Recently, I was struck by a peculiar thought while I re-read Mary Shelley’s The Last Man—the 1826 novel by the author of Frankenstein that depicts a global plague systematically wiping out humankind until the “last man” is all that remains. Here I am, I thought, almost a year into a global pandemic, once again reading a novel about a fictional global pandemic. Such an endeavor is justified, of course, given my field of study. When working on a dissertation as a PhD candidate of English, one must immerse oneself in a collection of “primary” texts, reading and re-reading such texts to gain a close familiarity—one might even say an intimacy—with the worlds, characters, and plots they depict, and for my work, this collection of texts includes a handful of post-apocalyptic novels written between 1800 and the present day. But such a justification only incites further questions: why am I studying such texts, and why do we humans center so many of our narratives around scenes of cataclysm and tales of disaster?
Consider, for instance, the prevalence of “Great Flood” stories. In The Epic of Gilgamesh, arguably the oldest known piece of written literature, Utnapishtim recounts the events of a world destroying flood and his building of an ark to keep himself and his family safe. Similarly, tales of disastrous floods are found in the Indian Mahabharata, the Mayan Popol Vuh, and chapter 7 of the Book of Genesis, and are also told in countless oral traditions across the globe. Catastrophe is so endemic to the Bible, in fact, that the flood story is but one of three great disasters recounted in the first twenty chapters of Genesis alone—the other two being the collapse of the Tower of Babel and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. This is but a small selection taken from a much larger list, but if such a list is considered in tandem with the contemporary popularity for post-apocalyptic and disaster fiction, one might wonder if there exists a fascination for disaster hardwired into the human brain.
Perhaps, or perhaps not—one must be extremely cautious when making such sweeping universal claims. Regardless, it is nonetheless strange that anyone at all has such a fascination with disaster stories. We so often describe contemporary literature as “an escape,” a way to shed our day-to-day lives and temporarily experience another world, another life. Why, then, would one wish to escape into a world that is worse than the one in which they find themselves? I don’t intend to posit a definitive answer, but I do find Mary Shelley’s explanation intriguing. In the preface to The Last Man, a nameless narrator discovers in an Italian cave a collection of ancient pages, on which are written a prophecy regarding the aforementioned plague spreading through the world in the late 21st century; the prophecy, narrativized, occupies the rest of the novel. The narrator of the preface has this to say about the narrative that follows:
I confess, that I have not been unmoved by the development of the tale; and that I have been depressed, nay, agonized, at some parts of the recital… Yet such is human nature, that… the imagination, painter of tempest and earthquake, or, worse, the stormy and ruin-fraught passions of man, softened my real sorrows and endless regrets, by clothing these fictitious ones in that ideality, which takes the mortal sting from pain.
Perhaps there is something to this. Perhaps we do seek out disaster stories to distract from our own troubles, to take “the mortal sting from pain,” as Shelley says. Perhaps this is what keeps me coming back to these post-apocalyptic texts, this desire for a kind of catharsis or emotional release. But if this is true, then such texts also serve as invocations to act, for if we wish to quarantine such worlds in the realm of literature, than we have a responsibility to help those for whom such worlds—whether through war, poverty, genocide, climate change, etcetera—are sadly far too real.
Quotation taken from page 5 of the Broadview edition of Shelley’s text, edited by Anne McWhir and published in 1996.