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Poetics of PalliationRomantic Literary Therapy, 1790-1850$
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Birttany Pladek

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9781786942210

Published to Liverpool Scholarship Online: January 2020

DOI: 10.3828/liverpool/9781786942210.001.0001

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Palliating Humanity in The Last Man

Palliating Humanity in The Last Man

Chapter:
(p.129) Chapter Four Palliating Humanity in The Last Man
Source:
Poetics of Palliation
Author(s):

Brittany Pladek

Publisher:
Liverpool University Press
DOI:10.3828/liverpool/9781786942210.003.0005

Chapter four examines Mary Shelley’s 1826 novel The Last Man, which tells the story of an incurable plague that kills all of humanity. Shelley interrogates the Romantic belief in the possibility of a medico-poetic panacea (cure all). The novel begins with a domestic drama whose tragedy is figured as incurable, and this metaphoric incurability sparks the far more literal plague. Characters react to both scourges by longing for a panacea, which, when it does not appear, plunges them into a despair that aggravates the initial illness. Shelley’s story critiques the binary mindset underwriting both total affirmation and rejection of panacea, posing a middle ground that offers literature as the palliation of a dying humanity. In the same way that medical philosophers like Jean Georges Cabanis tied the imperfection of medical knowledge to the necessity of palliative care, so The Last Man suggests that suffering and death are unavoidable, both individually and at a species level. In the novel, literature takes on the function of a palliative care doctor, shepherding humanity to its final end by ‘taking the mortal sting from pain’ and preserving its fragmentary memory (p. 5).

Keywords:   Mary Shelley, The Last Man, Percy Bysshe Shelley, medical ethics, palliative care

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