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.
Survival and Violence Theme Icon

In I Am Legend, Robert Neville spends his days traveling around Los Angeles, driving stakes into the hearts of vampires—in effect, murdering them in their sleep. Neville is sometimes sympathetic to the vampires (see Otherness theme), yet he continues to kill them, reasoning that if he doesn’t, they’ll kill him at night. In general, the novel studies the lengths to which ordinary people will go to survive in a time of crisis. In particular, Matheson is interested in the way that people use “survival” as a justification for their acts of violence—to what extent is there a valid reason to kill?

After he survives the vampire plague, Neville is forced to face a simple fact: if he doesn’t protect himself, vampires will kill him. Thus, survival becomes the dominant theme of his life. Indeed, he converts his house into a fortress, so that the vampires won’t be able to attack him in his sleep. In general, Neville sees himself as playing a defensive role: he sees the vampires as an aggressive force and a threat to his survival. Because he sees himself in a purely defensive role, Neville can always justify his own acts of killing. At several points in the novel, he feels guilt or regret while killing sleeping vampires with a wooden stake. However, whenever this happens, he convinces himself that he’s doing the right thing: he refuses to be on the losing side of a “kill or be killed” situation. Strictly based on these scenes, the novel seems to imply that survival is the most basic, fundamental value; put another way, nothing Neville does is more important than surviving.

Even if survival is the most important part of Neville’s life, I Am Legend shows some of the moral challenges of using survival to justify one’s violent deeds. Over the course of the book, Neville becomes increasingly numb to the act of killing vampires. In the earliest chapters, he feels pain and regret for his killings, and compensates by drinking heavily. Later, he seems to get an almost sexual pleasure out of killing vampires. As the years go by, however, Neville seems to become totally desensitized to the violence. Toward the end of the novel, when Neville meets Ruth, Matheson makes it clear how much of a toll killing has taken on Neville. He explains to Ruth how he kills vampires, and becomes genuinely puzzled when Ruth points out that what he’s doing is barbaric and cruel. Indeed, insofar as she’s capable of expressing sympathy and concern for others, Ruth comes across as far more “human” than Neville in this scene, despite the fact that she’s really a vampire. Three years of systematic killing have turned Neville into an insensitive, emotionless wreck. Whether or not his killing is justified for survival’s sake, it has stripped him of his humanity.

At the end of the novel, Neville finally seems to recognize some of the dangers of violence. After learning of a new race of intelligent vampires, he watches the new vampires slaughter other vampires, seeming to enjoy themselves while doing so. When he questions Ruth about the brutality of the new vampire society, Ruth offers the same unconvincing excuse that Neville offered her: they’re just trying to survive. Ruth’s words suggest that survival isn’t always a valid justification for violence; more often, it’s just an excuse to behave sadistically and cruelly. Neville’s final words to Ruth—“don’t make it too brutal”—have an important double meaning. On one hand, Neville is asking Ruth to make his execution as painless as possible; at the same time, however, Neville seems to be warning Ruth against building a brutal, violent vampire society. Over the past three years, Neville has lived in his own brutal “society”—every single day, he’s killed dozens. A few minutes from death, he seems to see the danger of basing one’s existence on acts of violence. In general, I Am Legend suggests that a life of violence destroys the killer’s soul as well as the victims’ lives. Survival is important, but there seems to be little point to killing to survive when killing deprives us of our humanity.

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Survival and Violence ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in I Am Legend related to the theme of Survival and Violence.
Chapter 2 Quotes

He checked the oil, water, battery water, and tires. Everything was in good condition. It usually was, because he took special care of the car. If it ever broke down so that he couldn't get back to the house by sunset ...
Well, there was no point in even worrying about that. If it ever happened, that was the end.

Related Characters: Robert Neville
Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:

In Chapter Two, Neville drives around Los Angeles, killing vampires in their sleep. Neville drives a Willys station wagon (a common car of the 1950s), and keeps it in excellent condition at all times. His reasoning is simple: if, for any reason, the station wagon were to break down in the middle of the day, Neville would be stranded far from his house—and would have to fend off the vampires from outside the safety of his house. In that case, the vampires would surely attack him and kill him.

