The Last Man
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
The Last Man is an early post-apocalyptic science fiction novel by Mary Shelley, which was first published in 1826. The book tells of a future world that has been ravaged by a plague. The Last Man was written in the period following her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley's death. The book reflects on his death and is partially, but not strictly, a roman à clef.
The novel has always been overshadowed by Frankenstein and as a result has been largely ignored by the reading public. This is a loss as it is in many ways as great a work as its illustrious and much filmed and parodied predecessor. “The Last Man” was written in the period following her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley’s death. Central to the book’s philosophical approach is a rejection of the romanticism of Lord Byron, whom she knew well, and her late husband. It blends astute political observation, a complex tale of doomed love and obvious portraits of Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron into its subtle, melancholy mix. It is beautifully written and rewards both initial reading and, even more, re-reading.
Set in the year 2097, it was influential on the development of English science fiction, particularly on H.G. Wells (see The Time Machine, The Island of Dr Moreau, and The Invisible Man), Olaf Stapledon and, less obviously, Arthur C. Clarke, particularly Childhood's End.
Mary Shelley states in the introduction that in 1818 she discovered, in the Sibyl's cave near Naples, a collection of prophetic writings painted on leaves by the Cumaean Sibyl. She has edited these writings into the current narrative, the first-person narrative of a man living at the end of the 21st century.
Lionel's father was a friend of the king before he was cast away because of his gambling. Lionel's father left to take his life, but before he did so he left a letter for the king to take care of his family after his death. After Lionel's father died the letter was never delivered. Lionel and his sister grow up with no parental influence, and as a result grow to be uncivilized. Lionel develops a hatred of the royal family, and Perdita grows to enjoy her isolation from society. When the king leaves the throne, the monarchy come to an end and a republic is created. When the king dies the Countess attempts to raise their son, Adrian, to reclaim the throne, but Adrian opposes his mother and refuses to take the throne. Adrian moves to Cumberland where Lionel, who bears a grudge against Adrian and his family for the neglect of the Verney family, intends to terrorise and confront Adrian. He is mollified by Adrian's good nature and his explanation that he only recently discovered the letter. Lionel and Adrian become close friends, and Lionel becomes civilized and philosophical under Adrian's influence.
Lionel returns to England to face the personal turmoil amongst his acquaintances. Lord Raymond, who came to renown for his exploits in the war between Greece and Turkey, has returned to England in search of political position, and soon Perdita and Evadne both fall in love with him. On discovering that his beloved, Evadne, is in love with Raymond, Adrian goes into exile, presumably mad. Raymond intends to marry Idris (with whom Lionel is in love) as a first step towards becoming king, with the help of the Countess. However, he ultimately chooses his love for Perdita over his ambition, and the two marry. Under Lionel's care Adrian recovers, although he remains physically weak. On learning of the love between Idris and Lionel, the Countess schemes to drug Idris, bring her to Austria, and force her to make a politically motivated marriage. Idris discovers the plot and flees to Lionel, who marries her soon after. The Countess leaves for Austria, resentful of her children and of Lionel.
Adrian and the others live happily together until Raymond runs for Lord Protector and wins. Perdita soon adjusts to her newfound social position, while Raymond becomes well-beloved as a benevolent administrator. He discovers, however, that Evadne, after the political and financial ruin of her husband (on account of her own political schemes) is living in poverty and obscurity in London, unwilling to plead for assistance. Raymond attempts to support Evadne by employing her artistic skills in secrecy, and later nursing her in illness, but Perdita learns of the relationship and suspects infidelity. Her suspicions arouse Raymond's proud and passionate nature, and the two separate. Raymond resigns his position and leaves to rejoin the war in Greece, accompanied for a time by Adrian. Shortly after the wounded Adrian returns to England, rumors arise that Raymond has been killed. Perdita, loyal in spite of everything, convinces Lionel to bring her and Clara to Greece to find him.
Lionel finds Raymond and brings him back to Greece. Lionel and Raymond then go back to fighting and go to Constantinople. Lionel discovers Evadne, dying of wounds received fighting in the war. Before she dies, Evadne prophesies Raymond's death, a prophecy which confirms Raymond's own suspicions. Raymond's intention to enter Constantinople causes dissension and desertion amongst the army because of reports of the plague. Raymond enters the city alone, and soon dies in a fire. He is taken to Athens for burial.
In 2092, while Lionel and Adrian attempt to return their lives to normality, the plague continues to spread across Europe and the Americas, and reports of a black sun cause panic throughout the world. At first England is thought to be safe, but soon the plague reaches even there. Ryland, recently elected Lord Protector, is unprepared for the plague, and flees northward, later dying alone amidst a stockpile of provisions. Adrian takes command and is largely effective at maintaining order and humanity in England, although the plague rages on summer after summer. Ships arrive in Ireland carrying survivors from America, who lawlessly plunder Ireland and Scotland before invading England. Adrian raises a military force against them, but ultimately is able to resolve the situation peacefully.
The few remaining survivors decide to abandon England in search of an easier climate. On the eve of their departure to Dover, Lionel receives a letter from Lucy Martin, who was unable to join the exiles because of her mother's illness. Lionel and Idris travel through a snowstorm to assist Lucy, but Idris, weak from years of stress and maternal fears, dies along the way. Lionel and the Countess, who had shunned Idris and her family out of resentment towards Lionel, are reconciled at Idris' tomb. Lionel recovers Lucy (whose mother has died), and the party reaches Dover en route to France.
In France, Adrian discovers that the earlier emigrants have divided into factions, amongst them a fanatical religious sect led by a false messiah who claims that his followers will be saved from disease. Adrian unites most of the factions, but this latter group declares violent opposition to Adrian. Lionel sneaks into Paris, where the cult has settled, to try to rescue Juliet. She refuses to leave because the imposter has her baby, but she helps Lionel to escape. Later, when Juliet's baby sickens, Juliet discovers that the imposter has been hiding the effects of the plague from his followers. She is killed warning the other followers, after which the imposter commits suicide, and his followers return to the main body of exiles at Versailles.
The exiles travel towards Switzerland, hoping to spend the summer in a colder climate less favorable to the plague. By the time they reach Switzerland, however, all but four (Lionel, Adrian, Clara, and Evelyn) have died. The four spend a few relatively happy seasons at Switzerland, Milan, and Como before Evelyn dies of typhus. The survivors attempt to sail across the Adriatic Sea to Greece, but a sudden storm drowns Clara and Adrian. Lionel, the last man, swims to shore. The story ends in the year 2100.