Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 676
Alienation One of the primary themes of I Am Legend is alienation, and it is hard to imagine someone who is more literally alienated than Robert Neville. He is an absolutely normal American man, or at least he was until the world changed around him. Simply by remaining who he...
(The entire section contains 676 words.)
Unlock This Study Guide Now
Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this I Am Legend study guide. You'll get access to all of the I Am Legend content, as well as access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.
- Critical Essays
One of the primary themes of I Am Legend is alienation, and it is hard to imagine someone who is more literally alienated than Robert Neville. He is an absolutely normal American man, or at least he was until the world changed around him. Simply by remaining who he is, he becomes first alone (when his family dies), then a criminal (when he decides not to bury her), then the target of frenzied attacks (as the vampires try to kill him), and finally the only remnant of actual humanity left alive after the world has mutated and moved on. At the close of the novel, Robert Neville is experiencing an alienation that is both evolutionary (on the species level) and metaphysical. This is indicated by the title itself. Simply by being who he is, Neville transitions from being ordinary to being mythic. He shifts from being a forgettable man to being an unforgettable legend.
Conservatism and Change
The relationship between conservatism—a conscious attempt to stay the same—and change is complex in I Am Legend. On one hand, Neville is aware of how much life has changed. The omnipresent storms that blow in, covering everything with dust, are a good example of this. I Am Legend was first published in 1954. Imagine the social ideals of the time, as seen in television shows like Leave It to Beaver, which aired starting in 1957. Those communities were planned, and order and cleanliness were their watchwords. At the same time, however, the 1950s were marked by the Cold War with the Soviet Union, and fear about atomic testing rippled through these safe, ideal communities. It is only addressed briefly, but there is a recognition in I Am Legend that the human race has brought about its own destruction. Humanity caused the mutation that is replacing it.
At the same time, though, the vampires themselves are bizarrely conservative. They are not unrecognizable. They look like people, and some of them are clearly people Neville has known, like his wife and his neighbor. In this novel, the past grinds on, mindlessly, long after all sense has left it, and the result is horrific. It is also extremely effortful on all sides: the vampires are regularly destroyed because they cannot free themselves from their compulsions, and Neville has to barricade himself into his house, find replacement parts for damaged machines, and actively fight on a daily basis to maintain the life left him. Finally, change happens even when people think they are just holding on to the way things have always been; Neville’s appearance, voice, and character are transformed by what he has to do to hold on to the past. He used to be a normal guy. Now he slaughters daily and performs experiments on the undead.
In addition to being a terrifying threat on the plot level, vampires are deeply symbolic creatures. Some version of the vampire has appeared in many cultures’ mythologies, but the Euro-American vampire tradition is, as many critics have pointed out, specifically anchored in both Christianity and Western civilization. The vampire inverts the Christian ideal. Christ had offered eternal life through sacrifice, and offered his own blood to pass this promise on; the vampire maintains a life beyond the grave through taking the blood of others. Christ offered a message of love; the vampires are pure selfishness. Beyond this general symbolism, however, there are “floating” symbolic possibilities that fit the period and that have allowed the book to be filmed three different times. The vampires are a mindless horde, but which mindless horde they represent can shift according to period fears. In the 1950s, these vampires work well as representatives of the Red Scare; your normal neighbors became monsters overnight. They also work, though, as pure representations of consumption, a social factor rising during this period. Reading the novel now, with its blood-borne pathogens and new society built on regular medication preventing infection from turning into a full-blown condition, it is possible to consider the vampiric plague as representing the nightmare of AIDS.