The Plot

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 552

As I Am Legend begins, in January, 1976, Earth has been ravaged, first by nuclear war, then by a mysterious plague that transforms its victims into vampires. One normal human being, Robert Neville, remains. Through him, Richard Matheson dramatizes humanitys desperate struggle to overcome a catastrophe that it perhaps brought...

(The entire section contains 1187 words.)

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As I Am Legend begins, in January, 1976, Earth has been ravaged, first by nuclear war, then by a mysterious plague that transforms its victims into vampires. One normal human being, Robert Neville, remains. Through him, Richard Matheson dramatizes humanitys desperate struggle to overcome a catastrophe that it perhaps brought upon itself.

In the first of the novel’s four parts, Neville has barricaded himself in his home against the nightly onslaughts of the vampires, among them his former friend and neighbor, Ben Corman. While Corman shouts for him to come out, Neville attempts to block the horror with classical music and alcohol. By day, while the vampires sleep, he repairs the damage to his house and hunts his tormentors. This has been his life for five months. He avoids the past, particularly memories of his wife, Virginia, and daughter, Kathy, both victims of the plague. Instead, he exists alone in the terrifying present, eating, drinking, listening to Beethoven, and killing scores of vampires.

When part 2 opens in March, 1976, Neville has refortified and soundproofed his house. More secure, he begins to diverge from his obsession with destroying vampires and seeks to understand them and the disease that engendered them. Thus begins a clever scientific inquiry that transforms into science fiction what has been so far a rather ordinary horror story. With microscope and science book in hand more frequently than mallet and stake, Neville discovers a bacterial cause for the vampirism. He also carefully observes vampire behavior and conducts experiments to solve mysteries surrounding the vampires. This scientific inquiry transforms Neville as well as the novel. Compelled to search his memories of the past for clues about the plague, he cannot help but recall his own losses. His resulting pain and grief display a compassion and vulnerability previously missing, as does his touching attempt to befriend a terrified stray dog.

By June, 1978, when part 3 opens, Neville seems to have adjusted to his solitary life and resigned himself to living only in the present. On a leisurely daytime hunt for Ben Corman, he sees, pursues, and captures a woman who may be normal. During their day and night together, Neville makes several startling discoveries that challenge his existence. Not only do his few hours with Ruth reveal the emptiness of his solitary life, but her true identity and purpose also radically transform his understanding of the vampires and of himself. A member of a new society of living vampires who have developed a treatment for the plague, Ruth was sent to spy on Neville, the monster who has been indiscriminately slaughtering and experimenting on both the reanimated dead and her kind. Although puzzled by the two different types of vampires, Neville had decided that both were monsters he must kill for the sake of his own survival. Now he must confront the awful truth.

Part 4 finds Neville resignedly awaiting his fate. When the new humans come for him, they display the same hatred and brutality that led to nuclear war. They ruthlessly slaughter the reanimated dead, including a pitiful Ben Corman, and then capture an appalled Neville. Humankind has mutated, but it has not changed. It remains painfully “normal.” Whether Neville chooses suicide with Ruth’s assistance or public execution, he will be a new terror, a new superstition, a new legend for humankind.

Setting

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Chronologically, I Am Legend has one stated setting and one actual setting. The stated setting begins in 1976 and proceeds forward from there. However, since there are no technological markers that would anchor it in a specific future extrapolation, functionally this time setting is really just the 1950s—when the novel was written—displaced into some postwar future. This can be seen through the technology, which is essentially that of 1950s America (down to the records used for music), and through the attitudes communicated, which are those of Cold War America. The novel spells out the expectations and fears of the 1950s.

Physically, I Am Legend has a nested set of settings, each of which exemplifies the American dream in some way—and what the plague of vampirism has done to it. The central setting is Robert Neville’s house on Cimarron Street in Los Angeles. The house used to be a comfortable middle-class home; now it is a blend of fortress and survivalist cabin, with boarded windows to keep the vampires out and a generator to give Neville power now that civilization has collapsed. The neighborhood used to be a middle-class and essentially suburban setting; it remains that by day, when the California sun is out, but at night it is a biological and at times moral battlefield. There are some occasional forays into the surrounding areas of Los Angeles, and talk of going off into the mountains in the novel’s final sections, but the trips to greater L.A. are mostly for supplies, and the escape into the mountains never happens. Instead, like a homeowner resisting a population shift in the city, Robert Neville stays put and his world changes around him.

The physical and chronological settings combine to give the battle against the vampires a particular poignancy. The year 1976 was the American bicentennial; as a good, solid American, Neville should be celebrating. His history, his lifestyle, and his values should, by everything he was raised to expect, make his California home a particularly American form of paradise. Instead, his country is no longer the home of individualists, or even individuals, but instead one mass horde (as America feared might happen due to Communist activities). His home is no longer his castle, where he can do whatever he wants and know that others will respect his right to privacy, but rather some place he must hide to avoid being killed just for being himself.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Clark, Collis. 2007. “Richard Matheson.” Entertainment Weekly, December 7. This interview with Matheson briefly discusses I Am Legend in the context of the author’s career and various film versions.

Clute, John, and Peter Nichols. 1993. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin. This foundational reference work reviews Matheson’s entire career, relating it to larger developments and the respective genres in which he worked.

Dziemianowicz, Stefan. 2002. “The Matheson Zone.” Publishers Weekly, June 17. This article discusses Matheson’s career, incorporating biographical notes and interviews.

Frost, Brian J. 1989. The Monster With a Thousand Faces: Guises of the Vampire in Myth and Literature. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press. Frost’s study is an overview of the vampire motif but discusses Matheson’s novel in the context of the tradition and touches on Matheson’s other works that include vampirism.

Jones, Stephen, and Kim Newman, eds. 1998. Horror: 100 Best Books. New York: Carroll & Graf. This collection of brief essays honoring the 100 greatest horror novels includes an homage to Matheson and I Am Legend.

Rogers, Michael. 1991. “I Am Legend.” Library Journal, September 1. This brief review discusses and summarizes a rereleased version of I Am Legend.

Twitchell, James B. 1985. Dreadful Pleasures: An Anatomy of Modern Horror. New York: Oxford University Press. This critical study of horror mentions Matheson only briefly and is useful primarily for putting him in context.

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