Mary Shelley’s Last Man

It is the idea of Frankenstein that people love, and that idea overshadows everything else.  It’s almost too bad she wrote it, because this is her best work.

The Last Man is the story of orphaned Lionel Verney, who grew up wild, stealing and shepherding to barely provide for himself and his younger sister, Perdita.  He meets the son of the king who lifts them out of their poverty and what we have for the first third of the book is the story of a group of close friends.  There is Lionel and Perdita.  Prince Adrian and his sister Princess Idris, who quickly lose their titles as England moves from a monarchy to a more democratic government.  And finally there is Raymond, an ambitious youth who stands against Adrian’s abdication of the throne and wishes to be king himself, but is actually a good fellow and friends with them all.

Perdita marries Raymond.  Lionel marries Idris.  Adrian never marries.  Raymond becomes Protectorate of England under the new government.  He betrays Perdita and runs away, where he is reported dead.  End Part I.  This is the section where, if you were driven to madness by Victor Frankenstein and his continual collapses into weeping, you will be again.  The death and horrors haven’t even occurred yet and already one or the other of them is in excess of emotion.  Don’t fear.  The tears dry rapidly when the bodies start piling up.  Lionel is a stronger character than Victor and more likable.

In Part II, Lionel and Perdita go to Greece in search of Raymond.
It is here, more than a third of the way into the book, that we first
meet THE PLAGUE.  Shelley captalizes it at that spot.  You can’t miss
it.  Because otherwise you might.  You are following the story of these
people’s lives: Is Raymond dead?  Is Adrian dying of that wound he
received?  Will Raymond and Perdita get back together?

It is easy to call this an apocalyptic book, but then, in our modern
ideas of storytelling, we expect that plague or apocalypse to show up
right away, "to get the plot rolling," so to speak.  But the title of
the book isn’t The Plague, that is a horrible Zombie movie connected to Clive Barker.  It is The Last Man,
a fictional autobiography of the last man on earth.  So the plague
holds off and when it finally does show up in the text it is as you or
I will probably hear of the last plague if it were to come–through
news.  Reports of illness somewhere else, squeezed in between a
philandering husband, political intrigue, and everyday life.  Another
two minute spot on CNN.  You have no idea it is coming except that
Shelley capitalizes those words, THE PLAGUE.  (And you heard it was a
plague book.)

From there it is all downhill, for the characters, the story just
gets better and better.  The ravages take years, hitting hard in the
summer and easing each winter.  But winters have grown milder, as
though Shelly had a premonition of global warming, and the later fall
and earlier spring give longer life to the disease.  It is a merciless
account of the world dying, as told by someone who should know.

Shelley died before the cholera epidemic hit London, but she’d
probably heard of it for years, coming from India and the Mediterranean, which she’d traveled through extensively.  Smallpox was
a regular killer of children in the cramped cities and young adults in
the rural areas.  There were epidemics of fever in her lifetime.

We in modern times can’t even conceive of the death toll Shelley
lived with as a matter of course.  Only one of her four children
survived into adulthood, a statistic that wasn’t unusual at that time.
Her beloved, if philandering, husband drowned.  Her friends had died.
This is the story of loneliness and survival from someone who knows and
it reads that way, far more frightening than more modern tales of
pestilential apocalypse.  She is not a modern writer sipping diet cola
and washing her hands with antibacterial soap.  She’s seen an epidemic
before and describes its effects on the survivors to chilling effect.
Listen well, and if THE PLAGUE comes, hope you die first.

2 thoughts on “Mary Shelley’s Last Man

  1. Don’t forget about Albert Camus’ The Plague (or, in French, La Peste). Camus’ book is NOT a horrible zombie movie, but an existentialist literary example.

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