I have to admit that the collapse of the world economy has gotten me into a rather pessimistic, even doomed, mindset. Some months ago I decided to use this mindset constructively and began reading a series of novels with a common theme of the “end of the world”. I put the phrase in quotation marks because most apocalyptic novels really focus on the end of civilization or the end of humanity, not the literal end of the planet.
Anyway, I was rather surprised when my researches revealed that one of the earliest stories about the end of humanity (not counting various religious prophecies) was written way back in 1826 by none other than Mary Shelley, who is better known for her groundbreaking science-fiction/horror novel Frankenstein (1818). Shelley’s The Last Man is a lengthy, tragic novel which describes the rise and fall of the fortunes of a circle of friends, set against the backdrop of a merciless plague which is inexorably exterminating humanity:
The novel, though I found it slow-going at first, builds in intensity and emotional impact to a level which eventually affected me deeply. Though there are plenty of discussions on this book online, I thought I’d give my own humble take.
It is worth noting the aspects of Shelley’s life which led up to and influenced the characters and story of The Last Man. Mary Shelley (originally Mary Godwin) was part of a circle of friends who included the poets Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, the latter of whom she would marry. It was at a holiday in Geneva in 1816 that dreary weather led to a “ghost story” writing contest which produced Frankenstein.
The close friendships and idyllic lifestyle were not to last, however. In 1822, Percy Shelley drowned when a storm overtook him traveling in his schooner. Lord Byron died only two years later, having fallen ill during a military expedition to take a Turkish fortress on behalf of the Greek army.
The Last Man serves as a tribute to Shelley’s deceased friends, and explores Shelley’s own feelings of isolation after their loss — the characters’ fates also mirror very closely the fates of the individuals who inspired them. The novel is also typically referred to as a criticism/reaction against the romanticism literary movement — the ideals and passions of the characters fail to save them from their impending doom.
The bulk of the novel is set in a future that is still distant, even for us: the last years of the twenty-first century. To make the leap to that era, Shelley uses a conceit that would become very common in early speculative fiction: a present-day narrator who hears the story second-hand through some unusual means. (See, for instance, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Venus series and M.P. Shiel’s The Purple Cloud.) In Shelley’s case, she describes a visit to Naples and the discovery of Sibyl’s Cave, containing ancient written prophecies. Shelley and her companion take the documents back home to translate, and find written in them the tale of Lionel Verney, the last man on earth.
The first half of the novel is primarily a romantic-era drama. Verney (no apparent relation to the vampire) begins life as a destitute orphan, son of a former favorite of the royal court whose extravagances led to his disgrace. During a vindictive attempt to pilfer from the Earl of Windsor’s forest, Verney is captured but shown mercy by the Earl, Adrian, who in fact had come in search of him. Verney becomes fast friends with Adrian, and is later introduced to Adrian’s friend, the charismatic and bold Lord Raymond, a man seeking to restore monarchy to England and place himself at its head.
For 200 pages, we follow Verney, Adrian and Raymond in their victories and failures in finding love, contentment, and fame. Here we find very loving tributes to the memories of Percy Shelley (Adrian) and Lord Byron (Raymond), and detailed descriptions of their character. Inevitably, though, a cloud falls upon their happy reveries, when Raymond becomes entangled with another women in a relationship which is tragically misunderstood by his wife. Raymond seeks to bury his sorrows in conquest, and travels to Greece to lead a new military campaign against the Turks.
It is at this point that the novel becomes quite dark in tone. A plague, which has only been hinted at previously, has spread throughout Asia and has finally reached Constantinople just as Lord Raymond lays siege to it. The city falls into ominous silence during the siege:
No one appeared on the walls; the very portals, though locked and barred, seemed unguarded; above, the many domes and glittering crescents pierced heaven; while the old walls, survivors of ages, with ivy-crowned tower and weed-tangled buttress, stood as rocks in an uninhabited waste. From within the city neither shout nor cry, nor aught except the casual howling of a dog, broke the noon-day stillness. Even our soldiers were awed to silence; the music paused; the clang of arms was hushed. Each man asked his fellow in whispers, the meaning of this sudden peace; while Raymond from an height endeavoured, by means of glasses, to discover and observe the stratagem of the enemy. No form could be discerned on the terraces of the houses; in the higher parts of the town no moving shadow bespoke the presence of any living being: the very trees waved not, and mocked the stability of architecture with like immovability.
