Source of book: I own this.
Mary Shelley is best known for writing the first science fiction novel, Frankenstein, although pop culture gets most things about that book wrong. Less known are her other novels, among them The Last Man, one of the first works of apocalyptic dystopian science fiction. My wife found me a used Folio Society edition. Written in 1826, it was shredded by the critics, and didn’t sell well. Some of the critiques make sense: it is very dark, as the title would suggest; characters you love die; and it spends a lot of time on politics. But others are clearly sexist, such as the suggestion that Shelley should have made the protagonist female, because only a woman would mourn the loss of conversation; or that a woman lost her femininity by writing a book that wasn’t domestic and warm. Modern critics have reconsidered this book and her other less-known works, and decided that she was mostly ahead of her time.
The Last Man is set toward the end of the 21st Century, in a world which seems more like the early 19th Century than our own. Most of Europe is still ruled by monarchies. While England recently abolished theirs, the form of government that exists seems to be an oligarchy, with the nobles selecting a “Lord Protector” at regular elections in the House of Lords. Balloons are the only new form of transportation. Greece and Turkey are still at war. Gender roles look the same. And the eastern world is still mostly a mystery.
The book is divided into three sections, which more or less deal with three different questions. The first starts off with the histories of the main characters. Lionel Verney is the narrator and protagonist, the son of a favorite of the last king of England who has fallen on hard times, and also a stand-in for the author. His sister, Perdita, innocent and devoted. Adrian, the son of the last king of England, who befriends and educates Verney and Perdita, and is based heavily on the author’s lover then husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Raymond, the swashbucking adventurer, passionate and ambitious, who wins and breaks Perdita’s heart, clearly based on Lord Byron. Idris, Adrian’s sister, who marries Lionel. The first third of the book takes the story from their childhoods to their eventual marriages. Weaving through this main narrative is a fairly detailed political discussion, involving the formation of a post-monarchal society, utilitarian ideas about making government focus on bettering the lives of ordinary citizens, the balance between personal ambition and devotion to one’s country, and more. For its time, the book is shockingly progressive and forward-looking, even as it somewhat self-consciously ignores the feminist ideas of Shelley’s mother. (I felt, reading it, that Shelley made an effort to show that she was observing the traditional gender roles with her characters, which was a missed opportunity, I believe. She probably decided feminism would distract from her other points.)
I have mixed feelings about this section of the book. On the one hand, there is some bold political philosophising, in which Shelley displays her command of the issues and ideas as well as her analytical mind. These do seem a bit dated in a few cases - hindsight tends to do that to science fiction - but Shelley does make a strong argument in favor of mutuality and egality in society. Whether she undermines this when these values - and all other values - fail to stop the plague, is an open question.
On the other hand, I never really warmed to the characters, who, with the exception of Lionel, seemed a bit idealized and one-dimensional. Perdita and Idris check too many boxes of the gender stereotypes of the time, from the mother devoted to the very death, to the jealous lover. Lionel, perhaps, might be considered a “female” character in that he is the character most like the author, but he is nominally male. None of the females are particularly strong. Because of this, I never really got into the romantic story. The characters were too predictable to be interesting.
The second third of the story is primarily about the disastrous war between Greece and Turkey. The characters are drawn into it when Raymond cheats on Perdita with a Greek princess who has fallen on hard times. Perdita, understandably upset, takes the harshest possible line, with no room for a detente, let alone some degree of reconciliation. Raymond can’t take the emotional punishment, and abdicates as Lord Protector to go fight in the war. Perdita follows him, in a somewhat unbelievable mental state - unwilling to truly reconcile, but sacrificing herself to see him successful. I suspect there is something of the relationship of Byron to one of his many women in this.
Raymond finds success on the battlefield until the end, when the siege of Istanbul ends with a deserted city and rumors of a plague. Raymond walks into a booby trap and is killed, which is far more romantic than the death of Byron, of an illness that went septic.
