Humans have always expressed a ‘fear of the end’ in literary and artistic terms. The first apocalypse stories in Western culture came to us from the Bible, with Noah’s Flood giving us the archetypal ‘last man’ or ‘small group of survivors’ motif that has persisted in many retellings of the end times.
Presented here is an abridged version of Mary Shelley’s post-apocalyptic pandemic novel “The Last Man” (1826). The plague makes its way across the world killing all in its path and eventually arrives in England. Many of the motifs we find in modern-day apocalypse movies can be found in Shelley’s novel: lawlessness and rioting, the rise of religious madmen, the hoarding of food, and scenes of desolate towns and cities. The extract presented here is a highly abridged one which provides an overview of how Shelley imagined the end of the world as ushered in by a pandemic.
“The empires of civilization have crumbled like sandcastles in a horror of anarchy. Thousands upon thousands of unburied dead, anticipating the more deliberate doom that comes and smokes, and rides and comes and comes, and does not fail, encumber the streets of London, Manchester, Liverpool … the fields lie waste, wanton crowds carouse in our churches, universities, palaces, banks, hospitals … in several towns the police seem to have disappeared.”