In “The Last Man,” Mary Shelley writes with a tone of sheer hopelessness, bordering on nihilism. Must romanticism despair when facing our limited existence?
Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein and paramour/wife to the poet Percy Shelley, wrote half a dozen novels during her lifetime, in addition to numerous essays and travelogues. The Last Man, the story of the end of mankind through plague, set at the end of the 21st century, is not among her best work. It is not a good book. But it is a highly interesting book, once one moves past the often formulaic expressions of sentiment, and highly informative regarding the depths to which romantic dreams can extend in disappointment.
The future setting of the novel is pro forma. It allows Shelley to posit certain political events and debates (primarily the end of the British monarchy) without seeming too radical for her own time, perhaps, but offers, in her hands, no insight into trends in cultural, political, or technological development. The horse, the musket, and even the hot-air balloon, remain the leading edge of technology. Medicine, too, remains in the early nineteenth century, with typhus, malaria, and a new plague continuing to take lives—the latter ending the human race itself.
What makes the book interesting is its sheer hopelessness, bordering on nihilism. Of course, such a tone comes easily to a novel about the end of the world. But Shelley presents, in the midst of the catastrophe, a portrait of the sheer fecklessness of political actors and their simplistic ideologies. Sadly, the ideologies themselves come across largely as caricatures. “Democracy” is presented as the elimination of most aristocratic legal privileges, though not of the special status of the “better orders,” who retain their servants even as they “descend” to tilling their own fields as the population dies off. “Monarchy” and, even worse for Shelley, “aristocracy” represent a combination of ambition, selfish pride, and noble concern for the “lower orders” in an organic society. The latter is identified explicitly with the thought of Edmund Burke, the former less explicitly with Shelley’s own circle, including her father, the utopian William Godwin, as well as her husband.
To the contemporary reader, it is difficult if not impossible to take seriously the impact of the plague because of the lack of any attempt to come to grips with it in medical terms. Shelley does not even address in order to dismiss the various remedies—most useless or worse, of course—that medicine in her own time had addressed to epidemic diseases. The plague is almost abstract in this novel, appearing more as an inescapable natural force demanding extinction than a particular circumstance with which people might grapple.
This is, of course, in keeping with the (highly Romantic) plan of the novel, which is to chronicle, not events, but feelings. Conceived as an autobiographical narrative written by the literal “last man” for the almost infinitely unlikely possible future readers who may have survived the plague, it is emotional introspection taken to the level of the maudlin.
Nonetheless, it is interesting to witness the destruction, in Shelley’s own mind, of the ideologies with which she contended in her own time. The dreams of progress, equality, and fellow-feeling on which Godwin and her husband had lived, and which they propagated throughout their lives, here come to nothing, Indeed, the democratic force, embodied in a self-made man named Ryland, comes to worse than nothing as Ryland deserts his post in the face of disaster, dying alone, boarded up from his fellows out of fear of the disease that kills him along with everyone else. Ryland, the “man of the people” shuts himself off from the people, succeeding only in achieving a lonely, ignoble death.
The more authoritarian drive is embodied in Raymond, a noble who sought to bring back the monarchy in his own person, yet gave up this dream out of love for a woman. Alas! (Sorry, but that is perhaps the most common expression in the book). He betrays his wife, though not carnally, and ends up dying a heroic, Byron-esque death fighting the Turks. But heroism, like, apparently, the drive for domestic bliss so often idealized in this era, leads to destruction, just as the striving for egalitarian progress.
Even Shelley’s best of men, the high-minded progressive intellectual, Adrian, can achieve nothing in the face of the plague. Volunteering to serve as leader after Ryland’s abdication, Adrian can only seek to maintain order and some semblance of dignity as his people die off.
All political visions come to nothing, even as mankind comes to nothing. Along the way, the reader encounters minor characters and, especially, the thoughts and feelings of the hero, Lionel. This character bears a typically Romantic backstory (son of an affable, foolish intimate of the late king, orphaned and impoverished, raised up again, along with his sister, by the king’s son who belatedly discovers his whereabouts). Lionel has written his story as a salve to his own suffering, on finding himself alone on the earth, the literal last man. Expressing the hope that some new Adam and Eve may find his book, he does not believe such an outcome likely and leaves off writing to travel the world in search of any possible survivors, more for the sake of a hopeful journey than out of any real hope of an end to his solitary existence.
The Last Man might easily be explained away as a response to Shelley’s own suffering. At the time of its writing, she was mourning the loss of both children and husband, after having already “lost” her husband to his other women. But even this shows the primary interest of the novel—as an example of the loss of hope. Post-apocalyptic stories are interesting primarily on account of their imaginative analysis of human nature and society on the edge. What will remain of our social instincts, and of our relationships, when the chips are truly down, on account of war, pestilence, or some other natural disaster? Shelley, primarily concerned with internal virtues, sees little of interest in the destruction of civilization itself. Indeed, her characters take civilization with them to their graves, and to the grave of mankind. There is little in the way of challenge to social instincts and relations until quite near the end, when the evil Methodist (yes, the evil Methodist, full of religious fervor and lacking reason) threatens to enslave the remnant of England as it journeys toward its demise on a civilized trek to the Alps.
Shelley cannot imagine, apparently, the visceral emotions and physical violence of true anarchy. Yet these struggles themselves can make possible the rebuilding of life among the ruins. And the mad, perhaps even senseless struggle against destruction, which her novel does not contemplate, is as much a part of our nature as the introspection on which she focuses so much. Yet, for Shelley, the will to survive leads only to cowardice; virtue can be manifest only in the determination to experience a dignified death, with such trappings of sociability as can be salvaged.
Perhaps a bit less sensibility and a bit more vigor, whatever its ideological leanings, might have made for a bit more hope and even the possibility of survival, for Shelley, and for her characters. It certainly would have made for a better novel. But then hopelessness is Shelley’s whole point, and that it what is truly sad about the book, and about Romanticism faced with the limits of our very limited existence.
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The featured image is a miniature portrait of Mary Shelley painted in 1857 by Reginald Easton and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.