Extinction rebellion: solitude, love and gender

In June 2021, the Solitudes networks met to discuss research and ideas related to the theme of ‘Solitude and Gender’. In this paper, Rebecca Anne Barr explores the role of gender in extinction fiction.

In Carmen Maria Machado’s short story, ‘Inventory’ (2017), a solitary woman compiles her life’s list of sexual encounters. ‘Every person I’ve ever loved. Every person who has probably loved me.’ She remembers women of all ages, and men too. From drunken high-school couplings to more risky pleasures: hook-ups with friends or random strangers; melancholy sex on the floor of empty houses, ‘skin reflected silver from the moon’; an abusive wife; one-night-stands who grimly masturbate in solitude after the human coupling has concluded. As the list grows, incidental details gather into narrative. In news reports playing in late night diners, planes are grounded; ‘a list of symptoms of the virus blossoming a state away’; meetings on ‘how to stockpile food and manage outbreaks…should the virus hop the firebreak’; a relationship endured ‘because I was afraid of what the world was catching all round us.’[1] People and places must be abandoned in order to survive. ‘The fucking thing is only passing through physical contact’, one character complains, ‘if people would just stay apart.’ Against a background of death, physical intimacy becomes an increasingly queer remnant of a shockingly-recent past: as an archive of touch, the list fortifies against loneliness. Her final lover is a woman with grey hair and green eyes. But when she symptoms begins to display symptoms ‘there is no time to mourn’ her. Abandoning her coastal home, the woman holes up on an island, gazing back to shore, imagining ‘the virus blooming on the horizon like a sunrise’ and compulsively writing.  Posthuman life becomes matter-of-fact, ‘the world will continue to turn, even with no people on it. Maybe it will go a little faster.’[2] A catalogue of the human compulsion to love against the odds, ‘Inventory’ mourns the end of love even as its narrator persists.


Machado’s brief inventory of the lost recalls Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year (1722), another hybrid text which gestures at the impact of contagious disease by shifting between bare enumeration, anecdote, and the isolated perspective of its first-person narrator—the quasi-anonymous H.F. Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year also furnished Mary Shelley with an historical template for the ravages of individual alienation. In her 1826 novel, The Last Man, scenes of death accumulate. Shelley’s bills of mortality are unremitting—infants, parents, wives, husbands, brothers, sisters—an impossible calculus of loss. But unlike that eighteenth-century avatar of loneliness, Robinson Crusoe, love is central to these survivors’ stories, even if its purpose seems unclear. Desolate ‘monarchs of the waste’ all may be, but the materials that solitude furnishes are used to very differing effects.[3] These extinction fictions, use the psychological extremities of solitude to quarantine the past in order to mourn it. Under the sign of the secular apocalypse which is extinction, these writers process the labours of love, and the estrangements of self and gender that occur in the wake of its loss.


The Last Man was described by Muriel Spark as ‘a compound of the domestic romance, the Gothic extravaganza, and the sociological novel’.[4] It is also an extinction fiction, a story of the very last remaining human left adrift after accidents of plague, war, or climate has extinguished all others. In this futurist vision a plague sweeps across continents, annihilating civilizations and causing global unrest. A novel that begins as the collective biography of a circle of friends, loosely based on Shelley’s own, gradually gives way to a tale about the inexorable power of disease, until only one individual remains—the solitary narrator, Lionel Verney. Verney’s predicament crystallizes the idea that ‘the condition of the individual is essentially isolated and therefore ultimately tragic’, exploring a ‘metaphysics of alienation…the threat of man’s aloneness in an unintelligible universe.’[5] An extreme version of the Wordsworthian Solitary, Shelley’s work self-consciously percolates her own autobiography. The character of Adrian acts as a literary idealization of her husband Percy Bysshe; the figure of Raymond a part-portrait of Byron. But the last man’s status as a curious compound of Shelley herself and other women (including Clair Clairmont) seems blithely accepted by critics as an unremarkable act of literary transvestism. Shelley’s grief-stricken journal entry following Percy’s death turns her into a universalized cipher for devastation: ‘The last man! Yes, I may well describe that solitary being’s feelings, feeling myself as the last relic of a beloved race, my companions extinct before me.”[6] I wonder whether extinction fictions ‘scale up’ individual loss that might otherwise be dismissed as essentially ‘female’, amplifying felt magnitudes of pain: the intimate loss of life that is miscarriage; children’s death as the foreclosure of the futurity; the self-reproach of a body that will not reproduce despite the prompts desire; the dissolution of family itself. It seems to me that, in its transexual shift, The Last Man is in part about the gendered crisis that such losses produce. In the ‘last relic’ of humanity, Lionel Verney, the novel generates a curious sense of melancholy: a literary example of ‘extinction debt’, of survival without recovery expressed through something approximating a transgender imaginary.


