A Review and Analysis of The Last Man by Mary Shelley
The central sections of this review contain plot spoilers,
but the Introduction and Conclusion can be read without fear of exposure to major plot details.
At a company event, I was once asked to share a “guilty pleasure” as part of a team building activity. Others’ guilty pleasures included daytime television and Pokémon video games. Mine was, and remains, disaster movies–the more ludicrous the better. But this is not as clear cut a distinction as one might assume.
For example, while 2012 contains significantly less science-contradictory plot scaffolding than The Core, I would argue that The Core is the “better” disaster movie by dint of the way that every cheesy special effect, every poorly written line, every awkward mini-disaster hangs gracefully together in a coherent web of campy, absurdist contrivance. By contrast, 2012 is merely a sequence of catastrophic events, which fail to synergize thematically. I prefer my dreck to be well organized, thank you very much.
It is this sense of events’ interrelatedness and consequentiality that I feel is paramount to the construction of a disaster narrative. A still more successful narrative would tie the interconnected plight to some element of the human condition.
In my youth, I imagined that narratives of the apocalypse were somewhat new. The glitz of the big screen implies, through its dominion over special effects, that it owns the disaster narrative outright. I eventually discovered the long tradition of disaster literature. J.G. Ballard wrote The Drowned World in the sixties, and George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides was written earlier still. However, it was with much delight that I discovered that apocalyptic fiction is at least as old as the science fiction itself. In 1826, Mary Shelley, renowned author of Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus, published The Last Man, the earliest apocalypse narrative of which I am aware.
The Last Man is the life story of narrator Lionel Verney. He and his sister Perdita begin their lives destitute, but through good fortune are brought into the company of a man named Adrian, one who would have been King of England, except for the fact that his father abdicated the throne in order to support the establishment of the first Republic of England. In Adrian’s company, Lionel and his sister are given access to education, philosophy, the arts, and most importantly, the social connections that will help them thrive as adults.
However, their happy lives are interrupted by a plague, which breaks out somewhere in Asia and quickly spreads across the globe. It is relentlessly virulent–one hundred percent contagious and one hundred percent lethal. Its victims lie dead within days of the onset of symptoms.
But what of the “coherent web” of interrelatedness and relevance to the human condition? The Last Man accomplishes much on this measure as well, for, unlike its modern silver screen incarnations, it is exceedingly philosophical and political at its core.
The English Republic
The Last Man is set throughout the decade of the 2080’s. Shelley maps the social and technological landscape of the early nineteenth century directly onto this timeframe, for she appears to have exactly one major societal modification in mind. It was this long duration, the passage of nearly three centuries, from her perspective, that would allow the English to arrive in a social configuration ready to convert from a monarchy to a republic. And it is here I should note that England still is a monarchy in the real world, albeit a constitutional one with democratically elected members of parliament.
If we try to transport ourselves back to Shelley’s time, we will find our modern attitudes about the feasibility and sustainability of a democratic republic significantly diminished. The United States was, at that time, an agrarian nation only about fifty years old, and with some decidedly hypocritical, undemocratic tendencies, most notably the widespread practice of slavery. A survey of the rest of the world would turn up scattered monarchal powers dominating Europe and authoritarian or tribal conditions dominating nearly everywhere else.
It was a time much closer than us to the dawn of the Enlightenment, and in which the power of the church was more deeply entrenched and ideologically ingrained.
While the idea of an English Republic might seem a small skip of the imagination for the modern reader, in Shelley’s time, this particular novum demanded significant effort of her readers. It is unsurprising that she decided not to burden them with additional sociological and technological alterations.
However, this one vector of change is all that The Last Man requires in order to shine.
Early in the novel, we are introduced to Raymond, a noble member of Adrian’s social circle. Raymond is contrasted with his political opponent Ryland during an election in which both vie for the title of Protector (roughly equivalent to President in the United States, or Prime Minister in the modern United Kingdom).
Raymond wins and serves in this position until scandal forces him to step down. It is then that Ryland easily takes the Protectorship, and appears to hold the position well for over a year.
It is not long after this that the plague breaks out and begins ravaging Asia. Lionel draws out the details of the disease’s encroachment, as England loses its trade routes to Africa and India, then later Greece, then the disease is reported in southern Italy and France. As the certainty of safety inside the borders of England unravels, so does Ryland.
