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The Beginning of the End,
This review is from: The Last Man (Paperback)
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.