Last Updated on January 31, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 542
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.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 533
The story is discovered, in 1818, in fragments buried in an ancient cave, rumored to be the cave of the Sybils. The writings contain the recollections of a “past” history occurring well into the future. The writings have been left for future generations as a record of the devastating plague of the late twenty-first century. The narrator is Lionel Verney, age thirty-seven, who is, to his knowledge, the last surviving human on Earth. He has left this record in the year 2100, before setting out to sea.
Lionel describes his childhood, as the son of a charming, irresponsible father who was a loved confidante of the English king but resented by the queen. After the king’s death, Lionel Verney and his younger sister Perdita, now orphaned, are forced out of noble circles and plunged into a meager, self-sufficient existence in a small forest cottage near Windsor. Lionel is a rebellious and lawless youth who roams the woods to poach animals for sustenance. He is consumed by bitterness toward the queen. His anger dissipates, however, when he meets the king’s son, Adrian. Lionel, Perdita, and Adrian form a lifelong bond. Adrian, who is wise, poetic, generous, and compassionate, becomes the guiding force in shaping Lionel.
Adrian becomes beloved as an inspiring leader, with Lionel as his devoted supporter. Perdita falls in love with Raymond, a proud, passionate soldier. Lionel loves and marries Idris, Adrian’s sister. The three young men go off to fight in Greece, returning as heroes. Happiness comes to Lionel, Idris, and their small children. Perdita’s marriage to Raymond is turbulent and is all but destroyed by Raymond’s infidelity and Perdita’s pride. Later, when Raymond dies a valorous death, the disconsolate Perdita leaves her small daughter Clara in her brother’s care and throws herself into the sea.
Romantic relationships fade into the background as a fatal plague spreads throughout Europe, Asia, and North America. The dreaded plague invades England, ravaging the population. Adrian, committed to his people, leaves the relative safety of Windsor and returns to London to fulfill his solemn pledge as the Protector of the People. His selfless, inspiring presence calms the citizens’ terror. As thousands die daily, he brings survivors back from the depths of fatalism and despair.
After several deadly years, England is left with only a small band of survivors, including Lionel and his son Evelyn (Idris and the other son have succumbed), Clara, the penitent queen, and Adrian. They sail to France, where they find the countryside vacant and Paris nearly deserted. The few survivors are under the spell of a fraudulent religious fanatic, whom Adrian heroically unmasks.
The small group then journeys to Switzerland, and the scenic beauty of the trip consoles them. Soon they reach Italy. Only Adrian, Lionel, small Evelyn, and Clara remain. Here Evelyn dies. The others leave in despair for Greece. During a ferocious storm, their boat capsizes, and only Lionel survives. He wanders sadly through Italy and, after a year encountering only desolation, he completes these memoirs, the “world’s sole monument” of his people. Consumed by “restless despair,” he vows to sail from the empty land out to sea, to face his destiny alone.