Shelly’s Last Man

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Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly was the daughter of the woman who wrote the first major works in support of equal rights for women. She was a member of “The Elect,” the self-styled group of romantic exiles from philistine England, including her doomed husband, Percy Shelly, and Byron. She wrote what could be called the Ur-novel of science fiction, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. I recently found that she wrote another novel, the ancestor of all those end-of-the-world scenarios we see so much of these days, The Last Man. Think of “The Omega Man,” “The Road,” “On the Beach,” multiple episodes of “The Twilight Zone,” and “The Outer Limits” – she started the ball rolling.

Well, hers wasn’t absolutely the first apocalyptic fantasy: that appears to be Omegarus and Syderia by Jean Baptiste Francois Xa De Grainville, written in 1805, but it is pretty close. It’s a strange novel, filled with overblown romantic prose, describing the sublimest horror imaginable – the end of the human race, destroyed by plague. The book takes place in 2092, and the first half of it is a political drama, a roman a clef with a Shellyian and Byronic character bookending the narrator, Lionel Verney. This first part is extremely tedious at times, not the least because the nature of society and technology in 2092 is presented as nearly the same as 1822, except that England has eliminated its monarchy and become a contentious republic. Then the plague starts spreading.

It takes a couple of years, but the entire globe is depopulated. Nature, the soothing mother of the Romantic creed is now the indifferent slayer of the multitudes. Man’s reason (and the Enlightenment) are for naught: libraries go moldering as dogs roam their aisles, Rome is a deserted stage set for the “last drama,” and the Swiss Alps, where the last 1500 people go to seek respite from the plague, are an archetypal environment of the sublime in which    the miserable demise of humanity’s remnant can be run out. Nothing matters, all is nullity.

Some try to avoid the crushing weight of this conclusion by following a false prophet, a man who declares that those who believe in him shall not die (those who do die are secretly disposed of to keep up the ruse) and who wages war on the other survivors who will not subscribe to his unreason. The straggling remainder of humanity moves about, housing itself in abandoned palaces, eating the stores of food in the cities, while the climate, even the stars, seem to be going haywire, with enormous sea surges reports of strange events in the sky.

If you have an interest in romantic literature, the history of science fiction, or want to see how a critical mind dealt with her disillusionment about ideas, politics, and nature, not to mention trying to work out her grief at losing her husband and several of her children (can we even imagine the regularity of infant and child mortality with which people then had to deal?), you may enjoy this book.

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3 Responses to Shelly’s Last Man

  1. elberry says:

    i enjoy contemplating the end of the world, and indeed attemping to hasten this glorious day of universal death, so the book sounds quite interesting.

  2. lichanos says:

    I think you and this chick would have a lot to talk about:

    Girl Who Loved Death

    at

    Cold War: Eros & Thanatos

  3. I struggled a lot with The Last Man, mostly in the first third with all the romantic ins and outs. There’s some fantastic imagery in this book (I love the little girl living alone all bedecked in grown-up frippery –it’s what a little girl would do), but the florid prose is a chore.

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