Thursday, October 30, 2014
End of the World News, Part IV
Continuing the story of Mary Shelley's 1826 novel, The Last Man.
Sailing to Greece in search of Raymond--is he dead? Lost? Arriving in Athens, they find the city in mourning: Raymond was a great hero to the Greeks. And then they discover that he's still alive (barely), a prisoner. They (slowly) arrange for his release, and he begins his recovery.
And then ... news of a great plague. And Lord Raymond dies in military action. And the plague is running wild. Athenians, she writes, "fell like ripe corn before the merciless sickle of the adversary. ... America had also received the taint ... the hunter died in the woods, the peasant in the corn-fields, and the fisher on his native waters" (223). The world is in panic.
But not--not yet--in England, which, so far, seems to have escaped. But the country swells with refugees, who, of course, bring the disease with them. Lionel comes across a victim in a small cottage: "He lay on a heap of straw ... cold and stiff; while a pernicious effluvia filled the room, and various stains and marks served to show the virulence of the disorder" (259).
The English try to carry on. The theaters stay open. Adrian goes to see Macbeth at the Drury Lane Theater, but, overcome with sorrow, he leaves early.
Lawlessness now is the issue. "They swept the country like a conquering army, burning--laying waste--murdering." (Sounds like London's The Scarlet Plague, eh? Read earlier post.)
London's population plummets to about 1000 residents. Lionel, near despair, bids farewell to the accomplishments of man (science, the arts).
Autumn, 2096. Survivors meet in London and agree to emigrate. But events intervene; time passes. The winter arrives. They decide to head for Switzerland. They find France ... empty. Switzerland, too. They make it to Venice, where the city is beautiful--but dead. Animals are living in the palaces.
Lionel endures the deaths of of loved ones. He, alone, goes to museums, tries to study, to forget. He spends a year writing the book we're reading. He decides he will set sail to see if he can find others. He loads his boat, including a friendly dog--and with books, Homer and Shakespeare among them. And the novel ends with these words from Lionel--
Neither hope nor joy are my pilots--restless despair and fierce desire of change lead me on. ... thus around the shores of deserted earth, while the sun is high, and the moon waxes or wanes, angels, the spirits of the dead, the ever-open eye of the Supreme, will behold the tiny bark, freighted with ... the LAST MAN (470).