Shelley’s Radical Dystopia

As previously explored, Mary Shelley is significantly known as the author of Frankenstein, however, to truly understand Shelley’s intelligence and the expression of her political views we must explore Shelley’s use of the novel after Frankenstein. Shelley’s writing from the late 1820’s onward was engaging with public debate. [1] Thomas Malthus’ An Essay on the Principle of Population Growth (1798)[2] still remained to be influential during 1820’s resulting in an upsurge of apocalyptic fiction.[3] Shelley’s dystopian novel The Last Man (1826) [4] can be addressed as a response to the ongoing debate surrounding Malthus’ work. Shelley opposes Malthus’ blame on the working classes for population growth and the consequences by turning attentions toward Government.

Lauren Cameron suggests that ‘in The Last Man Shelley presents a radical vision of the failure of all governments.'[5] The novel is set within twenty-first century England after the abolishment of an over indulgent monarchy. Lord Protectorates have been democratically elected and the Parliament has been elected representatively, however, Parliament is ineffective and the Lord Protectorates cannot protect the dying population from a virus which leads to the protagonist believing himself to be the last man alive. [6] Shelley is reflecting on the history of English government, primarily changes occurring after the English Civil War, whilst also discussing the topical subject of representation within the voting franchise which would lead to The Great Reform Act of 1832. Shelley is not rejecting the idea of wider representation but is suggesting that no matter who has the right to vote if the aim of the government is not to provide for the well-being of the populace it will remain to be corrupt and ineffective. [7]

The novel was a form that allowed Shelley as a woman to express herself and to voice her own opinions through the world of fiction, during the 19th century, via the written word.  Thus, in The Last Man Shelley represents a dystopia in a world radical to her own, allowing her to actively engage with ongoing social and political debates. [8] Shelley, like her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, shared the view that government should be enforced for the well-being of the populace, regardless of class, presenting a possible solution to public debates of the 19th century.

[1] L. Vargo, ‘Mary Shelley Studies: From “Author of Frankenstein” to “the Great Work of Life” ‘, Literary Compass, 3:3 (2006) p423

[2] T. Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population Growth, J. Johnson (London, 1798)

[3] L. Cameron, ‘Mary Shelley’s Malthusian Objections in The Last Man’, Nineteenth-Century Literature, 67:2 (2012) p180

[4] M. Shelley, The Last Man, Henry Colburn (London, 1826)

[5] L. Cameron, ‘Mary Shelley’s Malthusian Objections in The Last Man’. p182

[6] M. Shelley, The Last Man.

[7] L. Careron, ‘Mary Shelley’s Malthusian Objections in The Last Man’. p182

[8] L. Vargo, ‘Mary Shelley Studies: From “Author of Frankenstein” to “the Great Work of Life”‘. p423


Image 1: Cover from the original edition of The Last Man: M. Shelley, The Last Man, Henry Colburn (London, 1826).

Image 2: Cover from the Oxford World Classics edition of The Last Man: M. Shelley, The Last Man, Oxford University Press (Oxford, 1998)


2 thoughts on “Shelley’s Radical Dystopia

  1. I found this blog post absolutely fascinating! I am almost embarrassed to admit that this is my first encounter with Shelley’s book [The Last Man] and the timing couldn’t be more apt given the recent discussions about events in 2016. I can see that you have drawn on Cameron’s analysis but also extended it to make some pertinent connections to questions of electoral reform and the principles of government.

    In terms of style and presentation, this was a tightly focused piece of writing that had a clear purpose and aim. There were a couple of sentences that could have been expressed more clearly and a couple of minor typos,but overall this made great reading.


  2. Having read your previous post, I love that you continue the theme of Mary Shelley and expose her radical views in this segment. I am definitely going on a ‘Shelley Journey’ following your blog! Evidently as you have explored, Shelley raises questions about the state of the government and the narrow electorate, which are forever prominent in our course. I found it so interesting and enlightening that she, too like her mother stood out on these contemporary problems surrounding freedom and women. I, too was completely unaware of Shelley’s ‘The Last Man’ and would be so eager to read it. Thank you for highlighting and exposing the radical nature of contemporary literature in the 19th century. You demonstrate with superb references, that in this period, there were many individuals acting out and protesting in many ways, in this case, using the written word.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s