This essay considers Mary Shelley's The Last Man (1826) as intervening in the ongoing debate between Thomas Malthus and William Godwin. Malthus published An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) in large part as a response to Godwin's Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793) and “Of Avarice and Profusion” (1797); Godwin later wrote an extended refutation of Malthus in Of Population (1820). Mary Shelley uses The Last Man, a story of the end of the human species, in part as a meditation on the merits of Malthus's philosophical positions in the Essay on the Principle of Population, but she seems to disagree with a number of the mechanisms he identifies: in contrast to Malthus, Shelley identifies a blind and random nature rather than any divine plan as controlling population change, and disease rather than food scarcity as the primary cause of population reduction, but insists upon the importance of individuating and empathizing with the suffering.
Mary Shelley's Malthusian Objections in The Last Man
Lauren Cameron is a Ph.D. Candidate and Teaching Fellow in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her essay “Marginalia and Community in the Age of the Kindle: Popular Highlights in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” is forthcoming in the fall 2012 issue of Victorian Review, a special issue on Digital Victorians. She is currently working on her dissertation, entitled “Renegotiating Science: British Women Novelists and Evolution Controversies, 1826–1876,” which looks at how writers such as Mary Shelley, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Elizabeth Gaskell, and George Eliot used novels to intervene in debates about developments in evolutionary theory.
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Lauren Cameron; Mary Shelley's Malthusian Objections in The Last Man. Nineteenth-Century Literature 1 September 2012; 67 (2): 177–203. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/ncl.2012.67.2.177
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