Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Stapledon, in his preface to Last and First Men, says that he wants to express “the highest admirations possible” within his culture. In each species, but especially in the fifth and eighteenth, Stapledon presents for both the reader’s admiration and his criticism frequently praised human traits for example, aesthetic appreciation, community, rationality, compassion, imagination, and dexterity. He not only makes clear that these traits must be balanced for humanity to realize itself most fully but also shows that the dark, destructive side of human nature often helps the species and, therefore, must be accepted and even affirmed.

John Huntington sees the thematic center of this novel in its dialectical approach: Stapledon’s goal is “to teach a trust in the possibility of an understanding that must remain incomprehensible at the end.” Each possible formulation of an ideal humanity points toward yet another possibility; therefore, there is no certain completion of human nature. Because the species must die before it can achieve a final formulation, its fate is tragic.

Huntington points out a second major theme that functions to reconcile narrator and reader to this tragic fate: musical form. Humanity is like a symphony with themes and variations, conflicts and resolutions. Though the themes are limited, the variations are innumerable. For a symphony to become beautiful and complete, it must end. The narrator dwells on this...

(The entire section is 412 words.)