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Literature / The Last Man

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The Last Man is an 1826 Science Fiction Dystopian Apocalyptic novel written by Mary Shelley, supposedly taking place in the 21st Century. Its depiction of this century is, unsurprisingly, somewhat similar to retrofuturism, though with less emphasis on technological change than many stories set in the future, as the world it portrays isn't very far removed from the early-19th century it was written in. As the title indicates, it details an outbreak of the Great Plague that sweeps throughout the world, infecting and decimating the entirety of Mankind, and survivors trying to maintain their will to live in addition to trying to fight off against hostile human settlements. The central focus is a man named Lionel Verney, an orphan whose troubling behaviour leads him to the former (the monarchy having been abolished) King of England‘s son, Adrian, where the two of them become friends and chronicles Lionel's life from this first meeting all the way to adulthood.

The book is divided into three volumes; Volume 1 centres on Lionel's life as a teenager when he first meets up with Adrian and becomes close friends and his role in politics, Volume 2 details Lionel defending his new republic and his close ones from several attacks and a mysterious outbreak that is killing everyone it makes contact with, and Volume 3 is about the remaining survivors trying to find a new home where they would be free of contracting the disease.

The story is known for being initially having a troubled time in regards to publication, due to its dark and heavy themes of loneliness and loss, only beginning to receive appreciation by the 1960s. Even so, Mary Shelley later in her life wrote that it was one of her favorite books. The Last Man has various elements and a tonal atmosphere that is very similar to the Dystopian genre, which was yet to be popularized a century later with works like Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four.

