The Last Man, by Mary Shelley, is a dystopian novel (Eschner 2020, Ashraf 2020) published in 1826. Divided into three volumes, it is set in the 2070s and forecasts how the world faces a deadly plague. In this novel, Lionel Verney is The Last Man, the one who survives the pandemic and the novel’s narrator. No one can figure out the cause of the plague, where it came from or how to cure it. Nonetheless, it starts spreading in America and then moves to England, Scotland, Ireland and across Europe, via the migration of infected people to these countries. The UK Lord Protector seems quite unprepared for this pandemic and the novel is indeed particularly sarcastic (Keaveny 2020) against the institutional response to the disease. It also underlines the residents’ spiritual degradation while experiencing this plague, as they are involved in looting and murders due to poverty. It is only thanks to military intervention that the situation settles down. Yet, religious fanaticism poses challenges for societal unity and governmental management. The world imagined by Mary Shelley in 2100 is one characterized by illness and fanaticism. Interestingly, McWhir (2002: 24) claims that Shelley’s plague, variously defined as yellow fever, smallpox and typhus, is a metaphor indicating “any system, idea or influence considered to be morally or intellectually dangerous”. When we use metaphorical or figurative language, we talk and think about one thing in terms of another on the basis of the correspondence between them (Semino 2008; Semino and Demjén 2017; cf. also Semino et al. 2018). In this sense, we use metaphors to communicate new, complex and at times abstract or complex experiences in more familiar or accessible terms. This is the case when cancer is described as an enemy to be defeated. In doing so, as aptly underlined by Semino (2020), a metaphor has framing effects, since it highlights some aspects dealt with by the topic and backgrounds others, thus influencing people’s reasoning, evaluation and emotions. For instance, she goes on, since the outbreak of Covid19, war metaphors have been widely used and research has shown that they can be useful in some contexts, for example to convey the need for crucial collective effort, but at the same time they can discourage self-limiting behaviours, such as just staying at home. Drawing on Semino (2020), it is the purpose of this contribution to see what metaphors are employed in The Last Man to describe how the pandemic destroys humanity in the novel – whether the disease is called plague, fever, typhus or smallpox. In order to do so, a corpus linguistic (CL) approach will be adopted and the study will be corpus-based (Bondi and Scott 2010; Baker and McEnery 2015), in that the investigation focuses on existing linguistic categories, frameworks or theories to see whether they can be validated, refuted or refined by the corpus under investigation. The results seem to indicate that there are two main macro-metaphors used in this novel: ILLNESS IS FIGHTING A WAR and ILLNESS IS A PUNISHMENT, with different implications as to meaning deployment.

(2022). “Pestilence Is the Enemy We Fly”. Metaphors for the Pandemic in Mary Shelley’s The Last Man . Retrieved from http://hdl.handle.net/10446/226770

“Pestilence Is the Enemy We Fly”. Metaphors for the Pandemic in Mary Shelley’s The Last Man

Maci, Stefania Maria
2022

Abstract

The Last Man, by Mary Shelley, is a dystopian novel (Eschner 2020, Ashraf 2020) published in 1826. Divided into three volumes, it is set in the 2070s and forecasts how the world faces a deadly plague. In this novel, Lionel Verney is The Last Man, the one who survives the pandemic and the novel’s narrator. No one can figure out the cause of the plague, where it came from or how to cure it. Nonetheless, it starts spreading in America and then moves to England, Scotland, Ireland and across Europe, via the migration of infected people to these countries. The UK Lord Protector seems quite unprepared for this pandemic and the novel is indeed particularly sarcastic (Keaveny 2020) against the institutional response to the disease. It also underlines the residents’ spiritual degradation while experiencing this plague, as they are involved in looting and murders due to poverty. It is only thanks to military intervention that the situation settles down. Yet, religious fanaticism poses challenges for societal unity and governmental management. The world imagined by Mary Shelley in 2100 is one characterized by illness and fanaticism. Interestingly, McWhir (2002: 24) claims that Shelley’s plague, variously defined as yellow fever, smallpox and typhus, is a metaphor indicating “any system, idea or influence considered to be morally or intellectually dangerous”. When we use metaphorical or figurative language, we talk and think about one thing in terms of another on the basis of the correspondence between them (Semino 2008; Semino and Demjén 2017; cf. also Semino et al. 2018). In this sense, we use metaphors to communicate new, complex and at times abstract or complex experiences in more familiar or accessible terms. This is the case when cancer is described as an enemy to be defeated. In doing so, as aptly underlined by Semino (2020), a metaphor has framing effects, since it highlights some aspects dealt with by the topic and backgrounds others, thus influencing people’s reasoning, evaluation and emotions. For instance, she goes on, since the outbreak of Covid19, war metaphors have been widely used and research has shown that they can be useful in some contexts, for example to convey the need for crucial collective effort, but at the same time they can discourage self-limiting behaviours, such as just staying at home. Drawing on Semino (2020), it is the purpose of this contribution to see what metaphors are employed in The Last Man to describe how the pandemic destroys humanity in the novel – whether the disease is called plague, fever, typhus or smallpox. In order to do so, a corpus linguistic (CL) approach will be adopted and the study will be corpus-based (Bondi and Scott 2010; Baker and McEnery 2015), in that the investigation focuses on existing linguistic categories, frameworks or theories to see whether they can be validated, refuted or refined by the corpus under investigation. The results seem to indicate that there are two main macro-metaphors used in this novel: ILLNESS IS FIGHTING A WAR and ILLNESS IS A PUNISHMENT, with different implications as to meaning deployment.
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