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The Last Man by Mary Shelley (1826; read in 2020)

Published by marco on

Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.

This feels like another novel from the 19th century that was written serially, for two reasons. In the first place, it feels quite padded out, with each long chapter coming to a mini-plot resolution. In the second place, the book is actually quite clearly two separate volumes, with on of the main heroes of the first book Raymond dying in a conflagration in a plague-filled Constantinople.

The first half is essentially a bullshit fairy tale, ostensibly set in 2092, but with no discernible advancements over the early 19th century, when the book was written. Everything works out without conflict or even much effort on the part of the protagonists. Everyone is happy with all of the results. They’re all rich and smart and erudite and powerful and beautiful and just…barf. The second half is the actual pandemic-destroying-all-but-the-last-man book I’d set out to read.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The novel begins with the story of Lionel and his sister Perdita, who live in the countryside in Cumberland with their mother in more-or-less abject poverty. They’d never met their father, who was a jovial ne’er-do-well addicted to gambling who’d befriended the king and was, therefor, protected to a good degree.

Shelley sets the tone of the first half of the novel with countless examples of lovely, well-written passages that quickly grow almost tedious to read. For example, the following passage describes Lionel’s father as a charming but less-than-sensible man.

“My father was one of those men on whom nature had bestowed to prodigality the envied gifts of wit and imagination, and then left his bark of life to be impelled by these winds, without adding reason as the rudder, or judgment as the pilot for the voyage.”
Page 6

He remains protected, that is, until the king marries, after which the queen drives a wedge between the king and his incorrigible friend. She eventually delivers an ultimatum—cut off the sponge of suffer my wrath. The king obliges and Lionel’s father is driven into exile, having no means of support anymore. The king, in turn, gives up the monarchy, ushering in a republic in its place. The queen is beside herself with scorn and anger.

Lionel grows up to be a strapping man, head of a band of scoundrels who ravage the countryside, stealing what they need. The king’s other son Adrian moves to Cumberland, butting up against an angry and retributive Lionel, whose heart is reluctantly softened until he flips 180º and expresses lifelong devotion to the man whom he’d long considered an arch-enemy.[1]

We are introduced to Raymond, a hero of the Greek-Turkish wars as well as Evadne, a Greek Princess who loves him. Adrian, in turn, loves Evadne. Raymond loves Adrian’s sister, Idris. Raymond loves Perdita, and Lionel loves Idris. All clear? These are all respectively strapping or lovely, brilliant, rich people, all in love with one another in a seemingly Gordian knot of unrequited love.

This next citation is just a small snippet of Raymond rambling on for paragraphs about the depth and strength of his love (see more examples from pages 64-77 below).

“Yet you do love me; I feel and know that you do, and thence I draw my most cherished hopes. If pride guided you, or even reason, you might well reject me. Do so; if your high heart, incapable of my infirmity of purpose, refuses to bend to the lowness of mine.”
Page 64

This is effusive and overly flowery prose, depicting yet another improbable love triangle. It reminds me very much of the over-the-top love stories in Atlas Shrugged that described a love flaming so hot as to admit no doubt or compromise or even slight difference of opinion. They are lovely examples of poetic prose but, after a while, it’s hard not to feel she would describe taking out the trash in the same manner.

Also indicative of the time but now difficult to connect with is the subservience of woman, not just as forced by society, but also as fervently hoped for by the woman, who chooses a secondary role to a man who deems as having completely earned her worship.

“The overflowing warmth of her heart, by making love a plant of deep root and stately growth, had attuned her whole soul to the reception of happiness, when she found in Raymond all that could adorn love and satisfy her imagination.”
Page 125

Lionel moves to Vienna for a while, to work under the tutelage of Freud, while England starts to struggle with its republic. Raymond is agitating to move back to a monarchy, with himself as Lord Protector, which is basically king. Instead of causing issues among his friends, they all think that this is a great idea—because Raymond is so singularly awesome. Much of the rest of the parliament is similarly convinced, especially whenever Raymond opens his brilliant and loquacious mouth.

Soon after, they all become embroiled in the war in Greece. Rumors of Raymond’s death are followed by Raymond’s actual death and Perdita’s subsequent suicide (she obviously had no other reason to live). Adrian and Lionel return home to find that the plague that had begun in Asia and had just started to touch Turkey and Greece has followed them to England.

This is the first part of the book, with only a hint of plague. The second part eloquently describes the plague’s relentless eradication of humanity. I read the book to see if it, too, would provide some evidence that humanity’s idea of how to handle a plague was no different then than it is now (and than it was in Camus’s La Peste).

“We talked of the ravages made last year by pestilence in every quarter of the world; and of the dreadful consequences of a second visitation. We discussed the best means of preventing infection, and of preserving health and activity in a large city thus afflicted—London, for instance.”
Page 214
“Plague might not revive with the summer; but if it did, it should find us prepared. It is a part of man’s nature to adapt itself through habit even to pain and sorrow. Pestilence had become a part of our future, our existence; it was to be guarded against, like the flooding of rivers, the encroachments of ocean, or the inclemency of the sky.”
Page 261

This sounds very much like the lessons at least some of us had learned by the end of 2020—although I sometimes seriously question whether we’ve lost some capacity for dealing with society-wide issues. Our laser-like focus on individual liberty and luxury leaves little to no room for considering the more foreboding calculus of dependencies and conflicts between unequally represented interests.

