The end of the world as we know it – Mary Shelley and The Last Man

Writers love an apocalypse, at least in theory. We’re fascinated with the means of our own destruction; a glance at TV listings and bookshelves reveals a multitude of stories about our possible end, whether by meteors or plagues or super-volcanoes.1 It’s as if by anticipating the worst possible scenario, we hope to fend-off that particular means of oblivion.

Mary Shelley is best remembered for Frankenstein’s monster, but her fourth novel, The Last Man, is the book that really lays bare her soul. Published in 1826, it has never been more timely, set in our 21st century and dealing with religious strife, civil wars, the destabilisation of world economies plus a pandemic that wipes-out the human race. Eerily reminiscent of our current situation, one of the most powerful and chilling images in the novel shows the last man on earth wandering the deserted streets of Rome, embracing the marble statues for companionship – the ultimate in social distancing.

It’s a novel of intense contradictions; starkly dramatising war, politics, plague and death, but also a desperately personal description of love, loss and survival in the face of annihilation. And while it has been stealthily influential, originating the sub-genre of apocalyptic novels, it remains less well-known than it deserves. Within this story, as with Frankenstein, each generation can discover their own predictions, find their own parallels; whether a parable for the ecology movement in the 1970s, or the spread of AIDS in the 1980s, or indeed today for the new global pandemic. There’s a uncanny coincidence in the nature of her apocalypse; a plague from the East. Her inspiration may have been a wave of cholera that was steadily advancing towards Europe following an outbreak in Bengal in 1817 – ironically, one of its last London victims, six years after she published the book, would be her own half-brother William.

Considering that the Shelleys and their circle had aimed to live in advance of the times, the social attitudes Mary describes in the 21st Century future-world of The Last Man are little changed from her day. But then, she wasn’t planning to write a novel pressing for political change, or a dire prophetic warning, though it is both; instead it is an outpouring of pure emotion, an extended and powerful metaphor for bereavement. At the dark heart of the story, the plague is simply a means of emptying the world; only by wiping-out the whole human race can she fully express the magnitude of her heartbreak.

Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell – National Portrait Gallery

The fabric of her life was tightly woven with loss, starting with her mother’s death just weeks after Mary’s birth. This tragedy became part of the myth which defined her; turbulent weather and a blazing comet in the night sky in the weeks before Mary’s birth were seen as a sign of hope by her expectant parents. In later life, Mary came to doubt this optimism, always aware she’d indirectly caused her mother’s death. By 1822, aged just 25, Mary had endured repeated miscarriages, the loss of three beloved children and her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, as well as the suicides of Shelley’s first wife and Mary’s own half-sister. It’s hardly surprising that Mary’s thoughts turned frequently towards oblivion. “Why am I doomed to live on seeing all expire before me?” 2 she wrote, on hearing of her friend Byron’s death in 1824. To Mary, each bereavement felt unbearable, but the cumulative weight rendered her almost helpless.

The Last Man was also a way to explore feelings she dared not admit; her character Perdita (meaning ‘lost’), formerly a loving mother, commits suicide after the death of her husband, with no regrets for abandoning her children – a macabre wish-fulfilment for Mary. Her love for her last remaining child had seemed an oddly ambiguous blessing after her husband’s death: “You are the only chain that links me to time; but for you I should be free.” 3 Mary’s hero in The Last Man, Lionel Verney, expresses his desire to “dash myself from some precipice and so close my eyes forever on the sad end of the world,” but eventually decides against suicide, “for the true fortitude was to endure.” 4 Mary eventually found her own reasons to live; her writing, promoting her dead husband’s work and raising their last surviving child.

While creation stories are richly detailed and common to almost all mythologies, the end of the world is more problematic. It’s written into cultures and lore from the Norse Ragnarök to the Kali Yuga cycle of Hinduism, and the apocalypse forms part of Christian belief, from Noah’s Flood to the “pestilence that creeps by darkness” of Psalm 91 and the end-times ecstasy of Revelations. The Last Man was not a wholly innovative theme, or even an original title, but in the politically turbulent years of the early nineteenth century, the idea took on a sudden relevance and urgency. In 1816, apocalyptically gloomy weather conditions following a volcanic eruption led to the ‘Year Without a Summer’, during which Mary created Frankenstein, and Byron’s poem Darkness imagined the end of all life on earth; “the world was void… treeless, manless, lifeless… a lump of death.” 5

Mary’s novel, coming at the tail-end of a sequence of ‘last man’ poems, wasn’t well-received, encountering savage and misogynistic reviews. One reviewer enquired snidely why she did not write instead “The Last Woman? She would have known better how to paint her distress at having no-one to talk to.” 6 The reviewer also missed a vital point that her everyman hero’s survival instead of the more ‘celebrity’ characters mirrors Mary outliving her more famous male peers. The same unperceptive reviewer also criticised her “display of morbid feelings which could not exist,” 7 though the heightened emotions are the novel’s strongest element, torn from Mary’s own experience of grief.

The real horror of bereavement is its seeming permanence, its irreversibility, and while Christianity offers reassurance via resurrection, faith may not have consoled Mary after marriage to the ‘atheist’ Shelley. Mary was one of the first writers to portray an apocalypse completely outside God’s control, where neither science nor organised religion offer any defence. Her scientist is intellectually fascinated by the plague, but oblivious to the human cost until his own family dies, while Christianity becomes corrupted by a fanatic who takes advantage of the terror for his own ends.

