Monsters at the End of the World: Mary Shelley’s Complex Apocalypticism in The Last Man

by Catherine Alber

Note: Page numbers from the print version are indicated in brackets and should not be considered part of the text of the article.

[page 9] Abstract: By introducing a devastating crisis into an already complex domestic political drama in her third novel, The Last Man (1826), Mary Shelley entwines politics with pestilence in a complicated dance, in which the political interrogates the pestilential and vice versa. Like her influences William Godwin and Thomas Malthus, the novel grapples with the question of how humanity’s future would be shaped by apocalyptic events. Some critics have read The Last Man as an argument in favor of Godwinian millennialism, but Shelley subverts the Godwinian ideal by introducing monster tropes in the forms of both the plague and her protagonist, Lionel. Others claim that Shelley sides with Malthus since the nascent republicanism of her future England is superseded by a catastrophic and thence Malthusian decline leading to the extinction of humankind. I argue, however, that Shelley’s employment of monster tropes allows her novel to interrogate and complicate the competing visions of the future of humanity posited by her father and his rival. Indeed, whereas Godwin is perhaps too idealistic, and Malthus too pessimistic, Shelley prefers to investigate a more realistic assessment of human nature, that of contradiction and inconsistency. In doing so she demonstrates her own political acumen and pragmatism.

Keywords: Mary Shelley, William Godwin, Thomas Malthus, plague literature, apocalypticism, abhuman, monster

The Centers for Disease Control reports that, as of September 9, 2022, 1,044,461 Americans have died of COVID-19. Deaths worldwide, according to the World Health Organization, have reached the staggering number of 6,484,136. For nearly three years, every person in the world has contended daily with a global pandemic that continues to feel apocalyptic in scope. This information is not new to any reader. However, it is the perfect historic [page 10] moment to revisit plague fiction. In the first eighteen months of the pandemic, I re-read such diverse examples of plague literature as Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of a Plague Year (1722), Albert Camus’s The Plague (La Peste, 1947) and Max Brooks’s World War Z (2006). No novel feels as apt to our current situation, however, as Mary Shelley’s third novel, The Last Man (1826).

Unfortunately, The Last Man has not attracted nearly the critical attention that it deserves; this is perhaps, I surmise, because it is a generic mess. One thing critics seem to agree upon is that it is more than simply plague fiction, but otherwise they have grappled with its classification: is it a roman à clef, a thinly veiled autobiography, or apocalyptic proto-science fiction? Political treatise or anti-political Romance? Lauren Cameron, for example, calls The Last Man a political roman à clef (180), and Kari Locke calls it an “anti-Romantic” roman à clef (118). To Lee Sterrenburg, it is both Romantic and “antipolitical” (328). Of the more recent critical examinations of the novel, Patricia Cove classifies The Last Man as a Gothic novel that combines “grotesque human bodies” with sublime terror (21); in her reading of the novel as an interrogation of progressivist and Cynic cosmopolitanism, Andrea Haslanger highlights the significance of Shelley’s political insights (662).

My argument most closely parallels those of Cove and Haslanger. In The Last Man, the political and pestilential have been inextricably entwined—just as they are in real-world 2022—and Shelley also uses Gothic tropes to examine the relationship between plague and politics. The Last Man occupies the contentious space between two disparate visions of the future of humankind: her father William Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793) and Thomas Malthus’s rebuttal, An Essay on the Principles of Population (1798, revised 1803). These two treatises are the most prominent examples of the debate about the future impact of the French Revolution, as well as prominent examples of non-fiction apocalyptic speculation. They are [page 11] central to an understanding of Shelley’s novel.1

In The Last Man, a Godwinian utopia-in-progress, moving toward potential perfectibility, is superseded by a catastrophe and thence a Malthusian decline leading to the extinction of humankind. Shelley then complicates this conflict by adding two monsters. The first is the eponymous narrator, whom Shelley presents as a hybrid last man/abhuman figure; the second is the plague, personified as a monstrous being. Finally, rather than argue either for Godwin’s optimism or Malthus’s pessimism, Shelley uses her novel to interrogate and complicate the competing visions of the future of humanity posited by her father and his rival.

Early Nineteenth-Century Millennialism and Millenarianism2

Shelley’s novel came at the end of a period in which several religious leaders heralded the French Revolution as the beginning of Armageddon as prophesied in the Book of Revelation. Preachers such as Richard Brothers (1757-1824), George Stanley Faber (1773-1854), and Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) argued that the millennium was near and that elements of the revolution corresponded to revelations detailed in the New Testament.3 For some, like Priestley, the End was to be celebrated (Priestley 43, 45); like many millennialists, he believed that the apocalypse would initiate an earthly utopia. Religious millennialism, notes Luciano Pellicani, consisted of the establishment of “a reign of peace and justice in which all the negative features of the human condition, such as violence [and] exploitation . . . would be eradicated” (26). Millennialism, however, was not confined to Christian belief. Richard Landes explains that secular millennialists believed in a future social catalyst that would “transform this world by transforming society,” thus initiating a “time of justice here on earth,” and that this vision “can, but need not, entail a belief in God” (23). [page 12]

To Godwin, humanity is steadily working toward its own perfection. In a gesture that further aligns him with Morton Paley’s definition of millennialism (see note 2), Godwin advocates that progression must be kept at a slow pace, according to natural habit (Vol. I, 183). A more just and peaceful society may be accomplished, he argues rather vaguely, if individuals will devote themselves to “justice and truth” (183) and “correct [their] habits” (185). He argues that since consistent progress has been made in science and art, we can also expect the same progress to continue in “morals” and “social institutions” (50). As we shall see, these features of Godwin’s philosophy underpin the beliefs of Shelley’s protagonists in The Last Man.

