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The coronavirus might not be the worst of it
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Mary Shelley foresaw the pandemic — and how we’ve divided into bitter factions

The author of ‘Frankenstein’ criticized the 18th-century belief that reason would win the day

President Trump speaks to reporters on the South Lawn of the White House on May 5. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Many of us have been startled by the speed at which the coronavirus’s arrival has transformed our lives and by how dramatic those changes have been: extreme illness, school closures, stay-at-home orders, mass unemployment and huge government stimulus packages.

But others have envisioned such an emergency. Almost 200 years ago, Mary Shelley asked how a society could be ready to withstand a global pandemic. Written in 1826 and set in 2100, Shelley’s third novel, “The Last Man,” tells the story of a deadly plague that starts in Asia and spreads rapidly across the planet through travel and trade. Her analysis and conclusions resonate uncannily today.

A pandemic in a polarized society

In “The Last Man,” Shelley sets up a society with weak institutions and a divided population — and then examines what happens when it is confronted by a disruptive disease that almost invariably kills. While today’s pandemic may be less deadly, much else in the story is on target.

Set in Britain, in Shelley’s polarized society, two parties dominate the political landscape: a party of wealth and influence and a democratic party of the people. Public debate has become partisan and acrimonious; many feel that the country is on the verge of breaking up. The old ideals of the republic — freedom, equal respect, civic virtue — are said to have “grown stale,” and the parties are deadlocked over how the country should be run, with neither party commanding a majority. Then a charismatic populist exploits the public’s exhaustion and natural weakness for “tinsel and show” while being unable to control his own emotions and ambition.

When news of the pandemic first breaks, rather than working to develop a united cross-party response, the ruling party — here, the democrats — hide and deny the plague’s seriousness in an attempt to secure its partisan agenda. Its ostensible platform is to equalize society and help the poor. But since the pandemic has crippled the economy, the government doesn’t have the funds. To stay in power, the party of reform needs the support of the party of wealth to fund its program. The reforms end up being largely cosmetic, and the wealthy “obtained all they wished” in return for their help.

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Before the pandemic, society seemed divided primarily by ideological and economic conflict. As devastation grows, Shelley also shows how different groups of people hate each other for belonging to the “other” group.

Toward the end of the novel, she describes a colony established by British survivors in an abandoned northern France. Inhabitants have split into bitter factions, based not on ideas or values, but on the trivial matter of who arrived in the colony first. Those who arrived first felt superior and believed they should govern the outpost. Newer arrivals resent this and form a rival bloc. Despite there being no real distinction between their policies, they hold a “violent hatred against each other.”

As the two factions fight, a third group grows and rises to power: fanatical followers of a messianic impostor who promises God’s protection from the disease, prosperity, and social privilege for those who feel they have lost it. All he asks in exchange is complete loyalty and obedience. He uses the language of religion to ruthlessly pursue his own ambition and self-aggrandizement without restraint or conscience.

Shelley critiques the republicanism that influenced the Constitution’s framers

The plot is animated by Shelley’s neo-republican beliefs, beliefs that influenced the framers of the U.S. Constitution. This tradition emphasizes two characteristics needed to maintain social stability and individual freedom: robust political institutions and a high degree of civic virtue among the population.

By institutions, these thinkers meant a political structure of checks and balances — based on the rule of law, a separation of powers, and vigorous but constructive public discussion — that harness ambitious citizens’ passion and energy, directing their personal ambitions toward the population’s collective interests. These include the presidency, Congress, courts and the democratic system.

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Because these institutions can be successful only if the population respects them, the tradition stresses that governments must create an environment in which people can learn civic virtues: mutual respect, good-faith debate, commitment to the public good and love of country. These are expected to be transmitted through public schools, churches and community organizations, as well as egalitarian policies that prevent excessive poverty or wealth.

What Shelley adds is a close look at how human psychology interacts with political institutions, critiquing earlier 18th-century republican thought. Thinkers like Catharine Macaulay or Richard Price, who influenced the U.S. framers, took it for granted that reasoned argument would win over hearts and minds. Shelley has no such illusions. In the worlds she creates, somebody will inevitably arise to exploit an opportunity, unless constrained by institutions with popular support. And once created, factional divisions are not easily contained; parties may prefer to fight to the bitter end (even if it means the end of humanity) rather than reconcile.

Eileen Hunt Botting, my fellow Shelley scholar, has written elsewhere about Shelley’s representation of individual political virtue in “The Last Man,” saying that the eponymous hero “realizes that even if he is the last man on Earth, he must live as though he is not.” By contrast, the impostor lives as if only he matters, treating the colony as his way to personal glory. He turns the colonists on one another, so that they lose sight of their values and ravage one another before the disease can ravage them. These colonists’ infighting denies them dignity in their deaths.

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In the end, Shelley believes that without an institutional power that can constrain such factions — say, a government that commands respect — personal ambition will defeat reasoned argument, moral constraint or even self-preservation. The desire to rule and the hope of being remembered as a “patriarch, a prophet, nay a deity” leads the impostor to keep up his fight “to the last act,” even as he brings down the colony with him.

Shelley’s analysis is bleak. But it is also hopeful. She doesn’t think that all of humanity is driven by self-centered ambition, and she has great faith in enlightened liberal values. But she refuses to look away from what will happen unless societies jealously guard their civic institutions and accompanying norms.

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Alan Coffee (@AlanMSJCoffee) lectures in global ethics and human values at King’s College London and is the editor of “The Wollstonecraftian Mind,” with Sandrine Bergès and Eileen Hunt Botting (Routledge 2019).