Our notion of liberty often devolves into the strong surviving on the backs of the weak (dog eat dog), the strong using their mostly fortuitously acquired and largely unearned power to fortify and substantiate with myth their position at the top of the heap.

At any rate, in the book (as in reality), the remaining populace—either not exposed or more resistant—squabble and fight over the remaining resources and power centers. But it is hopeless, as the plague is unquestionably worse than anything humans can do to one another. Still, armies are raised, with the plague rejoicing at the close quarters and squalid conditions.

“At length the plague, slow-footed, but sure in her noiseless advance, destroyed the illusion, invading the congregation of the elect, and showering promiscuous death among them.”
Page 396

Luckily, the main characters are largely untouched by the plague—at least until much later. This is another literary device she uses without explanation: she protects her characters from the ravages of the plague until a sufficiently dramatic end can be found for them.

This is, of course, artistic license and largely implausible since most of them were simultaneously selfless in caring for the sick day-in and day-out. Yet, none fell to the plague. Were we to assume it was because they were so good? That the plague couldn’t get through the shield of their benevolence?

Lionel, Idris, and Adrian—now Lord Protector—rally the remains of humanity in England and strike out for warmer climes. The winters are brutal in England and humans can no longer survive there. Although the virus is worse in the summer, they still feel it would be better to move southward. There are trials and tribulations and they barely make it to the coast of France in their boats. There, they discover that those who preceded them had split into factions: on one side is Adrian and his benevolence; on the other is a brutal leader selling a story of protection from the plague in exchange for unquestioning fealty.

Lionel is integral in remediating this problem and the remains of humanity, once again united in purpose, continue to Switzerland, where they hope that the cool heights will provide agricultural plenty while protecting them from the estival ravages of the plague. The plague has other ideas. Only four survive the trek across France to Switzerland: Lionel, Adrian, and Raymond’s two children, Clara and Evelyn). Lionel dwells a bit too pointedly on how lovely and smart Clara is—with intimations of rekindling humanity with her.

They shift to Milan and Como, spending several lovely years there, with only Evelyn succumbing to Typhus rather than the plague.

“[…] one by one, beneath the ice-caves, beside the waters springing from the thawed snows of a thousand winters, another and yet another of the remnant of the race of Man, closed their eyes for ever to the light.”
Page 413
“"Thus are we left,“ said Adrian, “two melancholy blasted trees, where once a forest waved. We are left to mourn, and pine, and die.”
Page 416

Clara decides she needs to see where her father is buried in Greece. Lacking anything else to do, they endeavor across the Adriatic from Venice, but are shipwrecked, drowning Adrian and Clara. Lionel survives. We follow him on his physical and philosophical peregrinations, leaving him a few years later, after he’d ascertained to a great degree of certainty that he was, indeed, the last man on Earth.

“Yellow lightnings played around the vast dome of Mont Blanc, silent as the snow-clad rock they illuminated; all was bare, wild, and sublime, while the singing of the pines in melodious murmurings added a gentle interest to the rough magnificence.”
Page 414

Imagine knowing that yours would be the last sentience to behold such a thing, that nature would present such shows for long eons, irrespective of observers. That the clockwork continues without us, as easily as with us. Not that we have become irrelevant, but that we always were.


[1] This sort of jarring flip-flop is a common feature. There’s not a lot of subtlety to the emotions expressed by any of the characters. It’s like humanity viewed through the lens of a teenager: everything is literally the best or the worst ever.
[2] Idris never makes it off the island, and much effort and time is expended in making sure that her body is entombed in Windsor Castle, as if anyone at all cares where her plague-ridden corpse is interred, especially considering none of them will ever return to it.

Citations

“Di mie tenere frondi altro lavoro   Credea mostrarte; e qual fero pianeta   Ne’ nvidio insieme, o mio nobil tesoro?”
Page 5
“My father was one of those men on whom nature had bestowed to prodigality the envied gifts of wit and imagination, and then left his bark of life to be impelled by these winds, without adding reason as the rudder, or judgment as the pilot for the voyage.”
Page 6
“I lived with a farmer whose house was built higher up among the hills: a dark crag rose behind it, and, exposed to the north, the snow lay in its crevices the summer through.”
Page 14
“We are not formed for enjoyment; and, however we may be attuned to the reception of pleasureable emotion, disappointment is the never-failing pilot of our life’s bark, and ruthlessly carries us on to the shoals.”
Page 31
“He gave not only a brief denial to his mother’s schemes, but published his intention of using his influence to diminish the power of the aristocracy, to effect a greater equalization of wealth and privilege, and to introduce a perfect system of republican government into England. At first his mother treated his theories as the wild ravings of inexperience. But they were so systematically arranged, and his arguments so well supported, that though still in appearance incredulous, she began to fear him. She tried to reason with him, and finding him inflexible, learned to hate him.”
Page 41
“Truly disappointment is the guardian deity of human life; she sits at the threshold of unborn time, and marshals the events as they come forth.”
Page 43
“”Happy are dreamers,“ he continued, “so that they be not awakened! Would I could dream! but ‘broad and garish day’ is the element in which I live; the dazzling glare of reality inverts the scene for me. Even the ghost of friendship has departed, and love”——He broke off; nor could I guess whether the disdain that curled his lip was directed against the passion, or against himself for being its slave.”
Page 45
“Raymond continued, “I will not act a part with you, dear girl, or appear other than what I am, weak and unworthy, more fit to excite your disdain than your love. Yet you do love me; I feel and know that you do, and thence I draw my most cherished hopes. If pride guided you, or even reason, you might well reject me. Do so; if your high heart, incapable of my infirmity of purpose, refuses to bend to the lowness of mine. Turn from me, if you will,—if you can. If your whole soul does not urge you to forgive me—if your entire heart does not open wide its door to admit me to its very centre, forsake me, never speak to me again. I, though sinning against you almost beyond remission, I also am proud; there must be no reserve in your pardon—no drawback to the gift of your affection.””
Page 64

