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The Last Man is an apocalyptic science fiction novel by Mary Shelley, which was first published in 1826. The book tells of a future world that has been ravaged by a plague. The novel was harshly reviewed at the time, and was virtually unknown until a scholarly revival beginning in the 1960s. It is notable in part for its semi-biographical portraits of Romantic figures in Shelley's circle, particularly Shelley's late husband Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron.

Characters

Lionel Verney The Last Man. The orphan son of an impoverished nobleman, Lionel is originally lawless, self-willed, and resentful of the nobility for casting aside his father. When he is befriended by Adrian, however, he embraces civilization and particularly scholarship. Verney is largely an autobiographical figure for Mary Shelley.

Adrian, Earl of Windsor Son of the last King of England, Adrian embraces republican principles. He is motivated by philosophy and philanthropy, rather than ambition. He is based on Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Lord Raymond An ambitious young nobleman, Raymond becomes famous for his military efforts on behalf of Greecemarker against the Turks, but eventually chooses love over his ambition to become King of England. He instead becomes Lord Protector of England before returning to Greecemarker. Raymond is motivated by passion and ambition rather than principle. He is based on Lord Byron.

Perdita Lionel's sister, and Raymond's wife. Growing up an orphan, Perdita was independent, distrustful, and proud, but she is softened by love for Raymond, to whom she is fiercely loyal.

Idris Adrian's sister, and Verney's wife. She is loving, maternal, and self-sacrificing.

Countess of Windsor Mother of Adrian and Idris, an Austrianmarker princess and former Queen of England. She is haughty and ambitious, scheming to restore the monarchy through her children.

Evadne A Greek princess with whom Adrian falls in love, but who loves Raymond. She is devoted and proud, even when she becomes impoverished.

Clara Daughter of Raymond and Perdita.

Alfred and Evelyn Sons of Verney and Idris.

Ryland Leader of the popular Democratic party, Ryland has grand plans for the abolition of nobility before the plague, but is unwilling to govern England during the plague.

Merrival An astronomer who is oblivious to the plague, instead speculating about the condition of earth in six thousand years, until his family dies.

Lucy Martin A young woman who chose to marry a repulsive suitor rather than wait for her true love, in order to provide for her aging mother. Her devotion to her mother almost leads to her being left behind in England after the exile.

The Imposter Unnamed - a false prophet (from ambition, rather than fanaticism) who creates a radical religious sect in opposition to Adrian while in Francemarker.

Juliet A young noblewoman who joins the Imposter's party in order to support her baby, but is later killed revealing his imposture.

Plot summary

Introduction

Mary Shelley claims that in 1818 she discovered, in the Sibyl's cave near Naplesmarker, a collection of prophetic writings painted on leaves by the Cumaean Sibyl. She has edited these writings into the current narrative, the first-person narrative of a man living at the end of the 21st century, which proves to be the end of humanity.

Volume 1

Lionel's father was a friend of the king before he was cast away because of his gambling. Lionel's father left to take his life but before he did, he left a letter for the king to take care of his family after his death. After Lionel's father died the letter was never delivered. Lionel and his sister grew up with no support and because of it grew to be uncivilized. Lionel grew to hate the royal family and Perdita grew to enjoy her isolation from society.When the king left the throne the monarchy came to an end and a republic is created. When the king dies the Countess attempts to raise their son, Adrian, to reclaim the throne, but Adrian opposes his mother and refuses to take the throne. Adrian moves to Cumberlandmarker where Lionel, who bears a grudge against Adrian and his family for the neglect of the Verney family, intends to terrorize and confront Adrian. He is mollified by Adrian's good nature and his explanation that he only recently discovered the letter. Lionel and Adrian become close friends, and Lionel becomes civilised and philosophical under Adrian's influence.