The siege of Constantinople, in the end, is a tragic failure, though this matters little, as the plague begins to encroach inexorably upon the western world. The novel becomes increasingly bleak; though at first the reports of the plague are simple footnotes in the lives of the characters, its effects grow in importance until the very fabric of civilization begins to unravel.
This part of the novel is actually very powerful; I found myself strongly affected by its bleak portrayal of mankind falling before an unstoppable foe. Scenes of horror increase, including a number of events of almost haunting beauty, and tales which still seem very topical to this day.
Shelley was clearly a very intelligent and rational woman, and well understood the tactics of religious demagogues. At the height of the plague, an unscrupulous charlatan proclaims himself a prophet, and Verney has nothing but disdain for the man:
If we had considered the preacher as sincere in a belief of his own denunciations, or only moderately actuated by kind feeling in the exercise of his assumed powers, we should have imediately addressed ourselves to him, and endeavoured with our best arguments to soften and humanize his views. But he was instigated by ambition, he desired to rule over these last stragglers from the fold of death; his projects went so far, as to cause him to calculate that, if, from these crushed remains, a few survived, so that a new race should spring up, he, by holding tight the reins of belief, might be remembered by the post-pestilential race as a patriarch, a prophet, nay a deity; such as of old among the post-diluvians were Jupiter the conqueror, Serapis the lawgiver, and Vishnou the preserver. These ideas made him inflexible in his rule, and violent in his hate of any who presumed to share with him his usurped empire.
Shelley goes further and demonstrates keen insight in the difficulty of having rational discussions with fanatics:
It is a strange fact, but incontestible, 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.
Anyone who has dealt with creationists, or vaccine denialists, will find a lot to sympathize with in this statement.
It is not much of a spoiler to point out that the story ends with a single man on the earth, a solitary survivor who marks the history and downfall of his friends and all of humanity. Shelley provides a wonderful eulogy for humanity, which may very well have been written by her late husband:
But the game is up! We must all die; nor leave survivor nor heir to the wide inheritance of earth. We must all die! The species of man must perish; his frame of exquisite workmanship; the wondrous mechanism of his senses; the noble proportion of his godlike limbs; his mind, the throned king of these; must perish. Will the earth still keep her place among the planets; will she still journey with unmarked regularity round the sun; will the seasons change, the trees adorn themselves with leaves, and flowers shed their fragrance, in solitude? Will the mountains remain unmoved, and streams still keep a downward course towards the vast abyss; will the tides rise and fall, and the winds fan universal nature; will beast pasture, birds fly, and fishes swim, when man, the lord, possessor, perceiver, and recorder of all these things, has passed away, as though he had never been? O, what mockery is this! Sure death is not death, and humanity is not extinct; but merely passed into other shapes, unsubjected to our perceptions. Death is a vast portal, an high road to life: let us hasten to pass; let us exist no more in this living death, but die that we may live!
It is clear that this eulogy is also a touching lament for Shelley’s lost husband and friend.
According to Wikipedia, The Last Man was not received particularly well when first published, partly because the theme of “the last man” had been a common one in recent years, starting with a novel by Jean-Baptiste Cousin de Grainville (which I will be reading in the near future) and even including a poem “Darkness” by Lord Byron. Since that initial reception, The Last Man has been regarded much more favorably. I personally found it to be a powerful and haunting tale.
One final note: there was a recent adaptation of Shelley’s work to film, the first of its kind. I can’t say I’m pleased, though; Shelley’s moving and tragic tale has been replaced with the following:
Hospital orderly Lionel Verney’s dream is to play professional Triple-A baseball but finds himself as the only apparent immune case following a manmade, global pandemic that has found its way to Tucson, Arizona. Verney quickly learns to fight for the scraps of the 21st century against the scarred and disfigured “Diseased” who have turned to cannibalism after the food supply becomes exhausted. Mary Shelley’s theme of the greatest threat to the survival of mankind is brought forth in this epic scope apocalypse.
I would not necessarily call this a “film about the apocalypse” as much as a “film catastrophe”. Ugh.
In the near future, I’ll be doing a summary of a bunch of apocalyptic fiction; stay tuned!