumer goods. Yet, Shelley’s critique of global interconnectivity extends beyond the plague to the world it leaves behind. Ecologically abundant and primed for human occupation, the post-apocalyptic world is deeply reminiscent of the early-nineteenth century ideal of colonial space. However, while late-Romantic imperialists conceived of these spaces as edenically new, Shelley writes a traumatic history explaining their emptiness. This narrative leaves readers as witnesses to humanity’s apocalyptic end. Only through a new system of critical readership can the audience distance itself from this annihilating future view to envision alternate futures for England.

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