While Godwin anticipates a gentle progression into anarchic millennialism, the Reverend Thomas Malthus, in his Essay, envisions a darker future in which the human population outstrips its ability to produce food and thus perishes in a maelstrom of famine, pestilence, and violence. However, he saves the bulk of his essay for a direct rebuttal of Godwin’s Political Justice. Godwin’s future utopia, Malthus argues, would cause an increase in population and therefore food shortages, which in turn would lead to “violence, oppression, falsehood, misery, every hateful vice, and every form of distress, which degrade and sadden the present state of society” (68). Malthus cannot envision a world in which climatic and agricultural variances, not to mention human nature, would allow for any outcome but desolation. He also maintains that “the period when the number of men surpass their means of subsistence has long since arrived” (55-58), and it is this immediacy that gives Malthus’s work its doomsday quality. For both these men, then, apocalypse was inevitable; they merely disagreed on what the apocalypse entailed for the future of humanity.

The Abhuman and Last Man Tropes

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the abhuman [page 13] figure as “partially human” (“Abhuman”). Kelly Hurley, in her monograph The Gothic Body, calls the abhuman “a not-quite-human subject, characterized by its morphic variability, continually in danger of . . . becoming other” (3). Essentially, then, the state of abhuman-ness positions the human body as a site at which it “collapses and is reshapen” into something monstrous (Hurley 4). In other words, the abhuman is a simulacrum of humanity, but is also unhuman enough to represent a monstrous Other. Therefore, it signifies either a reconsideration of humanity itself as monstrous, like Victor Frankenstein’s creation, or a liminal figure like the narrator of The Last Man, whose position as the sole survivor of a plague places him in the not-quite-human space between existence and extinction, and whose unexplained resistance to the plague identifies him as not-quite-human.

The abhuman also functions as a sociocultural locus of collective anxiety tied to the place and time in which it was created and, as Andre Ng explains, is usually tied to crisis. Ng argues that it “bring[s] into relief the way such crises invest monstrous meanings onto certain bodies to cathect anxieties” (144). Ng’s use of the word “cathect” is worth emphasizing here. The monster is not only the locus of sociocultural anxiety spurred by crisis but is also a site at which anxiety is charged with socio-emotional import.

The last man is the last human being to survive an apocalyptic event; he is therefore poised on the threshold between humanity and post-humanity. He is comparable to the abhuman in that he is a liminal figure who represents either “threat or promise” (Hurley 4), largely because, as the lone figure at the brink of extinction, he is neither living nor dead, a shadowy figure only marginally human. If viewed through the lens of biblically inspired millenarianism, the last man may be considered a vanguard of a better future; in the words of Fiona Stafford, a “reflection” of the “fundamental wish for . . . a sign that it is possible to evade death” (3). However, like Shelley’s Lionel, he also represents [page 14] incalculable loss and sorrow, as well as the unthinkable: the extinction of humankind.

A Proliferation of Last Men

Given the apocalyptic climate at the turn of the nineteenth century, it is perhaps not surprising that artists as well as theologians and philosophers focused on the end of the world. Fiona Stafford writes in the introduction to her book The Last of the Race that the proliferation of what she calls “last-of-the-race” narratives “underlines the vital connection between the [last man] myth” and cultural crisis (11). More specifically, Lee Sterrenburg notes that, although Romantic artists had been fascinated by calamity before Napoleon’s fall, this theme took on new resonance and intensity after 1815. Nature, once viewed as a benevolent force, “now seemed to be conspiring to destroy all of civilization, through . . . fire, storm, flood, earthquake, or epidemic” (326). Sterrenburg observes, as do Stafford and Cameron, that the period following the French Revolution was rife with prose and poetry with either apocalyptic or “last-of-the-race” themes, poems such as George Gordon, Lord Byron’s “Darkness” (1816) and Thomas Campbell’s “The Last Man” (1823), as well as novels like James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans and John Galt’s The Last of the Lairds, both published in the same year as Shelley’s novel (Sterrenburg 326-327; Stafford 9; Cameron 179).4 Byron’s “Darkness” is a grim narration of the death of the sun and humankind’s slow extinction by starvation and war. Campbell’s “The Last Man” contains a more hopeful vision: the last man, who narrates, believes himself to be chosen by God, and avows that though his body may perish, his soul is immortal (ll. 60-65).

