Current events being as they are, Mary Shelley’s The Last Man is fascinating because it’s presented as a prophecy that was made by a “sibyl” from ancient times. Sibyls were women who predicted the future and this one in particular concerns the Cumaean Sibyl, an oracle well-recognized by the Ancient Romans because of its location south of the great city of Rome. What makes this all so fascinating, or more plainly, a bit disturbing, is how the prophetic details speak directly to what we’re going through: rumors of plague are first mentioned; people believe it can’t really happen; deaths start to occur that are too close for comfort; symptoms are described; panic begins; widespread pandemonium unfolds; and then the after-effects become too hard to believe. Reading this novel, in real-time with the Covid-19 Pandemic, has been a thought-provoking if unsettling experience to say the least.
Stylistically speaking, the novel is a very different animal from Frankenstein (1818/31). Mary Shelley’s mind by this point in time has been both, riddled by the specter of death in her personal life, and saturated by the tremendous knowledge and research of the day in publication which enhanced her capacity to write. This is to suggest that reading The Last Man can be likened unto reading what I might call “brainiac literature.” Mary Shelley’s ability to consider high-powered concepts during the process of creating even the simplest sentences presents a reading experience that is — impeccably and pleasurably cumbersome. She is the master of eloquence which forces you to take time and think about what you’re reading, a phenomenon decried in the advice Jerry Jenkins gives when he tells fledgling writers to “omit needless words” and to “choose the simple word over one that requires a dictionary.” Of course, Shelley’s novel was written before courses in creative writing ever existed, but she really takes it to the hilt with her ability to intellectualize the hell out of her narrative form — effortlessly.
When Shelley wrote Frankenstein she was fresh out of the gate with a vivid idea as to how the novel should affect readers. She had that verve which accompanies youthful expression, coupled with the input of her literary-genius lover and husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Mary Shelley followed this performance with Valperga (1823), which did relatively well, only to overstep the mark with The Last Man by combining the magnitude of her intellectual prowess with a lack of help from someone like Percy to help her smooth out the rough edges of her manuscript. What I envision nowadays, and in the spirit of my sincerest sincerity, is a task created by the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in which The Last Man is presented to students for an exercise in revision from which polished forms of the novel take shape; but obviously, these are views that come from an era 200 years later into the evolution of novel-writing.
Make no mistake, The Last Man is no minor work of art to be scoffed at. Her contemporaries complained about the thematic material, its grim attributes, its culmination in the depressive aspect of isolation; but it’s not the case from a historicist point of view. That I notice the intellectuality of Shelley’s linguistic style is a mere circumstance of reader-response theory and the passing of time. The fact remains: the passages that flow from the pen in The Last Man are at times, downright breathtaking. People don’t write like this anymore; and it’s always simply and purely amazing to me that a novel like this, clocking in at approximately 175,000 words, was written by hand without the luxuries of word-processing software. To be sure, The Last Man is yet another of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s masterworks of canonical English literature.
The novel has been labelled a roman à clef for reasons that are easy to see for someone who studies Romanticism, which materializes most pointedly in the character of Lord Raymond, who is meant to represent the “mad, bad and dangerous to know,” Lord Byron. The narrator, Lionel Verney, has been noted for representing Mary Shelley herself, with the character of Adrian representing the all-encompassing glory that was her deceased husband Percy. This particular character could do no wrong, apparently, created in light of the fact that Mary had been mad at Percy for his infidelity, but came to feel bad about her feelings after he drowned in a boating accident. From here we have the rest of the group: Perdita, who is Lionel’s little sister; Idris, younger sister to Adrian; the Countess of Windsor being Idris and Adrian’s cold and calculating mother; Princess Evadne, who is a visitor at court; with Lord Raymond being the factor that seems to tie it all into a neat bow.
Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley were popular figures of the Romantic Era, circa 1780-1832.
The momentum of the story is triggered when Lionel crosses paths with Adrian, by which the lowly Lionel and Perdita are thrust into the lives of the aristocracy in a post-monarchal England. It’s a device that offers narrative life while at the same time, dragging it all down, for its service as a platform for the authoress to discuss politics, which is always a story-telling mistake [unless it’s intended to be the specific point; but even then, consider a book like Felix Holt, the Radical (1866) by George Eliot]. In spite of the drag, we do manage to feel like we’re getting to know the group, which is really all we have with regard to a subject in which total annihilation is the name of the game. Adrian, for example, is the type of person who approaches hillsides with a view and launches into glorious elocution:
“O happy earth, and happy inhabitants of earth! A stately palace has God built for you, O man! and worthy are you of your dwelling! Behold the verdant carpet spread at our feet, and the azure canopy above; the fields of earth which generate and nurture all things, and the track of heaven, which contains and clasps all things” (Vol. I, Ch. IV).
It’s so very traditionally English, so very Shakespearean. Mercy, what a dour literary agent in the modern age might think of this in a submission.
