Mary Shelley's Dystopian Prophesy: Reading The Last Man During COVID-19
Mary Shelley’s classic science fiction and horror novel, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, was an instant hit when it was published in 1818. It was and is such a prominent part of literary and popular culture that modern audiences might be forgiven for thinking it her only novel. However, in addition to articles and travelogues, she wrote several other novels with mixed success. Her book, The Last Man, published in 1826, was not received well by critics or audiences upon publication and is rarely written about today. However, this book of survival and loneliness during a plague, often considered the first dystopian novel, has an added poignancy in today’s COVID-19 reality.
The Last Man is narrated by Lionel Verney, the son of an English nobleman, beginning in the year 2073. Volume I covers Lionel’s youth. Lionel’s parents become impoverished and die, leaving young Lionel to raise his strong-willed sister, Perdita. Lionel grows up uneducated, wild, and devoted to rebellion and petty crime before he meets Adrian, the Earl of Windsor. Overwhelmed by Adrian’s kindness, Lionel becomes a new person, reading incessantly and striving to be worthy of Adrian’s friendship. Adrian introduces Lionel to Lord Raymond, who is as ambitious as Adrian is philosophical. Various romantic complications ensue:
- Adrian loves Evadne, a Greek princess whom he meets at Windsor Castle.
- Evadne and Perdita both love Raymond.
- Raymond loves both Evadne and Perdita, but he thinks he should marry Idris (Adrian’s sister) for political gain.
- Lionel loves Idris, Adrian’s angelic sister.
- Idris loves Lionel.
Ultimately, Raymond marries Perdita and has a daughter named Clara. Lionel marries Idris, and they have two children. Raymond becomes Lord Protector and begins an affair (emotional, if not physical) with Evadne. Adrian goes briefly insane due to being rejected by Evadne, but his selfless personality wins out and his sanity comes back. He remains friends with Raymond once he recovers. Raymond eventually leaves both Perdita and Evadne to join the war for Greek Independence. When he disappears in Greece, Lionel, Perdita, and Clara go in search of him.
In Volume II, Lionel discovers a wounded Evadne on a battlefield in Greece, but she promptly dies of wounds incurred in battle. Raymond dies from an explosion upon entering a deserted, plague-ridden Constantinople. Grief-stricken Perdita kills herself so that she can be buried in Greece beside Raymond. Lionel and Clara return to England where rumors of plague and unusual weather cause fear among every social class. The plague reaches England, along with refugees who threaten war until Adrian negotiates a peace.
Finally, Volume III describes the end of humanity. The last survivors of the plague in England decide to leave England for mainland Europe under Adrian’s leadership. The group continues to die of the plague, which they find everywhere they go. Eventually everyone is dead except for Lionel, Adrian, Clara, and Lionel’s son Evelyn. They travel to Italy where Evelyn dies of typhus and Adrian and Clara drown while trying to sail to Greece. Lionel survives the shipwreck. In the year 2100, Lionel writes his memoirs. He vows to travel the world until he dies in hopes of finding survivors, but fearing he will find no one he signs his memoirs “The Last Man.”
To understand The Last Man, it is important to understand Shelley’s state of mind when she wrote the book. Shelley began writing The Last Man in 1824, six years after her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and a close friend, Edward Williams, died in a boating accident. In the years between Percy Shelley’s death and the publication of The Last Man, any happiness she found seemed doomed.
Like many women in her time period, Shelley’s life as a mother was marked with illness and tragedy. Her own mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, died ten days after Shelley’s birth. Of Shelley’s five pregnancies, only one resulted in a child who lived to be an adult. Shelley’s first child was born prematurely and died about a week after the birth. Shelley’s next two children died very young, less than a year apart, plunging her into a two-year depression. Shelley also experienced a terrible miscarriage that almost caused her to bleed to death.
What made her sense of loneliness even more acute was the loss of the community that once supported her. Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley were part of a group known as the Romantics, a loose community of artists and authors that depended on one another for inspiration, loans, sex, housing, connections, edits, translations, and emotional support. Like a large and dysfunctional family, these people feuded, but also had each other’s back (sometimes). Shelley lived with many of these people, traveled with them, helped them raise their children, and collaborated artistically with them. However, these were the painful results of the Romantic experiment in living according to high ideals of free love and a pursuit of artistic truth:
- Shelley’s maternal half-sister, Fanny, dead from suicide at age twenty-two.