This is effusive and overly flowery prose, depicting yet another improbable love triangle. It reminds me very much of the over-the-top love stories in Atlas Shrugged. Flaming so hot as to.admit no doubt or compromise or even slight difference of opinion.

“Oh my pen! haste thou to write what was, before the thought of what is, arrests the hand that guides thee.”
Page 77
“But you live, my Idris, even now you move before me! There was a glade, O reader! a grassy opening in the wood; the retiring trees left its velvet expanse as a temple for love; the silver Thames bounded it on one side, and a willow bending down dipt in the water its Naiad hair, dishevelled by the wind’s viewless hand.”
Page 77

This is a lovely example, but I feel she would describe taking out the trash in the same manner.

“Adrian was on horseback; he rode up to the carriage, and his gaiety, in addition to that of Raymond, dispelled my sister’s melancholy. We entered London in the evening, and went to our several abodes near Hyde Park.”
Page 89

A book about the richest possible people. Never worked a day in their lives.

“"For my part,“ said I, “I am too well convinced of the worth of our friend, and the rich harvest of benefits that all England would reap from his Protectorship, to deprive my countrymen of such a blessing, if he consent to bestow it on them.””
Page 91
“in dragging a poor visionary from the clouds to surround him with the fire-works and blasts of earthly grandeur, instead of heavenly rays and airs?”
Page 91
“Although, when I was informed of this scheme, I was bitterly offended by the small attention which Raymond paid to my sister’s feelings, I was led by reflection to consider, that he acted under the force of such strong excitement, as to take from him the consciousness, and, consequently, the guilt of a fault. If he had permitted us to witness his agitation, he would have been more under the guidance of reason; but his struggles for the shew of composure, acted with such violence on his nerves, as to destroy his power of self-command.”
Page 97

This is how you excuse a mental abuser.

“In fact, now that the idea of contest was dismissed, all hearts returned to their former respect and admiration of our accomplished friend. Each felt, that England had never seen a Protector so capable of fulfilling the arduous duties of that high office. One voice made of many voices, resounded through the chamber; it syllabled the name of Raymond.”
Page 98

Such a bullshit fairy tale. Everything works out without conflict or even effort. Everyone happy in the end. Rich and powerful and beautiful and just. Barf.

“In the midst of such wretchedness as must soon have destroyed her, one thought only was matter of consolation. She lived in the same country, breathed the same air as Raymond.”
Page 110

Jesus, you can’t claim that this any better than Ayn Rand.

“His activity was fed in wholesome measure, without either exhaustion or satiety; his taste and genius found worthy expression in each of the modes human beings have invented to encage and manifest the spirit of beauty; the goodness of his heart made him never weary of conducing to the well-being of his fellow-creatures; his magnificent spirit, and aspirations for the respect and love of mankind, now received fruition; true, his exaltation was temporary; perhaps it were better that it should be so. Habit would not dull his sense of the enjoyment of power; nor struggles, disappointment and defeat await the end of that which would expire at its maturity.”
Page 116

Lay it on a little thicker. There is literally no plot: just endless pages of one formulation after another depicting Raymond’s unquestionable and nearly infinitely faceted awesomeness as well as Perdita’s depth of love for him and her rapture in having landed him. This reads like a schoolgirls diary.

“During the early years of their union, the inequality of her temper, and yet unsubdued self-will which tarnished her character, had been a slight drawback to the fulness of his sentiment.”
Page 116

Just wow.

“During the early years of their union, the inequality of her temper, and yet unsubdued self-will which tarnished her character, had been a slight drawback to the fulness of his sentiment. Now that unchanged serenity, and gentle compliance were added to her other qualifications, his respect equalled his love.”
Page 116

Words fail me.

“[…] she conjectured that some circumstance connected with his high place, had occasioned this mystery. She was startled and pained. She began to count the long days, and months, and years which must elapse, before he would be restored to a private station, and unreservedly to her.”
Page 117

This is mental illness.

“His course was speedily decided upon. If the worst befell; if she learnt the truth, he would neither stand her reproaches, or the anguish of her altered looks. He would forsake her, England, his friends, the scenes of his youth, the hopes of coming time, he would seek another country, and in other scenes begin life again.”
Page 118

Obviously a well-thought-out, measured, mature, and sane reaction.

“"you have secrets, Raymond; where have you been lately, whom have you seen, what do you conceal from me?—why am I banished from your confidence? Yet this is not it—I do not intend to entrap you with questions—one will suffice—am I completely a wretch?””
Page 119

Assume the worst, of course, that absolutely everything has been a lie.