The difficulty with wiping-out humanity is that it is almost unimaginable; Mary Shelley’s was the first novel to fully fictionalise this and her vision still feels bold – it’s very rare, even in the most recent end-times explorations, for any ‘last man’ to be truly alone. A recent movie claimed to bring the book up to date but is nothing like the original story; following a man-made smallpox epidemic, its hero ‘becomes the strongest man alive and begins to gun down the cannibalistic survivors.’ Similarly-themed movies including I am Legend, The Omega Man and even The Last Man on Earth have also been reluctant to make their heroes entirely solitary, portraying (inevitably) macho human survivors battling zombies or vampires. 8

Mary Shelley isn’t interested in the technology that preoccupies most sci-fi adventures, though her characters do travel long-distance by hot-air balloon, a delicious first step towards the Steampunk genre. Reviewers noted that her future world seemed little different from her own time, calling it “an elaborate piece of gloomy folly” 9 while expressing outrage at the ‘unfeminine’ strength of her perceptive criticisms of politics, warfare and destruction. But in our age of global terrorism, it seems far-sighted that nearly 200 years ago, she rightly predicted the historical strife between Christian and Muslim would not be settled in her century.

More recent ‘end-days’ stories have followed Mary’s lead in exploring the biggest themes and concerns of their day – an apocalypse offers a chance to start afresh while commenting on the evils of contemporary society. Stephen King’s compelling classic The Stand offers a creepy re-enactment of biblical themes of good versus evil following an influenza pandemic. Z for Zachariah, a 1975 children’s story, offers a Cold-War vision of the earth as a nuclear wasteland; as Adam was the first man, so Zachariah is the last man, his plans for re-populating the earth in his own image scuppered by the courageous last girl. The graphic novel series Y-The Last Man offers both a reflection of male anxiety in a progressively feminised society and a sort of twisted wish-fulfilment; when a mysterious virus targets only men, the hero Yorick and his pet monkey become the last male mammals, fought over by increasingly Amazonian women.

The end of the world is also used for exploring technological and environmental fears. For Stephen King (again) in Cell, mobile phone technology disables and brutalises humanity; in the Terminator films, our artificially intelligent robotic machines turn against us, while in M. Night Shyamalan’s film The Happening, nature itself rebels and causes man to self-destruct. Cormac McCarthy’s allegorical The Road comes closest to the horror and lyricism of Mary Shelley’s vision, showing little interest in the method by which Earth becomes depopulated and brutalised, focusing instead on the relationship of a father and son as they struggle to survive.

One thing Mary could not have predicted was that her creations would not only survive her death but become more culturally influential than those of her famous husband. Her writing was shrouded in obscurity during her lifetime – Frankenstein was published anonymously and initially assumed to be Shelley’s work, and her novels after his death were published as ‘By the Author of Frankenstein’ because Shelley’s scandalised father threatened to disinherit her son every time she used the Shelley name in print.

Rome, March 2020. (REUTERS/Guglielmo Mangiapane)

Mary Shelley’s particular genius was to take the personal fears and tragedies of her life and transmute them into stories that still stir us and feel relevant two hundred years later. Although its apocalyptic theme has been influential, The Last Man is essentially an extended metaphor for Mary’s own loss and grief, just as Frankenstein isn’t just a horror story, but a powerful allegory for her anxieties about procreation, childbirth and scientific experimentation. She made the link explicitly: “The Last Man! Yes, I may well describe that solitary being’s feelings… myself as the last relic of a beloved race…” 10 The process of fiction was a way of rationalising and recording Mary’s own tragedies, an age-old process of appeasement that all story-tellers recognise; “When death rumbles around wantonly, we tell a story to make sense of it. And when no deadly disease is rampant, we create our own horror stories… we need this story of risk.” 11

There’s another reason why the theme makes us subliminally uncomfortable – we cannot imagine ‘last-ness’, because the very fact we’re able to read the book means its hero cannot be the ‘last’. Mary neatly sidesteps this problem with an introduction where she (in the 19th Century) discovers an ancient prophecy that foretells the 21st Century story – though this adds another layer of uneasiness to the text. It’s deliberately enigmatic, as well as a clever novelistic device; we get a warning of what might happen, but it also offers the possibility that our future is not set in stone and we may still be able to change our path.

Disinfection taking place in Venice (IPA/Backgrid)

And so she ends the novel on a very faint note of hope – just as our pandemic has led to smog-free skies and clear water in the canals of Venice, she writes of the natural beauty of the earth thriving after the death of human-kind. And despite the horrors suffered by her last man, he is still wistfully certain he will find a mate; “could I visit the whole extent of earth, I should find in some part of the wide extent a survivor.” 12 Despite every misfortune life had thrown at her, Mary Shelley would not stop defying fate with the strength of her human spirit. The creative power of her imagination, of our collective imaginations, must always triumph over the urge to oblivion.

1 A concern Mary Shelley would have recognised, for while she was in Italy during 1819, Mount Etna had one of its periodic eruptions, and she also toured the recently uncovered ruins of Pompeii. In another modern parallel, while Mary was writing this novel England was experiencing a major banking crisis, causing the bankruptcy of her financially precarious father.
2 Mary Shelley’s journal – 15th May 1824
3 Mary Shelley’s Journal – 5th October 1823
4 The Last Man – p219 (all page references for TLM are from the Wordsworth Classics Edition)
5 George Gordon, Lord Byron 1788 –1824
6 & 7 Literary Gazette and Journal of Belles Lettres – 18th February 1826 (No. 474 / p102-3)
8 The vampires are a foe that Mary’s admirer John Polidori would have appreciated – at the famous house party in 1818 that produced Frankenstein, he (with Byron’s prompting), penned a fragmentary tale ‘Vampyr’, one of the first vampire stories in English.
9 London Magazine – March 1826 p422.
10 From Mary Shelley’s journal – 14th May 1824.
11 From Dread – the history of epidemics – Philip Alcabes (2009)
12 The Last Man – p373

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