One of the most compelling examples of a last-man narrative in prose was written in 1805 by the French priest Jean-Baptiste François Xavier Cousin de Grainville, whose Le Dernier Homme (The Last Man) was translated into [page 15] English and published in London in 1806 (as Omegarus and Syderia, a Romance in Futurity). The text is an important precursor to Shelley’s work, not merely because it is also an apocalyptic narrative in prose but also because it was likely inspired by de Grainville’s experience as a disillusioned participant in the French Revolution. According to Paley, de Grainville was a pro-Revolutionist who entertained “millenarian” beliefs about the Revolution, preaching in one sermon in 1792 that Republican victory would cause ‘“[a]ll countries [to] become fertile [and] peoples [to] unite in a general confederation”’ (qtd. in Paley, “Le Dernier Homme” 68). Despite its political undertones, however, de Grainville’s story is overtly religious, whereas Shelley’s is a purely secular apocalypse; there is no Christian teleology present in her narrative.5 Therefore, as Cameron notes, Shelley’s work is a departure from the other last man narratives of her time. While there is no evidence that Shelley read de Grainville (Stafford 201), Shelley’s novel achieves much the same effect without the religious overtones. It is also one of the few narratives, and the only one in prose, that imagines the total, random destruction of all humankind (179).6

That Mary Shelley followed a current literary trend with her third novel did not sit well with the critics. The review in The Literary Gazette of February 18, 1826, for example, calls the book “a sickening repetition of horrors,” “sheer nonsense,” and “sad doings” (“The Last Man” 103); the reviewer also implies that the subject is sufficient for short poems (“a few detached lines”), but that three volumes of prose is a bit much (102). The Monthly Review (March 1826) complains that “[t]his idea of ‘The Last Man’ has already tempted the genius of more than one of our poets. . . . Every writer who has hitherto ventured on the theme, has fallen infinitely beneath it. Mrs. Shelley, in following their example, has merely made herself ridiculous” (“Art. XII” 334).

Given these critical reactions, perhaps the first question [page 16] to ask about The Last Man is why Shelley chose to contribute to the field of extinction literature. Several critics have focused on the autobiographical elements of the novel, which is certainly valid.7 The Last Man’s greatest autobiographical significance lay in Mary Shelley’s ability to capture her own personal apocalypse—the isolation and bereavement she felt following legion personal losses: three children, a young husband, various friends, and her beloved Italy. She began the novel two years after Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned off the coast of Italy in July 1822. It is perhaps understandable, given these circumstances, that her characters are modeled after herself, her husband, and their friends. The character of Adrian—paragon of virtue and dedicated radical republican—is clearly modeled on Percy; the firebrand Raymond, who dies fighting for Greek independence, on Byron, whose death in May 1824 sunk Mary deeper into despair (Shelley, Journal 478). The idyllic period in Book One of The Last Man, in which the protagonists live together at Windsor, an area where Mary and Percy lived happily in 1815-1816, recalls accounts in both Mary and Percy’s journals of the time spent in Italy with Byron and a coterie of friends (Hay 82-92). The character of Perdita, whose depth of mourning upon the death of her husband leads to suicide, is an extension of Shelley’s sorrow; she writes in her journal on January 30, 1824, that she “never prayed so heartily for death as now” (475). Shelley also identifies with Lionel; it is no coincidence that, in attempting her first novel since Percy’s death, she should focus on a character who finds himself utterly alone in the world: Mary felt much the same way. In an entry for May 14, 1824, she writes, “The last man! Yes[,] I may well describe that solitary being’s feelings, feeling myself as the last relic of a beloved race, my companions, extinct before me” (476-477).

As much, however, as Shelley obviously drew from her own life, the novel is not merely a thinly veiled autobiography but a skillful examination of British social and political life. I agree with Lauren Cameron that Shelley uses her [page 17] “personal experience” in service of her larger political and philosophical aims (180). Not only is much of the novel overtly political; it also entwines politics with pestilence in a complicated dance in which the political interrogates the pestilential and vice versa—much as the debate between Godwin and Malthus interrogates the political and the cataclysmic. The introduction of a devastating crisis into an already complex domestic political drama, moreover, allows Shelley to use fiction to explore contemporary political philosophy. Like Godwin and Malthus, the novel grapples with the question of how humanity’s future would be shaped by the cataclysmic events of their own time.

Godwinian or Malthusian?

A few recent critics have explored the connection between Shelley’s fiction and the debate between Godwin and Malthus, with good reason: Shelley was certainly familiar with their work. In her journal, in which she lists the books she has read each year, Shelley indicates that she has read, and reread, both Godwin’s Political Justice and Malthus’s Essay.8 She had referenced Godwin’s work in her fiction before, having quoted extensively from Political Justice in Frankenstein. However, critics who have mined the connection among the three works have tended to read The Last Man as a political argument that advances either Godwinian or Malthusian ideas, without considering that Shelley is using her novel simply to interrogate and complicate their debate without taking a side.