There are two things to notice about the passage. First, notice that Matheson doesn’t actually say what would happen to Neville if he were to remain outside after sunset; instead, he leaves it unsaid. As in many horror books and films, the reader’s imagination is far more frightening than anything a writer or a director can dream up, and at various points in I Am Legend, Matheson uses similar kinds of ellipses to frighten readers. Second, notice that survival is the core value in Neville’s new life. Everything he does during the day—even something as banal as driving a station wagon down the streets of Los Angeles—is suffused with the possibility of death. It’s no wonder that Neville experiences psychological problems throughout the book—he lives in a constant state of fear.

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Chapter 3 Quotes

He thought of the eleven—no, the twelve children that afternoon, and he finished his drink in two swallows.

Related Characters: Robert Neville
Related Symbols: Vampires, Alcohol
Page Number: 18
Explanation and Analysis:

In Chapter Three, Neville has wrapped up a busy day of killing vampires with wooden stakes. Back in his house, he thinks about the vampires he killed, some of whom were children, and shudders. To distract himself from his own guilt, he drinks heavily.

One of the basic questions that Matheson poses in I Am Legend is, “Is Neville morally justified in killing vampires in their sleep?” In this passage, Matheson gives us reason to believe that the answer is no. Deep down, Neville seems to know that he’s doing something horribly wrong when he kills vampires, especially children—that’s why he’s trying to forget about his acts of killing. In general, the passage foreshadows the novel’s famous ending, in which Neville comes to realize that, from the vampire’s perspective, he’s the monster.

Chapter 5 Quotes

Fury exploded in him. Enough!
His rage-palsied hands ripped out the clothes from the bureau drawer until they closed on the loaded pistols.
Racing through the dark living room, he knocked up the bar across the door and sent it clattering to the floor. Outside, they howled as they heard him opening the door. I'm coming out, you bastards! his mind screamed out.

Related Characters: Robert Neville
Related Symbols: Vampires
Page Number: 36
Explanation and Analysis:

At the end of Chapter Five, Neville, having just survived being stranded outside of his house after sunset, chooses to walk outside once again. He’s become so furious with the vampires—and so uneasy with being the only man left on the planet—that he retaliates with mindless violence. He carries two loaded pistols outside, and proceeds to shoot at the vampires. However, Neville’s shots do no damage to (as we later learn, the vampires are impervious to bullets, thanks to the strength of the vampiris bacterium).

Neville’s violence isn’t supposed to serve any practical purpose—rather, it’s his frustrated way of compensating for anxiety, isolation, and depression. It’s important to notice that Neville is capable of acts of savage, useless violence; although he likes to think of himself as a civilized, rational human being (and the vampires as mindless, dangerous killers), he has more in common with the vampires than he would care to admit.

Chapter 7 Quotes

Ten minutes later he threw her body out the front door and slammed it again in their faces. Then he stood there against the door breathing heavily. Faintly he heard through the soundproofing the sound of them fighting like jackals for the spoils.
Later he went to the bathroom and poured alcohol into the teeth gouges, enjoying fiercely the burning pain in his flesh.

Related Characters: Robert Neville
Related Symbols: Vampires
Page Number: 51
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Neville captures a sleeping vampire, ties her up, takes her to his home, and conducts experiments on her. At one point, the vampire becomes so frightened and frustrated that she bites Neville on the shoulder. Later, when Neville becomes exhausted, he throws her outside, leaving her to be attacked by the vicious, feral vampires outside.

The passage is intriguing because it juxtaposes the vampire’s savagery with Neville’s own perverse behavior. He seems to enjoy the pain of the vampire’s bite, and savors the feeling of pouring alcohol on the wound. There may be an erotic element to this scene, as Neville has shown repressed sexual desire for female vampires before, but it may also be that the searing pain is a reminder of Neville’s humanity and aliveness—he might be feeling something uncomfortable, but at least he’s feeling.

Chapter 9 Quotes

He couldn't even scream. He just stood rooted to the spot, staring dumbly at Virginia.
"Rob...ert," she said.

Related Characters: Virginia Neville (speaker), Robert Neville
Related Symbols: Vampires
Page Number: 66
Explanation and Analysis:

At the end of Chapter Nine, Matheson describes how Robert Neville responded to the death of his beloved wife, Virginia. After Virginia succumbed to the vampire plague, he buried her in the ground, even though the law required him to throw his wife’s body in a burning pit (to ensure that she wouldn’t come back from the dead). Shortly afterwards, Virginia arose from the dead, dug her way out of the ground, and walked back to Robert’s home.

