For over two centuries, the name of Mary Shelley has been synonymous with the literary tradition of gothic horror. She was destined to be a writer. The child of two brilliant individuals — the proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and anarchist theorist William Godwin — Shelley was steeped in the intellectual and political vivacity of the England of her time.
She was only 18 when, in the company of two renowned poets — her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord George Byron — she conceived the iconic work of terror “Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus.” Published in 1818, that monitory tale is one of hubris, of the unseen consequences of arrogant ingenuity and reckless invention. It resonates today in the uneasy ruminations about evolving systems of Artificial Intelligence expressed by luminaries like the late Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and others.
A few years later in 1826, Shelley produced another story, entitled “The Last Man,” which has particular relevance for the present. Although the prose is typical of the Romantic period, it is futuristic and set in the latter part of our 21st century. Trappings of the industrial revolution or advanced technologies as we know them are absent. There are no electronic gadgets, telephones or rudimentary mechanical vehicles for transportation. The setting resembles the 19th century replete with horses and carriages. However, there is air travel — by navigable balloon.
Nonetheless, this is an engrossing novel about a devastating plague that advances ineluctably on the Earth and infects every corner of human society. In “Frankenstein,” the deadly chaos was unleashed by human agency. Here, it is the dread indifference of nature that unleashes an unstoppable contagion.
Main characters are obviously derived from those close to Shelley. By the time the novel appeared, both Percy Shelley and Byron were dead. Modeled on her deceased husband, the character Adrian is a kind aristocrat who is a dreamer, otherworldly and disinclined to assume the political power that is his due. Prone to peripatetic contemplation, he is “deep read and imbued with the spirit of high philosophy.” His opposite is inspired by Byron: Lord Raymond “was the sole remnant of a noble but impoverished family.” He hungers for power and accompanying exaltations. For a time, Raymond leaves England and proves himself a courageous warrior on behalf of the Greeks in their war against the Turks.
Another figure is central: the narrator, Lionel Verney. He had been saved from ignorance and destitution by the magnanimous Adrian, who introduced Verney to the fruits of culture and learning. Verney will prove immune from the loimic incursion of the plague. He is none other than Mary Shelley herself in male guise.
As she wrote in her journal: “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.” There are women integral to this story, but this is still much a reflection on men in dominant positions of influence, whether at the head of families or nations.
Adrian follows Raymond to Greece and witnesses the madness of battle. Later, he recalls the blood-soaked assault on a Turkish garrison — a massacre. The worst impulses of the attackers are unleashed:
“Two soldiers contended for a girl, whose rich dress and extreme beauty excited the brutal appetites of these wretches, who perhaps good men among their families, were changed by the fury of the moment into incarnated evils. An old man, with a silver beard, decrepid and bald, he might be her grandfather, interposed to save her; the battle axe of one of them clove his skull.”
Revolted by this scene of rapacity, Adrian tries to stop his frenzied comrades, only to be nearly killed.
It is shortly after this vivid depiction of violence that the first mention of a stealthier and more potent antagonist appears. It is neither on the side of the Greek or the Turk.
Shelley spells out PLAGUE in capital letters: “This enemy to the human race had begun early in June to raise its serpent-head on the shores of the Nile; parts of Asia, not usually subject to this evil, were infected.” The city of Constantinople is replete with the sickness. Though the Turks have fled, it is a pyrrhic victory, as the mortal creep of disease strikes fear into all parties. The military ranks of all contestants begin to thin in the face of the gathering threat of plague, “that fiend more cruel than tempest, less tame than fire. …”
All the world becomes engulfed. All bonds of normalcy are shattered. Commerce and business are utterly waylaid. Frightened migrants abound and corpses mount. Those who yet survive begin myriad journeys to find salubrious refuge.
It is thought for a time that England might be safe because it is surrounded by the sea. At first, desperate immigrants are welcomed and shown kindness and concern. But the situation is implacable and exhausting. There is no relief. Hierarchies and social boundaries of wealth and status become relics of an old order.
Plague proves a great equalizer. One lofty English politician named Ryland is compelled by fear and panic to leave his post immediately and find a haven for himself. “Death and disease level all men,” Ryland says. “I neither pretend to protect nor govern a hospital — such will England quickly become.”
With Raymond dead, an ever-winnowing band of the English led by Adrian and Verney set out on a search for survival. Along their route, they encounter the remains of their once proud country. The flora and fauna have been spared by the calamity, but fragile humanity continues to disappear.
Even with a plague Shelley dubs “Queen of the World,” there are incidents of humane selflessness and heroism as well as predictable outbreaks of anger and confusion among those on this grim pilgrimage. As spirits flag and existential darkness grows, resilient hope — that element remaining in the fateful box of Pandora — continues to revive the steadfast will in the face of an earth almost bereft of human beings.
As the end draws ever nearer, Verney muses, “Did God create man, merely in the end to become dead earth in the midst of healthful vegetating nature? Was he of no more account to his maker, than a field of corn blighted in the ear? Were our proud dreams thus to fade?” Alone, he sets forth resolutely, hoping to encounter others with whom he might replenish humanity.
Recently in The New York Times, political scientist Eileen Hunt Botting said “The Last Man” is “the first major post-apocalyptic novel.” She described the coronavirus as “a toxic mix of economic, political and environmental factors.” It sure is.
Today, as numerous scientists argue that we are entering “the age of pandemics,” Mary Shelley’s centuries-old offering is a timely one.
Read more in the Oct. 28 - Nov. 3, 2020 issue.