Critics who promote The Last Man as an argument in favor of Godwin tend to focus not on its politics but on Shelley’s establishment of pre-plague England as a domestic utopia. Cameron asserts that Book One of the novel presents England as Edenic, and thus representative of a Godwin-like ideal (although, as I note below, she later asserts that, since this idyllic existence is destroyed by plague, Shelley is using The Last Man to argue against her father) (184). [page 18]

Stafford focuses on the titular character, arguing that Lionel is a “Godwinian idealist” and that his world before the plague is a “perfect society” (218). Haslanger claims that the first volume of the novel documents “unchecked” and “intense optimism” (664). Certainly, there are passages in Book One that support this reading. Before the plague arrives—it is not even mentioned until Book Two—Shelley’s focus on exploring aspects of Godwin’s social and political philosophy seems to champion her father’s ideals.

Godwin’s social philosophy is also evident in the narrator’s account of his childhood. Lionel begins his narrative by casting himself as a victim of poverty, lack of education, and community; he and his sister Perdita are orphaned young, and their destitution places them in the lowest rung of a society that, despite the novel’s futuristic setting, is as hierarchical as it was at the time that it was written. Speaking of himself and his sister in the third person, Lionel records that “they were outcasts, paupers, unfriended beings, to whom the most scanty pittance was a matter of favour” (8). Shelley’s decision to create a narrator with such humble beginnings and her portrayal of that figure emphasize that she remains sympathetic to her parents’ views about social class. That these characters triumph over their adverse beginnings, moreover, is reminiscent of Godwin’s view that education, more than birth, determines a child’s ability to advance in the world (Vol. I, 12-18, 23-27). Lionel and Perdita begin with nothing, but in adulthood they are two of the most prominent members of British society: Perdita is the wife of the Protector (Raymond), and Lionel is a British ambassador and the bosom friend and confidant of the former prince (Adrian). Lionel asserts early in his narrative that he “was born for something greater than [he] was—and greater [he] would become” (13). This confidence, expressed while he is still a poverty-stricken shepherd, indicates that the narrative begins with an air of Godwinian optimism.

Godwin’s political philosophy is also evident in Shelley’s [page 19] account of the nascent republican government, which she expresses in the revolution that establishes it. Despite a strong conviction that “government, in its best state, is an evil” and “perpetuate[s] abuse,” Godwin does not advocate revolution (Vol. II 185, 186). While revolution may be a justified uprising against “tyranny,” he acknowledges that, too often, the overthrow of one tyranny results in the establishment of another (Vol. II 226-228). Shelley’s fictional England has undergone revolution gradually and peacefully: Lionel recounts that “[i]n the year 2073, the last of [England’s] kings . . . had abdicated in compliance with the gentle force of the remonstrances of his subjects, and a republic was instituted” (Last Man 14). Shelley’s use of the word “gentle” aligns this brief account of the revolution with Godwin; this is a peaceful, democratic transfer of power.

However, Pro-Godwinian critical interpretations of the novel as a whole are only valid if we examine the domestic elements of Book One. England has indeed undergone a velvet revolution and become more progressive, and the protagonists of The Last Man—Lionel, Perdita, Raymond, Adrian, and Lionel’s wife, Idris—live together in Windsor Castle in complete “tranquility” (Last Man 72)—a nod, perhaps, to Godwin’s perfectibility. But this Edenic world comprises a scant five years in a novel spanning more than twenty; moreover, it is marred twice even before the advent of plague—first when Raymond commits adultery (87-92; 95-108) and further by the death of one of Lionel and Idris’s children (180). More importantly, though, the new government is portrayed as a struggling and often fragile institution as its leaders deliberate how to transition into an egalitarian republic. When Shelley moves the action beyond the familial and into the public sphere, she proves her own political acumen by considering the potential hazards and complications of establishing a peaceful democracy. In doing so, she subverts Godwinian optimism with insightful political pragmatism. Lionel notes, when he first enters governmental service, that: [page 20]

we at first appeared on the eve of a civil war; each party was violent, acrimonious, and unyielding. Parliament was divided by three factions, aristocrats, democrats, and royalists . . . debates were violent . . . Opprobrious epithets were bandied about, resistance even to the death threatened; meetings of the populace disturbed the quiet order of the country. (37-38)

Indeed, this parliament closely resembles the French National Assembly in the early days of the Revolution, when the three “estates,” nobility, clergy, and commoners, vied for dominance. Shelley’s rhetoric in this passage alludes to the violence of the French Revolution as well; the threats of death, the violent debates, and the disturbance that extends beyond the capital are reminiscent of the early years of the Revolution. Lionel goes on to note that, at the last hour, “the destructive flames were ready to break forth” into full-scale civil war (38).

