review: i am legend

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson (1954)

In reading descriptions of this novel, oftentimes the first thing written is that I Am Legend a horror novel.  After reading the book, I would definitely disagree with the categorization of the novel in the horror genre.  I wasn’t terrified or particularly on edge while reading the book.  Sure, there is dramatic tension in the novel, but nothing that would make me fear sleeping in the dark.  To me, that’s the feeling I have after reading a horror novel.  I think the novel is more properly placed in the sci-fi/fantasy genre, and this is all to say that if you don’t like reading from the horror genre, don’t immediately pass over I Am Legend.

Summarizing the plot of the story is fairly simple, and yet my summary leaves a lot of plot points out because I don’t want to spoil the entire plot and action of the novel.  The protagonist is Robert Neville, a man in his mid-thirties living in the suburbs of Los Angeles.  The thing that makes Robert Neville unique is that he is the last man on earth—that is, he’s the last non-infected man on earth.  The story begins in January 1976, and we come to find out that at that time, Robert Neville has been alone for about eight months, and that it was only ten months before the story begins that a plague started to infect the inhabitants of Earth.  Most of those infected with the plague began to exhibit vampire-like tendencies—unable to handle sunlight, spending the day in a kind of coma, recoiling from garlic and crosses, etc.  As this plague rapidly spread across the earth and decimated the population, no one was able to come up with an explanation for the plague or a cure.  Neville’s own wife and daughter fall victim to the plague, and though he has searched long, Neville comes to realize that he is the only survivor of the plague, though the exact reason for his immunity remains a mystery for much of the novel.  Although Neville is the sole survivor of the plague (or perhaps because of this) he is the target of the vampires, particularly Ben Cortman.  The vampires come to Neville’s house each night yelling at him to come out, but Neville has secured his home so that he is safe as long as he remains inside while it’s dark, and he’s amassed all of the frozen foods and necessaries of life he needs to survive; what he doesn’t have or runs out of, he looks for during the daytime.  Also during the daytime, he hunts and kills vampires while they are in their coma-like sleep and unable to fight back.  The plot is driven by the inner conflicts that Neville struggles with (particularly his inability to fully leave behind the past and accept the present, as well as the question of what kind of future awaits him) as well as his endeavors to learn how the plague developed and spread and attempting to find a cure, and finally his struggles against the vampires.

Vampires—I know what some of you may be thinking.  Even if you have had enough of vampires to last you for the next decade, don’t immediately pass over I Am Legend.  Yes, the vampires are the threat that Neville has to fight against, but really, this book isn’t about vampires.  It’s very much a psychological study of how one man deals with the isolation and loneliness of being the last surviving member of the human race.  When one is so completely and utterly alone, how does that shift the way one thinks of morality and ethics?  When one believes himself to live in an environment whose primary rule is kill or be killed, what actions are permissible?  It delves into the consequences and constructions of a “me vs. them” mentality.  It meditates on the question of what it means to be human.  It also questions the legitimacy of using violence in order to establish and maintain order in a new society.  Further still, because of its apocalyptic setting, the novel can perhaps be read as a cautionary tale.  There is so much more to this book than the vampires that collectively act as the antagonist to Robert Neville.

In truth, I don’t think I would have picked this book up if it weren’t for my interest in teaching it in a class where the emphasis is upon novels that have been adapted into films.  If I just had the synopsis on the back cover to go by (and it is worth saying here that I haven’t seen the recent 2007 film adaptation of the novel) I probably wouldn’t have made the decision to read the book.  While I am a fan of the sci-fi/fantasy genre, this wouldn’t have really peaked my interest.  I am glad, though, that I have read the novel.  I think it’s an excellent example of the “man alone” narrative plot, and again, the psychological study of Robert Neville is something that I found to be really compelling.  He’s a man who has no other options—or, at least, believes he has no other options—and this is something that always intrigues me in terms of character, mainly because it lets me ask my students what else could he be expected to do.  The question of whether or not this is a recommended read is a difficult one to answer.  On the one hand, I had no problems putting the book down.  I do think the pacing is a little slow, and there really is only the one character to focus on—Robert.  On the other hand, I really like Matheson’s narrative style, particularly his diction, as well as the way he portrays Robert as being haunted by the past, stuck in the present, and uncertain of the future.  Final analysis: it’s a good book, but not one of my top 10 reads over the last twelve months.

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