Last Updated on January 31, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 578
One of the central themes of The Last Man is the nature of humanity. Shelley introduces this idea early in volume 1, chapter 2:
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What is there in our nature that is for ever urging us on towards pain and misery?
This quotation comes in a passage of the chapter in which Lionel, the narrator, describes the love affair between his former enemy—and current best friend—Adrian (the son of the deceased monarch of England) and a young Greek woman named Evadne. Lionel has heretofore described Adrian’s heroic, deeply admirable nature; he is disgusted that Evadne seems only to be leading Adrian on and not returning the abiding love he feels for her.
In this context, the quotation above suggests that people often make wrong choices when they are led by their hearts. The noble Adrian unwittingly sets himself up to experience pain and misery because he has chosen an unworthy recipient of his love. Interpreted more broadly, Lionel ruminates on the inability of people to foresee the consequences of their actions, which seem to inevitably lead to suffering.
Shelley further explores this idea in volume 2, chapter 4:
Let us live for each other and for happiness; let us seek peace in our dear home, near the inland murmur of streams, and the gracious waving of trees, the beauteous vesture of earth, and sublime pageantry of the skies. Let us leave “life,” that we may live.
This quotation describes Lionel’s feelings after he and Adrian travel to Greece. The tragic events that he witnesses in Greece—Raymond’s death and Perdita’s suicide—leave Lionel cynical and afraid of the world. He believes that a life of quiet isolation and comfort in England will bring him peace and happiness. Life has become the “labyrinth of evil” he wishes to avoid, yet the impending conclusions of the novel demonstrate Lionel’s naivete.
The world eventually finds itself a direct force in Lionel’s life, forcing him out of voluntary isolation with friends to total isolation when he becomes the (literal) last man. Shelley, then, criticizes the idea that people can escape the challenges of life simply by ignoring them.
A final important quotation from the novel comes in its final chapter, after Lionel has become the last living person on earth:
But fate had administered life to me, when the plague had already seized on its prey—she had dragged me by the hair from out the strangling waves—By such miracles she had bought me for her own; I admitted her authority, and bowed to her decrees.
Lionel explains that he frequently thinks of suicide after discovering he is alone, but he resolves to live out of respect for the great coincidence that he is seemingly immune to the plague. Lionel personifies fate as his rescuer, saying it would be an insult to the universe if he were to die after having been spared. This illustrates Lionel’s newfound understanding, one that he could only achieve in involuntary isolation: life must be lived.
Despite his overwhelming loneliness and sense of despair over the loss of everyone he loves, Lionel finally realizes that life, in all of its ugliness, is enough on its own. He vows to wander the world in search of other survivors—perhaps in vain—because he knows that life is important. He knows he should not squander the gift of life that he has been given, even if that means he experiences pain and misery.