Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has long been a favorite of mine and every time I read it, I experience a thrill at the sublime, the weighty prose that makes white caps and glaciers stand full-size in my mind. Shelley’s ability to embody the male voice and lay it out with unabashed sentimentality, perhaps a feature of her romantic spirit, is enviable. She is a poet who writes her verse in prose, while indulging in a story that keeps her reader riveted.
I did not expect any less from The Last Man, though I was surprised at its wandering and staid narrative. It is an apocalyptic novel unlike those written today, for Mary Shelley does not envision a hellish doom brought about by zombies or artificial intelligence or totalitarian regimes or climatic revelations. The end of humanity is frightening enough, especially if a single person is left all alone. Shelley quietly and ever so slowly lures her reader down a road that follows her hero from love and abundance to a forlorn state of social destitution and emptiness.
I cannot begin to give a summary of Lionel Verney’s story since it unravels in an unnecessarily belabored manner, the reason for which seems obvious only when one reaches the story’s conclusion. The labor involved in reading this kind of novel cannot be measured in hours, but must be measured in personal transformation. One becomes someone else by finishing a novel so utterly lacking in story development but rich in philosophy. My heart was lightened, and my labor softened, only in the last two chapters when Verney becomes that which Shelley has promised the reader all along. In a brilliant twist of metafiction, the reader is reminded that she is only reading the history of the last man because the shadows have arisen, of which she is one, and learned of humanity’s fall. We don’t discover this until the end, but Verney is writing his tale not so much for posterity as for it being the only way for him to keep his companions close—all dead and gone by now—as he fulfills the task of continuing to live.
His writing in fact becomes an artifact to add to the pile of literature and art that are the only markers of humanity’s existence. Our remains are not the bones we leave behind, but the art we make to prove we ever lived. Art is the only thing to appease Verney’s soul once he is alone, and Shelley makes that clear with a lovely moment that has him clasping the “icy proportions” of Cupid and Psyche, pressing himself between “the unconceiving marble.” The statue that sits untouched in the Vatican is a reminder of the salvation to which we are wont to cling when life has become hopeless. Shelley does not preach in The Last Man, and yet both Roman worlds—the ancient and Christian—haunt Verney’s spiritual journey.
Nature takes her place, too, and the reader is offered some of that awe-inspiring sublimity that graces the pages of Frankenstein. Even if man dies, the Earth will stand firm, continuing to dominate what has always been hers. Man is a guest, an unnecessary addition—or plague—to a wholesome organism that needs nothing but itself to thrive. The last man, on the other hand, suffers in his loneliness, and it becomes apparent that if we are to take anything away from Shelley’s apocalyptic vision, it is that man must inhabit the company of others to know he has purpose, a soul, and the will to live.
TITLE: The Last Man (1826)
AUTHOR: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
PUBLISHER: CreateSpace Independent Publishing