Book Review: The Last Man by Mary Shelley

The Last Man, though a largely unknown work written by Mary Shelley, is quite a masterpiece. 

The book starts off with the importance of friendship, character interaction, and responsibility. Lionel (the main character), and his sister are orphans who first live a childhood of seclusion. However, they soon become friends of Prince Adrain, whose parents had known each other in their younger days. Though the depth of their camaraderie is somewhat unclear, the message sticks with readers as plot progresses. To illustrate, when I came across Lionel’s introduction to Adrian and the ties they began to form, it was crucial to take note of those moments in order to understand what was to come

(some vague spoilers will be mentioned in the next few paragraphs) 

Though the main topic of The Last Man is about annihilation, there are a few sections that precede the primary focus: Adrian’s illness, his revival of health through Lionel’s care, certain love relations and marriages occur, and the loss of love through the years. Therefore, observe these parts as a reader, and see what they might mean to you. It could significantly affect your perspective when the plague comes and begins to ravage the population. In hindsight, Mary Shelley adds these events prior to the disease in order to evoke certain emotions, whether it be sorrow, anguish, or pity. Books that make us feel are much more worthwhile than bland narration, as the miseries each character must endure allows such novels to feel closer to home, even if the cause of their pain is different from ours. To cry, laugh, and raise happiness are general sensations that enable authors to make the most of their craft. Anyhow, onto the plague.

The plague starts off in Eastern Europe and Asia, and eventually spreads to infect the Americas, Greece, and England (where the main protagonists reside). Therefore, a slow ruination of Lionel happens as he’s forced to witness the destruction of his countrymen. Moreover, as the illness consumes the globe, Lionel notices a shift in human behavior. He explains fear as a common reaction, an emotion so thick in the atmosphere that it’s as dominant as the air he breathes. In other words, he realizes that people are foolish to think themselves superior to the forces of nature. 

Before I come to a full resolution, a “character” that is hidden through most of the book, though which strikes me as significant, is Death. As described by Lionel, Death was a creature which originally came at night, a “thief which preyed on life.” However, as the plague began to plunder, it took on a new title – a conqueror. Therefore, Shelley’s creative attempts at figurative language gives room for the rise of certain themes, such as the truths of survival and existence. 

In short, The Last Man is about the realities of life, a reminder that we are expendable. 

-Emilia D.

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