Mary Shelley's novel, 'The Last Man' is a work which is slowly gaining the critical attention it richly deserves. Fans of 'Frankenstein' will be astounded at how much deeper Mary Shelley's indictment of 'masculine' visionary Romanticism, technology, and the faults of humanity go in 'The Last Man'. At the same time, the novel is fraught with problems and contradictions which give an already paranoid work a whirling sense of internal dementia.
The action of 'The Last Man' takes place between 2073 and 2100 AD. England is ripe for change as the last King of England abdicates his throne in response to public outcry for a more democratic form of government. Lionel Verney, a shepherd, is drawn out of a life of wildness and crime by Adrian, the former crown prince of England. The charismatic Lord Raymond enters the story as the lover of Lionel's sister, Perdita, and the newly-elected Lord Protector of England. Torn between his love of power and his affections for his wife and a persistent attachment to Evadne, a Greek woman, Raymond renounces his political position and flees to Greece. There, he leads a military campaign to establish Greek independence and bring about the end of the Turkish empire.
Then, the Plague takes over. The nondescript malady has wiped out the population of Constantinople just as Raymond conquers it, making his victory meaningless. Word of the plague's virulence comes in from Asia and America, and from the southern, eastern, and western corners of the world, the plague begins to encroach inward towards Europe and England. The remainder of the novel tracks Lionel and Adrian's attempts to save the human race from utter annihilation.
In 'The Last Man', Mary Shelley gives us a horrifying, desolate prophecy of the future, when religion, technology, and human effort are all exposed as meaningless. Although many might say that she also abandons the redemptive possibilities of art, I think that art provides the novel's only hope. Mary Shelley's dependence on art of every format is clear in the novel's influences - She has Lionel refer to literature, including the works of Daniel Defoe, Charles Brockden Brown, Ann Radcliffe, Homer, Shakespeare, and Jonathan Swift among others.
The novel is fraught with problems of gender and power relations. At any moment of emotional weakness, Lionel calls himself 'girlish' or 'womanly,' and the novel seems to privilege women who are selfless and submissive. On the other hand, as Morton Paley's introduction points out, the plague itself is consistently described as female, at one place referred to as 'The Queen of the World'. With regard to power relations, Lionel continually mentions that in the dying world of humanity, social distinctions have all been abandoned - and yet there are still references to his 'servant' or those of other people. The most problematic scene in the novel revolves around racial distinctions when Lionel encounters a dying black man in London.
There are a million things to talk about in 'The Last Man,' and a novel so rich for discussion deserves to be read by as many people as possible. This is a book I warmly recommend, so pick it up and discover that there is more to Mary Shelley than 'Frankenstein'.