After Raymond’s death, Perdita tries to stay behind, only to be taken toward England to care for her daughter. So, she drowns herself so she can join Raymond. The rest of the section has the remaining characters trying to piece their lives back together, while the reports of a devastating plague around the world grow greater and greater, until the disease shows up in England too.
The final third is all about the devastation of the plague, the flight of a small group from England, and the death of everyone except Lionel. This is the part of the book that feels the most modern, and is where it goes from political commentary and semi-autobiographical personal relationships to the realm of science fiction and apocalyptic dystopia.
As literature, the final section is clearly the best part of the book. The science and medicine, however, is a bit dated. It helps to keep in mind that Louis Pasteur was all of four years old when the book was written, and wouldn’t develop the germ theory of disease until the 1860, after Shelley was dead. Shelley clearly understood the various ideas floating around in her era, and considered medicine to be too timid and uninformed, but lacked the knowledge that we now have. Because of this, the disease is incredibly puzzling to a modern reader.
At its core, the mysterious disease strongly resembles the Bubonic Plague - not a surprise, because that was the last pandemic (or series of pandemics) that killed shocking numbers of people across Europe. At the time, nobody knew what caused the plague, or how it spread, other that it was somehow contagious geographically. Now, we know that it is a bacterium that is spread by fleas - one reason it is easier to control now. (In addition to antibiotics, we now literally comb squirrels…)
The reason the fictional plague in this book is so puzzling is that it is impossible to figure out how it spreads. Occasionally, it seems it spreads from person to person, as when Verney gets infected. But usually, person-to-person contact does not spread it. Cases seem to pop up randomly, and in places where it would seem impossible for a vector-based transmission. Most puzzling of all is that with each wave, many people are completely uninfected, despite being almost certainly exposed. One might assume that some immune systems fight it off, but since it eventually kills everyone except Verney, this seems unlikely. No attempts at quarantine seem to work, and no animals other than humans are affected. In other words, it doesn’t fit any known disease mechanism. At least to our modern minds. Before germ theory, most infectious diseases probably seemed a bit random.
As a literary device, however, it is highly effective. It is like the random death from a malignant angel, spread through the population in a way that no one can predict, let alone stop.
Once the plague starts, the reactions of the humans are quite believable, from violence and looting, to licentiousness, to religious obsession, to hoarding and isolation, to cynical grabs for power. I mean, we can see all of those going on right now. Whereas Shelley’s characters seemed flat in the first half of the book, they came alive in response to the plague, becoming far more believable and sympathetic.
This particular edition has excellent illustrations, which are details from paintings by Caspar David Friedrich, a contemporary of Shelley. In addition, there is a perceptive introduction by Sarah Hall, English novelist and poet. The opening paragraphs are outstanding.
Most cultures have end-of-the-world stories. Whether they involve holy retribution and fiery pits or cosmic annihilation, disease or human-manufactured ecological disaster, catastrophists through the ages have worked hard to convince us of dark futures and worst-case scenarios. Terrestrial destruction. A cooling sun. Civilization’s fall. There is perhaps no greater scope for human drama.
These manifest anxieties are usually a compound of fact and fantasy. They are based in part upon historical experiences such as Pompeii, extreme meteorological events, famine, and smallpox. But they also convey the heavy freight of our nightmarish imagination. Terrible things occur, yet we have the capacity to conceive of worse jeopardy. Such stories serve to caution, to check morality or scientific development, to facilitate theocratic rule, or to focus intelligence by reminding us of our mortal prospects, thus motivating us to find a solution to our predicament. In tandem with eschatology, we have also created mythologies about salvation, rapture and rebirth. It helps, when staring into the empty black eye of the universe, to caress a comfort stone in the pocket.
Verney throughout the book expresses this sense of fate and the impersonality of the universe. In a line that could, perhaps, apply to each and every one of us, he introduces his story.
My fortunes have been, from the beginning, an exemplification of the power that mutability may possess over the varied tenor of man’s life.
This cynicism holds Lionel in its sway until he eventually meets Adrian, and finds a benevolent alternative. Before this, he explains to Perdita, who has heard rumor of Adrian’s goodness, that this is all about his privilege.
