The Last Man Critical Essays

Mary Shelley


(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

Like many nineteenth century novels, The Last Man is “framed”: The initial narrator discovers the leaves of the manuscript left by another narrator, then relates the contents to the reader. This novel’s unique, fantastic aspect comes from its achronology—the intriguing juxtaposition of past, present, and future, in which the acts of retelling and the act of foretelling merge. The fragmented manuscript, readers are told, is unearthed in 1818, yet its contents relate a “history” written more than a century in the future and inscribed on Sibylline leaves from the ancient past.

The writings of Lionel Verney, the last survivor of a plague in the twenty-first century, depict a world that is both fantasy—Mary Shelley’s fearful apocalyptic vision—and a passionate reflection of reality—Shelley’s own. Verney’s story, like that of Shelley, is not that of one person but one of a group of ardent, idealistic individuals whose lives and destinies are intertwined. The novel’s characters constantly struggle between their intellect and their passion, as did the circle of poets, artists, friends, lovers, and children of which Mary and Percy Shelley were a part. The characters reflect the real people in Shelley’s life—their passions, brilliance, and pride. Shelley’s admiration and love for Percy Shelley is evident in the noble, eloquent character of Adrian, and Adrian’s drowning reflects real-life tragedy. Idris’ devotion to...

(The entire section is 471 words.)