- Harriet Westbrook Shelley, Percy Shelley’s first wife, dead from suicide at age twenty-one.
- John Polidori, friend and author of “The Vampyre,” dead from presumed suicide at age twenty-five.
- John Keats, friend and poet, dead from tuberculosis at age twenty-five.
- Percy Bysshe Shelley, dead from drowning at age twenty-nine.
- Edward Williams, friend, dead from drowning at age twenty-nine.
- Lord Byron, friend and poet, dead from illness in Greece at age thirty-six.
It was unthinkable that the people that Shelley considered the most exciting, famous, and promising people in Britain were dead before reaching middle age. To make matters worse, Shelley was at odds with most of the surviving Romantic community following Percy Shelley’s death. Her father-in-law threatened to take away her one living child if Shelley wrote about Percy Shelley’s life. Many of Shelley’s Romantic friends could not understand why she would prioritize her child over her dead husband’s artistic legacy, and they fought bitterly with her. Some of her former friends spread rumors that she was an unloving wife. Others continued to ask her for financial support even though she was in desperate financial need herself.
Shelley wrote The Last Man as a way to deal with her feelings of loss and to write about Percy without breaking the terms of her agreement with her father-in-law. The dreamy, idealistic, philosophical Adrian is a romanticized stand-in for Percy Shelley. Ambitious Lord Raymond is Lord Byron, who died of illness while participating in the Greek War of Independence. Lionel Verney loosely represents Mary Shelley.
The style The Last Man is written in has not aged well. Characters frequently break off into pages of ranting and philosophizing about their condition. The language is formal, stylized, and extravagant. The book functions as allegory and melodrama, with characters presented as highly idealized symbols more than as actual human beings.
However, the book feels real on an emotional level. Idris may be presented as an angelic and perfect figure, but her anguish about her children feels authentic. Small details anchor the story in emotional truth, as when Perdita, desperate to be buried near Raymond, hurls herself from a ship’s window in the middle of the night and drowns—but first ties herself to the ship so that her body will be recovered in the morning. A scene in which Idris races through a village looking for Lionel feels like a nightmare. Mary Shelley’s grief for her lost children, husband, and friends permeates the story.
For modern readers, the most relevant aspect of the story is the impact of the plague and how society reacts to it. Many scenes resemble current events. Other are startlingly similar to modern plague stories and zombie movies.
As in the United States in early 2020, in the book, people in England initially consider the plague to be something that is happening elsewhere. It begins in Egypt and parts of Asia and rumors of its unusual severity are downplayed. People in England don’t worry about the plague until it disrupts trade, upsetting them economically. When the plague finally hits England, it is accompanied by a refugee crisis (and racism).
Modern readers will flinch at the lack of systemic quarantine policies and basic hygiene precautions in The Last Man. They will also flinch at the reality that many people in both the book and in the present day do not follow medical advice. The characters in The Last Man do the best they can with the small amount of knowledge that they possess. We know more today about how to prevent disease, and yet in present-day America many people refuse to avoid large gatherings and refuse to wear masks despite medical evidence that these precautions slow the spread of COVID-19. Meanwhile, The Last Man contrasts a self-centered leadership policy with Adrian’s more systematic, knowledge-based, community-focused approach, reminiscent of the different approaches in the present day.
The nature of the plague in The Last Man is terrifying in its unpredictability, but the behavior of people is quite similar to the response of present-day people to COVID-19.Some of the characters in The Last Man make an individual choice to quarantine themselves, only to die alone despite no known exposure to the plague. Others flee the city for the perceived safety of the country, while those in the country seek relief in the city, a phenomenon that is happening today as city dwellers move to less crowded small towns and people in the country move to cities to be closer to medical care. In the book, some people work hard to preserve their communities, as in a village where an older woman takes charge and makes sure food and nursing is provided to all. Others party in scenes reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” prophetic of today’s large gatherings. In both cases, the plague conquers.