“You have learnt a pretty lesson, Perdita,” said I, “and repeat it so literally, that you forgot the while the proofs we have of the Earl’s virtues; his generosity to us is manifest in our plenty, his bravery in the protection he affords us, his affability in the notice he takes of us. His rank his least merit, do you say? Why, all his virtues are derived from his station only; because he is rich, he is called generous; because he is powerful, brave; because he is well served, he is affable.”
Lionel isn’t wrong as a general principle, of course. He just happens to be wrong about Adrian, who is near god-like in his goodness. (It was easy enough to tell that Adrian is based on Percy Shelley, because Lionel has a serious Man Crush on Adrian the whole book. And also, Adrian’s ideas sound very much like those espoused by Percy Shelley in Prometheus Unbound - every bit as idealistic and perhaps unrealistic, but definitely aspirational.) But generally speaking, the ultra-rich and the powerful are not particularly nice people, and their “virtues” are based on their privilege.
Later, when Raymond appears on the scene, he and Lionel have an interesting conversation about determinism versus free will. One wonders if this duplicates a conversation between Shelley and Byron back in the day.
“Nature always presents to our eyes the appearance of a patient: while there is an active principle in man which is capable of ruling fortune, and at least of tacking against the gale, till it in some mode conquers it.”
“There is more of what is specious than true in your distinction,” said my companion. “Did we form ourselves, choosing our dispositions, and our powers? I find myself, for one, as a stringed instrument with chords and stops - but I have no power to turn the pegs, or pitch my thoughts to a higher or lower key.”
“Other men,” I observed, “may be better musicians.”
“I talk not of others, but myself,” replied Raymond, “and I am as fair an example to go by as another. I cannot set my heart to a particular tune, or run voluntary changes on my will. We are born; we choose neither our parents, nor our stations; we are educated by others, or by the world’s circumstance, and this cultivation, mingling with our innate disposition, is the soil in which our desires, passions, and motives grow.”
“There is much truth in what you say,” said I, “and yet no man ever acts upon this theory. Who, when he makes a choice, says, Thus I choose, because I am necessitated? Does he not on the contrary feel a freedom of will within him, which, though you may call it fallacious, still actuates him as he decides?”
This is the crux of the free will argument. Clearly, we all live as though we had free will, because it is just about the only way to actually function in the world. But…
Raymond is arguably the most complex character in the book. He is very good and very bad, sometimes at the same time. He is admirable in so many ways, but because he is guided by ambition rather than principle, and acts impulsively rather than thoughtfully, he eventually destroys his marriage, and eventually his own life. Kind of like, say, Lord Byron, right? The narrator describes how Raymond fascinates women, in what I think is a great line.
Most men ruthlessly destroy the sacred veil, with which the female heart is wont to adorn the idol of its affections. Not so with Raymond; he was an enchanter, whose reign was for ever undiminished; a king whose power was never suspended; follow him through the details of common life, still the same charm of grace and majesty adorned him; had invested him.
Of course, the fact that he retained Perdita’s worship well into the marriage is why when she lost faith in him, the loss was irreparable.
Here is another great line in the same chapter.
Fear has been said to be the parent of religion: even of that religion is it the generator, which leads its votaries to sacrifice human victims at its altars; but the religion which springs from happiness is a lovelier growth; the religion which makes the heart breathe forth fervent thanksgiving, and causes us to pour out the overflowings of the soul before the author of our being; that which is the parent of the imagination and the nurse of poetry; that which bestows benevolent intelligence on the visible mechanism of the world, and makes earth a temple with heaven for its cope.
At the place I am in my own journey, this fits so well. Leaving a religion that feeds on and feeds fear for one which gives birth to imagination and poetry and a better world.
The rift between Perdita and Raymond becomes a chasm when he cheats on her, but it actually has its origins in an earlier situation. In an attempt to head off the cowardly and calculating Ryland for the position of Lord Protector, Lionel and Adrian support the candidacy of Raymond, and he initially takes to it well. The problem is that Raymond now has a purpose more important to him that Perdita, and she feels at sea. She later bemoans this fact.
