Last Man Theme
Presentation from 4/15/2008 for Mary Shelley's The Last Man, Introduction through Chapter 5.

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Frankenstein Text

William Godwin

Last man theme works:

  Beddoe 1823-1825

  Byron 1816 

  Campbell 1823

  Hood 1826



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Works Cited

 The Last Man them section is included because Mary Shelley wrote another novel "The Last Man" which we read in class.  To view the visual from the presentation this creator gave on 15 April 2008 to the TechnoRomanticism class use the following link. Last Man Presentation.  Below provides the rational that was written as a script for the presentation.


The Last Man: More than a Roman á Clef

Roman á clef

Though the book is widely recognized as roman á clef which the Oxford Dictionary online defines as:

“A romance; a novel. Esp. in phrases: roman à clef, a novel in which actual persons are introduced under fictitious names;” (OED).

roman (n)

[a. OF. romant (later roman), an analogical variant of romanz, romans ROMANCE.] 


1.      A romance; a romantic tale or poem.

2.      A Romance form of speech; also attrib., Romance, Romanic, in respect of language.”


Many of the articles pointed out that the work is more than a roman á clef.  “Lee Sterrenburg has viewed this book's political--or counter-political--nature as a reaction to the state of Europe after the failure of the French Revolution, the defeat of Napoleon, and the Congress of Vienna.  (As all these events took place during the lifetime of Percy Shelley and tempered but failed to obliterate his revolutionary hopes, the despair of The Last Man is in some sense a repudiation of his politics as well.)  Anne K. Mellor in her recent literary biography of Mary Shelley has fruitfully explored the theme of the nuclear family in The Last Man, arguing that ‘In social terms, the novel pits her personal ideology of the nuclear family as the source of psychological fulfillment and cultural values against those human and natural forces which undermine it: male egoism, female self-destruction, and death’ (Paley).  Paley was interested in the ways “The Last Man, … denies the linkage of apocalypse and millennium that had previously been celebrated in some of the great works of the Romantic epoch, perhaps most fully in Prometheus Unbound” (Paley). 


Last Man Theme


Before going into more specifics from the book, I want to look at the apocalyptic theme of The Last Man.  In general, apocalyptic themes go back to the earliest known literature, represented in both the old and new testaments of the bible and ancient Greek mythology.  By the early 1800’s it was a popular theme.  One article sai,  “the last man theme was influence by Cousin de Grainville’s novel which was translated into English in 1806 as The Last Man; or Omegarus and Syderia, A Romance in Futurity[1] (Sterrenburg footnote #7).  Another agreed that Cousin de Grainville’s novel published in 1805 is “the earliest Last Man narrative” (Paley Supplementary Note).  Paley also wrote that Mary Shelley’s work was “published at just the wrong time” and further, “by 1826 the subject of the Last Man had come to seem not apocalyptic but ridiculous” and  “the very subject seemed to invite derision” (Paley). 

Contemporary Reviews

Paley includes excerpts of contemporary reviews in his article.  The literary Gazette and Journal of Belles Lettres, Arts, Science, &c. called it “A sickening repetition of horrors”  (Paley).  Another, The Monthly Review, said "The offspring of a diseased imagination, and of a most polluted taste;" and Blackwood's cruelly called it an "abortion" (Ibid).  The Literary Magnet, without even having seen the book, condemned it as ‘another Raw-head-and-bloody-bones,’ presumably referring to Frankenstein” (Ibid).   Some even condemned the authors gender, “In a mock announcement The Wasp published the title as The Last Woman, while two publications combined misogyny with the now familiar play on lastness: "Why not the last Woman?" asked The Literary Gazette and Journal of Belles Lettres. "She would have known better how to paint her distress at having nobody left to talk to . . . ." (Paley).  “One theme sounded in some of the humorous and satirical essays already discussed appears in a number of reviews of The Last Man--the supposed impossibility of representing the subject.  This idea of "The Last Man" [said the Monthly] has already tempted the genius of more than one of our poets, and, in truth it is a theme which appears to open a magnificent and boundless field to the imagination. But we have only to consider it for a moment, in order to be convinced that the mind of man might as well endeavour to describe the transactions which are taking place in any of the countless planets that are suspended beyond our own, as to anticipate the horrors of the day which shall see the dissolution of our system” (Paley). 

