The Comforts of the Past? (Revision)

In Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, Princess Evadne represents a time long gone, a remnant of an ancient Greek civilization that only exists in ruins. Raymond finds her in a “tattered” and “broken” home, reminiscent of actual Greek ruins like the Parthenon. Evadne has obviously fallen far from her previously powerful position, but I was struck by how often the words “compassion,” “comfort,” “support,” and “consoling” appeared in this section of the text. When Raymond initially comes upon Evadne, he immediately offers her “a thousand things” of emotional support. But Evadne is not only a recipient of comfort. She recounts in her story that she was forced to “support the failing spirits of her husband” as he lost his mind upon arrival to England.

As Evadne represents the fallen Greek empire, this bifurcated identity between a woman who is comforted and a woman who comforts is interesting. Raymond does not attempt to “reason or declaim” her fallen state or disgrace, but rather he merely offers sympathy and understanding. For the Greeks (and for those who lamented the fall of Hellenism), the only consolation available was Raymond-esque sympathy, not denial of the reality of Greece’s fall. Evadne cannot deny the reality of her misfortunes as she relates them in great detail, all the while refusing to “sell [her] nobility for life.” This could represent a refusal of the Hellenists to relinquish the small scraps of what they remember of Greece’s Golden Age. Evadne also comforts her insane husband, a representation of the balm that this memory can provide to those who choose to dwell on it. The fallen Greek empire not only needs consolation but can provide consolation to those who remember it.

However, that same Evadne who receives and brings comfort is the same woman who later delivers a manic apocalyptic prophecy. She cries that she has borne “living deaths” but also that the “instruments of war” are her “servitors.” Once again, Evadne is both a recipient and initiator – this time of death and destruction! This kind of complexity in a female character speaks to Shelley’s portrayal of women in the novel. Women both provide ancient comforts and foretell the destruction of men. Evadne rails that she has “sold [herself] to death” simply to bring Lord Raymond down with her! Perhaps the past is not as sweet as we initially thought, or perhaps Shelley is much more cynical of her own sex than we anticipated. Either way, women have power in this story, power to console those remembering the past and to invoke unending doom upon the earth.

I found several parallels between this passage about Evadne and the description of Moneta in Keats’ The Fall of Hyperion. Like Evadne, Moneta “comforts those she sees not” (270) although she herself is plagued by an “immortal sickness which kills not” (258). She both needs comfort and can provide comfort unknowingly to many. Moneta’s eyes are half-closed, representing this lack of awareness of who she affects but also a divided existence between the present and the past. Evadne also experiences this divided existence between two times, demonstrating that the Greek civilization is still alive and well as it soothes the hearts of those who remember it. However, Moneta isn’t really alive – she lives only in Keats’ subjective experience of the past. Like with the ancient comforts of Evadne, the soothing balm of the past can only go so far for Keats before he faces the cold, harsh reality of a world that is dying of plague.

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~ by lostinthekeys on November 15, 2012.

One Response to “The Comforts of the Past? (Revision)”

  1. Yes, both Moneta and Evadne depict women as conforters for men–but there is a serious limit to their comfort, as your close reading has pointed out. In “The Last Man,” this limit clearly ironizes the comfort of Hellenistic ideals and, perhaps most importantly, signals Shelley’s “cynical” view of women as men’s handmaids. In other words, she (unlike Keats) may be providing a gender (or feminist) critique through Evadne’s apocalyptic prophecy–your analysis needs to account for the role of irony here.

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