He, she thought, can be great and happy without me. Would that I also had a career! Would that I could freight some untried bark with all my hopes, energies, and desires, and launch it forth into the ocean of life - bound for some attainable point, with ambition or pleasure at the helm!
This is the one point at which Shelley’s gender roles crack, and I think it is here that her own ambitions and desires shine through. And, indeed, she would find her own path, and become famous in her own right, not just as Percy Shelley’s wife.
In the last calm before the plague begins in earnest, there is a period of peace, and Adrian dreams of making a better world, while Ryland plays the realist, claiming that human nature will always ruin paradise.
“Let this last but twelve months,” said Adrian; “and earth will become a paradise. The energies of man were before directed to the destruction of his species; they now aim at its liberation and preservation. Man cannot repose, and his restless aspirations will now bring forth good instead of evil. The favoured countries of the south will throw off the iron yoke of servitude; poverty will quit us, and with that, sickness. What may not the forces, never before united, of liberty and peace achieve in this dwelling of man?”
“Dreaming, for ever dreaming, Windsor!” said Ryland, the old adversary of Raymond. “Be assured that earth is not, nor ever can be heaven, while the seeds of hell are natives of her soil. When the seasons have become equal, when the air breeds no disorders, when its surface is no longer liable to blights and droughts, then sickness will cease; when men’s passions are dead, poverty will depart. When love is no longer akin to hate, then brotherhood will exist: we are very far from that state at present.”
I find myself torn between those two ideas. On the one hand, I am of the belief that the Kingdom of God is among us, and that what we as Christians are to desire and work toward is the building of that heavenly kingdom here on earth - and not in the Religious Right’s vision of a new inquisition, but as Adrian sees it, with the energies of man devoted to preserving mankind, not destroying each other, with liberation, an end to poverty and sickness. Ryland isn’t wrong though: right now so much of what masquerades as “love” is really just hate, ambition and greed create inequality and thus poverty, and nature itself conspires to make us ill. We are in the awkward stage of “right now, but also not yet” when it comes to a better world. In the book, of course, none of this matters. All ideas, viewpoints, systems of government, solidarity, love, and hate become irrelevant once there is but one human survivor. It truly all becomes dust in the wind.
As the plague begins its march of destruction, Lionel increasingly loses the optimism he acquired from Adrian, and returns to his cynicism. At one point, he quotes Bacon to the effect that “He who hath wife and children, has given hostages to fortune.” It is easy to share his viewpoint as the trauma of a death that cannot be stopped enfolds all.
There was but one good and one evil in the world - life and death. The pomp of rank, the assumption of power, the possessions of wealth vanished like morning mist. One living beggar had become of more worth than a national peerage of dead lords - alas the day! - than of dead heroes, patriots, or men of genius. There was much of degradation in this: for even vice and virtue had lost their attributes - life - life - the continuation of our animal mechanism - was the Alpha and Omega of the desires, the prayers, the prostrate ambition of the human race.
Later, Lionel notes that once society has broken down due to a lack of people to sustain it, wealth and privilege became detriments.
Poor and rich were now equal, or rather the poor were the superior, since they entered on such tasks with alacrity and experience; while ignorance, inaptitude, and habits of repose, rendered them fatiguing to the luxurious, galling to the proud, disgustful to all whose minds, bent on intellectual improvement, held it their dearest privilege to be exempt from attending to mere animal wants.
There are a number of truly chilling incidents in the period between the onset of the plague, and the true depopulation of the world. At one point, people from the United States cross over into Great Britain, join up with Irish ruffians (sorry, a bit of prejudice there on both parts), and go on a destructive looting rampage across the English countryside, before Adrian is able to force them to see that there is no possible future if everyone is dead. Let’s just say that we haven’t reached that stage yet with the American Right Wing. They are still in the “grab the spoils” mode rather than the “seek the common good” mode us so-called lefties want them to move to. (This is nowhere more apparent than when it comes to climate change, but it applies elsewhere too.)