Our impression of Adrian is nuanced by the illustrious Princess Evadne from Greece, who taunts him with a spell of unrequited love. Evadne is certainly interesting in that she is pitted as experiencing a fall from grace, Shelley’s way of chipping away at the aristocrats of her day. Not only does Evadne meet with a life of despair, but her behavior comes to suffer from the effects of near-derangement. In contrast with a person like Lionel, who endures the trials of war and plague with calm and reserve, Evadne is depicted as one whose semblance of strength has been subjected to the ultimate cracking point and she loses, a spin on the notion that someone truly aristocratic doesn’t understand the real world.
Between Adrian and Idris, the engines are forever turning in the mind of their mother, the Countess of Windsor. The story goes that, in the noble hope for establishing a democratic-republic for England, the husband of the Countess, the ex-king, had abdicated his throne, much to her dismay. In this manner, she forever views her children as potential stepping stones for restoring the monarchy, for restoring her position as royalty. Ultimately speaking, it’s all slightly less than deliciously-demonic, where the goal is more-or-less to paint life-portraits of the characters, whether realistic or fancied, before the plague comes along to demolish everything. And it’s hard to say whether or not this makes the overall story interesting or not; I suppose it depends on whether you’re reading the book for college, or during an actual pandemic. It was certainly uncanny to find myself reading about life at Windsor Castle during a fictional plague, even as Queen Elizabeth II was delivering a very real speech from that very spot amid the turmoil in England during those first few days of April 2020. Very eerie.
From Windsor Castle, Queen Elizabeth II delivered a speech to the citizens of Great Britain and the world on April 5, 2020.
As a work of futuristic story-telling, we have to be tender considering the year was 1825 when The Last Man was written. The fictional years provided are 2073 through to the millennia, and yet the most we get technologically speaking is when balloons are taken for transportation — the rest is essentially Victorian England. But Mary Shelley doesn’t entirely let us down so far as the fantastical is concerned. A curious moment unfolds when she describes a “black sun” that terrifies the peoples of the east, which is obviously a total solar eclipse — it’s one that occurs not far in time from one that is actually set to occur on September 23, 2090, according to NASA.
However, she additionally allows for a moment that is, in essence, an astronomical impossibility, when she describes an event which astonishes the emigrating group as they proceed to vacate the island of England. Standing at the edge of the English Channel facing France, “suddenly, a wonder! three other suns, alike burning and brilliant, rushed from various quarters of the heavens towards the great orb; they whirled round it” (Vol. III, Ch. IV). It’s a welcome diversion, a venture into the realm of pure and joyous fantasy; yet it’s alarming: the end of mankind is unfolding and the heavenly bodies are taking note with rapturous glee.
The arrangement and flow of The Last Man are really its only shortcomings, such that to say that its impressions and fascinations profusely compensate feels an odd thing to declare, because it’s basically an understatement. As mentioned, Adrian’s hilltop elocution is definitive of the English mindset, to make every moment, even the most trivial, to feel as though great things have been achieved. This is the art of apostrophe defined, appearing throughout so that it’s not plot or story or character that we care about so much as we feel the emotion of the expression, such that we want the moments in our own lives to feel equally as important. In addition, as I perpetually consider the definition of “great literature,” I always find myself at some point finding the argument between “showing” and “telling” a petty thing when I consider metaphor and its ability to convey meaning. The Last Man is rife with metaphor: I scrolled for less than a minute, at random, encountering several similes, before learning about Lionel’s high-anxiety about his family via pure metaphorical device: “I might heap high the scale with logic, courage, and resignation—but let one fear for Idris and our children enter the opposite one, and, over-weighed, it kicked the beam” (Vol. II, Ch. VI). Great literature is found in the writing that comes from one who entices the mind intuitively with the power of metaphor.
Animals roam the empty streets during the Covid-19 Pandemic of 2020.
The lasting impression of The Last Man, as its contemporary critics have noted, does appear in the nihilistic, pervasive erosion of humanity as the plague spreads, obliterating everything that is specifically human in its path, focalizing the final acts of the novel. Cows are seen going about their business, sheep are free to roam at will, birds continue to flutter about, and the fish carry on as though nothing of any particular interest is occurring at all. It’s a nasty concept to consider, that nature abhors us, to the extent that tiny organisms exist that can wipe us out from the face of the planet. The thought doesn’t escape Shelley’s mind when she likens our existence to a hill of ants, by which, its destruction engenders not the slightest shred of empathy the universe may have to offer. We have to shudder off the feeling, delude ourselves if necessary; we have to assure ourselves and our children that we do, in fact, matter. I think the point is that we have to do so in accordance with and respect for nature itself, lest Mother Nature inform us who’s really the boss. Well before and long after events like the Spanish Flu of 1918, or the SARS scare of 2003, Mary Shelley’s The Last Man comes off as an interesting, albeit, frightening piece of fictional literature; but if you happen to perform a reading during the real thing as it unfolds all around, the implications can be more than difficult to grasp.
And so it is, at the very least, remember as best as you can the guidelines provided by the CDC during this very trying time, and if you’ve made it this far, thank you for reading and stay safe out there.