Shelley even introduces a Napoleon into her narrative. In Book One, Raymond announces his intention to become not just king, but emperor. He announces that he will “unite with the Greeks, take Constantinople, and subdue all Asia,” and exults that “Napoleon’s name shall vail to [his]” (44). Although both civil war and Raymond’s Napoleonic ambitions are averted—Parliament resolves its fractiousness through debate, and Raymond’s love for Perdita causes him to accept Protectorship over kingship—these threats are palpable enough to subvert Godwin’s expressions of political optimism. Shelley makes it clear that the factions could have easily mirrored those in France and erupted into violence and that a Napoleon could rule England in the future. Thus, the optimism expressed in the first book of the novel is not only fragile but capricious. There is always the threat of what might be.

The Godwinian ideal is most subverted, however, by Lionel’s link with monstrosity. Lionel displays traits of abhuman-ness even before his resistance to the plague and [page 21] last man status are established; he is portrayed as something both outside of, and less than, human, and this portrayal counters Godwin’s conviction about the progressive perfectibility of humankind. In his youth, devoid of education, parentage, or class, Lionel “wander[s] among the hills of civilised England as uncouth a savage as the wolf-bred founder of old Rome” (9). His “life [is] like that of an animal”; he is a “brute,” and “ferocious,” with “savage habits” (12-13). A “miserable . . . outcast,” he is made malicious by his poverty, isolation, and lack of education (13). In other words, Lionel mirrors the creature in Frankenstein. When Lionel meets Adrian, he is prepared to hate the young man who has every advantage that Lionel lacks—yet Adrian takes responsibility for the young shepherd, offering him education, friendship, employment, and security for both Lionel and his sister. In short, Adrian provides everything for Lionel that Frankenstein should have offered his creation. Without Adrian, Lionel is a monster; with an Adrian, Frankenstein’s creature would not have been a monster. The beginning of The Last Man feels like Shelley is revisiting Frankenstein with an alternative conclusion (18-21), and, once again, we are made to feel the capriciousness of a positive outcome, with a character who is both human and animal.

Lionel is later aligned with monstrosity by his status as a last man. While he does not exhibit the traits of horror and disgust typically associated with monstrosity, his last-man status aligns him with abhumans such as Frankenstein’s creature (who, we might remember, is also the last of his own “race”). He is human, but he is in the process of moving away from humanity as the lone survivor of apocalypse. If the state of abhuman-ness positions the human body as a site at which it “collapses and is reshapen” (Hurley 4), Lionel’s liminal status indicates a shifting into something Other. His body, as Cove explains, is transgressive by remaining alive, and because it is transgressive, it is a locus of horror (30). Even Lionel, by the end of the novel, acknowl-[page 22]edges this, describing himself as “a monstrous excrescence of nature” (372). Lionel, then, moves from potential monster at the beginning of his narrative to grotesque outgrowth of humanity by its end.

Shelley also emphasizes Lionel’s move away from humanness with the use of animal imagery at the end of the novel.9 Once he is alone, Lionel reverts to the near-bestial state in which he started. As he wanders Italy, desperately seeking other survivors, Lionel happens upon his reflection in a mirror and is startled by the “wild-looking, unkempt, half-naked savage” with “long and tangled hair” that he has become (362-363). Finally, after a last-ditch effort to live as a civilized human in Rome—a year in which he lives in the Colonna Palace, admires Rome’s artwork, reads in her vast libraries, and purportedly writes the narrative we are reading—he abandons this simulacrum of civilized human life and returns to the wild by boat, sailing down the Tiber and into the Mediterranean (370-373). His only companion for this journey, tellingly, is a dog whom he treats as an equal (374). Cameron argues that Shelley uses Lionel’s “regression” into animality to argue the “inescapable baseness of human nature” and therefore oppose Godwin’s theory of human perfectibility (184) and concludes that despite the novel’s idealistic beginning, it is, ultimately, “inherently Malthusian” (185, 177). And, while I disagree that one character’s regression nudges the entire novel into the classification of “Malthusian,” as I discuss below, I do agree that Lionel’s monstrosity is anti-Godwinian.

Lionel’s otherness is further emphasized by the way that he achieves his last-man status: he is the only person on earth to be infected by the plague and survive. As he and his family prepare to flee pestilence-ridden England, Lionel has a horrific encounter with a plague victim:

A pernicious scent assailed my senses, producing sickening qualms . . . I felt my leg clasped, and a groan repeated by the person that held me. I lowered my lamp, and saw a negro half-clad, writhing under [page 23] the agony of disease. . . . I strove to disengage myself, and fell on the sufferer; he wound his naked festering arms round me, his face was close to mine, and his breath, death-laden, entered my vitals. (268)

Here are all the elements of horror. The stench, the “festering” body, and the exhalation of miasma are designed to repulse and sicken the reader. The horror of contracting a fatal disease is made palpable by the sickening imagery. The plague victim himself, furthermore, is presented as abhuman; disease has rendered him a “wretch” more animal than human (269). Not only is he naked and inarticulate, but his writhing also associates him with worms, with their suggestion of both the lowest form of animal and of putrescent corpses. As Cove argues, this site of infection is “a meeting of bodies, an encounter with contagion and death that represents horror in terms of the grotesque” (29). That the agent infecting Lionel is a monster implies that monstrosity is, to some extent, relayed along with the illness. That it does not kill him suggests that he is somehow other than human.

