In my book The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, I devoted an entire chapter to Mary Shelley and her place within the Gothic tradition, discussing not just Frankenstein but her third novel The Last Man (1826). The Last Man has become of great interest to critics in the last few decades for its apocalyptic vision of the end of the world. While Shelley had some predecessors in writing about the theme of the end of the world and there being one lone survivor, most of those works were poems, notably, Lord Byron’s “Darkness” (1816), Thomas Campbell’s “The Last Man” (1823), and Thomas Hood’s “The Last Man” (1826). However, one work was a novel, and it was not one I had read previously.
Published in 1805, Grainville’s novel was pirated and published without an author in England in 1806. Mary Shelley may have been inspired by it to write her own novel titled The Last Man
Recently, I reread Shelley’s The Last Man with an online group and became curious about this other novel that may have influenced her. The novel was Jean-Baptiste Francois Xavier Cousin de Grainville’s 1805 French novel Le Dernier Homme. I found a copy published in 2002 by Wesleyan University Press that states it is the “New English Translation.” It is translated by I. F. Clarke and M. Clarke, and it includes an introduction and critical materials by I. F. Clarke.
I purchased this copy on Amazon but did not realize it was a new translation of the novel until I received it. I admit I was disappointed by this because I wanted to read the version Mary Shelley would likely have read, if she did read it. However, after reading the introduction, I was not disappointed because it clarified that what Mary Shelley may have read was not really what Cousin de Grainville wrote, much less what he initially planned to write.
Grainville was born in 1746 of lesser nobility and became a priest in 1766. According to I. F. Clarke, he began writing Le Dernier Homme at age sixteen. Meanwhile, the French Revolution broke out. In 1790, he took an oath to the French Republic, and during the Reign of Terror, he left the priesthood. He would later marry, but his life was not happy; he and his wife were relatively poor, and in 1805, he committed suicide by throwing himself in the Somme Canal at Amiens at 2 a.m. If Grainville had no influence on Mary Shelley, it is clear that both of them had difficult lives and may have written their novels out of despair and grief. Shelley wrote her novel in the years immediately after her husband Percy Shelley drowned in 1823 and her friend Lord Byron died in 1824, making her feel like “The Last Man.”
Grainville’s manuscript was published after his death, but it was still not complete. While the text is a complete long piece of fiction, Grainville divided the book not into chapters but ten cantos. His intention was to use the prose he had written as a rough draft to be the structure for an epic poem, the first canto of which he had begun to turn into verse. Instead, the book was published as a novel in France in 1805. It caused no stir, and according to the preface to the second edition of 1811, it did not sell well. Clarke says it sold forty copies. However, it gained the interest of someone who wanted to translate it into English. In 1806, Grainville’s novel was published as The Last Man, or Omegarus and Syderia, a Romance in Futurity in England. No author’s name appeared on the title page. According to Clarke, the translation shows that it was translated into English by someone whose first language was not English. Who the translator was remains unknown. Even if not English, the translator did know enough about English readers that they would not like certain passages in the novel that glorified France and belittled England. Remember, the novel was written during the time of the Napoleonic Wars. In one passage, we are told that in the future world Grainville depicts, England has sunk into the ocean. In another passage, the main character, Omegarus, is said to be descended from Napoleon and he is also of French royal lineage—a sign of the French thinking themselves superior since Omegarus is believed to be a messiah figure in the novel. These passages were removed from the English translation, and many other similar changes were made. The result was what appeared to English readers as an anonymous novel written by an Englishman.
So what Mary Shelley may have read had no taint of French to it. Le Dernier Homme is a very religious novel and one written by a Catholic priest, but Shelley, who would have been more attune to Protestant thinking and was perhaps an atheist, and whose own novel is often described as existential, would not have known any of these details, though doubtless she could not ignore the novel’s biblical and religious elements.