Lionel returns to England to face the personal turmoil amongst his acquaintances. Lord Raymond, who came to renown for his exploits in the war between Greece and Turkey, has returned to England in search of political position, and soon Perdita and Evadne both fall in love with him. On discovering that his beloved, Evadne, is in love with Raymond, Adrian goes into exile, presumably mad. Raymond intends to marry Idris (with whom Lionel is in love) as a first step towards becoming king, with the help of the Countess. However, he ultimately chooses his love for Perdita over his ambition, and the two marry. Under Lionel's care Adrian recovers, although he remains physically weak. On learning of the love between Idris and Lionel, the Countess schemes to drug Idris, bring her to Austriamarker, and force her to make a politically motivated marriage. Idris discovers the plot and flees to Lionel, who marries her soon after. The Countess leaves for Austriamarker, resentful of her children and of Lionel.

Adrian and the others live happily together until Raymond runs for Lord Protector and wins. Perdita soon adjusts to her newfound social position, while Raymond becomes well-beloved as a benevolent administrator. He discovers, however, that Evadne, after the political and financial ruin of her husband (on account of her own political schemes) is living in poverty and obscurity in Londonmarker, unwilling to plead for assistance. Raymond attempts to support Evadne by employing her artistic skills in secrecy, and later nursing her in illness, but Perdita learns of the relationship and suspects infidelity. Her suspicions arouse Raymond's proud and passionate nature, and the two separate. Raymond resigns his position and leaves to rejoin the war in Greecemarker, accompanied for a time by Adrian. Shortly after the wounded Adrian returns to England, rumors arise that Raymond has been killed. Perdita, loyal in spite of everything, convinces Lionel to bring her and Clara to Greece to find him.

Volume 2

Lionel finds Raymond and brings him back to Greece. Lionel and Raymond then go back to fighting and go to Constantinople. Lionel discovers Evadne, dying of wounds received fighting in the war. Before she dies, Evadne prophesies Raymond's death, a prophecy which confirms Raymond's own suspicions. Raymond's intention to enter Constantinoplemarker causes dissension and desertion amongst the army because of reports of the plague. Raymond enters the city alone, and soon dies in a fire. He is taken to Athensmarker for burial.

In 2092, while Lionel and Adrian attempt to return their lives to normality, the plague continues to spread across Europe and the Americas, and reports of a black sun cause panic throughout the world. At first England is thought to be safe, but soon the plague reaches even there. Ryland, recently elected Lord Protector, is unprepared for the plague, and flees northward, later dying alone amidst a stockpile of provisions. Adrian takes command and is largely effective at maintaining order and humanity in England, although the plague rages on summer after summer. Ships arrive in Irelandmarker carrying survivors from Americamarker, who lawlessly plunder Irelandmarker and Scotlandmarker before invading England. Adrian raises a military force against them, but ultimately is able to resolve the situation peacefully.

Volume 3

The few remaining survivors decide to abandon Englandmarker in search of an easier climate. On the eve of their departure Alfred before reaching Dovermarker Lionel receives a letter from Lucy Martin, who was unable to join the exiles because of her mother's illness. Lionel and Idris travel through a snowstorm to assist Lucy, but Idris, weak from years of stress and maternal fears, dies along the way. Lionel and the Countess, who had shunned Idris and her family out of resentment towards Lionel, are reconciled at Idris' tomb. Lionel recovers Lucy (whose mother has died), and the party reaches Dovermarker en route to Francemarker.

In France, Adrian discovers that the earlier emigrants have divided into factions, amongst them a fanatical religious sect led by a false messiah who claims that his followers will be saved from disease. Adrian unites most of the factions, but this latter group declares violent opposition to Adrian. Lionel sneaks into Parismarker, where the cult has settled, to try to rescue Juliet. She refuses to leave because the imposter has her baby, but she helps Lionel to escape. Later, when Juliet's baby sickens, Juliet discovers that the imposter has been hiding the effects of the plague from his followers. She is killed warning the other followers, after which the imposter commits suicide, and his followers return to the main body of exiles at Versailles.

The exiles travel towards Switzerlandmarker, hoping to spend the summer in a colder climate less favorable to the plague. By the time they reach Switzerland, however, all but four (Lionel, Adrian, Clara, and Evelyn) have died. The four spend a few relatively happy seasons at Switzerlandmarker, Milanmarker, and Comomarker before Evelyn dies of typhus. The survivors attempt to sail across the Adriatic Seamarker to Greecemarker, but a sudden storm drowns Clara and Adrian. Lionel, the last man, swims to shore. The story ends in the year 2100.

