Jennifer Deren, “Revolting Sympathies in Mary Shelley’s The Last Man” (pp. 135–160)

Building on recent scholarship that explores Mary Shelley’s advocacy for sympathy in The Last Man (1826), this essay traces the complexity of interpersonal and reader-text relations as they play out in the novel and in the experience of reading it. I argue that moments of intimacy explicitly called “sympathy” in the novel are often idealizations that turn “revolting” as sympathy becomes something other than the beneficial exchange that participants expect of it. These scenes delineate a politics of sympathy that challenges the dominant model with a portrayal of human intimacy as uncontrollable, amoral, and infectious. Shelley encodes in the novel’s infamous plague her concern that the experience of sympathy that underlies nineteenth-century politics of community- and nation-formation can and sometimes does generate violence, discord, and inequality alongside mutually beneficial relationships. Exploring readers’ uncertain responses to the novel alongside the novel’s representation of sympathy as revolting, I suggest that the novel’s framing “Introduction” reveals an aesthetics of sympathy in which reader-text relations are constitutively unstable. Readers’ resistance to Lionel’s effusive narration is a revolting response written into the novel’s sympathetic design. By making sympathetic reading a revolting experience, Shelley advances a revision of sympathy that forces us to rethink the possibilities and the consequences of human relationships and invites us to reimagine a communal future that makes room for those realities.

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