Lionel is meant to die from this encounter. Afterward, he feels “the sickening sensation of disease . . . upon [him]” and declares, simply enough, “I must die, for I had caught the plague” (269). And, indeed, he has, quickly becoming feverish, then insensible. “On the third night,” his friends and family believe him dead; his “animation [is] suspended,” his lips are “pallid,” and he begins to “[stiffen]” (273). Yet, inexplicably, he recovers, although he transfers the illness to his wife, who consequently dies (283-284). His recovery is not explained or even explored, and its inexplicability adds a supernatural pall to his increasingly monstrous state.

Finally, Lionel is positioned as the transitory, and often disruptive, narrative element who acts as a bridge between politics and the plague. Shelley’s characters often mimic the views of either Godwin or Malthus, as well as espousing either Republican or anti-Republican views. One example of this is a key point in the narrative in which we learn the [page 24] extent of the plague’s devastation thus far, as well as the fear that it will reach England. Shelley has two characters, Adrian and Ryland, enact the Godwin/Malthus debate within the context of their own political situation. Adrian takes the millennialist position, arguing that the past year of peace in England marks the dawning of a new utopian age. “[E]arth will become a Paradise,” Adrian avows, echoing Godwin. “The energies of man were before directed to the destruction of his species: they now aim at its liberation and preservation.” Humankind will, he continues, “throw off the iron yoke of servitude . . . poverty will quit us, and with that, sickness” (175). Ryland, phlegmatically millenarian, replies that “the earth is not, nor ever can be heaven, while the seeds of hell are natives of her soil.” Only “[w]hen the seasons have become equal, when the air breeds no disorders, when its surface is no longer liable to blights and droughts, then sickness will cease; when men’s passions are dead, poverty will depart. . . . [W]e are very far from that state at present” (175). In other words, Ryland argues that Adrian’s utopian ideas would only be possible if the earth’s climate were to change to the extent that neither “blight” nor “drought” would interfere with the production of food. He also points out, echoing Malthus, that for there to be peace, people must be passionless—and hints that such conditions are impossible. Both Adrian and Ryland, then, believe in a coming apocalyptic event that will change the course of humankind. Adrian advocates gradual political reform to usher in a new age of peace, prosperity, and egalitarianism. Ryland, in contrast, echoes the predictions of Malthus in his cynical assessment of humankind’s inability to escape a future of desolation.

Lionel’s contribution to the argument between Adrian and Ryland exemplifies how he functions to both expand and problematize Godwin’s and Malthus’s debate as the link between politics and the plague. Lionel has been perusing the newspaper and interrupts the debate between Adrian and Ryland with news that the pandemic has now deci-[page 25]mated large swaths of Greek territory. “This intelligence,” Lionel observes, “brought us back from the prospect of paradise . . . to the pain and misery at present existent upon earth,” juxtaposing Godwinian optimism and Malthusian gloom with one decisive sentence (176). Furthermore, once Lionel interjects the present reality of the plague into the conversation, he goes on to muse about the present political state of England, thus creating a textual link between politics and disease that is maintained throughout the remainder of the narrative. After lamenting the devastation that the plague has wrought in Greece, Lionel’s thoughts turn immediately to “[t]he political state of England,” which has “bec[o]me more agitated” in the months leading to the election for Protector—thereby undercutting Adrian’s rosy vision of the future (176-177).

As in this example, Shelley primarily links Malthus and Godwin through the textual proximity of plague and republican politics. In another example, after a summer beleaguered not only by the plague but also by typhus, failed crops, and floods (214), Lionel observes that “It is a part of man’s nature to adapt itself through habit even to pain and sorrow.” Although this sentiment clearly echoes Malthus, Lionel then decides to aid his countrymen based on Godwinian principles. In a veiled reference to Godwin’s work, Lionel leads his district into recreating a functional society despite the plague: “Those writers who have imagined a reign of peace and happiness on earth, have generally described a rural country, where each small township was directed by the elders and wise men. This was the key of my design” (215). Through this model, he is able to “[shew] [the people] how the well-being of each included the prosperity of all” (216). This gesture marks the end of a centralized government in England, a development Godwin would consider progressive. In both examples, Lionel is a transitional figure who both interconnects with and complicates the Godwinian and the Malthusian. [page 26]

Monstrous Plague as Complicating Force

The other, more virulent monster in The Last Man is the plague. Historically, disease has often been often linked with monstrosity, and plague shares its defining traits with monsters: they both resist categorization, and both elicit and represent horror and revulsion.10 Edmund Burke, for example, whose Reflections on the Revolution in France (1789) also influenced Shelley’s work, referred to the French Revolution as both monster and contagion (51, 86). Shelley conflates the two and depicts her contagion as a monster. She establishes the plague as a monstrous entity the first time it enters her narrative: it is an “enemy to the human race,” it has a “serpent-head,” (139), it is an “invincible monster,” and a “fiend . . . unchained” (176). Later, it is personified as the “invincible monster” and “that fiend more cruel than tempest, less tame than fire” (176). It is made bestial and given agency. As Lee Sterrenburg notes, Shelley conjures a corporeal monstrous body in Frankenstein, but in The Last Man imagines “a totally inhuman, disembodied” monster (340). And, as she does with Lionel, Shelley introduces the plague into the fragile English state as a complicating force; it allows her to examine a precarious government and its people according to both Godwinian and Malthusian ideas.

