The Last [Wo]Man

Shelley’s Survival: Mary Shelley Within Her Own Novel

It is often deduced that Mary Shelley’s novel The Last Man has characters that pertain to specific individuals of her life. The fact that these individuals die is only consequential to Shelley’s own life. In the end, Shelley was the only one left of the vagabond friend group of the Romantic visionaries. It is no wonder, then, that Shelley would write Lionel Verney as having characteristics considerate of her own; as the last man, he too is left as the sole survivor. However, Shelley is not the only one she has written into The Last Man: Adrian is Percy Shelley and Lord Raymond is Lord Byron.

Mary Shelley, 1831. By Samuel John.

Mary Shelley, 1831. By Samuel John.

Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary

To understand the context of Shelley writing herself as the last man, or perhaps the reason we are able to infer her as such, we must look at the historical context of her life. Loss is integral to the existence of Shelley, as her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, passed less than a month after Shelley was born. She was raised by her father, William Godwin, and was provided a sensible education. Through her father she met Percy Shelley as one of his political followers, and, although he was already married to Harriet, Percy’s first wife, Shelley became pregnant with his child. Sadly, the child was born premature and died. This would not be the first of Shelley’s children to pass, and set a foundation for the grievances Shelley expressed; in 1818, Shelley’s second and third child passed. However, after their deaths she gave birth to her last and surviving child. Percy Shelley drowned in 1822 and Lord Byron died to Malaria in 1824. Mary Shelley would live until 1851, when she would die of a brain tumor.

Drowning and Sacrifice

Both themes of drowning and sacrifice are prominently used by Shelley, perhaps because of her comfort on the topic. In a post-apocalyptic world, The Last Man is evidently enamored by plague, death, and disease. However, it is also circumstantial to natural disaster; a “dark moon” is described to preside over Europe and the Americas, causing the seas to surge and flood coastal towns. Water is used as an elemental force, but also as a means for death to occur. Adrian and Clara both drown near the end of Shelley’s novel when their ship is wrecked, and Perdita drowns by throwing herself off the ship after Lord Raymond’s death in despair.

Sacrifice, too, is pertinent to the story; typically used in ways to depict sorrow and companionship, love and devotion, sacrificial scenes within a post-apocalyptic world are worth mentioning as circumstantial to the mindset of many of Shelley’s characters. Although not always in terms of despair, it seems that despair is correlated to sacrifice, and nearly permeates the pages; Perdita throws herself off the ship after Raymond’s death; Lionel’s father commits suicide after being exiled for the betterment of his children; Lucy stays behind with her ill mother until she passes; and Juliet is killed when she notifies the false messiah’s followers of his charade.

Life and Death

Shelley’s piece is easily read within the context of grief and despair; however, the above themes of drowning and sacrifice are not artificial or foreign to Shelley. Percy Shelley drowned in 1822, leaving her widowed, and she returned to England to dedicate the remainder of her life to her remaining son and authorship. Similarly to Lionel, the “last man,” is the pursuit to continue writing regardless of the monumental death surrounding him:

Yet, how could I resign myself? Without love, without sympathy, without communion with any, how could I meet the morning sun, and with it trace its oft repeated journey to the evening shades? Why did I continue to live - why not throw off the weary weight of time, and with my own hand, let out the fluttering prisoner from my agonized breast? - It was not cowardice that withheld me; for the true fortitude was to endure; and death had a soothing sound accompanying it, that would easily entice me to enter its demesne. But this I would not do. (463-4)

Rather, Lionel is “endeavored to read” and vows to “write a book” but is skeptical for he understanding that he would write “for whom to read? - to whom dedicated?,” nonetheless writing to leave a “record of these things” that have transpired (466). Shelley’s determination to write and survive is only reciprocated by her characters.


Shelley, Mary. The Last Man. Edited by Morton D. Paley. Oxford University Press, 2008.