(39) Chapter 2 cont.

Before the departure for France, disaster strikes Lionel’s family.

Heads of Youth; Marble sarcophagus fragment, Roman, early 3rd century A.D., Metropolitan Museum of Art

She looked on her son. She saw death stealing across his features; she laid him on a bed, she held drink to his parched lips. . .

With this difficult installment, Mary Shelly starts to relive the deaths of her own children. Including her first, as a newborn, she’d lost three; only her son Percy Florence survived to adulthood. And throughout Alfred’s end she uses triplet constructions, as if to mark that the countdown’s begun (from The Last Man’s point of view, it has). Her tone is stoical and almost terse, an antique, heroic style which serves to heighten the pathos, especially after Lionel arrives on the deathbed scene.

Head of a Black African; Sarcophagus fragment, Roman, early 3rd century A.D., Metropolitan Museum of Art

That very same paragraph delivers a hard slap to modern sensibilities in the form of a Black man who infects Lionel with plague. The detail about his race (“a negro”) comes and goes in such a total absence of context that I’ve been tempted to read this as one of the original publisher’s sole editorial interventions, an abject grab at shock value, an effort to titillate. Less cynical critics have suggested that Mary Shelley hoped to prove something more with this episode—and that having been locked in a total embrace with The Other is precisely what will save Lionel from what kills the rest of humanity.

Eros with Torch; Marble sarcophagus fragment, Roman, mid 2nd century A.D., Metropolitan Museum of Art

Please add your thoughts: