It seemed the sun would always shine on Merry Old England. The pastures would be afrolick with wobbling lambs; the houses of Lords and Commons bustling with virtuous leaders of vibrant intellect; and the royal armada laden with stalwart soldiers, premier goods, and a holy purpose. Idyllic visions such as these impress on young Lionel Verney as the 22nd Century draws to its close.
But Verney’s utopian England doesn’t survive the year 2100 in The Last Man, a pessimistic and apocalyptic novel by Mary Shelley, which was published in 1826. Rumors of a vicious plague spread across the globe faster than the ailment itself, and before long it alights on the doorstep of London. Lionel, the novel’s narrator, and his circle of esteemed friends watch with dread and patience as an historic plague wipes out the population of Earth.
Not only a lurid depiction of an epidemic and the subsequent collapse of human civilization, The Last Man is Shelley’s acidic critique of nearly every human system of social organizing. Composed during a period of intense personal grief, the novel seems to take on a misanthropic aspect. Much of this, though, can be attributed to the author’s fascination with scientific advances in the early 1800s, including new understandings in the fields of geology and epidemiology.
Almost everyone dies in The Last Man—it’s fair to say Shelley spoils the ending in her novel’s title!—but for her the extinction of mankind is an afterthought.
The Personal Apocalypse of Mary Shelley
One must forgive a depressed person their stray nihilistic comment or bleak outlook on life, and so it’s not hard to understand Shelley’s fantasy of every human miserably perishing. Shortly before writing this novel, Shelley buried her father, her adoring husband, and her close friend Lord Byron. We may confidently speculate that, for Shelley, imagining the literary extinction of mankind was a short leap after her closest acquaintances died in quick succession.
In a bit of famous Shelley lore, on the eve of Lord Byron’s death she wrote in her extensive journal pages, “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.” Many critics have written The Last Man off as a gloomy roman à clef, an autobiographical story veiled by invented character names. But to the author’s credit, in addition to an expression of her inner turmoil and mourning The Last Man grapples with Shelley’s anxieties about the frailty of human civilization and hubris of human ambition. We’ll get to those later.
The Birth of Extinction
The concept of a “last man” or lone survivor in a literary work cannot be solely attributed to Mary Shelley. Around the time the book was published, a handful of other writers and artists explored the idea of one survivor witnessing the extinction of the rest of the race. Daniel Defoe laid the groundwork for such a fiction in 1719 with Robinson Crusoe, but couldn’t stick the landing. In a poem also called “The Last Man,” Thomas Campbell came to different theological conclusions than Shelley does. John Martin’s painting of the same name, featured at the top of this post, presents a bleak and unresolved prophecy. The list goes on. One force that helped drive this artistic exploration was that the idea of “extinction” itself was just being discovered.
Much of this understanding can be attributed to Georges Cuvier’s Recherches sur les ossements fossiles de quadrupèdes, a work of natural history published in 1812. Cuvier was among the many intellectuals who spent their free time chipping the fossilized skeletons of dinosaurs and other exotic megafauna out of rocks. While the depth of Shelley’s engagement with Cuvier’s theories and the resulting controversy is unclear, her extensive journal notes that she received Recherches sur les ossements fossiles de quadrupèdes in the mail a few weeks before her husband’s death.
Cuvier’s study of geological strata, fossils, and zoology provided him with enough evidence to forward the idea of “catastrophism.” Among its many components, the research suggested for the first time the possibility of the extinction of entire species. (For a fuller, approachable account of this history, The Oblivious highly recommends The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert.) If these creatures frozen in rock indeed walked the earth and swam the seas, Cuvier’s work suggested an answer to the question, “Where did they go?” At the same time, his research begged new ominous lines of speculation: “What happened to them?” and “If a whole species has disappeared, could it happen to humans too?”
HOW IT GOES DOWN
The Plague to End All Plagues
Shelley’s plague is an enigma. In the novel, Lionel refers to the epidemic as an “invincible monster.” As it spreads across the planet, our narrator watches its incremental march but cannot discern its method of transmission. Victims are struck down at random, it seems, and precautions against infection are rarely effective. Plague outbreaks are worse during the warmer months and less dangerous in the winter—however, the reasoning for this is unclear. What’s more, the book departs from other plague stories and, for that matter, religious apocalyptic texts in that its destruction isn’t an act of divine retribution or punishment. The broad sweep of the disease and its indifference to its victims seems to negate that origin. This gives it an additional fearsome quality: the inability of humans to reason themselves out of or even understand their predicament.
Consider also the path of the plague’s infection. It allegedly starts its march in the Nile Basin (the birthplace of civilization), meanders toward Athens (the birthplace of deductive logic), and eventually lands in Great Britain (the birthplace of Enlightenment science). The plague repudiates the entire development of human intellect, and thus embodies Shelley’s doubts about mankind’s ability to invent or discover a rational world.