It is a familiar principle of Shelley criticism that her own anguished familial background contributed to her literary preoccupations. Ellen Moers suggests that Shelley was ‘not a secure mother, for she lost most of her babies soon after they were born’ and not a ‘lawful’ mother since she was not married to Percy Bysshe until afterward.[7] Thus Frankenstein is routinely accepted as the Romantic ur-text of maternity, birth, pain, and death. Written after the first of Shelley’s infant losses, the novel is the literary by-product of a teenage pregnancy. Shelley lost several children shortly after birth—the common brutality of that age—and by miscarriage. But she also lost her son, William (she called him ‘Willmouse’), at the age of three: an age when a child’s character comes out in play and chatter. William would die in Italy, where the Shelleys were living a peripatetic life amongst picturesque ruins and real people. In December 1818, with Clair Clairmont, the Shelleys visited the Bay of Baie, and Elysian Fields; in June the following year, William was taken ill, and died at Rome. Disconsolate, and pressurized by her husband to move yet again, the losses of her five years, she wrote, felt like suffering meant ‘to wean me from the world if I were too fond of it.’ Devastating for both parents, for Mary Shelley in particular it caused a profound alienation from human relations. Writing to Irish ex-patriot Emilia Curran, Shelley asked that Curran tend William’s tomb at Rome ‘near which I shall lie one day, and care not, for my own sake, how soon. I never shall recover that blow… the thought never leaves me for a single moment; everything on earth has lost its interest to me.’[8] Maternal desolation is not just personal grief, but complete alienation from the natural world so often conceived as a Romantic source of solace. Percy Bysshe, too, theorized nature as a force for community when human sympathies failed.


In solitude, or in that deserted state when we are surrounded by human beings, and yet they sympathize not with us, we love the flowers, the grass, the waters, and the sky. In the motion of the very leaves of spring, in the blue air, there is then found a secret correspondence with our heart…by their inconceivable relation to something within the soul, awaken the spirits to a dance of breathless rapture, and bring tears of mysterious tenderness to the eyes… Sterne says that if he were in a desert he would love some cypress. So soon as this want or power is dead, man becomes the living sepulchre of himself, and what yet survives is the mere husk of what once he was.[9]


To exist without love is to subsist: to be a ‘living sepulchre’, a relic, condemned to survival without recovery. As Mary Jacobus has shown, Shelley’s writing is ‘suffused with maternal mourning as well as survivor guilt’: a primal ache of anguish and loneliness.[10]


Denatured and dispossessed, Verney’s grief is that of the childless mother. There is no way to call her boy back to life but to witness his absence in the world. In the years leading up to the publication of The Last Man, Shelley was engaged in editing the posthumous poems of her husband. At the last moment, the work was aborted and withdrawn due to her father-in-law’s demands. The novel acts as a creative proxy for the literary memorialization that Posthumous Poems was meant to have performed. As editorial mediator, Shelley acts as a kind of midwife to the dead: bringing forth living memory from the scraps of living memory. In the preface to The Last Man, she makes her role as medium crucial to the vatic scope of the speculative novel. Reworking Shelley’s memories of the Italian landscapes visited before her son’s death, the preface recalls visits to the ‘Sibyl’s Cave’ (5) near Naples, where she and her companion find ‘frail and attenuated leaves’ containing prophetic writing. Deciphering the leaves’ meaning was once their joint labour, but is now a solitary task: an act of creative translation. Shelley’s sibylline framing ‘pointedly refashions British prophecy’s longstanding patriarchal idiom…to accommodate female authors and their perspectives.’[11] Doubly mediated—author as a medium channelling a seer—Shelley’s preface constructs her as an interpreter ‘of real sorrows and endless regrets’ into ‘ideality, which takes the sting from pain’ (7). If mediums in fact were generally female or feminine conduits, genderswitching from the avatar of ‘Mary Shelley’ to ‘Lionel Verney’ might be one way of swerving accusations of excessive sensibility. As she mourned the death of her child, her father William Godwin rebuked her for her failure to rise to her social responsibility. ‘The human species’, he charged her,


may be divided into two great classes: those who lean on others for support, and those who are qualified to support. Of these last, some…can support a world, contributing by their energies to advance their whole species one or more degrees in the scale of perfectibility…You were formed by nature to belong to the best of these classes, but you seem to be shrinking away, and voluntarily enrolling yourself among the worst.[12]


In depicting of the end of humanity, Shelley imaginatively expands her grief to fill the world. Conceiving a (male) survivor whose stoicism cannot change the brute fact of extinction, she instead suggests both the pain and pointlessness of enduring lastness. A character formed for both intellectual service and love, Verney endures an insupportable solitude where the care of elegy is now the only office of love.