It is tempting to view the plague as evidence that Shelley’s novel sides with Malthus—Cameron, for instance, calls it “an inherently Malthusian work” (177)—but such a reading belies the novel’s complexity. Cameron views the disease as a purely literal construct, rather than a metaphoric one, and she argues that its presence in the narrative, as well as the republican government’s inability to mitigate it, is evidence of Shelley’s “radical vision of the failures of all governments to enact any significant change” (182). Additionally, she argues the plague is evidence that Shelley, like Malthus, “present[s] suffering as an inevitable part of life” and as an argument against Godwinian perfecti-[page 27]bility (183, 184). Similarly, Sterrenburg asserts that with this novel, Shelley “rebel[s] against the political faiths of her parents’ generation” and uses the plague as a device to repudiate republicanism (335). Kari Locke, too, points out that the plague decimates all forms of government; therefore, she concludes, the “radical[ism] of Shelley’s parents is “exposed as [fiction]” (128). Finally, Paul Cantor characterizes The Last Man as a “systematic unwriting of . . . revolutionary hopes,” claiming that the novel is almost entirely dark, and that the plague “bring[s] out the worst in humanity” (194). These may be valid readings: Shelley’s plague is so insidious, and her descriptions of it so horrific, that it certainly seems she is siding with Malthus. She replaces his predicted famine with disease, but the dreadful outcome is the same.

In certain passages, Shelley’s reliance on horror rhetoric to describe the victims of the pestilence even mirrors that of Malthus. A close analysis of the two works, however, reveals such rhetorical parallels to be subversive rather than imitative. When Lionel observes, for example, that “the disease gained virulence, while starvation did its accustomed work. Thousands died unlamented; for beside the yet warm corpse the mourner was stretched, made mute by death” (188), his language echoes that of Malthus at his most apocalyptic, as in this passage:

The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation . . . But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence and plague, advance in terrific array and sweep off their thousands and ten thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow, levels the population with the food of the world. (54)

Shelley, however, uses her horrifying prose to combat the coldness of Malthusian mathematics. She begins by addressing the scale of the devastation, with “thousands,” but then puts a human face on the disaster, concentrating on a micro-[page 28]cosmic moment steeped in pathos. Her plague victims are two loving souls, the mourner and the mourned, united in a death that is “mute” and “unlamented.” Malthus, in contrast, means to impress his readers with a hyperbolic scope of “thousands and ten thousands,” cut down by an illness that is so huge that it needs three synonyms to describe it, and has a militarized, personified agency as it “stalks,” “blow[s],” and “levels.” For both writers the plague has agency, while its “mute” victims have none. However, Shelley forces her readers to empathize with individual victims, thus imparting a subtle but undeniably anti-Malthusian message. As Stafford points out, Shelley’s portrayal of the plague’s effects on individuals “is an angry retort to [Malthus’] theory that could consider men and women in terms of statistics and mathematical progression” (218). Stafford additionally cites a letter Shelley wrote to her friend Maria Gisborne, dated July 26, 1818, which confirms her feelings about Malthus: “Malthus,” Shelley writes, “is the work from which all the rich have, ever since it has been written, borrowed excuses and palliations for their luxury and hard-heartedness” (Selected Letters (Bennett) 75).

Cantor argues that Shelley’s plague brings out the worst of human nature; that its deadly advance is aided by human depravity (195). Certain passages in the novel, however, contradict this assertion. In many cases, the plague not only brings out the best in people but also brings about greater equality. As Cameron posits, the disease is “the only effective democratizing force in the novel,” and achieves in England what Godwin champions: a levelling of social class (192). Initially, as plague refugees inundate Britain, the upper classes use the crisis to secure their place in the social hierarchy (187). Nonetheless, in a move of which Godwin would approve, the landed classes begin to show a great deal of benevolent public spirit. They erect temporary housing for the refugees on their land and give ornamental gardens over to agriculture; they even roll up their sleeves and toil in the fields alongside “whole troops of the indigent” (189-190). [page 29] Additionally, as the plague decimates the economy, situations are often reversed: while “[f]amilies, bred in opulence and luxury, [are] reduced to beggary,” many of the poor find themselves in possession of stately homes and goods left by aristocracy carried off by disease (187). Ryland remarks, echoing Daniel Defoe, that “[d]eath and disease level all men,” and the narrative emphasizes that the plague has indeed achieved what the Republican government could not (194). As the plague continues to rage throughout England, “all distinctions of rank” disappear (234), and “poor and rich [are] now equal” (241).

