I Am Legend Summary

I Am Legend is a novel by Richard Matheson in which Robert Neville struggles to survive as the sole remaining human in a world overrun by vampires.

  • Robert Neville is the only remaining human after a mutation turned all other humans into vampires. 
  • Neville spends his time fighting vampires and researching a cure.
  • One day, Neville captures a woman he sees walking in broad daylight. She reveals that she is from a new hybrid race that controls their vampiric symptoms with medicine.
  • The woman's friends capture Neville and intend to kill him, but the woman gives him pills so that he can commit suicide.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 307

Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend blends science fiction and horror into a pulp classic. The premise is simple: after a nuclear war, a mutation sweeps across the globe. It transforms every living human into a vampire, except one: Robert Neville. A clever inversion of the traditional vampire story...

(The entire section contains 1279 words.)

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Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend blends science fiction and horror into a pulp classic. The premise is simple: after a nuclear war, a mutation sweeps across the globe. It transforms every living human into a vampire, except one: Robert Neville. A clever inversion of the traditional vampire story in which one mysterious figure infects a healthy community with the physical and moral threat of vampirism, I Am Legend gives readers a world of continuous and almost certainly doomed combat. The one human left alive struggles to figure out if the plague can be reversed and how to stay alive as night after night hordes of vampires throw themselves at his house. I Am Legend alternates between direct action; science-fictional inquiries into the nature of this dark new world; and deeply human, if at times unbalanced, plunges into loneliness and despair.

Matheson’s novel has influenced both of its two parent genres. It laid the foundation for later science-fictional works that treat vampirism as a medical condition (as in the movie and comic series Blade), and it provided the foundation for literary works to explore the idea of extending vampirism throughout an entire society, such as in Kim Newman’s novel Anno Dracula. Finally, I Am Legend also showed that it was possible to return to older genre traditions thought dead and revitalize them, as authors Stephen King and Anne Rice did a generation later with the vampire myth.

The vividness of Matheson’s novel is matched by the symbolic fluidity of the vampires. They can represent anything a reader wants them to represent. As a result, the novel has been filmed three times, in three different decades. The first adaptation, The Last Man on Earth (1964), starred Vincent Price; the second, The Omega Man (1971), starred Charlton Heston; and the third, I Am Legend (2007), starred Will Smith.

Extended Summary

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 972

When I Am Legend opens in January 1976, it is daytime. Robert Neville is checking his house to make sure it is ready for nightfall because that is when the vampires attack. He mends broken or vulnerable sections of the house and harvests garlic from his hothouse to use as a weapon against the vampires, then starts making stakes so he can kill them. That night they attack, which is a regular pattern.

When he is not preparing for an attack or responding to one, Robert Neville is playing his music loud enough to drown out the sound of the massive crowd of vampires outside his walls, or drinking to deaden the pain of being the only living human in a world of vampires.

Each day he has a regular routine of maintenance and vampire killing. As he gets supplies and gas, Neville occasionally sees things that remind him of how things were before the vampire plague hit. More often, though, he spends his time and energy trying to stay alive, trying to figure out why the vampire plague works as it does, and why wooden stakes work against them. Neville reviews the “literature” on vampires (such as the novel Dracula), assembling and reviewing a list of vampiric qualities that do or do not hold true. In his despair, Neville drinks heavily, sometimes getting drunk and at least once smashing a glass and cutting himself.

After a while, Neville begins more active testing of the vampires he finds inactive during the day. He drags them into the sun to see how and why sunlight affects them, and he takes one home to experiment on. However, as he is doing so, Neville realizes his watch has stopped, and he has to race home, hoping to beat the vampire mob to his house. He fights his way to his house and collapses inside.

It takes Neville awhile to repair the damage done to his house. As he does so, he remembers key moments in the past that led to the current situation. The first of these is when his wife, Virginia, first got sick with the plague that was sweeping the nation, and how she lost her appetite for food. By the time she died, the government had laws requiring that the dead be burned so that they could not return to life as vampires. However, Robert could not bring himself to burn his wife, so he tried sewing her into a sheet and burying her. She came back for him, and he had to dispose of her.

Further research in the public library gives Neville the idea that the plague could be bacteriological, so he gets a microscope and begins comparing his blood to that of vampires and researching historical plagues. He eventually discovers a bacillus responsible for vampirism. Just after he does, Neville sees a living dog moving around in the daylight—a shocking sight because he had thought the vampires had killed all dogs. He is almost overcome with happiness, because he has been so desperately lonely, and spends several days feeding the dog, trying to calm it enough to take it inside, and watching it to see how it survived. Eventually Neville grabs the dog and carries it inside. The dog is scared, but the fear becomes pure panic when night falls and it cannot get underground to where it would be safe from the vampires. Eventually, the dog dies, leaving Neville all the more alone.

In his subsequent depression, Neville remembers a time after his wife, Virginia, had died, when a preacher at a religious revival meeting claimed that the vampire plague was punishment for human sinfulness. However little weight he wants to give that belief, Neville has to face the fact that crosses do have power over vampires.

Despite his loneliness, Neville is becoming used to his hermit life and even develops something like a hobby: hunting Ben Cortman, his former neighbor who is now a vampire. Neville has even adjusted to being hunted and is not really stressed by it anymore. However, everything changes when Neville sees a woman walking in the daylight. He calls out to her, but she runs away. He runs after her, and she flees. Eventually, he catches up to her and drags her into his house.

Neville is highly suspicious of the woman, whose name is Ruth. She seems to be as human as he is, which rekindles his hopes about restarting the human race and not being alone, but he cannot understand how she has survived all this time. He quizzes her and tests her with the smell of garlic. Along the way, Neville explains what he has learned about the infection. Eventually he insists on testing her blood to see if she carries the infection. When he does, Ruth clubs him on the head and escapes. However, she leaves behind a letter explaining that she is part of a new race that is slowing forming a new society, a race that has found ways to limit the vampire infection with daily medication. She warns him that the new society is organizing, and that as they do, they will be exterminating both the true vampires and the other few remnants of humanity. She urges him to leave his house and hide in the mountains.

Robert Neville, however, does not leave his home. Eventually, the new hybrid race comes to capture him, wounding him in the process. He has one final conversation with Ruth, who slips him pills that would let Neville kill himself so that he can avoid being executed. As his life seeps away, Neville realizes that he is part of an era that has passed and that he has no place in the new world or the society that fills it. What used to be normal is now a legend.

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