Autobiographical Aspects

            As the autobiographical aspects of the novel were discussed in the introduction written by the editors of our edition, I will only briefly mention them.  “Percy Bysshe Shelley is … Adrian, Earl of Windsor, who would have been King of England had not England become a republic in the year 2073. He is a beautiful if not ineffectual angel, his mind "frank and unsuspicious . . . gifted . . . by every natural grace, endowed with transcendent powers of intellect, unblemished by the shadow of a defect … He is, needless to say, a republican and opposes the revanchist plans of his mother, the dour Countess of Windsor. Byron, …appears as Lord Raymond… As for the author, she divides herself into two characters: Lionel Verney, the Last Man and narrator, and Lionel's sister Perdita, who is also compounded of Mary's step-sister, friend, rival, and thorn-in-the-flesh, Claire Clairmont” (Paley). 

            Mary Shelley’s journal from May 14 1824 says, “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” (Shelley, journals).  On October 3 of the same year she wrote in a letter,

“The happiness I enjoyed and the sufferings I endured in Italy make present pleasures & annoyances appear like the changes of a mask -- . . . My imagination is not much exalted by a representation mean and puerile when compared to the real delight of my intercourse [with] my exalted Shelley . . . and others of less note, but remembered now with fondness- as having made a part of the Elect” (Paley). 

Book Introduction

“The introduction describes an excursion to the supposed Cavern of the Sibyl on the Bay of Naples. In reality, that trip had been made by Mary and Percy Shelley with Claire Clairmont on 8 December 1818, and had proved disappointing.  In The Last Man, the date is preserved, but the nameless and genderless narrator reduces the participants to herself and her companion, and makes it the occasion of a marvelous discovery.  While exploring the Sibyl's cave, the author and her companion, like Grainville's narrator, desert their guides, and like him they are consequently initiated into the history of the future. First they enter "a wide cavern with an arched dome-like roof" (p. 2), a setting worthy of a painting by John Martin. There they find "piles of leaves, fragments of bark, and a white filmy substance, resembling the inner part of the green hood which shelters the grain of the unripe Indian corn." (In The Madwoman in the Attic Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar call attention to the specifically female associations of this debris as well as of the "dim hypaethric cavern" in which it is discovered.  On the leaves they find inscriptions in many languages, ancient and modern” (Paley).

This is the Sibyl's cave; these are Sibylline leaves," exclaims the author's companion (p. 3). His exclamation has several associations.  There is Book VI of the Aeneid, alluded to on the same page, where the Cumaean Sibyl, wielding the talismanic Golden Bough, leads Aeneas underground to his vision of the afterlife.  There is also Michelangelo’s powerful representation of her, which Mary would have seen while in Rome during the spring of 1819.  A further, modern dimension is provided by Coleridge's Sibylline Leaves of 1817, in the title of which is implicit the same play of meaning suggested by the authorial persona, self-characterized as the "decipherer" of these discoveries in the "slight Sibylline pages" (pp. 3, 4). The line of vision thus passes from the ancient embodiment of female vatic power to the modern imagination, coming to reside in the author. Indeed, in a letter written at the time that the novel was published, Mary Shelley refers to it as "my Sibylline leaves."  Thus the introduction to The Last Man has a function similar to that of the beginning of Omegarus and Syderia and to the first line of "Darkness." We are to be told the history of the Last Man before he exists, and we are therefore relieved of the anxiety of imagining a world in which there are no readers.

Cumean Sybyl

Cumae (Cuma, in Italian) is an ancient Greek settlement lying to the northwest of Naples in the Italian region of Campania. The settlement is believed to have been founded in the 8th century BC (around 740 BC) by Greeks from the city of Cuma and other cities upon the earlier dwellings of indigenous, Iron-Age peoples who they supplanted. Eusebius placed Cumae's Greek foundation at 1050 BC. Its name comes from the Greek word Kymé, meaning wave - perhaps in reference to the wavelike shape of the peninsula of Cuma in Euboea.

There is also a small, modern Greek Euboean city called Kyme (Kύμη) as well as an excavated ancient Greek city of Cuma, the source point for the Cumae alphabet and Cumae was the first Greek colony on the mainland of Italy


Adrian:  Masculine, English and Romanian name is a form of Hadrianus a Roman family name which meant "from Hadria" in Latin.  Hadria was a town in northern Italy (it gave its name to the Adriatic Sea) (BTN).  Also, from the Roman cognomen Hadrianus, which meant "from Hadria" in Latin. Hadria was a town in northern Italy (it gave its name to the Adriatic Sea).