Ryland flees London and seeks the advice of none other than Adrian. Ryland ignores Adrian’s gentle persuasion that he lead the effort in curtailing the disease. Fearing for his own safety, Ryland instead insists on isolating himself in the far reaches of northern Scotland, in other words, as far away from the contagion as he can take himself.
It turns to Adrian to rally the country against the outbreak and ensure order and stability. This event is part of an undercurrent, which persists throughout the novel, a supposition that egalitarian and enlightened social organizational schema are dependent upon human flourishing. Under the pressure of diminished resources, natural calamity, and other stresses, such systems falter.
Do democratically elected officials really care about their constituents in the way that a nobility is impelled to, and acculturated to do so from birth? The insinuation of Shelley’s narrative construction vis-à-vis Ryland and Adrian seems to suggest not. And while one might be tempted to point out the corruption and decadence of various monarchal figures littered throughout history, we must also acknowledge that elections and republics seem to have done little to blunt the corrupting effects of concentrated power upon leaders. In fact, as the prevailing political order in the United States demonstrates (at the time of this writing), our duly elected leaders appear to be even more extreme forms of Ryland, not merely abandoning their constituents in a time of crisis, but willing to plunder the state of its remaining wealth while the world burns.
Despite Adrian’s enlightened leadership, England is further diminished by the plague’s continued onslaught. With a loss of critical mass of nobility, even monarchy falls away, at first to authoritarianism (specifically Adrian’s authority, although he is a benevolent dictator), and later tribalism, as religious and policy dissenters rise up against him and seize political control of their own small groups. Even these social orders, crude as they may be, are each in turn leveled by the plague.
Eventually only Lionel, Adrian, Lionel’s son Evelyn, and Raymond’s daughter Clara remain alive.
Love in the Ruins
And yet, though the plague has passed, other misfortunes befall Clara, Evelyn, and Adrian, eventually leaving Lionel entirely alone. The final portions of the novel are among the most chilling. Lionel is confronted everywhere with the remnants of humanity—banquet tables fully set, but with all the food reeking of multiple years’ spoilage. Even the great works of Rome, the Coliseum and great museums, mock his loneliness. The former joy and energy he had found in the intellectual depths of philosophy, art, and literature, have all become sour reminders that he is alone.
Seeking to find whatever meager companionship he can manage, he attempts to feed a family of deer, but even the beasts of the forests spurn him. He eventually befriends a sheep dog, but his internal monologue makes it clear that such animal bonds are no replacement for human ones.
Lionel’s plight begs a deeper question, one especially relevant for our modern day, some two centuries after Shelley. We move through the modern world in pursuit of acquisition—more time, more possessions, better job, better accomplishments—more, more, more. Ironically, at the end of the novel, Lionel Verney has everything. He pointedly draws attention to the fact that all the world’s granaries, libraries, and museums are open to him. He wants not for food, for health, nor even for time—he has no obligations nor duties and his entire life lies ahead of him. Having lost all political bonds, including individual relationships with his most beloved family and friends, Verney is now perfectly free and simultaneously perfectly oppressed, for how can any of his great works be great if there is no one to appreciate them? Why bother appreciating another’s great work without a companion to share in the experience and help make sense of it?
Perhaps, at the end of leveling all the social strata and doing away with oppressive systems, we end up back where we started, a perfect infinity of freedom and oppression collapsed into one. We end the novel wondering which would be worse, the achievement of “utopia” or the utter destruction of social bonds, or perhaps each is its own kind of hell.
The Last Man surpasses your average disaster narrative. By eschewing a contrived scientific or fantastical “victory” climax in the form of a cure for the plague, the novel treads more interesting water by letting everything collapse completely and inspecting what remains of the human condition in the disaster zone.
As our own modern world staggers forward, perpetually demanding ever more extreme forms of individualism and personal liberty, it might be sobering for us to reflect on the questions posed by the philosophers of supposedly “simpler” times. Our resources and infrastructure can bear the weight of our prevailing social order… for now. If last year taught us anything, it’s that perhaps we are in for just such a lesson as was encoded by Mary Shelley in The Last Man nearly two centuries ago.