Mary Shelley’s ‘The Last Man’ — A Plague Novel for Pandemic Readers

There are quite a few reading lists for those at home during Pandem-Mania 2020, especially for those readers on furlough from work-at-the-office as well as those confined to home and unemployed who want their imagination to feed on apocalyptic stories of plague, pestilence, even influenza. For a sampling of these lists, see here, here, here, here, and here.

I am neither staying at home nor unemployed; my Muggle job that pays my bills whilst I write my thesis is in a grocery store which the state of Oklahoma has deemed an “essential business” akin to marijuana dispensaries and abortion clinics and unlike casinos and churches. It has been, consequently, a relatively unstressful time for me as my daily routine has only been changed in how I must dress at work (face mask required) and the atmosphere of fear the grocery store customers bring to their shopping. I wish that these small troubles were the rule for HogwartsProfessor readers during this unprecedented lockdown and pray that it ends soon, ends well, and that the country is back to work and free of this contagion.

I did order a copy of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s The Last Man and read it. Forgive me if this confession is disappointing to you but I had never heard of the novel before seeing it one of the lists above and I consider myself a great fan of Frankenstein. I have written three posts at this website on the alchemy and chiastic structure of that novel and have spent more time than I should perhaps in private meditation on its relationship with Coleridge’s ‘Ancient Mariner,’ a poem the young Mary Wollstonecraft overheard at its first reading by the poet to her parents.

In brief, The Last Man is the first person narration of Lionel Verney of his experiences in the United Kingdom from the years 2073 to 2100. It has only just survived in print rather than flourished as has Frankenstein largely because it is assumed to be Shelley’s portrayal in fiction of her life with Percy Shelly and Lord Byron, and, more recently, because it seems to be the first post-apocalyptic novel to reach print and a major audience (cue cat-calls and counter-claims). I confess to being largely indifferent to both these critical concerns; my hope in purchasing the Dover facsimile reprint of the 1826 first edition was that Mary Shelley’s reflection on life in the time of plague would be as challenging and insightful as her critique of biological and medical science in Frankenstein.

I was disappointed in this hope, alas. The plague does not appear on the scene until Chapter 2 of Volume 2, page 130 of a 341 page book and only in Volume 3 does the action of the story turn entirely on the effect of the disease on the country and the principal characters. The writing is wonderfully or interminably florid depending on your taste for such things, the far-distant future is envisioned as being almost exactly as life in the Edwardian period except for the Wollstonecraft wish-fulfillment fantasy of the monarchy being disestablished (and the rightful king eventually becoming the country’s savior by election…), and the relationships and fates of the heroic Adrian, Lord Raymond, Lionel and their wives and loves are, again, melodramatic in a way that only Romantic era writers would attempt and that only those with a taste for what approaches camp will enjoy.

I recommend it, nonetheless, beyond my enjoyment of this kind of writing which idiosyncrasy you may share.

For one thing, the conceit of how Shelley finds the manuscript of a first person account from the future without aid of a Time Machine is absolutely first rate. It’s all shared in the introduction, which you can read online here in only a minute or three, so I won’t ruin it for you. 

For another, any three volume publication of this period, not to mention one written by an artist of the proven alchemical and chiastic structure and style concerns of Mary Shelley, is an exercise book for careful reading by serious readers.

And religious and medical professionals — not to mention politicians — do not come off well in this book, at least during the plague time of the novel’s last two volumes. Shelley rips into the idols of democratic government and progress with no mercy given. The Romantic disdain for scientism and exoteric religious ritual is a pre-modern assault on modernity’s empty positivism and serves as a corrective, even a disinfectant to the excesses and corrosive ennui of postmodernity. Those critical of institutional responses to Covid-19 by church, science, and state will find that Shelley is something of a prophet in The Last Man

Last, Constantinople is won from the Turks by crusading Greeks. It doesn’t end well for the Great City or the invaders, but, still, for an Orthodox Christian reader and closet Byzantine, this temporary victory was almost worth the effort to get there — it is the story pivot, believe it or not — and the disaster of the unfolding plague that follows.

