‘The Last Man’: Mary Shelley and her Defiance against Dystopia
By Sarottama Majumdar
On March 13, 2020, by which date the reality of COVID-19 as a pandemic and its global effect had begun to be realized, the New York Times published an op-ed discussing a little known, largely forgotten novel by Mary Shelley written in 1826. In the article, Eileen Botting notes the chilling similarities between the situation in the Western hemisphere as it was unfolding at that time and the global apocalypse described in Mary Shelley’s The Last Man. The similarities are not confined to the nature and characteristics of the disease as imagined by Mary Shelley with the one raging now but more importantly, to the lacuna she envisaged in political and leadership responses to acknowledging and containing death and damage. The novel has since, through 2020, a year that has been immersed in unprecedented disease related mortality on a global scale, achieved the dubious distinction of being hailed in academic circles as a minor cult classic and by conspiracy theorists as a visionary work with hidden esoteric symbolism.
Mary Shelley’s dystopic vision of the end of times as depicted in the last chapter of the three-volume novel, sweeps over a world decimated of all but one man and his only living companion, a dog who in the last scene depicted as looking down from a height to the morning sun gilding the basilica of St. Peter in Rome, straddling a world empty of hope, faith, and promise. In the novel The Last Man, the symbolic significance of the epidemic which first surfaced in Constantinople and whose devastation would finally conclude with the death of the eponymous last man in Rome, is not lost on readers. As Botting reminds us, Shelley, the daughter of two philosophers, imagined the crisis unleashed on the world as much civilizational as medical. It is one which could well be a prescient comment on the pandemic the world is suffering from at the present time, especially its reception and effect in the global socio-political scenario reaching a climactic and chaotic crescendo now.
Dystopic or apocalyptic fiction has been enjoying increasing popularity in the last two decades. Texts depicting a dysfunctional present and/or future on various media platforms – print, film, television, web, cyber games and versions in which concepts cross from one to the other – have abounded in these decades and colonized a considerable share of our collective mind-space. Apocalyptic science fiction was the generic term which would, before the nineteen eighties, have sufficed to describe works as diverse as the film The Matrix, the web series Hunger Games, the novel The Handmaid’s Tale and the video game The Last of Us, all of which deal variously with a post-disaster world order slowly or speedily moving towards the extinction of human life as we know it. Dystopic fiction is that form of futuristic fantasy that deals with a dire and endangered future where scientific or technological innovations lead to invasive threats to human survival from within and without. The dangers depicted typically result from application of artificial intelligence, extraterrestrial invasion, or environmental crises. Few among the abovementioned works deal also with predictive biological Armageddon such as the 2018 film of the Maze Runner series entitled The Death Cure about a pandemic named ‘Flare’. Margaret Atwood’s acclaimed novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) introduced a tangential new discourse in the biological dystopic genre which is that of reproductive female agency as player in a medical emergency. Mary Shelley’s novel written a century and a half before modern dystopic apocalyptic fiction became popular contains in it many of the abovementioned concerns.
The Last Man published in London in 1826 is considered the first dystopic sci-fi written in English. Unlike later dystopian fiction such as George Orwell’s 1984 and Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the novel is not a political satire against totalitarianism though there are enough clues to its possible interpretation as a cautionary tale against blind trust placed on political leaders. In a chilling episode which occurs in the third volume of the novel, a charismatic and popular leader in France with a huge cultic following identified only as “the imposter” is introduced, who leads his believers to extinction from the contagious disease raging across the world. He does so first by assuring them that the disease is in fact not as serious as proclaimed everywhere and that he can save his followers from it and later by withholding and falsifying facts about danger and mortality rates. Another leader, this time in Britain, is portrayed as escaping and abandoning his fellow countrymen and later discovered dead in a bunker surrounded by stockpiled provisions, while around him people die of sickness and starvation. In a separate instance, reverse migration is portrayed in the return of hundreds of Irish immigrants who go back to Ireland from North America and the intense suffering of the returning migrants, leading to an insurrection and revolution. Such portrayals, though tempting enough since they can be compared with contemporary instances of betrayal or failure of global leadership in the current crisis, or of the suffering of immigrants during pandemics, should not distract the reader from exploring the existentialist and civilizational dilemma at the heart of Shelley’s fictionalized depiction of humanity and human continuance brought to the brink of slow disappearance through factors (in this case an unnamed plague) which cannot be overcome. The sense of pervasive doom and decay that the story about an incurable disease and inexorable genocide evoked was considered so disturbing at the time of publication that early copies were suppressed and Mary Shelley herself had to answer accusations of witchcraft and black magic.
Interestingly, H.G. Wells’ early twentieth century apocalyptic novel The War of the Worlds also depicting the same sense of infallible doom for mankind, though in this case caused by an alien invasion, used the contagious pandemic trope by turning it on its head. Here the pandemic (described in human terms as a common or garden ‘flu’) affected enemy aliens but left humans, who have developed herd immunity to this strain of the influenza, unscathed. Thus, it was the virus that caused an epidemic among alien invaders and re-conquered the earth for human habitation. It is a coincidence of staggering order that the two successive pandemic related sci-fi English novels The Last Man and The War of the Worlds, separated by a century within the English literary canon, should have so many similarities with the reality of the situation today in certain particulars. One must remember that in Mary Shelley’s novel, the pandemic commences in 2073. It is as though the early critics of Mary Shelley had a point when they castigated her as a seer. She was after all inaccurate by only half a century.
Mary Shelley’s work, therefore, must be assessed as a positive and humane document in spite of the brooding morbidity of its central thesis. This statement, startling as it may sound, is rooted in the invocation of the writer’s Romantic vision, coupled with her deep investment in the ethical mores governing human development, scientific advancement, and political commitment to universal welfare. Her vision of a deeply problematic society spiralling hopelessly into ruin with the symbolic disease acting as a catalyst is offset by her final epiphanic image of the individual human survivor. Lionel, the protagonist and the last man, is acutely aware of his own imminent death and with it, the conclusion of human existence. As a symbol however, he represents the human individual who confronts mortality and transcends fears of biological extinction choosing to regale his vision instead with evidence of human achievement and manifestations of immortality of the spirit rather than that of flesh. In that one symbolic gesture of defiance against fear of mortality and concern for mere biological survival as opposed to glorying in the deathless spirit of human endeavor, Shelley’s Lionel becomes the medieval ‘Everyman’ and Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Renaissance Man’ whose individual genius is humanity’s greatest triumph and its strongest defense against annihilation.
Sarottama Majumdar is Associate Professor in the Department of English at Sarsuna College, Kolkata. Her research interests include cultural history of urban colonial spaces in India, rhetoric of identity formation and historiography. She has published and presented her findings in journals as well as books.
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