“Do you think that I will be questioned, and my replies disdainfully set aside? Do you think that I will be suspected, perhaps watched, cross-questioned, and disbelieved? I am not yet fallen so low; my honour is not yet so tarnished. You have loved me; I adored you. But all human sentiments come to an end. Let our affection expire—but let it not be exchanged for distrust and recrimination. Heretofore we have been friends—lovers—let us not become enemies, mutual spies. I cannot live the object of suspicion—you cannot believe me—let us part!” “Exactly so,” cried Perdita, “I knew that it would come to this! Are we not already parted?”
Page 120

This is how super-smart people comport themselves. Do not question their ways.

“This contention is unworthy of both of us; and I confess that I am weary of replying to charges at once unfounded and unkind.””
Page 122

The best defense is a good offense.

“The overflowing warmth of her heart, by making love a plant of deep root and stately growth, had attuned her whole soul to the reception of happiness, when she found in Raymond all that could adorn love and satisfy her imagination.”
Page 125

Just in case you think that this crap stops at any point.

“"I loved you—I love you—neither anger nor pride dictates these lines; but a feeling beyond, deeper, and more unalterable than either. My affections are wounded; it is impossible to heal them:—cease then the vain endeavour, if indeed that way your endeavours tend. Forgiveness! Return! Idle words are these! I forgive the pain I endure; but the trodden path cannot be retraced.”
Page 137
“Perdita did not oppose herself to his determination. She only stipulated to be permitted to accompany him. She had set down no rule of conduct for herself; but for her life she could not have opposed his slightest wish, or do other than acquiesce cheerfully in all his projects.”
Page 169
“He wished to repay the kindness of the Athenians, to keep alive the splendid associations connected with his name, and to eradicate from Europe a power which, while every other nation advanced in civilization, stood still, a monument of antique barbarism […]”
Page 169

She is, of course, referring to the West’s age-old enemy: the ottomans/mohammedans.

“The only flag among them was one which Raymond carried; he pointed with it to the gate of the city. The circle round him fell back. With angry gestures he leapt from his horse, and seizing a hatchet that hung from his saddle-bow, went with the apparent intention of battering down the opposing gate. A few men came to aid him; their numbers increased; under their united blows the obstacle was vanquished, gate, portcullis, and fence were demolished; and the wide sun-lit way, leading to the heart of the city, now lay open before them. The men shrank back; they seemed afraid of what they had already done, and stood as if they expected some Mighty Phantom to stalk in offended majesty from the opening.”
Page 191
“I bent over the body, and took in my hand the edge of his cloak, less altered in appearance than the human frame it clothed. I pressed it to my lips, while the rough soldiers gathered around, mourning over this worthiest prey of death, as if regret and endless lamentation could re-illumine the extinguished spark, or call to its shattered prison-house of flesh the liberated spirit.”
Page 200
“We talked of the ravages made last year by pestilence in every quarter of the world; and of the dreadful consequences of a second visitation. We discussed the best means of preventing infection, and of preserving health and activity in a large city thus afflicted—London, for instance.”
Page 214
“Its pleasant places were deserted; its temples and palaces were converted into tombs; its energies, bent before towards the highest objects of human ambition, were now forced to converge to one point, the guarding against the innumerous arrows of the plague.”
Page 216
“The plague at Athens had been preceded and caused by the contagion from the East; and the scene of havoc and death continued to be acted there, on a scale of fearful magnitude.”
Page 216

The Wuhan Virus?

“What deep and sacred emotions are excited in a father’s bosom, when he first becomes convinced that his love for his child is not a mere instinct, but worthily bestowed, and that others, less akin, participate his approbation!”
Page 220
“But how are we to judge of airs, and pronounce—in such a city plague will die unproductive; in such another, nature has provided for it a plentiful harvest? In the same way, individuals may escape ninety-nine times, and receive the death-blow at the hundredth; because bodies are sometimes in a state to reject the infection of malady, and at others, thirsty to imbibe it. These reflections made our legislators pause, before they could decide on the laws to be put in force. The evil was so wide-spreading, so violent and immedicable, that no care, no prevention could be judged superfluous, which even added a chance to our escape.”
Page 224
“The vast cities of America, the fertile plains of Hindostan, the crowded abodes of the Chinese, are menaced with utter ruin. Where late the busy multitudes assembled for pleasure or profit, now only the sound of wailing and misery is heard. The air is empoisoned, and each human being inhales death, even while in youth and health, their hopes are in the flower. We called to mind the plague of 1348, when it was calculated that a third of mankind had been destroyed. As yet western Europe was uninfected; would it always be so?”
Page 226
“Bankers, merchants, and manufacturers, whose trade depended on exports and interchange of wealth, became bankrupt. Such things, when they happen singly, affect only the immediate parties; but the prosperity of the nation was now shaken by frequent and extensive losses. Families, bred in opulence and luxury, were reduced to beggary. The very state of peace in which we gloried was injurious; there were no means of employing the idle, or of sending any overplus of population out of the country.”
Page 227

Not quite how it happened in America.

