“The Last Man”: Apocalyptic Late XXI Century – A Commentary

Happy 2021! This is the first blog post of the year, we could not have left January without an entry after reading a very interesting novel, don’t you think? Covid is still lurking out there but we are all taking care. And is not as hopeless as some famous authors had imagined the XX century to be like. All across the globe, we are finding support and hope.

I confess that I was doubtful whether I had to write this little post or not. But I am writing it because it made me see that there is hope in this world despite we some times don’t see it.

I am a big fan of Frankenstein, a novel written by Mary Shelley. I believe that no matter where you are from, that classic could speak to your heart. I was expecting to find the same feeling with The Last Man, Shelley’s apocalyptic novel, but, sadly, I did not feel the same. I have admired Mary Shelley at the point that I read her biography in less than two days. I recommend you to read Romantic Outlaws by Charlotte Gordon, a book about Mary Wollstonecraft, an early feminist, and her daughter Mary Shelley. I knew Mary was a very revolutionary woman, I loved her Matilda when I read it. But The Last Man left my mind a little bit troubled, I could not take Gayatri Spivak‘s ideas out of my head. Some classic books we love so much contains some colonialists ideas that should not be repeated nowadays. I am very happy to say that in that sense, today’s pandemic is going very generous all over the world in contrast to how Shelley imagined it 195 years ago. Today’s world is better, there is empathy and love all around the world.

Before we start briefly reviewing some themes present in the book, it is relevant to mention that Shelley’s novel is settled on a fictitious late 21st century. It is a semiautobiographical work because some characters resemble her persona, Lord Byron and Percy Shelley. This novel reflects Mary Shelle’s loss. Her infant’s death, early in her life, and her husband’s death that happened four years before the book was published.

Like her notable and most famous work, The Last Man is narrated in a beautiful poetical style which characterizes Mary Shelley writings. But, unlike most Romanticism works, in The Last Man, nature becomes evil and wicked, for it does not allow humanity to survive.

The Last Man is famous because of the pestilence that, as the title suggests, allows only one man to survive, who is, as you might guess, the narrator. But the pestilence is not the main theme until volume two. In the first volume, Shelley introduces us to our protagonists, Lionel Verney, strongly focussing on sentiments and emotions we have towards the ones we love. Interestingly, it might be now, living a real -life pandemic when we can really understand how much we love the people around us. Despite it might be tedious to introduce the pestilence in the novel, in that sense, a nowadays reader can understand the necessity of such introduction perfectly.

Nature

I personally found very interesting how nature is portrayed in the novel. Unlike Ann Radcliffe’s works, where nature means salvation and the sublime, Mary Shelley present us Nature as evil and wicked, like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Nature means destruction and not salvation, nor peace or relief, but rather torments the characters.

Opposite to our reality, we are concerned about Nature and try saving Planet Earth from human destruction, or at least there is more awareness, in Shelley’s novel, nature is an enemy and becomes fatal:

“Earth is to me a tomb, the filament a vault, shrouding mere corruption. Time is no more, for I have stepped within the threshold of eternity; each man I meet appears a corpse, which will soon be deserted of its animating spark, on the eve of decay and corruption”.

Mary Shelley’s beautiful prose, we cannot neglect that. But, there is no concern of preserving nature but humanity:

Savage, ungrateful nature, which in wild sport defaced his remains, protruding her easily renewed, and fragile growth of flowers and parasite plants around his [the men´s] eternal edifices”.

Nature is the cause of the destruction of humanity and its creations, buildings and even poetry and literature. In the real world, nowadays, something different happens, human beings are the ones who are destroying the Earth causing pestilences and deceases, Nature is not an enemy but rather a victim.

Despite Shelley places Nature as the enemy, she foresees changes in nature. Opposite to what is happening nowadays, where the weather is changing dramatically becoming hotter because of Globar Warming, in the novel, days become colder. And the survivors are obligated to search for warmer weather.

The Last Man shows that Nature has no mercy, but nowadays we know that Nature is not an enemy, she is our home, and we must take care of her. Despite we are living a pandemic, we cannot forget to take care of our actions and whether they contribute saving the Planet or not. There is hope, as small actions can make the world better.

Pestilence and Humanity

I am grateful that Mary Shelley’s imaginary world in The Last Man would be far from reality in the years to come. It is a humanity that resembles the ideas of the 19th century, especially in terms of prejudices. It is safe to say, that humanity has learnt a good lesson and seems to be nicer nowadays, despite there is a long road that we must walk to reach universal tolerance.

The pestilence is not introduced in the book until volume two, as I already mentioned. It is seen as a minor issue that is not as relevant as war, Lord Raymond, a friend of the protagonist will battle in Greece, despite his wife, Lionel’s sister called Perdita, advises him not to leave England because there is a mortal pestilence. But Raymond mocks his wife insisting that the plague is something minor and irrelevant. Even the book’s ending prevents the reader that that is not true. Like nowadays, covid exits and is out there and we must take it seriously by taking care. In this, Shelley’s novel is right:

“That plague [is] not what is commonly called contagious, like scarlet fever, or extinct smallpox, is proved. It [is] called an epidemic”.

