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.
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...
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