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The Last Man was Mary Shelley's most ambitious and experimental work. Necessitating that a plague, which decimates mankind, is justified in its pursuit, Mary Shelley creates a world where utopian ideals can cause the destruction of mankind, if they are not checked by moral and ethical standards. Published in 1826, the novel was widely pilloried by a public who found it's gloomy tone and high Romanticism to be 'out of touch' with a more progressive society. Mary Shelley's concept of humanity decimated by a deadly plague affronted progressive politicians as godless and as a result, the novel was banned in Austria and became more of an in topic at dinner parties than a book to be seriously read. Since its publication, Mary Shelley scholars have ignored The Last Man and concentrated on Frankenstein because of the novel's reflection of the influential Romantic circle of Lord Byron and Percy Shelley. It wasn't until the feminist movement of the 1970's that the novel underwent a rebirth and became critically judged as a work far superior to Frankenstein. Written three years after the death of Percy Shelley, The Last Man is a reflection of the political influence of William Godwin and the Romantic ideals of Lord Byron and Percy Shelley. Despite her initial desire to dedicate the work to the ideology of these men, The Last Man serves as Mary Shelley's repudiation of the utopian ideal perpetuated by Godwin, Shelley and Lord Byron. The plague serves as a metaphor for the failure of the utopian ideal to support the traditional needs of the family. As a biographical and political novel, The Last Man is Mary Shelley's quest to understand her husband, father and Lord Byron's political ideals and their subsequent failure to support her and her children.
Mary Shelley led a most extraordinary life. As the daughter of the radical writers, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, it appeared to be Mary's destiny to earn a living through her writing. As she states in her 1831 preface to Frankenstein, "It is not singular that, as the daughter of two persons of distinguished literary celebrity, I should have very early in life thought of writing" (Hindle 5). After the death of Percy Shelley in 1822, Mary spent the next three years trying to atone for what she believed were her sins against Shelley.
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Hindle, Maurice ed., Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus. Mary Shelley. London: Penguin. 1992
Mellor, Anne K. ed., The Last Man. Mary Shelley. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P. 1993.
Sunstein, Emily. Mary Shelley: Romance and Reality. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP. 1989.