Indeed, there is enough Godwinian idealism in the second and third books to counteract Shelley’s predilection to linger on the more appalling details of plague and depopulation. While Stafford argues that the plague is anti-Godwinian because it destroys Britain’s nascent Republican government (226), she fails to acknowledge that, for a while, the plague demonstrates that Republicanism works. Lionel points out that while the social dysfunction triggered by the plague causes moral regression, it also enables many of the citizens to rise above their plight: while many “ventured on deeds of greater wickedness, or gave way more readily to their abject fears . . . Deeds of heroism also occurred, whose very mention swells the heart . . . Such is human nature, that beauty and deformity are often closely linked” (213). This last observation of Lionel’s contains the crux of Shelley’s experiment. Whereas Godwin is perhaps too idealistic, and Malthus too pessimistic, Shelley prefers to investigate a more realistic assessment of human nature, that of contradiction and inconsistency.

There is enough ambiguity in Shelley’s use of Godwin and Malthus that to argue that she takes one side or another is reductive. Shelley injects both Godwinian and Malthusian ideas into her exploration of a fragile government both before and during an apocalyptic crisis, thereby expanding and interrogating the debate with her fiction. It [page 30] is the consummate fiction for our own times. As we grapple now with a world-wide plague, continued political unrest, and debates about the stability of our own republican government, it is worth our while to consider Shelley’s treatment of issues shared by both the early nineteenth and early twenty-first centuries.


1. Godwin’s Political Justice is a two-volume work formulated on Enlightenment ideals of the true function of political systems: that government should function to ensure the happiness and security of all citizens. It addresses the relationship between politics and aspects of human life and argues that humankind will progressively reach “perfectibility.” In Malthus’s slimmer Essay, he uses his studies of cultures around the world, along with mathematical calculations, to argue that, contrary to Godwin’s imagined future utopia, explosive population growth will soon lead humanity on a course toward famine, disease, and eventual extinction.

2. The distinction between millennialism and millenarianism is spurious. The OED, for example, does not distinguish at all between the two terms (“Millennialism”). However, in his introduction to Apocalypse and Millennium in English Romantic Poetry, Morton Paley defines millenarianism as an aspect of religious eschatology, the belief “that the millennium [the thousand years of peace following an apocalyptic event] will be dramatically inaugurated by the Second Coming of Christ.” In contrast, he defines millennialism as a gradual process, without a cataclysmic event, that will lead to the creation of a utopia (3). Richard Landes similarly defines millennialism as a “revolutionary ideology,” a belief that “in the future the world . . . will be radically transformed into one of peace, justice, fellowship and plenty” (23). Following Paley’s and Landes’s leads, I am [page 31] using millenarianism to define Malthus’s ideology and millennialism to define Godwin’s.

3. See Brothers, Faber, and Joseph Priestley.

4. See also Locke 116.

5. Byron’s “Darkness” also imagines the destruction of humanity in its entirety and seems to be secular. The use of passive voice in its second and third lines, “[t]he bright sun was extinguish'd, and the stars / Did wander darkling in the eternal space,” suggests no divine agency. However, Byron does refer to personified versions of War (l. 38) and Famine (l. 69), two of the four horsemen of the apocalypse found in the Biblical Book of Revelation. These allusions to the New Testament indicate that Byron’s work is not entirely secular.

6. Stafford and Paley note that a play by Thomas Lovell Beddoes, also called The Last Man, can be considered secular apocalypse fiction. According to Paley, Beddoes and Shelley had met, and a letter Beddoes wrote, dated April 1, 1826, indicated that he had read and approved of her Last Man (204-205). However, Beddoes committed suicide before finishing the play, and what he left, according to both critics, amounts to little more than “fragments” (Stafford 213-216; Paley 206).

7. See Locke 117, Cameron 180, and Sterrenburg 327.

8. In her journal, Shelley records that both she and Percy read Godwin’s An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice in 1814, 1816, 1817, and 1820. Percy read Malthus’s An Essay on the Principle of Population in 1818; Mary read it in 1821. Lauren Cameron notes this as well (181).

9. Haslanger notes this too (669, 671-673).

10. I base the association between monstrosity and disease on Noel Carroll’s The Philosophy of Horror. Carroll identifies the essential elements of horror fiction as monstrosity, disgust, impurity, and paralyzing terror (21). I am extending the consideration of disgust and impurity to disease, as it shares the same traits in popular imagination (and, often, in fiction). [page 32]

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Catherine Alber earned her Ph.D. in Literary Studies from the University of Denver and until recently taught at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She specializes in apocalypse and horror fiction, trauma studies, monster theory, and rhetoric. Previous published works include the articles “Monster Bodies, Monster Space: Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and the Demythologization of the Western Frontier” and “Road to (No)where?: Literal and Metaphoric Journeys in the Post-9/11 Zombie Narrative.” She now lives in Atenas, Costa Rica.

MLA citation (print):

Alber, Catherine. "Monsters at the End of the World: Mary Shelley’s Complex Apocalypticism in The Last Man." Supernatural Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Art, Media, and Culture, vol. 8, no. 1, 2022, pp. 9-34.