Last Updated on October 10, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 335
Mary Shelley's The Last Man is one of the first postapocalyptic novels in science fiction history. Shelley tells the story of how plague ravages through the world, along with a multitude of other disasters, eventually destroying humanity.
Human Nature and Responses to Tragedy and Catastrophe
Early in the novel, Perdita suspects infidelity by her husband Raymond, which leads to a falling out. Additionally, while the world is thrown into turmoil, the king and other characters vie for political control and dominance, such as Raymond's military conquests in Turkey and Greece. This shows that, even in the darkest times, human nature will still try to take advantage of the situation. On the other hand, Adrian maintains a good heart and spirit in spite of outright enemies and political and social upheaval. Shelley uses the novel to explore the extent to which human nature can be pushed—whether for good or for ill.
Ever-Increasing Fear Under Apocalyptic Threats
As the novel begins, the world has already been plunged into terror by the events of the wars and the raging plague. However, later in the book, these threats to human well-being increase still further with the rumor of a black sun and the ominous events it portends. The world is already in disarray, but this new level of fear causes chaos in the streets and begins to tear apart whatever remaining society there was. The other terrors were normalized fairly quickly, but when a new portent comes, fear is renewed and the threat again seems imminent.
The Existential Threat of Individual Mortality and the End of Humanity
Death is explored immediately in the book when Lionel's father perishes. Throughout the rest of the work, people try to cope with the deaths of friends and family, and come to terms with the potential death of humanity. This is the most terrifying thing in the story—the idea that life as we know it may cease to exist—and presents an existential crisis that is far beyond what humans are used to experiencing.
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