Lionel Verney’s Apocalypses of Knowledge
The novel’s virus is not the only element that makes The Last Man apocalyptic. While the relentless plague does reveal the fragility of the constructed human system, the revelation is also personal. Two apocalypses—or unveilings, in the more literal translation—occur for our intrepid narrator, Lionel.
When we meet Lionel at the start of the novel, he isn’t the thoughtful, courageous, morally upstanding young man we come to know. He starts as a roughneck shepherd boy with a penchant for mischief and. That is until he and his similarly feral sister, Perdita, meet Adrian, a benevolent Lord who inspires a hunger for learning and develops an acute intellect in Lionel. Upon recalling his first experiences with knowledge, Lionel says,
“I felt as the sailor, who from the topmast first discovered the shore of America; and like him I hastened to tell my companions of my discoveries in unknown regions. But I was unable to excite in any breast the same craving appetite for knowledge that existed in mine. Even Perdita was unable to understand me. I had lived in what is generally called the world of reality, and it was awakening to a new country to find that there was a deeper meaning in all I saw, besides that which my eyes conveyed to me. The visionary Perdita beheld in all this only a new gloss upon an old reading, and her own was sufficiently inexhaustible to content her. She listened to me as she had done to the narration of my adventures, and sometimes took an interest in this species of information; but she did not, as I did, look on it as an integral part of her being, which having obtained, I could no more put off than the universal sense of touch.”
Lionel sees behind the veil of subsistence living and understands the nature of the universe differently. His understanding is shattered—and replaced by one attuned to human agency and philosophic discovery.
Later, however, after the plague has conquered most of the world it comes for Lionel too. Lionel’s infection is the only instance of a person-to-person transmission in the book. (It also spreads from the only African person in the book—a conversation that deserves its own article.) Lionel shares his news with his wife, Idris, and they mourn together:
“We talked—I know not how long—but, in the morning I awoke from a painful heavy slumber; the pale check of Idris rested on my pillow; the large orbs of her eyes half raised the lids, and shewed the deep blue lights beneath; her lips were unclosed, and the slight murmurs they formed told that, even while asleep, she suffered. ‘If she were dead,’ I thought, ‘what difference? now that form is the temple of a residing deity; those eyes are the windows of her soul; all grace, love, and intelligence are throned on that lovely bosom—were she dead, where would this mind, the dearer half of mine, be? For quickly the fair proportion of this edifice would be more defaced, than are the sand-choked ruins of the desert temples of Palmyra.”
Lionel’s subsequent revelation here is that despite living the life of a brilliant mind, the human body and its consciousness has no permanent or holy afterlife. His wife will, before long, be little more than the “sand-choked ruins” of a person. Lionel’s thoughts ring of hopelessness and nihilism, which is complicated by his later recovery from the plague. The shattering revelations reflect Shelley’s anxieties that human intellect is, in the end, meaningless. Mere biology.
Spread Your Revolution Like a Fever
When exploring the apocalyptic themes in The Last Man, it’s worth revisiting a well-used symbol: the plague. Plagues and epidemics have a long history as a literary stand-in for rebellious sentiments, religious fervor, and revolutionary upheavals. The spirit of rebellion, as the logic of the symbol goes, is said to spread like a fever.
While not categorically true, apocalyptic writing often comes from the headspace of those who are repressed. Because “an apocalyptic vision facilitates an alternative experience of reality,” as John J. Collins noted in The Apocalyptic Imagination, it is a useful literary tool to convey hopes for grand revolutions in the social order and a better world to follow.
Shelley was probably thinking about grand revolutionary moments while writing her novel. The first third of the book details a number of domestic revolutionary attempts at home in England, which appear to be symbolic critiques of the French Revolution and its political aftermath. The middle portion of the book describes the military adventures of Lord Raymond, one of Lionel’s friends, who leads the Greeks in revolt against the Ottoman empire (modeled after the actual Greek Revolution of 1822). Both kinds of “fever” in The Last Man end in different sorts of failure.
In the final third of the book, the fever of revolution is matched by the fever of the plague. As has been detailed above, the incremental and at times painful “progress” of mankind is exterminated nation-by-nation. Shelley’s juxtaposition is a cynical critique of all forms of revolutionary idealism. In the words of one academic, Shelley, “Copes with the problem of revolution by cancelling out history itself.”
And this page could go on and on. The Last Man was a novel of its time and engaged with some of Western Civilization’s newest and most concerning ideas. Untouched in The Oblivious explainer of the novel is the cholera epidemic of 1815, which provided Shelley with visual cues to imagine a depopulated earth. Unexplored is the role of prophecy in shaping human actions and events. And unfelt is the grief and loneliness of Lionel Verney, who outlives all of his fellow humans and writes the last story of Planet Earth.
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