“It was August; so there could be small hope of relief during the heats. On the contrary, the disease gained virulence, while starvation did its accustomed work. Thousands died unlamented; for beside the yet warm corpse the mourner was stretched, made mute by death.”
Page 228
“The labour necessary to bring the lands to this sort of culture, employed and fed the offcasts of the diminished manufactories.”
Page 230
“It was found necessary at last to check the spirit of sacrifice, and to remind those whose generosity proceeded to lavish waste, that, until the present state of things became permanent, of which there was no likelihood, it was wrong to carry change so far as to make a reaction difficult. Experience demonstrated that in a year or two pestilence would cease; it were well that in the mean time we should not have destroyed our fine breeds of horses, or have utterly changed the face of the ornamented portion of the country.”
Page 230
“Ye are all going to die, I thought; already your tomb is built up around you. Awhile, because you are gifted with agility and strength, you fancy that you live: but frail is the “bower of flesh” that encaskets life; dissoluble the silver cord than binds you to”
Page 232
“This his selected task was exchanged for the far different one of encountering the ruin caused by the convulsions of physical nature. He was incapable of meeting these evils by any comprehensive system; he had resorted to expedient after expedient, and could never be induced to put a remedy in force, till it came too late to be of use.”
Page 234

That sounds more like it.

“It was not until I arrived at Brentford, that I perceived much change in the face of the country. The better sort of houses were shut up; the busy trade of the town palsied; there was an air of anxiety among the few passengers I met, and they looked wonderingly at my carriage—the first they had seen pass towards London, since pestilence sat on its high places, and possessed its busy streets. I met several funerals; they were slenderly attended by mourners, and were regarded by the spectators as omens of direst import.”
Page 242
“Those who possessed a power of living out of London, he advised immediately to quit it, affording them the means of so doing. Others, whose trade was beneficial to the city, or who possessed no other refuge, he provided with advice for better avoiding the epidemic; relieving overloaded families, supplying the gaps made in others by death.”
Page 244
“I was an outcast and a vagabond, when Adrian gently threw over me the silver net of love and civilization, and linked me inextricably to human charities and human excellence. I was one, who, though an aspirant after good, and an ardent lover of wisdom, was yet unenrolled in any list of worth, when Idris, the princely born, who was herself the personification of all that was divine in woman, she who walked the earth like a poet’s dream, as a carved goddess endued with sense, or pictured saint stepping from the canvas—she, the most worthy, chose me, and gave me herself—a priceless gift.”
Page 254

Here we go again with the endless and superlative encomiums.

“The poor wretch had lost his young wife and lovely infant by the plague. He was a mechanic; and, rendered unable to attend to the occupation which supplied his necessities, famine was added to his other miseries.”
Page 255

This notion of “support yourself or starve” goes back a very long way.

“Plague might not revive with the summer; but if it did, it should find us prepared. It is a part of man’s nature to adapt itself through habit even to pain and sorrow. Pestilence had become a part of our future, our existence; it was to be guarded against, like the flooding of rivers, the encroachments of ocean, or the inclemency of the sky.”
Page 261
“Death, which had in our younger days walked the earth like “a thief that comes in the night,” now, rising from his subterranean vault, girt with power, with dark banner floating, came a conqueror.”
Page 264
“Gratitude and praise marked where her footsteps had been. Yet, when she stood in unassuming simplicity before us, playing with our children, or with girlish assiduity performing little kind offices for Idris, one wondered in what fair lineament of her pure loveliness, in what soft tone of her thrilling voice, so much of heroism, sagacity and active goodness resided.”
Page 268

Oh come on. They all care for the sick and none fall to the plague. Are we to assume it’s because they’re so good? That the plague can’t get through a shield of their benevolence?

“For my own part, my exertions for the public good permitted me to observe more closely than most others, the virulence and extensive ravages of our sightless enemy. A short month has destroyed a village, and where in May the first person sickened, in June the paths were deformed by unburied corpses—the houses tenantless, no smoke arising from the chimneys; and the housewife’s clock marked only the hour when death had been triumphant. From such scenes I have sometimes saved a deserted infant—sometimes led a young and grieving mother from the lifeless image of her first born, or drawn the sturdy labourer from childish weeping over his extinct family.”
Page 269
“One instance of this kind came immediately under our notice, where a high-born girl had in early youth given her heart to one of meaner extraction.”
Page 276
“I found Merrival, the astronomer, with her. He was far too long sighted in his view of humanity to heed the casualties of the day, and lived in the midst of contagion unconscious of its existence. This poor man, learned as La Place, guileless and unforeseeing as a child, had often been on the point of starvation, he, his pale wife and numerous offspring, while he neither felt hunger, nor observed distress. His astronomical theories absorbed him; calculations were scrawled with coal on the bare walls of his garret: a hard-earned guinea, or an article of dress, was exchanged for a book without remorse; he neither heard his children cry, nor observed his companion’s emaciated form, and the excess of calamity was merely to him as the occurrence of a cloudy night, when he would have given his right hand to observe a celestial phenomenon.”
Page 280
“[…] she was amused for a moment, by the contrast between the contracted view we had so long taken of human life, and the seven league strides with which Merrival paced a coming eternity.”
Page 282
“There was room enough indeed in our hapless country for twice the number of invaders; but their lawless spirit instigated them to violence; they took a delight in thrusting the possessors from their houses; in seizing on some mansion of luxury, where the noble dwellers secluded themselves in fear of the plague; in forcing these of either sex to become their servants and purveyors; till, the ruin complete in one place, they removed their locust visitation to another.”
Page 288
“As we advanced, we were met by bands of peasantry, whose almost naked condition, whose despair and horror, told at once the fierce nature of the coming enemy. The senseless spirit of conquest and thirst of spoil blinded them, while with insane fury they deluged the country in ruin.”
Page 290
“You are dear to us, because you wear the frail shape of humanity; each one among you will find a friend and host among these forces. Shall man be the enemy of man, while plague, the foe to all, even now is above us, triumphing in our butchery, more cruel than her own?””
Page 293
“Families late devoted to exalting and refined pursuits, rich, blooming, and young, with diminished numbers and care-fraught hearts, huddled over a fire, grown selfish and grovelling through suffering. Without the aid of servants, it was necessary to discharge all household duties; hands unused to such labour must knead the bread, or in the absence of flour, the statesmen or perfumed courtier must undertake the butcher’s office. 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, disgustful to all whose minds, bent on intellectual improvement, held it their dearest privilege to be exempt from attending to mere animal wants.”
Page 300
“Of old navies used to stem the giant ocean-waves betwixt Indus and the Pole for slight articles of luxury. Men made perilous journies to possess themselves of earth’s splendid trifles, gems and gold. Human labour was wasted—human life set at nought. Now life is all that we covet; that this automaton of flesh should, with joints and springs in order, perform its functions, that this dwelling of the soul should be capable of containing its dweller. Our minds, late spread abroad through countless spheres and endless combinations of thought, now retrenched themselves behind this wall of flesh, eager to preserve its well-being only. We were surely sufficiently degraded.”
Page 306
“But my mother, my sick, my dear, dear mother, who never, since I was born, spoke a harsh word to me, who has been patient in many sufferings; pity her, dear Lady, she must die a miserable death if you do not pity her. People speak carelessly of her, because she is old and infirm, as if we must not all, if we are spared, become so; and then, when the young are old themselves, they will think that they ought to be taken care of.”
Page 341
“But with the encreased mortality this intercourse declined and ceased. Even in England itself communication from one part of the island to the other became slow and rare. No vessel stemmed the flood that divided Calais from Dover; or if some melancholy voyager, wishing to assure himself of the life or death of his relatives, put from the French shore to return among us, often the greedy ocean swallowed his little craft, or after a day or two he was infected by the disorder, and died before he could tell the tale of the desolation of France.”
Page 364

