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Literature

The Last Woman: Mary Shelley’s apocalyptic vision

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By Madeleine Joelson

In May of 1823, Mary Shelley found herself widowed and alone.  She had returned to England from Italy after the deaths of her husband Percy and their three children, as well as the dissipation of the literary coterie that had defined the second generation of Romanticism in Britain.  This period of desolation left Shelley thinking about an apocalyptic concept that had become prevalent and popular at the time: stories about the last man left on earth, his landscape and his experiences.  She wrote in her journal on May 14th: “The last man!  Yes I may well describe that solitary being’s feelings, feeling myself as the last relic of a beloved race, my companions, extinct before me—”.  She was at work on a novel that would seek to combine her personal grief with the larger implications of a growing eschatological genre.  The Last Man (1826) is both extremely personal and ambitiously political: Shelley uses the genre not only to examine her period’s considerable political upheavals, but to reckon with her own circle’s idealism and its consequences.    

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has often overshadowed its author’s life and other works.  Two centuries of films, sequels, and spin-offs have created a vast canon set quite apart from the author’s original 1818 text; the most recognizable effect of this expansion of course is the frequent confusion between Dr. Frankenstein and his Creature.  This particular idiosyncrasy of literary legacy, however, is fitting because it mirrors that of the author herself: Mary Shelley has become synonymous with her creation, Dr. Frankenstein, who has in turn become synonymous with his own. 

This is a shame, and 2020 is a fitting year to correct it.  Unfortunately for us, this year has proven Shelley’s work to be (once again) eerily prescient.  While Frankenstein is widely recognized as the first science fiction novel, Shelley’s The Last Man (1826) arguably deserves equal recognition as the first example of dystopian fiction.  Lambasted by early critics as “the product of a diseased imagination and a polluted taste,”  the novel has since been reconsidered and is of particular significance today.  It tells the story of a global society ravaged by plague: an international crisis that reveals and intensifies a set of pre-existing political conflicts. 

First edition of The Last Man by Mary Shelley, 1826.

The novel is narrated by Lionel Verney, the eponymous last man of the title, who transcribes his story after finding himself alone on the European continent.  Verney’s tale is set in England near the end of the 21st century, just after the monarchy has dissolved and England has become a republic.  The novel’s plot is largely engineered by the power vacuum that follows, and is marked by conflicts between the different political ideologies that defined Shelley’s era.  For Shelley, this political criticism is deeply biographically embedded.  Verney’s social circle consists of a series of thinly veiled portraits of Byron, Percy Shelley, and Claire Clairmont: depictions that not only allow Shelley to mourn her friends, but also to think critically about their ideals and the ideals of their cultural moment.  Shelley’s idealism, Wordsworth’s naturalism, Byron’s ego and heroism—even the progressive politics of her parents, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin—are each examined and rejected in turn.

What’s left is a novel that, like Frankenstein, fiercely but thoughtfully criticizes the extreme individualism of the Romantic period.  It is crucial to this story that the plague does not in fact kill any of Verney’s immediate circle.  Disease in The Last Man is devastating, but these characters for the most part bring about their own demise: the dissolution of Verney’s social circle stems from the cracks and fissures that already exist at its core.  In fact, the plague’s ability to decimate the human race is directly related to an act of cruelty and hubris: it is not unleashed globally until after the Byronic Lord Raymond decides to attack the city of Constantinople in an attempt to “subdue all Asia.” 

Though Shelley’s narrative does not blame Raymond directly for the epidemic, she is severely critical of his imperialistic impulses.  She also understands both the practical and cultural implications of that imperialism in aiding the spread not only of disease but of ignorance, hatred, and fear of the racial other.  As news of the disease spreads, European populations are beset by terror and disbelief, but also take comfort in the ignorant conviction that Europeans will not be able to contract the plague.  Needless to say, western Europeans are not immune to Shelley’s epidemic.  Like Raymond, they suffer for their hubris and their complacency, and the world is soon engulfed: “On no one spot on…[the whole earth’s] surface could I put my finger and say, here is safety.”

Portrait of Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell, Portrait of Lord Byron by Thomas Phillips, Portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint, Claire Clairmont by Amelia Curran

Shelley’s novel is striking—and disturbingly prophetic—for its understanding that infectious disease is not only a physical or biological phenomenon, but a sociological one as well.  She is keenly aware of the complex political and cultural systems that affect the human experience of disease, but The Last Man often portrays a natural world that is ultimately indifferent to this humanity.  Where other, similar tales of the period portray the destruction of nature alongside man, Shelley’s landscape thrives as man is destroyed: 

Hear you not the rushing sound of the coming tempest? Do you not behold the clouds open, and destruction lurid and dire pour down on the blasted earth? See you not the thunderbolt fall, and are deafened by the shout of heaven that follows its descent? Feel you not the earth quake and open with agonizing groans, while the air is pregnant with shrieks and wailings, – all announcing the last days of man? No! none of these things accompanied our fall! The balmy air of spring, breathed from nature’s ambrosial home, invested the lovely earth, which wakened as a young mother about to lead forth in pride her beauteous offspring to meet their sire who had been long absent . . . Where was pain and evil? Not in the calm air or weltering ocean; not in the woods or fertile fields . . .

Shelley’s portrait of a world bursting into an abundant spring—a world not designed to nurture man, but indifferent to him—again resonates with the timing of our own pandemic, which sent us indoors just as “the balmy air of spring…invested the lovely earth.”  

Verney answers his question–where was pain and evil?–with a post-humanistic nihilism that has more in common with the dystopian fiction of the 20th century than with the apocalyptic genres of Shelley’s own period: “Look at man! — ha! I see plague!”  Re-reading The Last Man in the light of our own pandemic (and its positive effects on the environment) helps prove the value of dystopian fiction for imagining a different kind of world: in this case, one in which man is not its center.

Madeleine Joelson is a PhD student at Princeton University, studying 19th century literature.

The Last Man is part of our recent catalogue In Other Worlds: Fantasy, science fiction and beyond.