My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Critics consider The Last Man is Mary Shelley‘s most important novel after Frankenstein. Since I read Frankenstein, a few months back, my obsession with the author’s writing style grew and I wanted to gradually examine Shelley’s writing by reading her other works.Thus, I picked this 500 pages long novel that explores similar thematic concerns as in Frankenstein, though from a vastly different perspective. The nightmarish story envisions the end of humanity from a ruthless and inescapable plague. Full of heart-wrenching loss, The Last Man tests the resilience of humanity, as well as its capacity for sorrow and grief.
The storytelling starts at the constant node following the timeline in a similar manner though sometimes, with deep descriptive instances, somewhere it does feel a dragging and one might feel tempt to rush through it. These instances occur only a few number of times most notably when Shelley often passed over the moments of action or character growth with a short summary, but that certainly never affects her descriptions of places or emotional states. Rest of the book does leave a similar impact on a reader as Frankenstein (only, if you have read Frankenstein). Like many other Victorian authors, Shelley felt no need to rush the plot along, nor to curtail her flood of words. Luckily, she backed them up with ideas and feelings, so it was not merely the empty deluge of words.
The book is very thematically interesting, set in the 2090s, Shelley with her magical yet plain-looking words, tries to expose her internal views. Much of the book is a deconstruction of Romanticism, showing how an aesthete’s optimism never long survives contact with the real world. The reactions to loss and grief are as various as they are in real life: some characters fall into madness, some in to cold and hardheartedness, and others in to deeper conviction to help those still alive.
Since the story involves a large-scale apocalypse, the inspiration behind the novel is, I guess, intensely personal. At the time of its production, Shelley had suffered a series of tragic, insurmountable losses. By 1819, she had lost three children—one at birth and two in early childhood. In 1824, her husband, the major Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, drowned in a shipwreck at the age of 29 and friend and fellow poet, Lord Byron.
One can also imagine that her two primary characters, Alan and Lord Raymond, are based, on her husband and Lord Byron. As the plot advances, a reader observes that high-minded, idealistic philosophies described in the text dwindle into irrelevance as society falls apart, man by man, until the reader is left with only the narrator, who believes himself to be the last man on earth. Throughout this process, one can admire with ease and then lose character after character. Thus, this ongoing tragedy makes me feel Shelley’s own personal struggles as she mirrors her own grief by examining it through all the various angles and scenarios afforded by the realm of fiction.
With the apocalyptic instance, Shelley recognizes the death of mankind as fall of art, of idealism, of love and joy, and all the heights that we have reached, or hoped to reach. The death of man is a tragedy, but till the death arrives, we can only hope to outlive them with advancements in our lives and replacing previous hopes them with new ones.