Shelley’s The Last Man begins with the background narrative of a king abdicating his throne for the sake of an egalitarian republic. By the second half of the novel, that egalitarian ideal has seemingly been realized as “the race of man had lost in fact all distinction of rank” (293). The plague has struck, it’s the end of the world, and the destruction of humankind has made class barriers irrelevant. Shelley’s novel comes hard on the heels of the French Revolution, and questions of birth, rank, and rule—and specifically the notion that rule might be inconsequential to birth—are a part of public discourse in unprecedented ways. Shelley participates in this conversation about the fragility of class distinctions throughout The Last Man. As the novel’s crisis grows, the boundaries between class divisions become permeable and hierarchies upended: “Poor and rich were now equal, or rather the poor were the superior, since they entered on such tasks with alacrity and experience; while ignorance, inaptitude, and habits of repose, rendered them fatiguing to the luxurious, galling to the proud” (309). In the face of humanity’s fast-approaching annihilation, class distinctions become all but absurd: “We were all equal now; but near at hand was an equality still more levelling, a state where beauty and strength, and wisdom, would be as vain as riches and birth” (317). The novel becomes a hyperbolic example of what a great leveler death can be.
However, there is something deeply inconsistent in Shelley’s egalitarian apocalyptic society. Peasants may now be living in palaces, but the people are also being willingly ruled by Adrian, erstwhile son of a king. Despite painting his mother, the Ex-Queen, as a villain because of her unwavering commitment to the rights of the monarchy, the narrative repeatedly affirms these rights in action. Her monarchal hopes for Adrian are realized in the apocalypse. Ryland, who was not born of kings, abandons the protectorship when threatened with the plague. He considers it a position beyond the call of duty. “When I am a plague-spotted corpse,” he says, “where will my duties be? Every man for himself! the devil take the protectorship, say I, if it expose me to danger” (244). If the egalitarian impulse of the apocalypse is really an “every man for himself” impulse, then no wonder the survivors reject it and return to something resembling the monarchal structure of past ages. Though Adrian’s position as Lord Protector comes about by parliamentary decision after Ryland’s abdication, it’s significant that he is essentially taking on the same role his father rescinded, ruling his people not as a duty, but in a sense as a birthright.
As humanity’s numbers dwindle to the hundreds, factions arise, each with its own leader. Though most of these factions submit to Adrian as Lord Protector, the impulse to rule, to be ruled, or to conquer are persistent. Class distinctions may have disappeared, but the impulse towards them persists. An interesting example of this inconsistency is the sect that breaks off from Adrian’s Englishmen in Paris near the end of the novel. Shelley describes them as “mostly drawn from that which, when such distinctions existed, was denominated the lower rank of society” (387). Of course, observing the class division within the sectarian division, only serves to maintain that distinction. The divided sect is a fanatical religious group ruled over by a power-hungry leader who has been using religious fervor to draw and keep followers. The only members of his following not among the previously-lower class are “high-born females, who, panic-struck, and tamed by sorrow, had joined him” (387). Thus, in addition to maintaining class division through sectarianism, Shelley has also feminized the lower classes. After all, if the only participants of this sect who are not lower class are women, that assumes something inherently feminine about the lower class. This would be fine if Shelley had given her sex agency and authority in the narrative, but she’s consistently cast women as dependent creatures—all the more dependent as they are virtuous. If class distinctions have functionally disappeared in The Last Man—which hardly seems to be the case—gendered dynamics have certainly not disappeared. If anything, they’ve expanded to encompass social groups which would once have been understood in terms of class.
Initially, one might consider Verney a prime example of the broken class barriers Shelley is advocating. Born in poverty and obscurity, he is raised to the right hand of Adrian, Lord Protector and rightful heir to the English throne, long before the plague arrives. From a childhood of noble savagery, “an outcast and a vagabond,” he rises to marry Adrian’s sister and call Windsor Castle his home (262). But Verney is a poor example of the dissolution of class barriers precisely because of this meteoric rise. As his father had also been the king’s right-hand man before being banished from the crown, Verney’s ascension back to the position of his father confirms an underlying substance to the claims of birth. Thus, when the religious sect in Paris captures him, he warns them to “Remember…who I am,” because who he is matters (390). His position means something to them—or should, in Verney’s estimation—despite the supposed political equality of the human race.
One could argue that the perpetuation of the monarchal structure is the consequence of engrained English habit. Yet it’s also significant that Adrian and his family are among the last of the human race to die. As England, Europe, and the whole wide world perish with speed, Adrian, Idris, the Ex-Queen, and the children last an irrationally long time. Perhaps this is just sloppy storytelling. But that’s all the more reason it might say something about Shelley’s unexplored assumptions concerning monarchy, rule, and the royal blood which claims it.