Global in its scope and energies, the novel is nonetheless ineluctably drawn to the site of Shelley’s personal apocalypse: as if uncovering a kernel of trauma at the heart of its prophecy of extinction. Fleeing England, the band of plague survivors pursue a final desperate ‘scheme of migration’ to Italy in the hope of salvaging the remnant of humanity. But Shelley is unsparing in her depiction of the limits of individual agency and the fallacy of personal exceptionalism. Each person ‘trusted that their beloved family would be the one preserved’, but the plague demolishes ‘that pertinacious optimism which…characterized our human nature (409).’ The final section of the novel is unremitting. Verney’s son Evelyn, ‘dear even to pain’, like Shelley’s William, dies of typhus. It is his death which turns the remnants on their ‘pilgrimage towards Rome’ (436).  In The Last Man’s crowning catastrophe, Verney’s two remaining friends are drowned in a storm. He finds himself alive on the shore of Italy:


For an instant I compared myself to that monarch of the waste – Robinson Crusoe. We had both been thrown companionless – he on the shore of a desolate island: I on that of a desolate world. (349)


The schemes of material accumulation and improvement that Crusoe finds diverting cannot comfort Shelley’s relic. While Defoe’s desert island is reassuringly temporary, Shelley’s castaway’s predicament is permanent. ‘Shall I wake, and speak to none, pass the interminable hours, my soul, islanded in the world, a solitary point, surrounded by vacuum?’, Verney asks. Such a sublime sense of isolation, both temporal and existential, fuels the vertigo of the final pages of The Last Man. Humanity has receded ‘like a tide…leaving [the individual] blank and bare in the midst.’ Plague is merely Shelley’s pretext for presenting a condition of pathological intensity: the malaise of ‘utter irremediable loneliness’.


The Last Man thus deconstructs the optimistic possibilities of transcendence found elsewhere in Romantic writing. In her novel Mathilda, Shelley was able to imagine a ‘perfect solitude’ where generous stores of self-subsistence meant you ‘wished for no friend’ because your own thoughts were company enough. Verney, wandering disconsolately from one empty town to another, leaves in each a desperate message: ‘Friend, come! I wait for thee!’ The irony of this long novel is that it is narrated without hope of a readership, yet desperately seeks an audience. Caught on the cusp between the need to communicate and consciousness of its futility, this is Beckett without the jokes. Who is Verney in an empty world? The ‘unveiled course of my lone futurity’ (458), demands ‘how could I resign myself? Without love, without communion, without sympathy’ (463). Such stark conditions of a friendless futurity dramatically reframe the philosopher David Hume’s lament, Where am I, or what? From what causes do I derive my existence, and to what condition shall I return?’


The final pages of the novel answer that question, in a way. They remind me of the plaintive lines of one of her husband’s fragments, inscribed ‘To my Lost William’: ‘With what truth I may say | Roma Roma Roma | non e piu come era prima’.[13] The holy city, a vast storehouse of history and memory, provides a ‘medicine for many and vital wounds’ (462). It is now a vast sepulchre, reverberating with Shelley’s loss. If Rome lies at the heart of Shelley’s solitude it is also the place where Verney comes to terms with his fate, to begin living his solitude in earnest. Both a cause for sorrow, and a condition which is also a kind of strange psychic resource, Rome provides a lesson in resignation—or durance, perhaps. It is where Verney reads and dreams, and starts writing. ‘O, worn and beating heart, may I dissect thy fibres?’ (465), he asks, before embarking on his life’s work. Verney’s heart (like Shelley’s, I suspect) pulsed with maternal affection, its pain an embodied testimony. As one sixteenth-century physician writes, ‘The love of the mother is so strong, though the child be dead and laid in the grave, yet always she hath him quick in her heart.”[14] Such unrecoverable loss, as in Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, is the novel’s ‘kernel’: ‘its hub, its epicenter, from which everything flows out, to which everything returns. This moment is the absent mother’s.’[15] Verney, who had hoped to write for posterity, becomes instead a different type of author: one who preserves the loved not just in elegy but through the care of writing.[16] Though he claims to be leaving a ‘sole monument’ of himself as the last man, what he produces is a living testament of love. It is an account of rich lives: political and personal passions—of friends whose ineffectual highmindedness is delineated without the bitterness of personal reproach; of the astonished wonder and love that children prompt; the way that even infant lives can carry the traces of care and anxiety bequeathed by parents to them. By writing, Verney creates a future of sorts: the makeshift form of hope that is creativity. ‘Capricious and childish’ in his despair, he suddenly imagines ‘this world re-peopled’ through ‘the children of a saved pair of lovers’ (466). Shelley’s extinction fiction swiftly rejects the existence of some such ‘tender offspring of the re-born world’ (341): Verney affirms ‘loneliness is my familiar, sorrow my inseparable companion…none shall ever come’ (467). But what is offered in its stead is a mother’s generative rebellion against death: literature committed to keeping the lost alive. Through writing Verney saves what he can of his lost son and feels again, despite it all.