I hope in the comment boxes below that you will share your thoughts on The Last Man  if you have read it. Failing that, please let me know what you are reading of English literature’s vast stream of plague novels.

And, failing that, go ahead and share your experiences of the lockdown. I only ask that, if you choose to ‘go there,’ that you try not to share your feelings about those who are entirely on board with the shutdown of the economy if you are not and vice versa. I’d much rather read about what you’re reading and thinking than your acceptable window of righteousness defined by social distancing compliance and hypochondriac over-kill. De gustibus.


  1. Mr. Granger,

    Right now, I just hope you’re taking as good a care of yourself as possible. Stay safe and be careful out there.

  2. Mr. Granger,

    The novel The Last Man is a sad story, do you think the virus invasion that we are faced
    with will end like that? In addition, what do you think of the growing anti-intellectualism.
    Is it a natural thing that comes with the pandemic?

  3. Mr. Granger,
    I’d like to share some of my thoughts on this book as well as my experience during this pandemic. Mary Shelley’s The Last Man turned out to be an allegory of the present human society rather than a science fiction. The speed at which the Covid-19 arrival and spread has thrown me and my family into deep consternation as well as the rest of the millions of habitants in Wuhan. The pandemic has bended our time completely out of shape and transformed our lives entirely. People were ordered to be put in everlasting quarantine, only to be surrounded by dangerous atmosphere and extreme illness. Mary’s fiction, however, has had prevised how human society would counteract a global pandemic. As one of its Chinese readers, I am irresistibly attracted by the predictions and analysis in this uncannily prophetic literature. In this book, Shelley demonstrated how the seed of aversion sprouted among different groups of people which, to some extent, is a reflection of what is currently going on in America. Also, the end of the novel described the inhabitants were split into bitter factions based on the sequence of arrival rather than ideas or values. This can also be perceived by the phenomenon of people holding grudges and discriminations against people from the epidemic districts, feeling superior to other fellow citizens. Shelley firmly believes that without a government that commands respect, personal ambition will eventually defeat rationality and morality. But we have to remember that humanity cannot be dominated by what Lord Raymond demonstrated as self-centered ambition, and people should still cherish in heart the great faith and hope in liberal values and dignity of mankind.

  4. To be honest, at first,I struggled in reading this book…. because I really didn’t know what the author talked about. So I took another way to know more about the book. I searched on the Internet, and only found a movie which shares the same name:Mary Shelly. I downloaded it and watched it. Somehow, her controversial life experience let me have a better understanding of her.She suffered too much, which shocked me.  I was filled with an emotion  I could not put into words. So I picked up the book again and finished it finally. Most people may find it tedious because of the slow-buring narrative style, complicated words and so many irrelevant characteres…But if you read to the end of the first two volumes, everthing will be better.
    Judging from these three reforms in this book, Raymond defied his duty to obey his passion, Ryland gave up his responsibility for his own safety, and his reforms were defeated because his selfishness. In contrast, we can say Adrian is a perfect proctector.He cherishes the world and has the courage to take responsibility.However, all Adrian’s efforts were destroyed by the uncontrollable plague.Mary Shelley seems to be suggesting that reform is determined by many factors.If you want to put it into reality, you will definitely encounter all kinds of unpredictable setbacks.Political ideals can’t guarantee its success. Reforms may not necessarily be social progress.The same is true of today’s world.
    All in all, we need patience to read the book, and we also need patience to perfect the whole world.

