on October 26, 2003
In "The Last Man" (1826) Mary Shelley conceived a plot device that would eventually be used by a string of writers: an apocalyptic plague that virtually wipes out the human race. From "The Last Man" would come books like "The Scarlet Plague" (1912), "Earth Abides (1949) and "The Stand" (1978), each work taking something from its predecessor, each work written in a separate, distinctive era. The passage of time would allow writers to be more graphic in terms of aftermath, as readers became more sophisticated and less disturbed by what earlier generations would consider "horrifying".
"The Last Man" takes place in the late 21st century: a future without telephones, cars, television or computers. In fact life in the 2090s is not that different to the 1820s, apart from a few political changes (Britain is now a republic). Readers who criticized "Earth Abides" for being dated would have even more to complain about here. Shelley could not possibly have guessed the advances, social and technological, that would take place since 1824. Therefore it's helpful for the modern reader to pretend the story is happening in an alternate 21st century, along the lines of "Pavane".
The narrator Lionel Verney spends the first third of the book describing his early life, telling us how an altruistic young man of noble stock (Adrian) took him under his wing, effectively saving him from a life of penury. Lionel and his younger sister now mix in the highest circles, the cultured world of art, literature and music (things which the working class had nothing to do with in the 1820s).
Mary Shelley's prose is formal to say the least. Containing echoes of Byron and Wordsworth, it is rich, stylish and philosophical. It is not until Part two of the novel that the plague makes its appearance. When Shelley describes the plague there is mention of bodies lying in the open and the breakdown of order, but she doesn't treat it with the kind of brutal frankness that Stephen King does in "The Stand". It does look as if King was influenced by Shelley however. Here is a quote from "The Last Man":
"The ward was filled with an effuvia that caused my heart to heave with painful qualms. The dead were carried out, and the sick brought in, with like indifference; some were screaming with pain, others laughing from the influence of more terrible delerium; some were attended by weeping, despairing relations, others called aloud with thrilling tenderness or reproach on the friends who had deserted them while the nurses went from bed to bed incarnate images of despair, neglect and death."
Here is a quote from "The Stand" one and a half centuries later:
"Wards were crammed. Patients lay on the floors. The halls were full; nurses, many of them obviously sick themselves, wove in and out, some of them weeping hysterically. Others looked shocked to the point of coma." King also adds little details like the smell of waste and the cries of the damned. While Shelley is poetic, King is direct and to the point. He was writing for an audience whose attention span has been diminished by things like television and films laden with special effects. The impatient 21st century reader may therefore find "The Last Man" more of a challenge.
Although Shelley's plague is more gradual than those of other writers, society is still crumbling. Even though extinction is in the air, the main characters still perform acts of heroism. The character Adrian has all the makings of a saint. It's just unfortunate that there will be no one left alive to canonize him. Although "The Last Man" is dated, it did pave the way for a genre that still fascinates and terrifies readers today. Mary Shelley is owed a great debt in terms of apocalyptic literature.
on November 19, 2000
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'.
on September 23, 2000
The Last Man starts with a man telling the story of his life; how he was orphaned at an early age and had to go to work at the age of five(!) and grew up to become a juvenile delinquent with a probable career as a criminal. His life is utterly changed by an admirable young man who is simply kind to him. What you may be asking does this have to do with the title? Mary Shelley is being sneaky here. She pulls you completely into the narrator's life. You and he barely notice when someone mentions a plague in China. Here the comparison to the AIDS epidemic is all to apt. A plague is advancing. The end of the world is at hand and no one pays attention because it doesn't directly, personally affect their lives. Suddenly, the plague is everywhere and then, too late, the human race scrambles to find a way to survive. It's a very profound, very sad book, well-worth the effort.
Written in 1826, this is, as far as I know, the first novel to take up the subject of a deadly plague that threatens the survival of the human race. Potential readers need to be warned that the writing style takes an effort to get used to. There is nothing wrong with it. It's simply different from a different age, the age of the Bronte sisters and Jane Austen. It is well worth the effort.