Richard Matheson

I Am Legend

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I Am Legend Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.  This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of I am Legend by Richard Matheson.

Author Richard Matheson’s 1954 horror and science fiction novel, I am Legend, originated the “zombie” genre in both fiction and movies. The novel has been made into three movies, including Omega Man (1971) and I am Legend (2007). In addition, Matheson is also credited with inspiring the classic cult horror film, Night of the Living Dead (1968). In the novel, the lone survivor of a worldwide pandemic finds himself fighting for his life in post-apocalypse Los Angeles. This survivor is Robert Neville, who is immune to the plague, and the creatures of the night who hunt him are zombie-like vampires, the infected survivors of the plague.

By day, Robert Neville scrounges abandoned Los Angeles for the supplies he needs for survival and his research into the plague, including a possible cure. In addition, he hunts inactive vampires and puts stakes through their hearts to kill them. The zombies never appear during the daylight hours. By night, hordes of vampires, led by Neville’s neighbor and good friend, Ben Cortman, surround his barricaded home, howling and taunting him, throwing rocks, and trying to find a way in. In addition to barricades, Robert has armed himself with mirrors, garlic, and crucifixes.

Through his research into the plague, Neville, discovers the bacteria that caused it and some new ways to fight the vampires. Exposing vampires to sunlight kills both the bacteria and the host vampire, while wounding a vampire also kills it through exposing the bacteria to the air, which transforms the bacteria into airborne parasites and kills the host. He redoubles his daylight efforts to hunt out vampires in their lairs to kill them. He also discovers that the disease seems to be partly psychological, a mass hysteria caused by a deeply rooted belief in vampires and the way in which they should behave. The plague vampires behave as they do because that’s what they believe.

Neville’s pre-apocalypse life is told through flashbacks. Readers learn that the plague killed his daughter and turned his wife into a vampire, whom he was forced to kill when she attacked him. Neville copes with his loneliness and despair through periods of binge drinking, delving into music and art, and plague research.

One day he finds a wild dog and eventually gains the dogs’ trust, only to find that the dog too is infected. The dog dies. Two years later, Neville, having killed most of the vampires, has settled into his lone survival routine. He comes upon a pretty young woman, Ruth, wandering alone in broad daylight. Suspicious yet intrigued, Neville takes her back to his home and listens to her story. Though she is repulsed by garlic, Neville believes her when she says her reaction is only due to hunger and shock. Her husband was killed by a vampire hunter, and her two children died of the plague. She agrees to let Neville test her blood in the morning. After Neville shares everything he knows about the vampires with her, they make love. In the morning, Ruth allows Neville to take her blood, but begs him not to look at it under the microscope.

When he does, he finds that the bacteria has mutated into a new form. Ruth knocks him unconscious and leaves a note for him, imploring him to escape while he can. The new mutated vampires have found a way to survive and intend to rebuild society. The new regime sent her to spy on Neville to learn what they can before trying to capture him. Furthermore, Robert was the one who killed her husband; still, Ruth professes her love for Neville.

Seven months later, Neville watches the new regime of mutant vampires brutally murder his old neighbor, Ben Cortman, along with six other vampires. Previously, he had believed that the mutants would not harm him. Now, when they break into his home, he shoots them because he believes they mean to kill, not capture, him. Neville is severely wounded during the battle and wakes up in a prison cell.

Ruth visits him. She tells him that there is no hope for him, and he comes to understand that the new mutant vampires view him with fear and loathing, just as he views them. She gives him some pills to make his execution easier. He faces his end alone, the last of his kind.

While not praised for its writing style or even its plot, this novel achieves its notoriety through its themes and the motif of “zombie” humans. The novel’s most significant theme remains the nature and construction of legends. Both vampire lore and vampire-fighting lore assume a central place in the novel. Additionally, Neville himself becomes a legend: the last of his kind, the last vampire hunter. A secondary theme of prejudice becomes clear as the new mutant vampires build a society with no room for humanity. Neville reviles the vampires, killing them wholesale as the enemy throughout the novel. In turn, the vampires fear and hate the vampire killer. Both are bent on each other’s destruction as the resolution of their fear of the other. In this way, cultural anxiety achieves catharsis through the creation of an ultimate evil—the zombie—against which humans can fight, as an outward expression of societal inequality or evil. Significantly, humanity does not survive in Matheson’s world.