In the book, the plage is everywhere in the world and there is a fear of new variants, like nowadays:

“We talked of the ravages made last year by pestilence in every quarter of the world; and of the dreadful consequences of a second visitation”.

Verney insists that the plage is everywhere as the narrative goes on:

“America had also received the taint; and were it yellow fever or the plague, the epidemic was gifted with a virulence before unfelt. The devastation was not confined to the towns, but spread throughout the country; the hunter died in the woods, the peasant in the cornfields, and the fisher on his native waters…In the sunny climate of Persia, the crowded cities of China, amidst the aromatic groves of Cashmere, and along the southern shores of the Mediterranean, such scenes had place”.

Despite it seems to be very universal, Shelley does not give many details on how the imaginary plague acts, with the exception that it is transmitted through the air:

“The air is empoisoned, and each human being inhales death, even while in youth and health, their hopes are in the flower”.

Instead, the narrative in The Last Man focusses on the effects the plague has, and this is what makes the novel less universal. If you have watched the movie untitled 2012 directed by Roland Emmerich (2009) and noticed on which kind of people survived, you already know what I am talking about. But in The Last Man, instead of surviving rich people mostly from the USA, the only ones who reach salvation are white Europeans, mostly English people:

“The vast cities of America, the fertile plains of Hindustan, the crowded abodes of the Chinese, are menaced with utter ruin…As yet western Europe [is] uninfected”.

All the world is dead save Western Europe because those places in the world are seen as lesser because they cannot organize themselves. This personally, does not affect me considering the context where this book was written. But, I believe that Spivak is right by saying that despite an author we love shows colonialist and racists ideas it is better to point them out and see how the world has evolved instead of praising the novel and ignoring them. So, let’s go and review these matters.

We now know that all human beings are equal, no matter where they are from. We know that if we see someone suffering, we are going to help. In The Last Man, humanity is weak and evil because it is based on strong colonialist ideas. Verney describes that his country, England is the only place save from the plague:

The English, whether travellers or residents, came pouring in one revulsive stream, back on their own country; and with them, crowds of Spaniards and Italians. Our little island [is] filled even to bursting”.

As the plague becomes more horrible, the protagonist decides to volunteer to help the people of his country to overcome the plague. He decides to see how an infected man is dealing with the plague if he needs help. His reflections are:

“So the plague killed you. How came this? Was the coming painful? You look as if the enemy has tortured, before he murdered you. And now I leap up precipiately, and escape from the hut before nature could revoke her laws, and inorganic words be breathed in answer for the lips of the departed”.

The first man that is said to be infected is never described in detail, we do not know how he looks physically like. What Verney focusses on is in some understanding sentiments and running away to avoid infecting from the plague.

But, as you might expect from a nineteen century novel, there is a cruel exception to the rule of what we might think to be universal. As the book goes on, Idris, Verney’s wife, gets anxious because the pandemic might kill her children, which reflects Shelley’s own pains with the passing away of almost all her children. When Verney is absent for a while, one of Idris child is dying and she goes desperately in search of her husband. When Lionel returns home, he open the door and:

“it [is] quite dark; but as I stepped within, a pernicious scent assailed my senses, producing sickening qualms which made their way to my very heart, while I felt my leg clasped, and a groan repeatedly by the person who held me. I lowered my lamp, and saw a negro half-clad, writhing under the agony of disease, while he held me with a convulsive grasp. With mixed horror and impatience, I strive to disengage myself”.

Here, the person of color acts as a source of horror. Verney shows no compassion, no pity, the person of color despite being identified as a person, is described merely as a horrific device. Even more, this scene occurs as a impediment for the protagonist to see his family.

Hopefully, as nowadays readers we do not find horror in the character itself as originally intended by the author, as her society had established, but we find unacceptable that the main character treats a person like a mere lifeless object.

Final Thoughts

We have briefly discussed some themes that are present in Mary Shelley’s novel. The Last Man is one of the first apocalyptic novels ever written. Interestingly, despite it was published in 1826 for the first time, Shelley foresaw a pandemic in the late twenty one century. Nowadays, despite is not the end of the century, we are facing a worldwide pandemic. The author imagined a world where wrong Darwinist ideas regarding human race were still present, a world where only could be saved, a place where distinction between people was prevalent. Nowadays, we have hope, there is hope in kindness, in acceptance in this world that is universal. A Planet Earth that it does not matter where you come from but how you are as a human being.

Shelley presents us Nature as a fearful enemy. In these days we know that we must take care of our planet, our home. Earth is not an enemy but our salvation. Every single action has to be taken accordingly to our environment, we cannot forget that there is no other planet as beautiful and full of life as planet Earth. If there was another with life, it might never be the same.

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