I Am Legend

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Themes and Colors
Otherness Theme Icon
Grief, Loneliness, and Depression Theme Icon
Survival and Violence Theme Icon
Science Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in I Am Legend, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Science Theme Icon

Another important theme of I Am Legend is the power—both benevolent and malicious—of science. Throughout the book, Robert Neville studies the science of vampirism. In the process, he empowers himself and gives himself a new purpose in life. By researching epidemiology, bacteriology, and other “ologies” at the Los Angeles Public Library, Neville comes to realize that vampires aren’t supernatural monsters—they’re just human beings suffering from a serious disease. Neville’s discovery helps him conquer his own fear of the vampires. Because he no longer sees them as indestructible demons, he sleeps better at night, and instead of dreading tomorrow, he finds himself looking forward to the future. Furthermore, the science of vampirism helps Neville expand his moral horizons: he realizes that the vampires are the victims of their own germs, and feels sympathy for them. Perhaps most importantly, science empowers Neville by giving him something important to do every day. Neville is a natural scientist: he’s intensely curious about the vampire plague, and plans various experiments and tests to further his knowledge. He finds that, when he’s studying the vampires, he looks forward to each new day instead of dreading it, and goes for hours without fearing the vampires at all. In generally, I Am Legend suggests that fear and anxiety are often rooted in ignorance—by embracing the power of science, Neville staves off some of his own anxiety and conquers some of his fears.

In spite of Matheson’s obvious love for biology and medicine, I Am Legend doesn’t offer an entirely uncritical view of science. Like so many science fiction books of the era, the novel portrays science as a potentially dangerous force that's capable of leading to great destruction. In the process of studying the science of vampires, Neville develops some sympathy for the vampires; however, his sympathy isn’t enough to dissuade him from killing them. Neville uses his scientific training to kill vampires with expert efficiency—a violent, destructive act that ultimately leaves him a hardened, emotionless man. (See Violence theme.) In this sense, science enlightens Neville but also gives him even greater powers of destruction. Indeed, Matheson strongly implies that the deadly vampire plague itself is the result of runaway scientific experimentation. In flashbacks, we learn that the vampire plague may have originated from the nuclear fallout from a recent world war, or from germ warfare. While Matheson offers only a brief discussion of the origins of the vampire plague, the discussion is crucial for situating I Am Legend in its proper historical context. Less than a decade after the Hiroshima bombing—a “triumph” of physics that must have seemed like science fiction—many Americans regarded science and technology as being incredibly dangerous. Ultimately, I Am Legend is typical of science fiction written during the Cold War era insofar as it presents science as empowering but inherently dangerous. Neville empowers himself by learning about vampires, but his empowerment doesn’t necessarily make him a better man—only a more efficiently destructive one.

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Science ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Science appears in each Chapter of I Am Legend. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Science Quotes in I Am Legend

Below you will find the important quotes in I Am Legend related to the theme of Science.
Chapter 4 Quotes

Another thought: That man had been one of the true vampires; the living dead. Would sunlight have the same effect on those who were still alive?
The first excitement he'd felt in months made him break into a run for the station wagon.

Related Characters: Robert Neville
Related Symbols: Vampires
Page Number: 27
Explanation and Analysis:

As the novel progresses, Neville (and we, the readers) learn more about the different kinds of vampires. In this passage, Neville speaks of “true vampires, the living dead” and “those who were still alive.” As we come to understand, some vampires have no conscious minds—they’re just feral, aggressive creatures. These vampires originated from human corpses, people who’d already died of the vampire plague and been buried in the earth. There are also vampires who are “still alive,” in the sense that they’re infected with the vampire plague, but still have some intelligence and humanity left.

For most of the novel, it won’t be clear why Matheson is bothering to make this distinction. It’s only in the final few chapters that we come to understand what he’s doing: as Neville will learn, the still-living vampires will mutate into a race of intelligent, civilized creatures, who wage war against the “living dead.” For the time being, however, the passage is a good example of how science and curiosity give Neville something to live for. All alone in the world, Neville needs something to do, a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Studying vampires—reading about medicine, and conducting experiments on them—provides him with a rare sense of excitement and purpose.

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Chapter 6 Quotes

"Maybe the insects are . . . What's the word? Mutating." "What's that?"
"Oh, it means they're ... changing. Suddenly. Jumping over dozens of small evolutionary steps, maybe developing along lines they might not have followed at all if it weren't for..."
Silence.
"The bombings?" she said.
"Maybe," he said.
"Well, they're causing the dust storms. They're probably causing a lot of things."
She sighed wearily and shook her head. "And they say we won the war," she said. "Nobody won it."

Related Characters: Robert Neville (speaker), Virginia Neville (speaker)
Page Number: 36
Explanation and Analysis:

In this flashback scene, Robert is talking with his beloved wife, Virginia, who’s already suffering from the vampire plague. Virginia and Robert talk about the possible origins of the plague—they list insects, dust storms, and nuclear fallout as potential culprits.

Although this brief passage marks the only time in I Am Legend that any characters talk about the origins of the vampire plague, it’s a good “snapshot” of 1950s paranoia. At the time that Matheson was writing his book, America was locked in a Cold War with the Soviet Union: both countries had deadly nuclear missiles, and it was widely believed that they’d go to war at some point in the not-too-distant future. In I Am Legend, set two decades in the future, it appears that the U.S. and another country (probably the Soviet Union) have fought a deadly war that has ravaged the environment and caused horrible plagues.

Even if I Am Legend is a work of science fiction, it’s also an important historical document. In passages like this one, Matheson shows us what average Americans in the 1950s were scared of: war, disease, environmental degradation, and nuclear fallout.

