The Last Man by Mary Shelley: Bleakly Imaginative Dystopian

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The Last Man by Mary Shelley Book Cover Image

Rating: Orange StarOrange Starorange-star

Category: Classics, Dystopian

Format: Paperback – from local independent bookshop

Content Warnings: Pandemic, death of family members, suicide attempt, grief, reference to attempted sexual assault, racism & nationalism, misogyny

What’s It About?

In an England of the future, Lionel Verney is a poor shepherd boy when he is befriended by Adrian, Earl of Windsor and Raymond, a favoured candidate for the Lord Protectorship – the pinnacle of political achievement.

Lionel is soon moving in the same circles as the most powerful, wealthy and intellectual men in the world. Yet this Romantic paradise of virtue and conversation is under threat when a plague begins to decimate the world’s population, and Lionel is helpless to protect all that he has come to treasure of life’s riches.


First Chapter Impressions

I was a bit dubious going into this book because I’m really not a fan of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Although The Last Man does share some of the same elements that put me off of Shelley’s more famous novel, I preferred it overall.

While both books share the same melodramatic tone, and characters that are moral ‘types’, I found the wider cast of characters in The Last Man made the narrator less exasperatingly self-absorbed.

The Last Man is one of my set texts for a module on Literature & The Environmental Crisis that I’m taking at university this year, and which I’m very excited for!

While I wouldn’t recommend it for leisure reading, it’s certainly a good book for study, analysis and reflection. My copy is full of colour-coded tabs because the themes covered are so diverse, from class to the concept of free will.

The Last Man by Mary Shelley Book Review Pinterest Graphic

Final Page Reflections

The Last Man is rather dark, and a big trigger warning is needed for the theme of the plague, which I found especially heavy given the current context. It does have emotional poignancy though, particularly given the tragic time of her life in which Shelley was writing this book – she had just lost several friends and family members, including her husband, in quick succession.

The fact that said plague isn’t even mentioned until over a third of the way through gives you a sense of the novel’s slow pace. While this book could certainly have been shorter, and it’s clear what’s going to happen from early on, Shelley just about manages to maintain the tension as she’s the queen of very dramatic scenes!

An audiobook version may have helped me enjoy The Last Man more, so I would recommend this reading format to carry you through the lulls in the action. There’s even a freebie on LibriVox!


The Last Man by Mary Shelley Mood Cloud

Diversity and Representation

The level of misogyny in this book is disappointing even for a nineteenth-century novel. Especially since it was written by the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, one of the most influential early feminists!

Wollstonecraft championed women’s education, but in The Last Man women take a back seat and are valued for typically feminine characteristics such as patient endurance and maternal affection.

Fund Literacy, Care for the Environment

  • Nature and mankind
  • Class
  • Savagery vs civilisation
  • Science
  • Gender and sexuality
  • Power
  • Nationalism
  • Fate vs free will
  • Myth

Beyond the Book

In The Last Man characters remain excessively confident in the ability of the human mind to subdue nature and the disasters she sends their way, be it a plague or an unnaturally ferocious storm.

It made me think that we take a similar view today with global warming, arrogantly trusting in our technological advancements to see us through. Turns out there’s an actual word for this mindset: cornucopianism.

Discussion Questions

  1. What did you think of Shelley’s representation of the female characters in The Last Man?
  2. Have you read much dystopian fiction? How does The Last Man compare to other books you’ve read in this genre, including more modern ones?
  3. Could you identify with any of the characters in the novel, or did you find that they were all moral ‘types’?

Favourite quote:

“Men love a prop so well, that they will lean on a pointed poisoned spear”

The Last Man by Mary Shelley Quote

Read if: You feel intrigued by a bleakly imaginative dystopian classic.

Buy Now on Better World Books:

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Take a look at my review of Frankenstein, another novel by Mary Shelley!

Have you read The Last Man? What’s your favourite dystopian novel? Let me know in the comments – I would love to hear from you!

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5 thoughts on “The Last Man by Mary Shelley: Bleakly Imaginative Dystopian”

  1. Great review Florence, I’m about to beginning writing my review of Frankenstein because I just recently finished it so I’ll definitely check your review of that out afterwards, I’m really intrigued to see why you didn’t like it.

    As for this one, it’s great to hear about another title from Shelley, so often it’s forgotten that she wrote anything besides Frankenstein. I think I’d be intrigued to pick this one up but not right now, as you say it’s probably a bit too bleak for right now all things considered. Really enjoyed reading your thoughts though 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much Jess! Looking forward to reading your thoughts on Frankenstein, it’s such a famous classic and I appreciated the premise but I found it a bit slow and the narrator annoyed me! 😂 And yeah I wouldn’t recommend reading The Last Man in the current state of the world, our tutor even apologised for making us read it – it was a complete coincidence as she created the reading list way before the Covid pandemic! X x x


  2. Lovely review, Florence! That unit on Literature and the Environmental Crisis sounds fascinating, though perhaps unfortunate timing to read something featuring the plague! I read a book called The Waiting Rooms in the summer which was very close to the current climate too. Great to discover the word cornucopianism – it’s probably just a synonym for naivety 😂 I really liked your analysis as always! 🥰🥰

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for the kind words Stephen! I am really enjoying the unit, it’s got some great books – Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood is next which I can’t wait to read! Just looked up The Waiting Rooms and it sounds really unsettling, but I’d like to read it as it sounds similar to Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro which I loved. Maybe I’ll save it for a less dystopian time though 😂 X x x

      Liked by 1 person

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