No wireless no even an inkling that such a thing would be not only possible but a nearly unavoidable technological advancement two centuries hence.

“In the present instance, a worse feeling than either of these actuated the leader. He was an impostor in the most determined sense of the term. A man who had in early life lost, through the indulgence of vicious propensities, all sense of rectitude or self-esteem; and who, when ambition was awakened in him, gave himself up to its influence unbridled by any scruple.”
Page 365
“At length, by mere dint of rowing, we reached the French coast. The stars faded, and the grey morning cast a dim veil over the silver horns of the waning moon—the sun rose broad and red from the sea, as we walked over the sands to Calais.”
Page 368
“[…] it was determined that we should await the arrival of spring in our present abode, and so order our future movements as to pass the hot months in the icy vallies of Switzerland, deferring our southern progress until the ensuing autumn, if such a season was ever again to be beheld by us.”
Page 373
“As Henry, Emperor of Germany, lay in the snow before Pope Leo’s gate for three winter days and nights, so did she in humility wait before the icy barriers of his closed heart, till he, the servant of love, and prince of tender courtesy, opened it wide for her admittance, bestowing, with fervency and gratitude, the tribute of filial affection she merited.”
Page 375

She made a spectacle. Being a nice guy, he forgave her.

“It is a strange fact, but incontestible, that the philanthropist, who ardent in his desire to do good, who patient, reasonable and gentle, yet disdains to use other argument than truth, has less influence over men’s minds, than he who, grasping and selfish, refuses not to adopt any means, nor awaken any passion, nor diffuse any falsehood, for the advancement of his cause.”
Page 376

Principles are, at times, a heavy burden.

“She conjured me, she commanded me to leave her— “Beware, O beware,” she cried, “fly while yet your escape is practicable. Now you are safe; but strange sounds and inspirations come on me at times, and if the Eternal should in awful whisper reveal to me his will, that to save my child you must be sacrificed, I would call in the satellites of him you call the tyrant; they would tear you limb from limb; nor would I hallow the death of him whom Idris loved, by a single tear.””
Page 379
“Silence, melancholy bride of death, went in procession with him from town to town through the spacious region.”
Page 390
“Now, the old woman sat no more at the door with her distaff—the lank beggar no longer asked charity in courtier-like phrase; nor on holidays did the peasantry thread with slow grace the mazes of the dance. Silence, melancholy bride of death, went in procession with him from town to town through the spacious region.”
Page 390
“Argument and adjuration were lost on these dastards. The continual diminution of their own numbers, effected by pestilence, added a sting to their dislike of delay; and my opposition only served to bring their resolution to a crisis. That same evening they departed towards Auxerre. Oaths, as from soldiers to their general, had been taken by them: these they broke.”
Page 392

I can’t tell if the author also thinks he’s an idiot.

“Apparently I was to lead this troop of selfish and lawless men towards Switzerland,”
Page 392

From their point of view, you’re an an addled psychotic bent on leading everyone to destruction for purely personal reasons.

“My horse grew tired—and I, forgetful of his fatigue, still as he lagged, cheered him with my voice, and urged him with the spur. He was a gallant animal, and I did not wish to exchange him for any chance beast I might light on, leaving him never to be refound. All night we went forward; in the morning he became sensible that we approached Versailles, to reach which as his home, he mustered his flagging strength. The distance we had come was not less than fifty miles, yet he shot down the long Boulevards swift as an arrow; poor fellow, as I dismounted at the gate of the castle, he sunk on his knees, his eyes were covered with a film, he fell on his side, a few gasps inflated his noble chest, and he died.”
Page 393

It seems no sacrifice is too great for his mission. He rode the horse to death.