The novel provides examples of

  • Absent-Minded Professor: In sharp contrast to Victor from Frankenstein, Merrival seems almost indifferent to life and death, barely acknowledging the apocalypse happening around him and instead studying the orbits of the planets and speculating about the future of Earth’s environments. When his family dies, he finally understands the seriousness of the situation.
  • After the End: In the final chapter, Lionel is the last surviving human, leaving him alone to witness the earth be reclaimed by nature after the extinction of the human race.
  • All Are Equal in Death: This idea comes up throughout the book. When everyone's dying and the survivors are living each day as if it would be their last, there's not exactly much reason to prevent everyone from getting their fair share of the resources that are left behind.
    We were all equal now; magnificent dwellings, luxurious carpets, and beds of down, were afforded to all. Carriages and horses, gardens, pictures, statues, and princely libraries, there were enough of these even to superfluity; and there was nothing to prevent each from assuming possession of his share. We were all equal now; but near at hand was an equality still more levelling, a state where beauty and strength, and wisdom, would be as vain as riches and birth. The grave yawned beneath us all, and its prospect prevented any of us from enjoying the ease and plenty which in so awful a manner was presented to us.
  • Anyone Can Die: By Volume 2, major characters begin to bite the dust constantly and by Volume 3, only a handful of characters, main or minor, are left.
  • Apocalyptic Log: Lionel plans to write a book detailing the plague, in case any survivors from isolated areas recolonize the world and wonder what happened to the past inhabitants.
  • Asshole Victim: Lord Ryland abandons his people and flees up in the wilderness from the plague, only to get his desserts when he is found dead in a pile of supplies he had been hoarding to himself.
  • Bratty Half-Pint: Lionel and Perdita grow to be this as children, a result of them never receiving parental care and discipline. Lionel recalls the time when he was lawless and opposing British nobility. Perdita even more so, as while Lionel would try to form social bonds with other kids his kind, Perdita would usually tend only to herself with the exception of her older brother.
  • Corpse Land: Europe, and probably the rest of the world, isn’t a pretty sight as the plague rages.
    Weed-grown fields, desolate towns, the wild approach of riderless horses had now become habitual to my eyes; nay, sights far worse, of the unburied dead, and human forms which were strewed on the road side, and on the steps of once frequented habitations
  • Driven to Suicide: Perdita promptly drowns herself after finding out about Raymond's death. This, in turn, renders their daughter Clara an orphan.
  • Downer Ending: Seemingly the last person alive and having only a sheepdog as a companion, Lionel has no one of his kind to interact with anymore and though he plans to search Africa and Asia for survivors, his prospects seem grim and the human race seems doomed.
  • Dwindling Party: A group of survivors attempt to travel to Switzerland as its colder climate means that the plague would not be as contagious there. By the time they do reach there, only four of them are alive, and even then, three of them die not long after due to differing circumstances.
  • Failed Future Forecast: Despite happening in the late 21st century, all European monarchies are still in place, aside from the recently-uncrowned British monarchy, the Ottoman Empire still exists, and so on. That said, the book correctly foretold that Greece would become independent from the Ottoman Empire (Greece’s war of independence was ongoing when it was written) and later go to war with them.
  • Foregone Conclusion: The title is about the last remaining human in the world, who turns out to be Lionel by the end of the story. The book chronicles Lionel's life from teenhood (with some background information on his childhood being explained beforehand) up until he's what remains of human civilization.
  • Ghost City: After Lionel washes up on the shores of Ravenna the novels describes his searches for other people in long-abandoned villages as he travels to Rome on foot.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: Lionel was initially this to Adrian, with the second chapter detailing how the former deals with antagonistic thoughts towards the latter before the two actually meet up and befriend one another.
  • The Immune: Lionel becomes the only known person in the whole world to develop symptoms of the plague and then recover, and thereafter he never develops the symptoms again. A small number of other characters don’t even develop symptoms, though they die from other causes. The source of this immunity is unknown, and Lionel interprets it as Fate willing that he survive, which is one of the few things that stop him from killing himself.
  • Last of His Kind: The very title invokes this. True to its word, Lionel seemingly becomes the very last remaining member of the Human race by the end of the story.
  • Loyal Animal Companion: A sheepdog takes an immediate liking to Lionel, him being the first human he had seen in quite a long time.
  • Next Sunday A.D.: The story takes place in the late 21st Century, but as this was written in the early 19th Century, there is relatively little advancement shown regarding technology, common knowledge, social norms, and political understanding.
    • One notable advancement that they do have is the widespread use of balloons for air travel, though this breaks down by the end of the book as civilization falls.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Lionel himself is a stand-in for Mary Shelley. Adrian and Lord Raymond were respectively based on Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron.
  • Orphan's Ordeal: Lionel and Perdita's parents died when they were very young. The lack of parental discipline and control results in the two becoming rather unruly and socially chaotic in nature throughout their childhood and early teen years.
  • Outliving One's Offspring: Both of Lionel's sons, Alfred and Evelyn, die during the exile's trip to Switzerland, Alfred first followed by Evelyn after contacting with typhus.
  • A Pet into the Wild: Companion animals are forced to live wild by their owners dying.
  • Reclaimed by Nature: Since the plague only infects humans, plant and animal life thrive. Plants quickly overgrow the rural towns, and wild animals and feral livestock make homes in abandoned buildings in the cities.
  • Safe Zone Hope Spot: Switzerland is thought by many to be the safest place from the plague due to how cold it is, yet when what's left of the hero's party gets there, they find the place devoid of life just like every other place in Europe.
  • Shout-Out: The book cover re-uses the Wanderer above the Sea of Fog painting.
  • Species Loyalty: Lionel has this, especially in light of the existential threat to the human race.
    The wild and cruel Caribbee, the merciless Cannibal—or worse than these, the uncouth, brute, and remorseless veteran in the vices of civilization, would have been to me a beloved companion, a treasure dearly prized—his nature would be kin to mine; his form cast in the same mould; human blood would flow in his veins; a human sympathy must link us for ever.
  • Super Drowning Skills: Perdita commits suicide by throwing herself off a ship, unable to live out her life without Raymond. Later on, Clara and Adrian drown to death in an unexpected storm at the Adriatic Sea while trying to travel to Greece.
  • Tome of Fate: In the novel’s introduction set in 1818, Mary Shelley claims that she discovered a series of prophetic writings by the Cumaean Sibyl on a pile of leaves inside the Sibly’s cave near Naples and she has translated them into the novel’s narrative which is set in the 21st century.
  • Walking the Earth: After losing Clara and Adrian in a flash flood during a sudden storm and making it to Raveena, Lionel decides to spend the remainder of his life travelling around Africa and Asia with an accompanying sheepdog, hoping to find another human somewhere.