Other scenes foreshadow modern plague movies, including zombie movies. Just as in most plague movies and shows, animals are unaffected, as is infrastructure, leaving human survivors wandering through perfectly preserved towns and fields of abandoned livestock. Lionel describes these settings:
And this medley of undamaged buildings, and luxurious accommodation, in trim and fresh youth, was contrasted by the lonely silence of the unpeopled streets.
The scenes of the group of survivors wandering from one town to another foreshadow early seasons of The Walking Dead. A horrifying moment late in the book involves a dying man, who is, for all intents and purposes, a zombie. In this scene Lionel is desperate to reach his dying child. It is notable that this book includes a person of color, but lamentable that the only person clearly stated to be Black is presented in a subhuman fashion.
I snatched a light, and rushing upstairs, and hearing a groan, without reflection I threw open the door of the first room that presented itself. It was quite dark; but, as I stept 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 repeated by the person that 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 strove to disengage myself, and fell on the sufferer; he wound his naked festering arms round me, his face was close to mine, and his breath, death-laden, entered my vitals.
As in most apocalyptic fiction, humans must not only battle the plague, but also other humans. With human life dwindling by the day, Adrian struggles to keep the populace focused on preserving life for as long as possible in hopes that the plague may exhaust itself while there are still enough people alive to repopulate the earth. His first major victory involves reconciling the English with an invading group of refugees, declaring “Shall man be the enemy of man, while plague, the foe to all, even now is above us, triumphing in our butchery, more cruel than her own?”
Later, the group of survivors split into three groups, one of which is led by a dangerous self-styled prophet. The prophet maintains loyalty among his followers by telling them that if their faith in him is perfect then they will not die of the plague. This sequence highlights the conflict between the facts as they are known at the time and lies, superstitions, and “fake news” that solidify an individual’s power, but hinder the survival of the community:
It is a strange fact, but incontestable, that the philanthropist, who ardent in his desire to do good, who patient, reasonable, and gentle, yet disdains to use other argument than truth, has less influence over men’s minds, than he who, grasping and selfish, refuses not to adopt any means, nor awaken any passion, nor diffuse any falsehood, for the advancement of his cause.
The Last Man is most accessible and vibrant when it addresses themes of loneliness and despair. Characters swerve between hope and hopelessness and back again, yet we know from the outset that Lionel is doomed to be alone. In Volumes I and II, the plague seems like a temporary ill, just like many plagues in the past. It is perceived to be something that can be studied, understood, and fought, or at the very least something that can be outlasted. By Volume III this hope is gone, yet the survivors shuffle from place to place in search of other survivors and more healthy surroundings. Modern readers may feel a shiver at this acceptance of a “new normal”:
Plague is the companion of spring, of sunshine, and plenty. We no longer struggle with her. We have forgotten what we did when she was not.
Despite it all, Lionel, who signs himself “The Last Man,” cannot give up all hope. This torments him as he is constantly disappointed:
This vacant cottage revealed no new sorrow—the world was empty; mankind was dead—I knew it well—why quarrel therefore with an acknowledged and stale truth? Yet, as I said, I had hoped in the very heart of despair, so that every new impression of the hard-cut reality on my soul brought with it a fresh pang, telling me the yet unstudied lesson, that neither change of place nor time could bring alleviation to my misery . . .
The Last Man was despised by critics when first published. It was considered cliché, as several works about a lone survivor came out at about the same time. It was also thought to be offensively depressing. Modern readers may have a higher tolerance for depressing narratives (as indicated by the popularity of dystopian and horror stories), but modern readers may find The Last Man incomprehensible due to its melodrama, allegory, and purple prose, not to mention themes of romanticism versus enlightenment that were burningly relevant in 1826, but not so relevant today.
However, a reading of The Last Man during COVID-19 indicates that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Yes, now we know about the importance of handwashing, but that doesn’t mean everyone does it. We have not become wiser in our personal lives. We have not become wiser in our politics. And we certainly have not become wiser in our behavior when faced with disease. Happily, as awful as COVID-19 is, it does not seem to be a plague that will end humanity; although many of us have experienced a mini-apocalypse in the degree of change that we’ve had to accept. The Last Man resonates as a model of what not to do, but also as a powerful reflection of loss.