Anne K. Mellor, in her introduction to The Last Man, cites Susan Sontag on the social construction of AIDS as plague, and especially how public health campaigns have been turned into political efforts to "designate and exclude marginal groups" (p. xxiii).
As Mellor reminds us, "Mary Shelley recognized that the medical characterization of a disease is always based on prior and deeply entrenched cultural ideologies. In The Last Man, the plague is specifically constructed as 'foreign,' as geographically and racially Other. It originates in Africa . . . where it is immediately identified with the Judaeo-Christian demonic Other--with Satan--and then spreads throughout Asia, conquering Constantinople, . . . laying waste to China, advancing farther east to the Americas, before it turns on western Europe. Initially, the Europeans assume that they are immune . . . . But in The Last Man, no one is immune--the plague easily infects the 'healthy constitutions' of both Europe and England" (p. xxiii).
And in terms of sexuality and gender, as Mary Jacobus has written, "The Last Man cries out to be read as a prophetic commentary on the modern epidemic that seemed initially to exclude women and has only more recently come to be seen as putting them at risk too. With hindsight, the most homophobic aspect of early epidemiological constructions of AIDS was the insistence on the absolute differences between men and women (or their sexual practices), accompanied by a mistaken emphasis on homosexual transmission--with what devastating effects both for gay men and for women we now know" (p. 123).
return to "The Plague"