“At length the plague, slow-footed, but sure in her noiseless advance, destroyed the illusion, invading the congregation of the elect, and showering promiscuous death among them.”
Page 396
“We never saw it except at evening, when his coal black steed, his mourning dress, and plume of black feathers, had a majestic and awe-striking appearance; his face, one said, who had seen it for a moment, was ashy pale; he had lingered far behind the rest of his troop, and suddenly at a turn in the road, saw the Black Spectre coming towards him; he hid himself in fear, and the horse and his rider slowly past, while the moonbeams fell on the face of the latter, displaying its unearthly hue.”
Page 400

The witch king of Angmar.

“He grew giant tall to vulgar eyes; an icy atmosphere, they said, surrounded him; when he was heard, all animals shuddered, and the dying knew that their last hour was come.”
Page 400
“"I am afraid,“ said she, “that it is selfish in me to have asked you to visit the old woman again, before she dies: yet perhaps it would have been a greater shock to hear suddenly that I was dead, than to see me first thus.””
Page 404
“I found the venerable mother of my Idris lying on a couch, her tall emaciated figure stretched out; her face fallen away, from which the nose stood out in sharp profile, and her large dark eyes, hollow and deep, gleamed with such light as may edge a thunder cloud at sun-set. All was shrivelled and dried up, except these lights; her voice too was fearfully changed, as she spoke to me at intervals. “I am afraid,” said she, “that it is selfish in me to have asked you to visit the old woman again, before she dies: yet perhaps it would have been a greater shock to hear suddenly that I was dead, than to see me first thus.””
Page 404
“She spoke with difficulty, and I perceived that she regretted the necessity of death, even more than she cared to confess. Yet she had not to complain of an undue shortening of existence; her faded person shewed that life had naturally spent itself.”
Page 404

Poor Niddy was nearly unable to express anything at the last. Save for “don’t ever grow old.”

“There an hard-featured, weather-worn veteran, having prepared his meal, sat, his head dropped on his breast, the useless knife falling from his grasp, his limbs utterly relaxed, as thought of wife and child, and dearest relative, all lost, passed across his recollection. There sat a man who for forty years had basked in fortune’s tranquil sunshine; he held the hand of his last hope, his beloved daughter, who had just attained womanhood; and he gazed on her with anxious eyes, while she tried to rally her fainting spirit to comfort him. Here a servant, faithful to the last, though dying, waited on one, who, though still erect with health, gazed with gasping fear on the variety of woe around.”
Page 406
“Carried away by wonder, I forgot the death of man, and the living and beloved friend near me. When I turned, I saw tears streaming from his eyes; his thin hands pressed one against the other, his animated countenance beaming with admiration; “Why,” cried he, at last, “Why, oh heart, whisperest thou of grief to me? Drink in the beauty of that scene, and possess delight beyond what a fabled paradise could afford.””
Page 408

The proper reaction when you see Switzerland for the first time.

“His blindness permitted her to continue a delusion, at first the child of accident—and now solitary beings, sole survivors in the land, he remained unacquainted with the change, nor was aware that when he listened to his child’s music, the mute mountains, senseless lake, and unconscious trees, were, himself excepted, her sole auditors.”
Page 411
“They rest beneath the sod, the tree their monument;—the hallowed spot is distinct in my memory, paled in by craggy Jura, and the far, immeasurable Alps; the spire of the church they frequented still points from out the embosoming trees; and though her hand be cold, still methinks the sounds of divine music which they loved wander about, solacing their gentle ghosts.”
Page 411
“A train half dead, through fear of death—a hopeless, unresisting, almost reckless crew, which, in the tossed bark of life, had given up all pilotage, and resigned themselves to the destructive force of ungoverned winds. Like a few furrows of unreaped corn, which, left standing on a wide field after the rest is gathered to the garner, are swiftly borne down by the winter storm. Like a few straggling swallows, which, remaining after their fellows had, on the first unkind breath of passing autumn, migrated to genial climes, were struck to earth by the first frost of November. Like a stray sheep that wanders over the sleet-beaten hill-side, while the flock is in the pen, and dies before morning-dawn.”
Page 412
“[…] one by one, beneath the ice-caves, beside the waters springing from the thawed snows of a thousand winters, another and yet another of the remnant of the race of Man, closed their eyes for ever to the light.”
Page 413
“Yellow lightnings played around the vast dome of Mont Blanc, silent as the snow-clad rock they illuminated; all was bare, wild, and sublime, while the singing of the pines in melodious murmurings added a gentle interest to the rough magnificence.”
Page 414

Imagine knowing that yours would be the last sentience to behold such a thing, that nature would continue long eons of such shows irrespective of observers. That the clockwork continues without us, as easily as with us. Not that we have become irrelevant, but that we always were.

