Shelley’s Prolonged Apocalypse

One overlooked end-of-the-world text is Mary Shelley’s novel The Last Man in which a plague invades Europe and, eventually, the world.  This repetitive, cyclical text feels even longer than Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year and yet less events occur to move the plot forward.  Shelley’s vision of the end of times is vastly different from any other apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic text I have read as the doom takes years (nearly forever) to come to fruition.  Humanity’s demise is not immediate here.  It involves prolonged suffering and gives characters almost an eternity to reflect and take action.  Taking action is precisely what characters in this novel do not do…unless, of course, running for office and trying to fight the plague with soap-box preaching and parliamentary antics can save the world.

The hero esand survivors are Lionel Verney, a noble-born orphan who begins as a dirty rogue and climbs the social ladder to become an imaginative, intellectual, and moral leader (some say much like Shelley herself), Adrian, Earl of Winsor, a passionate — some may say mad — revolutionary; Clara, Verney’s niece; and Evelyn, Verney’s daughter.  In the last scene of the novel, these survivors abandon France and (not surprisingly for this period, or for Shelley) head toward Switzerland.

What struck me about this novel was that unlike other apocalyptic protagonists, these heroes seems to learn nothing through their jaunt with the plague, and they have had about 300% more time to figure it out than others.  There is never any attempt to figure out where the plague originates or how to cure it.  Likewise, there is no attempt to run from the plague or to protect themselves from it.  In fact, Verney and the Earl see the plague as an opportunity to rise in rank in government and take on more public roles, leading society toward their ideal for humanity.  I have never seen anything like this; it was startling!  Similarly, the same events happen time and again in this novel.  Verney pauses and makes the same observations until I was nearly sick of reading this novel.  Shelley’s vision of the apocalypse was the most unproductive, stagnant read in the genre…which, of course, makes it very important and worthy of a second read.

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