In Robert Matheson’s science fiction story I Am Legend, the protagonist, Robert Neville, is a 36-year-old survivor of a plague that has destroyed all of humanity save him and, it will be revealed, a woman named Ruth who, it is further revealed, has actually not been saved but was sent to spy on him under the guise of a survivor. It’s not as complicated as that opening sentence may suggest. Suffice to say, Neville is presented in the story’s early chapters as the lone survivor. He is a solitary figure haunted and taunted by the vampires that now occupy the world outside the walls of his home, which he has fortified and turned into a bunker. Neville’s wife, Virginia, was killed, and he remains a single, lonely figure. Matheson, however, chose not to ignore the primal urges that invariably infect men, especially temptations of the flesh. In fact, Neville’s almost desperate need for sexual gratification is a theme that permeates Matheson’s narrative. In his opening chapter, Matheson emphasizes the psychological toll exacted on his protagonist by the female vampires who taunt him with sexually-provocative acts. As Matheson’s narrator notes in Chapter One, Neville would regularly gaze through a peephole at the vampires assembled outside his home but discontinued this practice because of the females “had started striking vile postures in order to entice him out of the house. He didn’t want to look at that. . . He closed his eyes again. It was the women who made it so difficult, he thought, the women posing like lewd puppets in the night on the possibility that he’d see them and decide to come out.”
Matheson makes very clear that Neville is troubled by his sexual urges, those intense feelings that occupied his mind and that he couldn’t control. As Neville thinks to himself one night, while contemplating the shelves of books that cannot divert him from thoughts of sex:
“All the knowledge in those books couldn’t put out the fires in him; all the words of centuries couldn’t end the wordless, mindless craving of his flesh. The realization made him sick. It was an insult to a man. All right, it was a natural drive, but there was no outlet for it any more. They’d forced celibacy on him; he’d have to live with it. You have a mind, don’t you? he asked himself. Well, use it?”
Neville is tormented by his sexual urges, and it is a principal reason for his emphasis on women when he directs his energies towards experiments intended to enlighten him regarding the plague that destroyed humanity and created a population of vampires. The theme of unfulfilled sexual urges is repeated throughout the following chapters. In Chapter Four, having dragged a sleeping female vampire out into the street, he is inevitably drawn to the “dead” woman’s figure, prompting him to recoil with the thought, “No, don’t start that again, for God’s sake.” Later, in Chapter Seven, he contemplated the reason for his use of women in his experiments and the role of his sexual appetite in driving is decisions:
“Why do you always experiment on women? He didn’t care to admit that the inference had any validity. She just happened to be the first one he’d come across, that was all. What about the man in the living room, though? For God’s sake! he flared back. I’m not going to rape the woman!”
For Robert Neville, deprived of sex for years, he has been reduced to misogynistic views of women, seeing them solely as instruments of fatal temptation and of primal release. His back-and-forth with Ruth in Chapter 17 includes his tendency to dismiss her views as illegitimate on the basis of her gender (“She’s just a woman”) before admitting to himself that “she was probably right.”
Neville experiments on women because he is drawn to them physically. He desperately misses his wife, Virginia, and continues to experience sexual urges that must go unrequited. He prides himself when he senses that he is beginning to lose those urges, focused as he is on his experimentation, but he can’t eliminate the most primal of feelings from his mental state.