“For seven years it had had full sway upon earth; she had trod every nook of our spacious globe; she had mingled with the atmosphere, which as a cloak enwraps all our fellow-creatures—the inhabitants of native Europe—the luxurious Asiatic—the swarthy African and free American had been vanquished and destroyed by her. Her barbarous tyranny came to its close here in the rocky vale of Chamounix.”
Page 415
“We were impressed by the sentiment, that our race was run, but that plague would not be our destroyer. The coming time was as a mighty river, down which a charmed boat is driven, whose mortal steersman knows, that the obvious peril is not the one he needs fear, yet that danger is nigh; and who floats awe-struck under beetling precipices, through the dark and turbid waters—seeing in the distance yet stranger and ruder shapes, towards which he is irresistibly impelled.”
Page 415
“"Thus are we left,“ said Adrian, “two melancholy blasted trees, where once a forest waved. We are left to mourn, and pine, and die.”
Page 416
“We entered smiling Italy. Mingled grass and corn grew in her plains, the unpruned vines threw their luxuriant branches around the elms. The grapes, overripe, had fallen on the ground, or hung purple, or burnished green, among the red and yellow leaves. The ears of standing corn winnowed to emptiness by the spendthrift winds; the fallen foliage of the trees, the weed-grown brooks, the dusky olive, now spotted with its blackened fruit; the chestnuts, to which the squirrel only was harvest-man; all plenty, and yet, alas! all poverty, painted in wondrous hues and fantastic groupings this land of beauty. In the towns, in the voiceless towns, we visited the churches, adorned by pictures, master-pieces of art, or galleries of statues—while in this genial clime the animals, in new found liberty, rambled through the gorgeous palaces,”
Page 419
“Two large halls, hung with splendid tapestry, and paved with marble, opened on each side of a court, of whose two other sides one overlooked the deep dark lake, and the other was bounded by a mountain, from whose stony side gushed, with roar and splash, the celebrated fountain. Above, underwood of myrtle and tufts of odorous plants crowned the rock, while the star-pointing giant cypresses reared themselves in the blue air, and the recesses of the hills were adorned with the luxuriant growth of chestnut-trees. Here we fixed our summer residence.”
Page 421
“At length the moment of his death came: the blood paused in its flow —his eyes opened, and then closed again: without convulsion or sigh, the frail tenement was left vacant of its spiritual inhabitant.”
Page 424
“We rowed lightly over the Laguna, and entered Canale Grande. The tide ebbed sullenly from out the broken portals and violated halls of Venice: sea weed and sea monsters were left on the blackened marble, while the salt ooze defaced the matchless works of art that adorned their walls, and the sea gull flew out from the shattered window.”
Page 427

This reminds me of Ballard’s Drowned World.

“She vehemently reminded us that we had promised to take her once again to Greece, to the tomb of her parents. Why go to Rome? what should we do at Rome? We might take one of the many vessels to be found here, embark in it, and steer right for Albania.”
Page 428

Obviously impossible for them to travel such great distances with sufficient sustenance. But it’s good she ignores it. That level of detail would be tedious.

“[…] the placid waves divided to receive our keel, and playfully kissed the dark sides of our little skiff, murmuring a welcome;”
Page 429
“Dark night mixed everything; we hardly discerned the white crests of the murderous surges, except when lightning made brief noon, and drank the darkness, shewing us our danger, and restoring us to double night.”
Page 430
“I was myself an excellent swimmer—the very sight of the sea was wont to raise in me such sensations, as a huntsman experiences, when he hears a pack of hounds in full cry; I loved to feel the waves wrap me and strive to overpower me; while I, lord of myself, moved this way or that, in spite of their angry buffetings.”
Page 431
“With every flash I saw the bordering coast; yet the progress I made was small, while each wave, as it receded, carried me back into ocean’s far abysses.”
Page 433
“[…] again I raised my unanswered cry, lifting up the only voice that could ever again force the mute air to syllable the human thought.”
Page 436

Baxter’s Flood also comes to mind.

“Yes, this is the earth; there is no change—no ruin—no rent made in her verdurous expanse; she continues to wheel round and round, with alternate night and day, through the sky, though man is not her adorner or inhabitant.”
Page 447
“[…] shall not, as here, find every thing forgetful of man; trampling on his memory, defacing his works, proclaiming from hill to hill, and vale to vale,—by the torrents freed from the boundaries which he imposed—by the vegetation liberated from the laws which he enforced—by his habitation abandoned to mildew and weeds, that his power is lost, his race annihilated for ever.”
Page 448
“I found myself on Monte Cavallo. The fountain sparkled in the sun; the obelisk above pierced the clear dark-blue air. The statues on each side, the works, as they are inscribed, of Phidias and Praxiteles, stood in undiminished grandeur, representing Castor and Pollux, who with majestic power tamed the rearing animal at their side. If those illustrious artists had in truth chiselled these forms, how many passing generations had their giant proportions outlived! and now they were viewed by the last of the species they were sculptured to represent and deify.”
Page 449
“[…] the lone wanderer will still unfurl his sail, and clasp the tiller—and, still obeying the breezes of heaven, for ever round another and another promontory, anchoring in another and another bay, still ploughing seedless ocean, leaving behind the verdant land of native Europe, adown the tawny shore of Africa, having weathered the fierce seas of the Cape, I may moor my worn skiff in a creek, shaded by spicy groves of the odorous islands of the far Indian ocean.”
Page 450
“Thus around the shores of deserted earth, while the sun is high, and the moon waxes or wanes, angels, the spirits of the dead, and the ever-open eye of the Supreme, will behold the tiny bark, freighted with Verney—the LAST MAN.”
Page 450