Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
The Last Man
The silence is piercing. Between the vacant brownstones, tall grass pokes from cracks in the deserted streets. In the shadows cast by skyscrapers across the avenues, gigantic heaps of rusting cars peer blindly at the sky.
This is New York. A single automobile hurtles down a deserted street. It’s driven by actor Will Smith. Beside him on the seat lies an automatic rifle, and alongside that sits a huge brown dog. The dog is Smith’s sole companion. Everybody else in the city--probably the world--is dead. Plague has decimated the planet.
Smith’s face is numb with despair, his eyes dull with pain. He must get home. Ravenous dead-eyed vampiric mutants, once human beings, roam the streets zombie-like at night. Smith is one of earth’s leading scientists--perhaps the only one alive--working night and day, in an apartment protected by storm shutters, to develop a vaccine that will defeat the plague. He’s alive because of experiments he conducted when the plague first broke out. But it probably doesn’t matter whether he succeeds.
He is the last man.
We are watching I Am Legend, the 2007 blockbuster science-fiction film, but it is not the first movie to tell this story. In The Omega Man, released in 1970, Charlton Heston was the overwhelmed protagonist wandering the deserted streets. In The Last Man on Earth, made in Rome in 1964, Vincent Price was the physically and spiritually exhausted sole survivor. According to most of the documentation, all three of these films were based on the deeply pessimistic 1954 novel I Am Legend by science-fiction writer Richard Matheson. But actually the pedigree of this apocalyptic story lately reanimated by Will Smith goes back much farther than that. I Am Legend is based on the novel The Last Man, published in 1826 and written by Mary Wollstonecraft
Shelley, also the author of the perennially popular novel (re-created in many films as well) Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus, first published in 1818.
The movie I Am Legend has a “Hollywood” ending: the scientistprotagonist discovers there are other survivors on earth and finds a cure for the plague. But, as Mary Shelley’s The Last Man draws to a close in the year 2100, it seems increasingly certain that Shelley’s last man, Lionel Verney, will not be so lucky. The plague in The Last Man, never identified, and apparently coming from the regions of the Nile, has killed everyone in England except Verney. He has become convinced that it has killed everyone in Europe; as he sets out in a one-man boat from the east coast of Italy in hopes of finding survivors in India, he seems to tell us, in the last paragraph of the novel, that he expects to be voyaging for as long as he is alive, seen only by the eye of God:
Thus around the shores of deserted earth, while the sun is high, and the moon waxes or wanes, angels, the spirits of the dead, and the ever-open eye of the Supreme, will behold the tiny bark, freighted with Verney--the LAST MAN.
Mary Shelley often seems to us to have been remarkably prophetic. In The Last Man she writes about a king of England who abdicated and became the earl of Windsor; something very like this happened in 1938 when King Edward VIII of England abdicated and became the duke of Windsor to marry a commoner, Wallis Simpson. Two of Shelley’s short stories deal with frozen corpses from ancient times; in 1984, the body of Lindow Man (died about AD 300) was discovered in a peat bog in England, and in 1991 that of Otzi the Iceman (died about 3300 BC) was found in the Alps. Shelley scholar Mary Devlin tells us: “Maurice, or the Fisher’s Cot, one of Mary’s private manuscripts, was discovered only a few years ago and published in 1998. It deals with issues which are in the news today: missing children and animal rights.”
Most of us know that Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein and married Percy Bysshe Shelley, one of the greatest poets of England’s Romantic era. But exactly who was this extraordinary woman who, living in an age when women were hardly allowed to express themselves, wrote with such skill and varied imagination and saw with such chilling insight into the apocalyptic future of humankind?
Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley was the daughter of William Godwin (1756-1836), author of the revolutionary social tract Political Justice, and Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), virtually the founder of the women’s rights movement because of her trail-blazing, still-popular book The Vindication of the Rights of Women. Both of Mary Shelley’s parents had a decisive impact on their times, though often through the influence of William Godwin’s devoted disciples; these latter, who often gathered at his house, included Robert Southey, Thomas De Quincey, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, and the renowned scientist Sir Humphrey Davy, among many others.
Ten days after Mary was born, her mother died. William Godwin, an emotionally aloof husband who was always preoccupied with his work, was now a single parent. He adored his daughter but found it burdensome to raise her on his own. In 1801 he eased the burden by taking a second wife.
But Godwin insisted that Mary be schooled at home. It had quickly become evident that she was precociously brilliant. Her father allowed her to attend the very frequent nighttime meetings--sometimes two or three a week--that took place in his living room. Here, his gifted disciples held forth on a wide range of subjects that included spiritualism and the occult. It was quite an education for Mary. She was soon receiving instruction from, and being carefully listened to by, the most brilliantly imaginative and well-informed literary and scientific figures of the time.