The Last Man is an astonishing but unsparing work. It domesticates the inevitability of nineteenth-century ‘extinction discourse’ through its grim prophecy.[17]  Its vision of the hapless survivor living a kind of posthumous existence resonates with contemporary feelings of climate grief as well as our sense of helplessness as yet another wave of Covid-19 rises. Peter Melville has argued that Verney’s despair becomes ‘a kind of antibody that allows him to live with and confront the devastation and loneliness of his tragic fate’. By the close of the novel, Verney’s persistence makes him a monument to human endurance: ‘a figure whose psychical fortitude sustains and produces an enduring synthesis between contrary mental states—between hope and despair—which in turn embodies … the spectral image of good health.’[18] Framing Shelley’s novel within the current Covid-19 crisis, Eileen Hunt Botting notes that ‘Verney realizes that even if he is the last man on Earth, he must live as though he is not. He must sustain humanity by acting upon his profound sense of the interconnectedness of his fate with other forms of life — human or not.’[19] If the literature of loneliness inoculates against the risks of enforced, unwilled isolation, it does so by reminding us of what we stand to lose if we forget our duty of care to each other.

[1] Carmen Maria Machado, ‘Inventory,’ in Her Body and Other Parties (Profile Books, 2019) p. 35.

[2] Machado, p. 43

[3] Mary Shelley, The Last Man, ed. Morton D. Paley (Oxford: World’s Classics, 2008), p. 349. All further references are to this edition.

[4] Muriel Spark, The Child of Light: Mary Shelley (London: Tower Bridge Publications, 1951), p. 2.

[5] Hugh Luke, ‘The Last Man: Mary Shelley’s Myth of the Solitary’, Prairie Schooner Vol. 39, No. 4 (WINTER 1965 / 66), 316-327: 325.

[6] Mary W. Shelley, Journals, May 14 1823.

[7] Ellen Moers, ‘Female Gothic: The Monster’s Mother,’ in Literary Woman (New York: Doubleday, 1976), pp. 216-224, p. 217.

[8] Mary W. Shelley, Letters, pp. 249-250.

[9] P.B. Shelley, ‘On Love,’ http://terpconnect.umd.edu/~djb/shelley/1880onlove.html

[10] Mary Jacobus, First Things: Reading the Maternal Imaginary (Routledge, 1995), p. 107.

[11] Ruppert, Timothy. “Time and the Sibyl in Mary Shelley’s The Last Man.” Studies in the Novel, vol. 41 no. 2, 2009, p. 141-156. Project MUSEdoi:10.1353/sdn.0.0054. See also Mellor, Anne K. “Blake, the Apocalypse, and Romantic Women Writers.” Romanticism and Millenarianism. Ed. Tim Fulford. New York: Palgrave, 2002. 139–52.

[12] Godwin to Mary W. Shelley.

[13] See http://shelleygodwinarchive.org/sc/hu/to_william/#/p1 for image and transcription. ‘It is not as it was before’.

[14] Stephen Greenblatt, https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2021/01/14/hamnet-shakespeare-wisewoman-stratford/

[15] Maggie O’Farrell, Hamnet (Tinder Press, 2020), p. 8.

[16] On learning to read and write Verney says ‘I acquired new sympathies and pleasures…Suddenly I became as it were the father of all mankind. Posterity became my heirs’, p. 120.

[17] Patrick Brantlinger, Dark Vanishings: Discourse on the Extinction of Primitive Races, 1800-1930 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003), p. 8.

[18] Peter Melville, ‘The Problem of immunity in The Last Man’, SEL: 1500-1800, 2007, 47:4.

[19] Eileen Hunt Botting, ‘Mary Shelley Created ‘Frankenstein,’ and Then a Pandemic’, The New York Times, March 13, 2020.


Rebecca Anne Barr (@R_A_Barr) is Assistant Professor in Gender and Sexualities in the Faculty of English at the University of Cambridge.