The Last Man and the Order of Society: How Mary Shelley’s Use of the Plague Serves as a Metaphor for the Failure of the Utopian Ideal
The Last Man was Mary Shelley’s most ambitious and experimental work. Necessitating that a plague, which decimates mankind, is justified in its pursuit, Mary Shelley creates a world where utopian ideals can cause the destruction of mankind, if they are not checked by moral and ethical standards.
Published in 1826, the novel was widely pilloried by a public who found it’s gloomy tone and high Romanticism to be ‘out of touch’ with a more progressive society. Mary Shelley’s concept of humanity decimated by a deadly plague affronted progressive politicians as godless and as a result, the novel was banned in Austria and became more of an in topic at dinner parties than a book to be seriously read.
Since its publication, Mary Shelley scholars have ignored The Last Man and concentrated on Frankenstein because of the novel’s reflection of the influential Romantic circle of Lord Byron and Percy Shelley. It wasn’t until the feminist movement of the 1970’s that the novel underwent a rebirth and became critically judged as a work far superior to Frankenstein.
Written three years after the death of Percy Shelley, The Last Man is a reflection of the political influence of William Godwin and the Romantic ideals of Lord Byron and Percy Shelley.
Despite her initial desire to dedicate the work to the ideology of these men, The Last Man serves as Mary Shelley’s repudiation of the utopian ideal perpetuated by Godwin, Shelley and Lord Byron.
The plague serves as a metaphor for the failure of the utopian ideal to support the traditional needs of the family. As a biographical and political novel, The Last Man is Mary Shelley’s quest to understand her husband, father and Lord Byron’s political ideals and their subsequent failure to support her and her children.
Mary Shelley led a most extraordinary life. As the daughter of the radical writers, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, it appeared to be Mary’s destiny to earn a living through her writing. As she states in her 1831 preface to Frankenstein, “It is not singular that, as the daughter of two persons of distinguished literary celebrity, I should have very early in life thought of writing” (Hindle 5).
After the death of Percy Shelley in 1822, Mary spent the next three years trying to atone for what she believed were her sins against Shelley. Before his death, she and Shelley were going through a period of estrangement caused by the deaths of their two children, Clara and William.
At the time of his death, Mary concluded that she was responsible for his unhappiness. As she stated in her first journal entry after his death: “It is not true that this heart was cold to thee now you know all things-did I not in the deepest solitude of thought repeat to myself my goodfortune in possessing you” (Sunstein 231)?
In writing The Last Man, Mary was able to project her feelings about Shelley to a public audience. It is ironic then that The Last Man reveals Mary Shelley’s ambivalence about her husband and father’s ideology, which she believes resulted in the breakdown of her marriage. The plague, which in the novel decimates humanity, is reflective of Mary Shelley’s belief that without traditional values, humanity, especially the sanctity of marriage, is lost.
The Last Man opens in the year 2073. The last monarch of England has abdicated, and a republic has been instituted as the new government. Lionel Verney, whose father was friends with the embattled monarch, is an embittered young man who becomes enlighten by his association with Adrian, the returned heir to the throne. Lionel and his sister Perdita quickly become friends with Adrian and are admitted into his inner circle which includes the dashing Lord Raymond.
After a time, Lionel marries Adrian’s sister Idris and Lord Raymond marries Perdita and the group lives exclusively a Romantic life outside of London. It is not until the discovery of Lord Raymond’s affair with a young Greek woman that the group’s fortunes begin a downward spiral. Lord Raymond, who had become Lord Protectorate of England, leaves England to fight in the Greek wars after the desertion of his wife who discovered that he was having an affair.
His death launches the spread of the plague throughout Europe and the decimation of mankind. After the loss of his sister Perdita to suicide and his wife and children to the plague, Lionel, Adrian and Clara, Lord Raymond’s daughter, set sail for Greece to visit the graves of her parents and Adrian and Clara are lost at sea. As the last man on earth, Lionel Verney travels to Rome where he writes down his story and sets sail for adventures abroad.
As with most of Mary Shelley’s novels, The Last Man is highly biographical with Mary in the role of Lionel Verney, Percy Shelley as Adrian and Lord Byron as Lord Raymond. The group’s initial happy days at Windsor are reflective of the Shelley-Byron liaison in Geneva in 1816. The spread of the plague throughout Europe is Mary Shelley’s assessment of the failure of Shelley’s utopian ideals to support his wife and children.
Although she describes Adrian as “a tall, slim, fair boy, with a physiognomy expressive of the excess of sensibility and refinement” (Shelley 17), she repudiates Adrian’s fragile sensibility and decision to never wed and take responsibility for a family-feelings that she shared about her late husband. For Mary Shelley, the plague serves as a metaphor for the failure of the utopian ideal.
In her assessment, by rejecting utopian ideals, her father, Percy and Lord Byron have rejected the traditional values that keep a society and a family together and for Mary Shelley, that was their greatest failure. The novel can be viewed as Mary Shelley’s way of coming to terms with the deaths of Lord Byron and her husband as well as the loss of the ideal that their lives represented.
The Last Man is Mary Shelley’s last gothic novel and by 1829, which is considered the end of the Romantic period, the young widow has decided to move on.
- Hindle, Maurice ed., Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus. Mary Shelley. London: Penguin. 1992
- Mellor, Anne K. ed., The Last Man. Mary Shelley. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P. 1993.
- Sunstein, Emily. Mary Shelley: Romance and Reality. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP. 1989.
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