Chapter 11 Quotes

No, not the vampire. For now, it appeared, that prowling, vulpine ghost was as much a tool of the germ as the living innocents who were originally afflicted. It was the germ that was the villain.

Related Characters: Robert Neville
Related Symbols: Vampires
Page Number: 77
Explanation and Analysis:

In Chapter Eleven, Neville begins to learn about the science of vampirism. He isolated the vampire germ, and begins to form hypotheses about how the germ spreads from host to host. Here, Neville realizes something surprising: the vampire germ takes control over its human hosts, destroying their minds and bodies, and forcing them to search for fresh blood at night. Previously, Neville had thought of vampires as demonic creatures, but now he realizes that they’re not. Rather, vampires are just as much the victims of the vampire germ as their human victims.

The passage is a good example of how science and research enlighten Neville and provide him with a sense of purpose in life. After isolating the vampire germ, Neville becomes less afraid of vampires—he realizes that they’re not evil, supernatural creatures; they’re just sick humans. Furthermore, the passage shows Neville’s moral conundrum. He seems to be sympathetic to vampires, as he recognizes that they’re people too, even if their bodies have been corrupted by infection. But in spite of his sympathy, Neville continues killing the vampires in their sleep; victims or not, the vampires are trying to kill him first.

Chapter 13 Quotes

He smiled down at the dog, his throat moving.
"You'll be all better soon," he whispered. "Real soon." The dog looked up at him with its dulled, sick eyes and then its tongue faltered out and licked roughly and moistly across the palm of Neville's hand.
Something broke in Neville's throat. He sat there silently while tears ran slowly down his cheeks.
In a week the dog was dead.

Related Characters: Robert Neville (speaker)
Page Number: 100
Explanation and Analysis:

In Chapter Twelve, Neville finds a dog running through the streets of Los Angeles. The dog shows some signs of being infected with the vampire plague, but it also can run through the streets in broad daylight. As a result, Neville isn’t sure what to do with it. However, Neville is so desperate for connection—whether with a human or with an animal—that he tries to adopt the dog as a pet. In this passage, Neville has succeeded in bringing the frightened dog into his house. However, by this point, it’s obvious to Neville that the dog is dying of the vampire plague. Neville wants to cure the dog of its illness by finding an antibiotic, but he’s unable to do so, and the dog dies a week later.

The passage is especially poignant because the dog has been Neville’s only friend since the death of his wife and child. Neville wants to save the dog’s life, not just because he likes dogs but because he needs someone to talk to (even if that “someone” can’t talk back). In the end, Neville fails to find a cure—in all likelihood, he burns the dog’s body in the flaming pit, and reverts to being alone.

Chapter 14 Quotes

The people twisted and moaned and smote their brows and shrieked in mortal terror and screamed out terrible hallelujahs.
Robert Neville was shoved about, stumbling and lost in a treadmill of hopes, in a crossfire of frenzied worship.
"God has punished us for our great transgressions! God has unleashed the terrible force of His almighty wrath!

Related Characters: Robert Neville
Page Number: 103
Explanation and Analysis:

In this flashback scene, Neville remembers the early days of the vampire plague, when human society was trying to decide how to respond to the impending doom. He recalls attending a fundamentalist religious gathering, in which a preacher told a room full of “frenzied” congregants that God had sent the vampire plague to punish the world for its sins.

There’s a lot to notice here. First, the word “frenzied” is significant, because it’s also one of Matheson’s preferred adjectives for describing the vampires. In this way, Matheson draws an implicit connection between the fearsome, uncontrollable mob of vampires that menace Neville at night, and the wild, ecstatic mob of religious worshippers in the passage. As Neville will soon realize, this comparison is far from arbitrary. Indeed, the religious ecstasy of the final days of the vampire plague may have created more vampires: by teaching human beings to fear vampires, preachers guaranteed that, when their congregants died and arose from the dead, they’d be driven insane with self-loathing, and begin behaving like vampires.

In all, the passage seems to critique organized religion for its lack of logic and clarity. Although the preacher in this scene claims that God is punishing humanity for its sins, Neville later discovers the truth: vampirism has a rational, scientific cause, the vampiris bacterium. As in many science fiction novels, organized religion here comes across as frenzied, illogical, and potentially very dangerous.

Chapter 19 Quotes

He looked into the eyepiece for a long time. Yes, he knew. And the admission of what he saw changed his entire world. How stupid and ineffective he felt for never having foreseen it! Especially after reading the phrase a hundred, a thousand times. But then he'd never really appreciated it. Such a short phrase it was, but meaning so much.
Bacteria can mutate.

Related Characters: Robert Neville
Page Number: 146
Explanation and Analysis:

Part Three of I Am Legend ends with Neville’s realization that the vampiris bacterium has mutated. Previously, he’d believed that vampires were dangerous, feral creatures who needed to be killed with the utmost speed. Now, however, he realizes that not all vampires are wild and dangerous—some, like Ruth, are intelligent, and belong to an organized society. The passage suggests that Neville has been too myopic in his view of the vampires; although he has “mutated” (completely changed his personality) in the last three years, he’s been too prejudiced against vampires to imagine that they could change.

From another perspective, this passage could be said to break one of the most basic rules of science fiction storytelling. In most good works of science fiction, authors introduce the “rules” and implausible premises of their fictional worlds early on (for example, Matheson doesn’t wait long to introduce the premise that vampires rule the world). In this passage, however, Matheson introduces a “new rule”: the vampires can evolve into other creatures. Although Neville has, apparently, read about bacterial mutations many times before, Matheson hasn’t given his readers any advance warning or foreshadowing for such an important plot point. As a result, some readers may find the passage unconvincing and, on a structural level, unsatisfying.