  5. Mr. Granger,
    Thank you for your recommendation of the novel The Last Man, which does correspond to the current situation of the pandemic around the world. As we all know, writing comes from life but beyond life in a certain extent. On one hand, the novel certainly demonstrates a deep understanding of the history of medicine, specifically the development of the smallpox vaccine and the various nineteenth-century theories about the nature of contagion. On the other hand, it involves the author’s imagination. It is very amazing that what we are experiencing now seems to be proving that the book’s prediction is right, meaning Shelley is something of a prophet in The Last Man. However, we should be clear that the book content doesn’t equal to reality and I believe our world will win in this pandemic battle.
    One of the theme of this novel is Science and Medicine. This novel’s devastating apocalypse strongly suggests that medicine had become too timid and ultimately come too late. I think this theme worths being pondered over by all humans. Medicine, in my opinion, is the last defense of our life and we must try our best to develop it to safeguard our health and life.
    Finally, I would like to say that 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. Therefore, this book is actually a elegy. It is no doubt Mary Shelley also felt lonely after the deaths of the people who had played such an important role in her own early life. The ending of this book is a little tedious, and from a biographical point of view one can feel that she regards herself as the last man standing from her group of early friends, as indeed she was. Therfore, try to cherish people around you.

  6. MosselBay says

    Mr. Granger,

    Hello, It is a great honor to read your work and would like to share some of my experiences with you. At such a special stage, this work also brings me a lot of thinking. Human beings seem to be very vulnerable in the face of death disasters. The overwhelming news some time ago has also cast a gray layer on everyone’s lives. I used to think that death was terrible, but when it really happened to me, I found that it was not so difficult to accept. My grandma died a few months ago. She is a Christian. I’m sure someone as kind as her must have gone to heaven, and I’m not so sad to think of that. As long as someone is still missing, those who have passed away have not really passed away. When I think of her, I am as powerful as ever. After all, some people are going to die, some people are out of time. When reading this work, I not only feel the sense of urgency, but also think about life under the coercion of death, re-examine the value of life with the consciousness of death, and look at death from a rational point of view. Also let me know how to cherish the life in front of me more! Thank you for your words! I hope we can all face death rationally!And I wish you all the best! 🙂

  7. Mr. Granger
    It’s a pity that there is no Chinese version of The Last Man. Frankly speaking, it’s a great challenge for we non-native English speakers to read this “old” book. I found that it is a novel of isolation: an isolation that reflected Shelley’s painful circumstances. The novel’s characters closely resemble the famous members of the Shelley-Byron circle, including Shelley’s husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, his friend Lord Byron, and Mary’s stepsister (Byron’s sometime lover), Claire Clairmont. By the time Shelley came to write the novel, all of them – along with all but one of her children – were dead. Once part of the most significant social circle of second-generation Romantic poet-intellectuals, Shelley now found herself almost alone in the world. As it kills off character after character, The Last Man recreates this history of loss along with its author’s crushing sense of loneliness. That is also a reflection of our social distancing nowadays. What’s more, Mary has pointed out that our humanity is defined not by art, or faith, or politics, but by the basis of our communities, our fellow-feeling and compassion. Secondly, we belong to just one of many species on Earth, and we must learn to think of the natural world as existing not merely for the uses of humanity, but for its own sake.

  8. Mr. Granger,
    Thank you very much for your recommendation of The last man. I want to briefly talk about some of my views on this book.
    To be honest, when I first read this book, I couldn’t read it at all. The language inside is obscure and difficult to understand. The text contains too much stream of consciousness, and it is almost difficult for me to grasp the author’s central idea. But I have to bear that this book is indeed an amazing novel, which predicts the future life from the perspective of the first person. It can be said to be the disillusionment of the end of the civilization in the 21st century. This book provides a comprehensive description of war, plague, love and desolation. What’s more, Shelley’s treatment of topics was beyond the traditional scope.
    Moreover, I would like to say that if the “Last Man” is in a sense the “traditional” text of this period, its origin is also very personal. Shirley mentioned in her diary that the last man could be her another ego, so the novel developed and contributed to a network of stories and ideas in which fantasy, convention and autobiography are intensively intertwined.
    Thanks again for your recommendation:)

  9. Wen zhang says

    In the period of quarantine, I felt depressed not seeing the future. The days seems like to last an eternity. Maybe I am not the last man in the earth. I can feel the deep worry inside me. In your novel, the same mood to people who are in the novel. However, we still preach about faith and love. Just as you said: “ I am not particularly concerned about people understand the importance of hope. I want you to grasp what hope is, how important it is and how you may have it.” Peace and love!

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