Evadne:  Feminine name from Greek Mythology (Latinized).  From Greek Ευαδνη (Euadne), which is of unknown meaning, though the first element is derived from Greek ευ "good". In Greek legend Evadne was the wife of Capaneus.  After Capaneus was killed by a lightning bolt sent from Zeus she committed suicide by throwing herself onto his burning body. (BTN).  1. In Greek myth, daughter of Poseidon, by Apollo mother of Iamus, ancestor of the prophetic clan of the Iamidae who performed priestly functions at Olympia (Answers). 2. In Greek myth, wife of Capaneus, one of the Seven against Thebes, who threw herself on his funeral pyre (Answers). 

Lionel:  Masculine meaning Her, from Lioncel meaning small, or young lion; chiefly her (OED).  Late Latin name meaning "lion", ultimately from Greek λεων (leon) (Answers)
Idris:  Masculine, “ardent lord” from Welsh iud “lord prince” combined with ris “ardent, enthusiastic, impulsive” (BTN).
Perditia:  Feminine, English name derived from Latin perditus meaning "lost". Shakespeare created this name for the daughter of Hermione in his play 'The Winter's Tale'.

Raymond: Masculine, from the Germanic name Reginmund, composed of the elements ragin ‘advice” and mund “protector.”  Also mean “protecting hands.”  This was the name of saints, including Saint Raymond, the patron saint of midwives and expectant mothers (BTN).

Verney:   No OED entry, Verney is the name of an English family which finally settled at Middle Claydon which the family purchased in the 1460s in Buckinghamshire where descendents still live in Claydon House.  Family involved in English Civil war.  Connection, William Godwin wrote extensively about that war. (Answers)



            Initially  Lionel Verney “seems like a realization of the archetype of human development propounded in the works of Blake, Wordsworth, and Coleridge and amplified in those of Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley.  In these Romantic mythologies, the history of the race is repeated in the individual, beginning in primal innocence, experiencing a "fall," and eventuating in a higher innocence.  The integrating factor in this process is the human imagination, which brings into play all the energies of the psyche, harmonizing knowledge and power.  These terms--especially imagination and power--recur throughout the novel but in such contexts as to make us aware of enormous fissures between them. Ultimately The Last Man is a repudiation of what might simplistically be termed the Romantic ethos as represented, for example, in the poetics and politics of Percy Bysshe Shelley” (Paley).  Young Lionel is if anything a travesty of the Wordsworthian ideal of power.  It is only by the civilizing influence of Adrian that Lionel's conception of himself changes. He is then able to look back upon his past self as one who "deified the uplands, glades, and streams" (p. 22)


Lee Sterrenburg said the book is also an “anatomy of failed revolutions” and furthermore a “rebellion against the political faiths of her parent’s generation” (Sterrenburg).



Bibliography / Works Cited:


Lord Byron. “Darkness.” The British Broadcasting Company (BBC).  11 April 2008.


roman à clef.  Oxford University Press.  “The Oxford English Dictionary Online (OED).”            4 April 2008.


Paley, Morton D. "Mary Shelley's The Last Man: Apocalypse Without Millennium." Keats-Shelley Review 4 (Autumn 1989), 1-25. Reprinted Romantic Circles, University of Maryland. 

            4 April 2008.


Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft.  Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus.  Ed. Susan J. Wolfson.  Second.  New York: Pearson Longman, 2007.  Online 1818 edition text from


____________ .  The Last Man..  Ed. Morton D. Paley.  Second.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.   Romantic Circles website & hypertext edition of the Last Man.


_____________.  The Journals of Mary Shelley Vol. 1.  Eds. Paula R. Feldman and Diana Scott-Kilvert. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.



Sterrenburg, Lee.  “The Last Man: Anatomy of Failed Revolutions.”  Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 33, No. 3, (Dec., 1978), pp 324-347. University of California Press.  5 April 2008.

[1] “On English treatments of the theme sere A. J. Sambrook, “A Romantic Theme: The Last Man,” Forum for Modern Language Studies, 2 (1966), 25-33; (Sterrenburg footnote #7).”