This essay reads Mary Shelley's narrative of a plague-ravaged world in terms of contemporaneous medical theories of disease transmission. It argues that disease functions both literally and metaphorically in The Last Man, that Shelley's epidemiological ideas inform her treatment of intertexts, and that the novel offers a critique of Romantic ideology.
Medical historians have distinguished two main theories of disease transmission in the century before the microbiological discoveries of Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch: the contagionist views that underlay quarantine laws and that were based on the belief in a particular source of infection--the contagium vivum--transmitted by contact or body fluids; and "anti-contagionism," which located the source of disease in a quality of the air itself, often a "miasma" generated in particular but remote places and carried on the winds. Smallpox had long been recognized as highly contagious; however, the transmission of fevers and bubonic plague remained debatable. The most feared diseases of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were plague, yellow fever (in Philadelphia in 1793 and in Spain and Gibraltar in the Napoleonic period), and (after 1831 in England) cholera (Ackerknecht 569). But such other diseases as smallpox, malaria, and fevers, including typhus, were often described as kinds of "plague" or "pe stilence," and the causes of their spread remained controversial.
Christopher Hamlin argues, in his volume on the sanitarian Edwin Chadwick (1800-1890), that the controversy between contagionists and anti-contagionists in the 1820s had more to do with politics than with theoretical medicine (63 n.33). While it is important to recognize that contagia and miasmata were "often not fully distinct, for both reached their victim through the air, though at greater or lesser distance from their source" (60), the politics of anti-contagionism are pertinent to Mary Shelley's novel The Last Man as a late-Romantic, post-revolutionary text. In a particularly interesting study of the novel, Steven Goldsmith remarks: "Narrative discourse moves by touch, by contagion as it were; it 'spreads"' (163). Yet Mary Shelley was no contagionist, and Goldsmith overstates the importance of contact in the transmission of her plague as a metaphor for discourse. There is not space here to recall at length the importance of winds, mists, vapours, and exhalations in Romantic literature; nevertheless, Pro metheus Unbound, by Mary Shelley's husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, can be taken as an exemplary text to illustrate how the voice of prophecy, breathed out from the Earth itself in "oracular vapour," can also be the origin of what he calls, with a less precise understanding of "contagion" than his wife's, "the voice which is contagion to the world" (2.3.10). Mary Shelley's emphasis on airborne transmission of plague is metaphorically as well as medically significant, especially given her novel's emphasis on the spread of words, ideas, and narratives.
While she refers to many particular diseases in The Last Man--smallpox, yellow fever, plague, typhus--Mary Shelley also draws on the common metaphorical meaning of plague: any system, idea, or influence considered to be morally or intellectually dangerous. Through representing the destruction of humanity by plague, The Last Man reflects on and literalizes a discourse of disease familiar in the political writing of the revolutionary period. Because it does so from an explicitly anti-contagionist perspective, Shelley's novel transforms a relatively straightforward discourse of cause and effect into one of mystery, uncertainty, and insidious influence. In this essay, I consider the contribution of anti-contagionism to The Last Man, arguing that Shelley knew both the medical theory of her day and the discourse of disease that permeates revolutionary and Romantic texts. …