There will be somewhat spoilers (theme-wise and stuff like that)
This book does not get a lot of love. It didn’t when it was written and while it since the 1960s have become more known, it is still little known and little loved. I do understand it if this isn’t your favourite book, but I do protest against the “The Last Man”-hate.
The book is about a man and his experience living through a plague that wipes out the “entire” human race (small critic as the entire world is here Europe, we never learn what happens outside Europe/Turkey, but I assume that is a product of the time). This is a slow burn and that is it’s best and worst quality.
HEAR YOU not the rushing sound of the coming tempest? Do you not behold the clouds open, and destruction lurid and dire pour down on the blasted earth? See you not the thunderbolt fall, and are deafened by the shout of heaven that follows its descent? Feel you not the earth quake and open with agonizing groans, while the air is pregnant with shrieks and wailings,— all announcing the last days of man? No! none of these things accompanied our fall! – vol III chapter I
The book spans years, despite this not being really reflected on and more shown through the ageing of people. There is also not really a big event, more of a dwindling experience. To me this was wonderful. It’s an apocalyptic novel, being about the end of the world, but unlike other stories where the disaster is quick this is about something slow. It eats people up, fills them with dread and it’s not for nothing that this book is considered the first modern apocalyptic novel. Today we have medicine and vaccines and therefore we might have forgotten the dread disease once carried with them. Plagues that wiped out huge parts of the populations wasn’t unheard of, and the science in this book is actually amassing, though not explicit like in Frankenstein’s Monster. While the main character might wonder why he is the last man, modern readers will be able to put the pieces together thanks to medicinal knowledge that, while new in Mary Wollstencroft Shelley’s day, is everyday knowledge for a lot of us. While the science in Frankenstein’s Monster is fantastical, the science here is so everyday we as modern readers might forget how innovative and new this was and that her correct portrayal of it all actually wasn’t that given in her time.
This book is said to be quite autobiographical with the characters in the book reminiscent of characters of her own life (Lord Raymond is Lord Byron and Adrian is Percy Shelley) and the main character is herself. This might explain why the main character at some points seem to have almost romantic feelings for Adrian, despite having a wife. I’m pretty sure the main character is bi. Pretty sure. But then again this might just be Mary Wollstencroft Shelley’s love for her late husband, or the figure that is so like him, is shining through.
We were a failing remnant, tamed to mere submission to the coming blow. A train half dead, through fear of death—a hopeless, unresisting, almost reckless crew, which, in the tossed bark of life, had given up all pilotage, and resigned themselves to the destructive force of ungoverned winds. – Vol III chapter VIII
Here we see one of the main themes of the book, which is a critic of the view of man as an island. How people relate and depend on one another is something that is shown again and again, and how people in crises lean on one another in both good ways and bad. When the plague has reached a certain number of victims and people start to panic Shelley describes how some sacrifice everything to stay with the people they love and others group together and get taken advantage of because of their fear of or sorrow connected to death.
Slowly she reveals how people as a group and as individuals experience the catastrophe and deal with the aftermath of each event. How the people who give comfort very soon might be the ones who need comfort in return next time. It never picks up speed in one sense and it reminded me a lot of Poe and the way he writes. Slowly revealing bit for bit until you don’t know right from wrong. Yes you hear stories about people you don’t know for long and how they suffer and die, and this has been explained as a reason not to like it. I didn’t mind. I cried when I heard about the daughters and mothers who stayed not because of them as individuals, but because I recognised and empathised with a form of type. The same way watching people I don’t know on the news and feeling for them because I recognise them as the same as people I do know and care for.
I AM the native of a sea-surrounded nook, a cloud-enshadowed land, which, when the surface of the globe, with its shoreless ocean and trackless continents, presents itself to my mind, appears only as an inconsiderable speck in the immense whole; and yet, when balanced in the scale of mental power, far outweighed countries of larger extent and more numerous population. So true it is, that man’s mind alone was the creator of all that was good or great to man, and that Nature herself was only his first minister. – Vol I, chapter I
This isn’t the book for people who want a quick read, but if you don’t mind to take your time and slowly let the book lead you along, you might see why Mary Wollstencroft Shelley said this was her favourite.