Themes

Biographical elements

Many of the central characters are wholly or partially based upon Shelley's acquaintances (Peck, 1923). Shelley had been forbidden by her father-in-law, Sir Timothy Shelley, from publishing a biography of her husband, so she memorialized him, amongst others, in The Last Man. The utopian Adrian, Earl of Windsor, who leads his followers in search of a natural paradise and dies when his boat sinks in a storm, is a fictional portrait of Percy Bysshe Shelley, although other minor characters such as Merrival bear traces of Percy as well.Lord Raymond, who leaves England to fight for the Greeks and dies in Constantinoplemarker, is based on Lord Byron. The novel expresses Mary Shelley's pain at the loss of her community of the "Elect", as she called them, and Lionel Verney has been seen as an outlet for her feelings of loss and boredom following their deaths and the deaths of her children.

It appears that Shelley found inspiration for the novel in Jean-Baptiste Cousin de Grainville's Le Dernier Homme (1805), translated into English in 1806 as Omegarus and Syderia.

Failure of romantic political ideals

The Last Man not only laments the loss of Shelley's friends, but also questions the Romantic political ideals they stood for. In a sense, the plague is metaphorical, since the revolutionary idyll of the élite group is corroded from within by flaws of human nature. As literary scholar Kari Lokke writes, "in its refusal to place humanity at the center of the universe, its questioning of our privileged position in relation to nature, then, The Last Man constitutes a profound and prophetic challenge to Western humanism." Specifically, Mary Shelley, in making references to the failure of the French Revolution and the Godwinian, Wollstonecraftian, and Burkean responses to it, "attacks Enlightenment faith in the inevitability of progress through collective efforts".

Isolation

Hugh Luke argues that "By ending her story with the picture of the Earth's solitary inhabitant, she has brought nearly the whole weight of the novel to bear upon the idea that the condition of the individual being is essentially isolated and therefore ultimately tragic" (xvii). Shelley shares this theme of tragic isolation with the poetry of Lord Byron and William Wordsworth.

Publication history and reception

Two editions of The Last Man were published by Henry Colburn in London in 1826, and one edition in Parismarker in 1826 by Galignani. A pirated edition was printed in Americamarker in 1833. The Last Man received the worst reviews of all of Mary Shelley's novels: most reviewers derided the very theme of lastness, which had become a common one in the previous two decades. Individual reviewers labeled the book "sickening", criticised its "stupid cruelties", and called the author's imagination "diseased". The reaction startled Mary Shelley, who promised her publisher a more popular book next time. Nonetheless, she later spoke of The Last Man as one of her favourite works. The novel was not republished until 1965. In the 20th century it received new critical attention, perhaps because the notion of lastness had become more relevant.

See also



Notes

  1. Luke, Hugh J. Introduction. The Last Man by Mary Shelley. Lincoln, Nebraska: U of Nebraska Press, 1965. xii
  2. Luke xi
  3. Luke xii
  4. Bennett, An Introduction, 74; Lokke, 119; Luke xi-xiv.
  5. Paley, Introduction to The Last Man, viii. Mary Shelley used this term in a letter of 3 October 1824.
  6. Paley, Introduction to The Last Man, viii. "The last man!" Mary Shelley wrote in her journal in May 1824. "Yes I may well describe that solitary being's feelings, feeling myself the last relic of a beloved race, my companions extinct before me". Paley, Introduction to The Last Man, vii–viii.
  7. Luke xii.
  8. Science Fiction in France before Verne
  9. Paley, Introduction to The Last Man, xvi; Lokke, 117.
  10. Lokke, 128–29.
  11. Lokke, 116.
  12. Lokke, 128.
  13. Luke xvii.
  14. Luke xxi
  15. Paley, Introduction to The Last Man, xxi.
  16. Paley, Introduction to The Last Man, xxii–xxiii.


Bibliography

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