Mary Shelley’s The Last Man was inspired by her grief over the deaths of her husband Percy and close friend Lord Byron
What is religious about Le Dernier Homme is obviously influenced by the Bible, specifically the book of Revelation, but as Clarke points out, Paradise Lost must have also been an influence, especially Milton’s scene of Adam seeing the future of mankind since in Le Dernier Homme, Adam is a character who gets to visit his descendants Omegarus and Syderia, the last of the human race. Omegarus also at one point gets to see the future of the human race if he and Syderia should have children. Shelley no doubt would have picked up on these parallels to Paradise Lost since she herself was influenced by Milton’s masterpiece in writing Frankenstein.
Although I wish I had read the original pirated English edition of the novel because it would have been a more accurate way to determine any influence of Grainville’s book on Shelley, I think it’s fair to say that if the novel had any influence on Shelley, it was simply the theme of the end of the world and the Last Man that influenced her and nothing more specific. Clarke, in his introduction, says the novel did not influence Shelley’s work and that the similarities are coincidences. The only real similarities are, as Clarke notes, that both novels begin with a cave where an unnamed narrator enters and information is given about the future. Shelley’s narrator and her companion enter the Sibyl’s cave and find sibylline leaves scattered about the cave with writing on them—they piece together these fragments to create the narrative of her novel. Grainville’s narrator instead meets a Celestial Spirit in a cave who then shows him the story through an enchanted mirror. There isn’t anything else in the two novels that is similar other than a few passages where people see what appear to be multiple suns in the sky—Shelley doesn’t explain this phenomenon while Grainville explains that a volcano has erupted on the moon, causing it to look like another red sun from the lava.
Are those similarities or coincidences? Did Shelley read Grainville or not? We can’t say for sure. I think it likely, but if she used the novel as inspiration, it did not in any way limit her imagination from creating her own world. They are very different novels, Shelley’s novel shies away from religion except in the case of depicting one religious fanatic, while Grainville’s novel is filled with biblical imagery. The two novels are so different it is hard to say which is superior. For those interested in more information on Shelley’s novel, I invite them to read the novel and my chapter on it in my book The Gothic Wanderer. For those who want a plot summary of Grainville’s novel, I provide it below but also invite people to read it for themselves. Both novels have been discussed as early forms of science fiction, but there is nothing in terms of technology used in them—the authors could not foresee the technological world or even the advances to items like trains just decades away. The characters travel in balloons, although Grainville calls them “airships.” What makes the novels early forms of science fiction are simply their depiction of the future.
More importantly, both novels, though two centuries old, are still relevant to us today. Shelley’s world is destroyed through plague, which critics have likened to AIDS and other health crises we have faced in recent years. Grainville’s novel has more of an environmental message where the people have gone to live in cities and forsaken cultivating the earth so that plants no longer grow or are able to sustain people, and people themselves have become infertile. (Infertility is, notably, also a theme in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a novel written in 1985 and now a Hulu Original Series in 2017.) Both novels depict a pessimistic future, one that was not really imagined until the aftermath of World War II when it became apparent that mankind can destroy itself through nuclear weapons—a threat that has only become scarier as the years have passed. As we live today amid fears of overpopulation, global warming, and increased violence, we can look back and see just how insightful and prophetic both Shelley and Grainville were. In fact, just recently, Stephen Hawking has come out to say the earth can only sustain us for 100 more years. It is not far-fetched to think that one day one of our grandchildren’s grandchildren could be the last man or last woman.
In their day, Shelley and Grainville’s novels might have been dismissed as the works of people filled with depression, grief, perhaps even madness to the point where both were likely suicidal and one did commit suicide. But perhaps we can also see both authors as realists in their view of the future, even if not all of us would subscribe to Grainville’s Christian viewpoint or Shelley’s more atheistic one.
