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Category: Classics, Dystopian
Format: Paperback – from local independent bookshop
Content Warnings: Pandemic, death of family members, suicide attempt, grief, reference to attempted sexual assault, racism & nationalism, misogyny
What’s It About?
In an England of the future, Lionel Verney is a poor shepherd boy when he is befriended by Adrian, Earl of Windsor and Raymond, a favoured candidate for the Lord Protectorship – the pinnacle of political achievement.
Lionel is soon moving in the same circles as the most powerful, wealthy and intellectual men in the world. Yet this Romantic paradise of virtue and conversation is under threat when a plague begins to decimate the world’s population, and Lionel is helpless to protect all that he has come to treasure of life’s riches.
First Chapter Impressions
I was a bit dubious going into this book because I’m really not a fan of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Although The Last Man does share some of the same elements that put me off of Shelley’s more famous novel, I preferred it overall.
While both books share the same melodramatic tone, and characters that are moral ‘types’, I found the wider cast of characters in The Last Man made the narrator less exasperatingly self-absorbed.
The Last Man is one of my set texts for a module on Literature & The Environmental Crisis that I’m taking at university this year, and which I’m very excited for!
While I wouldn’t recommend it for leisure reading, it’s certainly a good book for study, analysis and reflection. My copy is full of colour-coded tabs because the themes covered are so diverse, from class to the concept of free will.
Final Page Reflections
The Last Man is rather dark, and a big trigger warning is needed for the theme of the plague, which I found especially heavy given the current context. It does have emotional poignancy though, particularly given the tragic time of her life in which Shelley was writing this book – she had just lost several friends and family members, including her husband, in quick succession.
The fact that said plague isn’t even mentioned until over a third of the way through gives you a sense of the novel’s slow pace. While this book could certainly have been shorter, and it’s clear what’s going to happen from early on, Shelley just about manages to maintain the tension as she’s the queen of very dramatic scenes!
An audiobook version may have helped me enjoy The Last Man more, so I would recommend this reading format to carry you through the lulls in the action. There’s even a freebie on LibriVox!
Diversity and Representation
The level of misogyny in this book is disappointing even for a nineteenth-century novel. Especially since it was written by the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, one of the most influential early feminists!
Wollstonecraft championed women’s education, but in The Last Man women take a back seat and are valued for typically feminine characteristics such as patient endurance and maternal affection.
- Nature and mankind
- Savagery vs civilisation
- Gender and sexuality
- Fate vs free will
Beyond the Book
In The Last Man characters remain excessively confident in the ability of the human mind to subdue nature and the disasters she sends their way, be it a plague or an unnaturally ferocious storm.
It made me think that we take a similar view today with global warming, arrogantly trusting in our technological advancements to see us through. Turns out there’s an actual word for this mindset: cornucopianism.
- What did you think of Shelley’s representation of the female characters in The Last Man?
- Have you read much dystopian fiction? How does The Last Man compare to other books you’ve read in this genre, including more modern ones?
- Could you identify with any of the characters in the novel, or did you find that they were all moral ‘types’?
“Men love a prop so well, that they will lean on a pointed poisoned spear”
Read if: You feel intrigued by a bleakly imaginative dystopian classic.
Buy Now on Better World Books:
Take a look at my review of Frankenstein, another novel by Mary Shelley!
Have you read The Last Man? What’s your favourite dystopian novel? Let me know in the comments – I would love to hear from you!