Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated September 5, 2023.

This novel can be difficult for modern readers because of the static quality of the late twenty-first century it purports to represent: pastoral and aristocratic, this setting bears resemblance neither to the world we know today nor to the normal conventions of science fiction writing.

One way into The Last Man is through a biographical reading. By the time Mary Shelley published the novel in 1826, she had lost her husband, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, in 1822 and her close friend Lord Byron in 1824. These losses, as well as those of several of her children, weighed heavily on her, and critics have argued that the plague that wipes out all but one person on earth is a psychological expression of the sense of loss, grief, and isolation she felt at the breakup of her closest circle.

In the novel, Adrian is modeled on Percy Shelley, Lord Raymond is based on Byron, and Lionel Verney is Mary Shelley herself. It is especially poignant that Lionel turns out to be the last man on earth, heading in true Romantic tradition to the mountaintops near Rome and expecting to spend the rest of his life as a lonely nomad, wandering the earth.

Adrian shares both Percy Shelley’s aristocratic background and his republicanism. In the novel, Mary Shelley raises him to the status of a king’s son, making him a royal (another symbol of her sometimes idealized conception of him—although he is, in fact, ineffectual when he takes over as ruler during the height of the plague). She maintains his rejection of monarchy, however. At the time, that was a radical stance; this explains why the Shelleys, along with Byron, traveled in earlier years to European countries more tolerant of their radical politics.

Like Lord Byron, Lord Raymond is strong, charismatic, and ambitious—and quite the womanizer. He loves women, and women love him, and his romantic attachments battle with his political aspirations. He also goes off to Greece to fight, just as Byron did, and dies as a result. Lord Raymond dies in Constantinople from an explosion, however, while Byron passed away in Greece from disease.

Mary Shelley spent many of her formative years with Shelley and Byron, and it was while traveling with them in Switzerland that she began her classic work Frankenstein. The Last Man is particularly valuable for the insights it gives readers into Shelley’s perceptions of these great poets—and of herself. Shelley’s perception of herself and her friends as “elites,” though, can be uncomfortable for modern readers. Nevertheless, this view is tied to a political radicalism contrary to fascism and based in the ideals of equality and brotherhood of the French Revolution. It is also completely consistent with Romantic thinking. To a great extent, the Romantics constructed the idea of artists as a group of lone geniuses exalted and set apart from the rest of society.

Mostly, however, the book is an elegy, mourning the passing of Shelley’s friends, the likes of which she did not think would come again, as well as the failure of their radical ideas to take hold in the world. She could not know at the time that many of the ideals they espoused would be commonplace by the twenty-first century.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access