Today’s apocalyptic, end-of-the-world stories tend to be far less religious, and human fate tends to remain in human hands rather than in God’s. For example, in Robert O’Brien’s novel Z Is for Zachariah (1974), made into a film in 2015, the human race also gets wiped out save for a young woman and a man. When the man tries to rape the woman, she chooses to abandon him. In this case, it is not God who decides the human race cannot continue, but the modern-day Eve figure. She refuses to let a man have power over her. In a sense, this is coming full circle with ancient traditions and the tale of Lilith, believed in Jewish tradition to be Adam’s first wife who was rejected because she refused to let him be dominant over her.
In any case, Grainville and Shelley’s apocalyptic visions still resonate with us today. Perhaps they are prophets of a future we have yet to face.
Plot Summary with Some Commentary on Le Dernier Homme
Book I: Canto I
The story begins with a cave near the ruins of Palmyra (in Syria). This reminds me of Shelley’s Sibyl’s cave. However, what is in the cave is not fragments of a story (Sibylline leaves) but much more. An unnamed narrator visits the cave and is summoned in by an old man who says this is a cave of death that cannot be disturbed. Those who disturb it are punished, but the unnamed narrator won’t be because he was summoned into it. The old man is able to communicate with the narrator by thought. He explains he is the Celestial Spirit. In the cave, the narrator also sees Time personified and bound. The Celestial Spirit tells the narrator that he knows all the future and the past and it’s his purpose to share with him the story of the end of the world and the Last Man. The narrator then watches the events of the end of the world through an enchanted mirror (the only real element of sci-fi technology in the novel, though Grainville would have likely called it magic). This unnamed narrator is similar to St. John, who witnesses the end of the world in the Book of Revelation. Grainville also draws upon “Dies Irae,” a hymn in Latin meaning “Day of Wrath” that was once sung at all Masses for the dead. The translation that Clarke provides of Dies Irae is by Macaulay and includes “This vain world shall pass away/Thus the sibyl sang of old.” This line is not in the novel, but the sibyl reference reminds one of Mary Shelley’s sibyl’s cave.
In the enchanted mirror, the narrator sees Adam, the first man, who has been banished to an island where he is punished and suffering until the end of the world—this depiction is odd because this book is being written by a Catholic priest, and the medieval Catholic tradition is that when Christ died, he descended into hell and freed all the dead from sin—in medieval art, Christ is frequently portrayed as taking Adam by the hand and leading him out of hell with the rest of the human race following. However, Grainville decides to ignore this tradition. Instead, he subscribes to the idea that when people die, they remain dead until the Day of Judgment when they will come back to life (as is depicted at the end of the novel). Adam is an exception—rather than dying (although the Bible says he died), he has been kept alive until the end of the world.
The Harrowing of Hell was a popular medieval theme. Here it is depicted by Fra Angelico. The premise is that when Christ died, he descended into hell and freed the human race. He takes Adam by the hand and behind Adam the rest of the human race follows so they can be freed from sin and enter heaven. Grainville’s novel, however, believes all humans remained dead and in the grave until judgment day.
The angel Ithuriel appears to Adam and tells him he must go to the last humans, without revealing his identity, and in time, his purpose in doing so will become known. The success of Adam’s mission will determine whether his suffering will come to an end. Adam is then transported to where he is found by Omegarus and Syderia, the last couple likely to produce a child. (A few other humans are still alive, but Omegarus and Syderia are the only fertile ones—this is Grainville’s reversing of Paradise Lost, focusing on the last rather than the first couple.) Omegarus and Syderia have spent the night in fear, having seen various spirits and feeling the end of the world is approaching. Adam tells them he is there to comfort them and asks to hear their story.
Book I: Canto II
Omegarus begins to tell Adam his life story. He is descended from royalty, kings who once ruled both hemispheres—later it is clear he is descended from French royalty. (This detail is similar to Shelley’s Adrian being the last of English royalty.) Omegarus is something of a wonder child because most people on earth are now sterile and he is the first child born in Europe in many years. Omegarus grows up being the only child in Europe, and eventually, his parents die while he is yet a teenager. As a young man, Omegarus meets a man consumed by flame who tells him not to try to help him, but that the flame is his natural element. This man tells him the world is going to come to an end soon. This man is the Guardian or Spirit of the Earth, appointed by God, so he has knowledge that the day of destruction is near. The spirit tells him he must go to the city where the maid was burnt in France (Rouen and St. Joan of Arc) and there meet Idamas who will help him so he can go to Brazil to find the only woman still fertile who can help him repopulate the earth.
