The world’s going to end in a lot of different ways. Take your Apocalypse pick.
If you’re a young and upcoming film director with a limited budget it’s going to be zombies. If you’re a Religious fundamentalist it’s going to be from bad weather because of all the gays. And if you’re Roland Emmerich with a large budget it’s going to be an Ice-Age, Aliens, a Big Stompy Lizard, and Mayan Calendars.
The idea of the world coming to an end is as old as mankind itself, and it often seems the case that doomsayers pick the apocalypse which suits them. But what I want to talk about today is what the first actual Apocalypse fiction was. Who first wrote a piece of creative media to follow a set of characters through, and after, the world effectively ending?
The first piece of Apocalyptic Fiction was, of course, The Last Man by Mary Shelley.
It should be noted first and foremost, this is not actually what Mary Shelley is known for at all.
Mary Shelley was a genius novelist of the nineteenth century. She is best known for writing “Frankenstein”, of the Frankenstein’s monster which has become a cultural staple. She is, along with Edgar Allen Poe, considered the Mother to Poe’s father of the science-fiction genre. She also had the misfortune to be married to second generation Romantic Poet, Percy Shelley, who was not a very nice person and has cast somewhat of an unwarranted shadow over Mary.
The Last Man was actually considered Gothic fiction by Mary’s peers. And this was rather a mark against it. By the year it was published, 1826, Gothic fiction was considered very out of fashion. Also Mary had the stigma of Frankenstein against her, with Frankenstein being massively popular and critically acclaimed, with everything else Mary wrote having to be matched to that. Obviously people’s expectations were already set very high, to a point where the Last Man could never have reached them. It is for these reasons that The Last Man is generally forgotten except by Nerdy Academics, and actually read by even fewer of them.
But does The Last Man deserve more popularity?
The Novel is divided into three sections, one about the domestic struggles of the characters in upper-class life, one about the political struggles of the characters in warring Europe, and the final section about the apocalypse, which Mary chooses to be an unstoppable killer Virus, and the characters’ fallout from that. The main character is the Narrator, Lionel, who starts his life as an orphan drifter, and by the end of the novel is the last man left alive; the Last Man of the title. It’s actually a huge novel, and its fictional time frame spans several decades.
Politically, the Novel doesn’t say much. It’s about mainly rich people living rich lives and makes no real comment about class or the political system of its day. It has an anti-war message, which is nice, but – as the warfare is diluted to the conflict between Greece and Turkey, and squabbles for resources after mankind is dying out – Mary doesn’t hit hard with her stance.
In terms of writing, I’m not even going to pretend that this novel was well written. With completely unbelievable dialogue between its characters, continuous over-emotively charged speeches without the slightest provocation, and long and disparate plots revolving around the main characters over- reacting to each other, it really is a drag to get from the start to the end. Most of Mary Shelley’s worst traits as a writer can be found in this novel.
So apart from the novelty of being the first piece of true apocalyptic fiction, is there anything worth recommending The Last Man for? Well, what makes it actually rather interesting is how auto-biographical the whole work is.
The Last Man was written after both Percy Shelley and his fellow second generation romantic poet and Bestie, George Byron, had died. This trio of Mary, Percy and George, along with the typical collection of hanger-ons, were sort of a rock star band who toured Europe during the early nineteenth century and wrote the outstanding literature of its day. The loss of her two contemporaries left Mary very much alone, and eventually very much marginalised. The Last Man as a novel’s actual purpose as far as Mary was concerned was to be almost as an epitaph to her two band members.
The two most major characters of the The Last Man, apart from the narrator, are Adrian and Raymond. Adrian and Raymond are basically literary representations of Percy Shelley and George Byron respectively. What’s fascinating is the extent to which Mary Shelley idealised them. Raymond, Mary’s Byron, is a passionate demi-god of supreme determination and force, who travels Europe and wins the hearts of maidens and conquers all who oppose him. Adrian, Mary’s Percy, is basically saint. A man who makes supreme Christ-like sacrifices to preserve human life.
It is simply crazy how far Mary goes to idealise these two people. These two people who weren’t actually very nice, and weren’t actually very nice to her.
The Narrator, Lionel, is basically the author insertion character of Mary. A figure, lifted out of compassionless obscurity by the two supposed demi-gods of Byron and Percy, only to get chucked back into hopeless obscurity when these two figures pass away. Let me make it clear, Mary Shelley is comparing the loss of Percy and Byron to the end of humanity itself. She has created the first apocalyptic novel to express how sad she is about losing her two best male mates.
This seems sad from a feminist outlook. A women writing a piece of ground-breaking fiction just to idolise and idealise her male peers to point where she herself seems insignificant. But while Mary Shelley does idealise her male companions way too much, she at the same time completely trashes their ideology. The outlook of Byron and Shelley was that humanity will raise itself up by art and nature. This outlook is shown to be completely impractical by Mary because, basically, one day everyone is going to die.
At the end of the day, The Last Man will never be a widely read novel. I highly doubt it will ever get turned into a decent film either. It simply is too little known, and too badly written, to shine in a genre that has thousands of outstanding and popular works. But just from the uniqueness of the circumstances surrounding it, and its inadvertently pioneering nature, it deserves be understood a little better.
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