The Limits of White Civilization in “The Last Man” by Mary Shelley

The conflict between nature and civilization has never been more relevant. We are approaching the deadlines scientists have given us to reverse the works effects of human made climate change while people protest in the streets for Black lives, justice, and liberation (Sunrise Movement). We are seeing the constraints of a society built on white supremacy and the ruthless accumulation of wealth by the ruling class. Science fiction and fantasy authors have imagined dystopian worlds and apocalyptic landscapes in part to warn us, but also as a way of imagining solutions. However, dystopian and apocalyptic science fiction and fantasy isn’t a twentieth century invention. Stories about the end of civilization have existed since the beginning of human culture. We began with oral storytelling, pictographs, and songs, stories of vengeful Gods and larger than life heroes. Humanity has always been fascinated with death and our own relevance in the world. In 1826 Mary Shelley, the author of “Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus”, wrote one of the earliest modern novels about the end of civilization caused by a pandemic. A PDF of the book can be found here

Shelley’s “The Last Man” is full of vivid description of the aftermath of the collapse and nature’s subsequent engulfment of human constructs and edifices. As Shelley describes how nature is reclaiming the world, we see the fragility of the facade of civilization (Shelley, 1826). Whether the ocean is surging or the ground is splitting, nature is unable to be contained and humanity’s work falls. Shelley sometimes parallels nature and civilization. Both are presented as a force, a natural state; ones which clash in ongoing conflict. This was as true today as it was in Shelley’s time. She lived during the industrial age where electricity and technological manufacturing innovations were changing the world. But the struggle is not equal and the sides are not the same. White Christian European’s cruel obsession with conquest led to exploitation, enslavement, and cruelty for predominantly Black and Brown people in the global south. 

As I mentioned before, the sides are not equal. White civilization exploits and destroys, but nature will have the last word. In Shelley’s “The Last Man” this is played out to its stunning conclusion. She at once shows how humanity is a part of nature while also being separate from it. The imagery of nature communicates both the state of the characters in the scene and the over-arching theme of the state of nature and humanity (Shelley, 1826). In particular, the way in which she describes the ocean while the characters are wandering Europe reveals to the reader the nature of humanity and the natural world. 

“Dark night mixed everything; we hardly discerned the white crests of the murderous surges, except when lightning made brief noon, and drank the darkness, showing us our danger, and restoring us to double night (Shelley, 1826).”

The characters in the story are lost and wandering the world looking for other humans. They are still attached to civilization to the past, and that causes them to be conflicted with their present state. This conflict of self is represented by the choppy waves and the darkness which is only dispelled by lighting (Shelley, 1826). They have lost their way and only the lighting reveals the world as it truly is around them. This speaks to the age of enlightenment in which the author lived in the shadow of and social construct of the binary of light and dark, good and evil. It is also meant to present humanity as a whole at this point in the story’s history, the future is unknown and uncontrollable. Something which was frightening to English people still bound to the comforts of civilization or “vices of civilization” as Shelley refers to it later in the book (Shelley, 1826). The characters use metaphor and figurative language to express and explain the world around them.

“Our little shell obeyed the rudder miraculously well, and ran along on the top of the waves as if she had been an offspring of the sea, and the angry mother sheltered her endangered child (Shelley, 1826).”

The characters often apply human concepts and constructs to nature. This at once reveals the human-centered mindset of the characters, while exploring ideas about humanity’s place in nature. The characters ascribe human emotions to the environment, calling the ocean “angry” and noting its “fury” (Shelley, 1826). This is the characters attempt to impose order on the chaos in nature, both of which are natural states. The ocean is likened to an angry mother protecting a child. Iriquois creation myths depict the ocean as being the place where life originates on Earth (Thury, 116). Like her mother and father before her, Mary Shelley sought to expand human understanding of ourselves and the world around us, while pushing against the constraints of the society of her time. One of the greater lessons of the story is that while humanity is a part of nature, the civilization built on white European supremacy is not.

To overcome the inequalities and exploitation caused by a civilization built on white supremacy and wealth, we must reimagine the way we want the world to be. We must understand that our similarities and differences should be celebrated, and our lives must have value outside of the system of capitalism and white supremacy. Most importantly, white people, we need to listen to the Black liberators and abolitionists who’ve cultivate the world of a better world for centuries. Angela Davis, Ida B. Wells, Maya Angelou and Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor are just a few Black liberators to read in order to understand and join the work of Black liberation.

Thury, E.M., Devinney, M. K., Introduction to Mythology., Fourth Edition, p. 116. Oxford University Press, New York, 2017.

Shelley, Mary. “The Last Man”, 

http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/18247/pg18247-images.html

Sunrise Movement, 20202. https://www.sunrisemovement.org/

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