The second incident is the description of different approaches to the belief that death was coming. Some threw off all restraint, and partied, cramming the theaters and beer halls, dancing all night, and neglecting any form of work. This too seems familiar, with so many unwilling to take steps such as masking or vaccination to protect others, insisting that all entertainment be opened immediately, consequences be damned.
The worst incident, however, was that of the fanatical religious cult that appears among the survivors of England who voyage to France hoping to find safety in the Alps. They are lead - as fanatical religious groups typically are - not by a genuine believer - those are too pure-hearted (and crazy) to command a cult following. Instead, an impostor - a narcissist - intent on power and control feeds the fears and genuine beliefs of his followers, building a personal empire while ultimately destroying the lives of those who follow him. Here is how Shelley describes the unnamed “prophet.”
During the whole progress of the plague, the teachers of religion were in possession of great power; a power of good, if rightly directed, or of incalculable mischief, if fanaticism or intolerance guided their efforts. In the present instance, a worse feeling than either of these actuated the leader. He was an imposter in the most determined sense of the term. A man who had in early life lost, through the indulgence of vicious propensities, all sense of rectitude or self-esteem; and who, when ambition was awakened in him, gave himself up to its influence unbridled by any scruple. His father had been a methodist preacher, an enthusiastic man with simple intentions; but whose pernicious doctrines of election and special grace had contributed to destroy all conscientious feeling in his son.
The prophet appeals to fear and tribalism by claiming that safety and salvation were to be afforded only to those in the group, who put their utmost trust in him.
This should, of course, sound familiar to all of us. The prime example is Trump, a man with zero morality, gross entitlement, and full of ambition. A true narcissist. Which is why he appealed to those with fear-based religion. You can also see Shelley’s entirely correct critique of Calvinism. While today’s Methodists (at least in the First World) are mostly the polar opposite to the Calvinists - neo-puritans really - of our time, I believe Shelley is spot on about how the doctrines of election and special grace do not lead to good fruit, but to the belief that God loves people like you, and hates everyone else.
But these charlatans hold a lot of appeal to a lot of people. Shelley points out later that the good people of the world are at a natural disadvantage compared to evil hateful people.
It is a strange fact, but incontestable, that the philanthropist, who ardent in his desire to do good, who patient, reasonable, and gentle, yet disdains to use other argument than truth, has less influence over men’s minds, than he who, grasping and selfish, refuses not to adopt any means, nor awaken any passion, nor diffuse any falsehood, for the advancement of his cause.
In apocalyptic times, Shelley points out, this contrast is even greater, because charlatans can bring “harrowing fears and transcendent hopes into play,” while the truth-tellers can only call for sacrifice to mitigate coming suffering. We see it throughout the Old Testament in the words of the prophets, reviled for calling for repentance rather than promising wealth and safety. We see it now, those of us telling the truth about Covid, or about climate change. It is easier to believe the lies than face the hard truth.
The bleakness of the novel is in the fact that none of this matters. Sure, the fanatics die, and their leader commits suicide. But everyone else dies too, slowly, and one at a time, culminating in Adrian and Clara (Perdita and Raymond’s daughter) drowning in a boat wreck similar to the one that killed Percy Shelley. Lionel alone is left, and he reverts eventually to something like his young and feral self, tiring even of the beauty and splendor of Rome, with its literature and art. What he really craves is the one thing he will probably never find: human company.
The Last Man is a fascinating book. In places, it was tedious, but in others transcendent. It was dated yet forward-looking. It read human nature pretty well even as it denied full depth of character to its females. It juxtaposes the glories of human achievement and thought with the futility of death; advocates for an enlightened, empathetic, and mutuality-based future, while painting all aspiration as ultimately meaningless. It is bleak yet oddly aspirational. No wonder contemporary readers had no idea what to do with it: despite its archaisms, it feels like a late 20th Century book more than an early 19th Century one. I am glad I read it, yet also found parts of it grating. What is indisputable, however, is that Mary Shelley anticipated the ideas that would fascinate us nearly 200 years later, from our discomfort with science and technology to our anxieties about the end of the world.
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