As Omegarus travels to Rouen, he is greeted by other humans who witnessed his birth; they now proclaim him as a prophesied messiah figure who will restore the earth to health and allow mankind to breed and multiply again. Once Omegarus meets Idamas, he is told they will travel to Brazil in an airship (a hot air balloon).
Book I: Canto III
Omegarus, Idamas, and a few others take off in the airship. They fly past England, which is sunk into the sea. (The endnote in the Clarke edition suggests this was to please the French readers since England was the enemy and it was the time of the Napoleonic wars.) As they travel, Idamas tells Omegarus the recent history of the world. Not long ago, mankind had reached the peak of evolution and had been experiencing its golden age. Then one man discovered the secret to life extension. He was going to gift it to humanity but then he realized it would result in overpopulation if people did not die, so he captured it in a flame/vial and placed it in a temple on the Fortunate Isles. The flame was then only to be gifted to the very talented who dedicated their lives to humanity. The entire world population would have to vote to allow someone to receive it.
Then a horrible event happened—a second red sun appeared in the sky, which turned out to be the moon rising. A volcano had erupted on the moon, making it red, and soon the moon was completely destroyed and fell from the sky. This destruction affected vegetation on earth, causing scarcity of food, and made people become violent and warlike. This even led to airship wars—people fighting each other in hot air balloons with knives.
The earth was now overpopulated. However, a scientist named Ormus solved this problem by suggesting the land beneath the rivers was fertile so they should divert the rivers and farm in the riverbeds. This worked, so Ormus suggested they do the same thing with the oceans, but it was decided to be unnecessary because people were becoming sterile, which made the overpopulation and food scarcity issues less severe.
Next, the sun began to die. The northern climates became too cold to live in so people fled to warmer lands, resulting in Brazil becoming a major population center. Idamas concludes his history at this point as the airship lands in Brazil.
Book I: Canto IV
Upon arrival in Brazil, Omegarus and his companions are told they have to leave or die because there is not enough food there for them. However, after they explain their mission to the king, including that Omegarus brings hope because he has been prophesied to restore the human race, they are welcomed. A sort of beauty contest is then held to find the right maid for Omegarus. There are many signs during the time leading up to the contest of whom the right maiden will be. Nature personified appears and shows Omegarus what his bride will look like. Meanwhile, Syderia, who will be chosen, is having visions of a man whom she later realizes is Omegarus. Eventually, it’s determined that Syderia is to be the bride for Omegarus. We learn that Omegarus’ father is the king or chief of a native tribe in Brazil—they are the last people to have quit living an agrarian and natural food lifestyle, and hence, Syderia is still fertile. To celebrate the fertility, the humans dig and plant seeds into the earth, something that their civilized recent ancestors scorned to do, which caused the earth to cease to be fertile.
Book I: Canto V
Idamas now wants Ormus, the river converter, to come and bless Omegarus and Syderia’s marriage. Ormus is found, but he is resistant. He also has the gift of prophecy and says God is not in favor of the marriage so if it happens, it will only be a way to try to stop the prophecy of the earth’s destruction, which will actually further it because mankind cannot be saved. Nevertheless, Ormus comes to the ceremony. During it, he claims to speak to God and prophesies destruction (though no one else hears God’s voice). Ormus says that as proof of the prophecy he’s hearing, he will die, which he then does.
The fifth canto ends with the Brazilians demanding that Omegarus and his French companions depart before more doom is brought upon them.
