Note: Plague and Population

Population and the Future

At the time The Last Man was written, a public controversy involving Mary Shelley's father was raging concerning questions of population and progress, plagues and famine, nature and its balances. These questions had been the focus of the first book by Thomas Robert Malthus, whose Essay on the Principle of Population as it affects the Future Improvement of Society, with remarks on the Speculations of Mr Godwin, M. Condorcet and other writers had originally been published in 1798.

William Godwin, whose Political Justice was a major target of the work, watched the Malthus essay go through many editions to become extremely influential in public discourse. In 1817, its fifth edition provoked a rejoinder from Godwin, Of Population (1820).

Mary Shelley's futuristic fiction on a plague that first decimates, then destroys the population of the earth, taking with it social institutions as well as individual lives, is obviously written with an eye to the same brightly-lit public arena in which her father, Godwin, played his role in this battle between optimistic and pessimistic scenarios for the future. In the novel, however, the suffering and imbalance of disease, rather than playing its role as a natural, impersonal, check on population growth, silences all debate.