Book II: Canto 6
Omegarus and the French prepare to leave Brazil, but they decide to bring Syderia with them. She loves Omegarus so she departs to France with him, but at the same time, she is worried that she is defying God by being with him so she won’t consummate the marriage. After they leave Brazil, Syderia’s father appears to her in a dream, saying he died of grief after she left, but he now knows as a spirit that God is in favor of their union. As a result, Syderia gives in to Omegarus’ advances, they have sex, and she becomes pregnant.
Book II: Canto 7
Adam, who is listening to Omegarus recite his tale, now has God appear to him and tell him that he is against the union of Omegarus and Syderia. Adam then explains to Omegarus that God is indeed against the union and, furthermore, the child conceived, if born, will murder its parents, and that will be the least of its acts. It will father an evil race as well. (I was struck by this because it made me wonder whether Shelley was inspired by this novel in writing Frankenstein as well—after all, the monster is Victor Frankenstein’s son, and it seeks to murder him and does murder Victor’s wife.) Omegarus is defiant, refusing to believe what Adam says and refusing to obey God until Adam finally reveals to Omegarus that he is Adam, the father of mankind. He then explains to Omegarus that all the prophecies in favor of his and Syderia’s union have been the deceitful work of the Spirit of the Earth who first sent Omegarus on his journey and told him he was to father a new race of men. As the earth’s guardian, the Spirit will cease to exist if mankind dies out and the earth is destroyed, so he is lying to preserve his own life. In this sense, the Spirit is like Satan, a deceitful transgressor against God’s will.
Omegarus still refuses to separate from Syderia, but Adam continues to try to convince him. Adam says that if he can prevent the birth of this evil race that will spring from Omegarus and Syderia’s union, then he will be able to wipe away his sin. (In other words, Adam has as much of an agenda as the Spirit of the Earth.) At first, in reading this section, I thought Adam was advocating that Omegarus and Syderia commit suicide, but instead, it turns out that if Omegarus will just separate from Syderia, that will be enough for God to realize they are obeying him, and then he will destroy the earth and the human race so that all the humans of the past can rise from the dead to have eternal life.
Omegarus finally agrees to separate from Syderia, though he feels great guilt. He almost returns to her, then instead writes on a stone, “Omegarus is not guilty” hoping Syderia will see it and understand.
This canto is disturbing in its Christian message. Even Omegarus wonders how a beneficent God can be so cruel. However, Adam says that once Omegarus dies, the souls of men will praise him for they will have eternal life.
Book II: Canto 8
Now that Omegarus has separated himself from Syderia, God is ready to fulfill his plan to destroy the earth. Comets strike. The earth begins to erupt. The bones and ashes of the dead rise up from the earth, which causes mountains to fall and the earth’s landscape to alter. Omegarus finds shelter in a house where he finds the bodies of an old couple, Tibes and his wife. He sees the aged bodies become youthful. God has restored them to life but their shades have not yet returned to them. Omegarus feels grateful that their souls and those of all humanity will now be freed.
The Last Man, a 1849 painting by John Martin. The painting does not depict a scene from either Shelley or Grainville’s novels but just the popular theme. That said, notice the red sun/moon in the darkness.
Book II: Canto 9
Syderia wonders why Omegarus hasn’t returned. She finds the stone on which he wrote “Omegarus is not guilty” and realizes he has deserted her. She feels, however, that he is guilty; then she feels bad to think he is guilty. She is in misery and then in shock as she sees the earth throwing up stones as the dead are raised from the earth. She becomes wounded and miserable. She finally sees Omegarus again and he looks radiant and tells her it’s a happy day, but she is then separated again from him.
Book II: Canto 10
The Spirit of Earth, determined still to live, makes a bargain with Death not to kill Syderia because then both will be able to live if the human race continues. Death promises not to kill her so long as the flame of love is in her heart. Of course, Syderia’s love eventually dies and Death does kill her. He then kills the Spirit of the Earth. Eternity then dawns. Meanwhile, the human race enters eternal life, praising Omegarus as its savior.