The passage is a great example of how, in scary books and films, less is often more. Matheson doesn’t tell us what exactly happens after Virginia, now a vampire, returns to Robert—the chapter ends here, very abruptly. In this way, Matheson allows readers to imagine their own version of what happens next—a technique that builds suspense and proves more terrifying. (Later on, we find out that Robert was forced to kill his vampire wife and bury her again.)

Chapter 10 Quotes

He thought about that visionary lady. To die, he thought, never knowing the fierce joy and attendant comfort of a loved one's embrace. To sink into that hideous coma, to sink then into death and, perhaps, return to sterile, awful wanderings. All without knowing what it was to love and be loved.
That was a tragedy more terrible than becoming a vampire.

Related Characters: Robert Neville
Related Symbols: Vampires
Page Number: 67
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Robert Neville goes to the Los Angeles Public Library to research the science of vampirism. As he walks through the building, he finds himself thinking about the shy librarian who worked here in the final days of the vampire plague: in all likelihood, he assumes, she was unmarried, lonely, and sad—“a tragedy more terrible than becoming a vampire.”

Setting aside the fact that Neville seems to be stereotyping librarians (for all he knows, she could have been happily partnered or happily single), the passage is an interesting example of how Neville thinks about his own situation. Although Neville is ostensibly talking about the librarian, he’s really talking about himself: Neville hasn’t felt “a loved one’s embrace” in a very long time, and, as the last human being left on the planet, he has no one to love him. Indeed, there are many times in the novel when Neville seems to conclude that being the last man alive is, in fact, worse than being a vampire—in part, that’s why he’s tempted to go outside at night and join the vampires. However, Neville’s hope of finding another human being one day keeps him sane.

Chapter 12 Quotes

The thought of forty more years of living as he was made him shudder.
And yet he hadn't killed himself. True, he hardly treated his body welfare with reverence. He didn't eat properly, drink properly, sleep properly, or do anything properly. His health wasn't going to last indefinitely; he was already cheating the percentages, he suspected.
But using his body carelessly wasn't suicide. He'd never even approached suicide. Why?
There seemed no answer.

Related Characters: Robert Neville
Related Symbols: Alcohol
Page Number: 85
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Neville contemplates his future and his own mortality. He’s been living alone in Los Angeles for months, and he’s utterly miserable. He takes refuge in books, music, and alcohol, but nothing can entirely replace human contact. As a result, Neville is intensely lonely and depressed; however, as he notes here, he’s never been tempted to commit suicide.

The reason that Neville hasn’t tried to commit suicide, even with his depression, is left unclear. However, what Matheson seems to be implying is that Neville still has the willpower to survive because he wants to feel human contact once again. Survival is the most powerful instinct in the human mind—even when they’re feeling miserable, most people never seriously contemplate ending their own lives, as the hope that life will get better, against all odds, sustains them through their misery. Although he’s isolated and grieving, Neville keeps on living, praying that, some day, he’ll meet another human being.

Chapter 15 Quotes

As he strolled, Neville wondered again what he'd do if he found Cortman. True, his plan had always been the same: immediate disposal. But that was on the surface. He knew it wouldn't be that easy. Oh, it wasn't that he felt anything toward Cortman. It wasn't even that Cortman represented a part of the past. The past was dead and he knew it and accepted it.
No, it wasn't either of those things. What it probably was, Neville decided, was that he didn't want to cut off a recreational activity.

Related Characters: Robert Neville, Ben Cortman
Page Number: 108
Explanation and Analysis:

At the beginning of Part Three, two years have passed since we last saw Robert Neville. In these two years, Neville has developed a new routine for himself: he doesn’t drink as much, and every day he devotes himself to hunting down vampires and killing them. Interestingly, Neville has come to enjoy hunting Ben Cortman, the vampire who was once his friend and neighbor. He wonders what would happen if he were ever to kill Cortman, and realizes that he’d be very disappointed—without Cortman to hunt for, he’d probably go back to drinking heavily.

The passage is a good example of the concept of “antagonistic cooperation”: the symbiotic relationship that often emerges between enemies or competitors. Even if Neville hates Cortman, and wants to kill him, he also needs Cortman: the hunt for Cortman provides Neville with a sense of purpose in life. The trope of antagonistic cooperation is very common in science fiction stories and comic books (in Batman comics, for example, it’s often suggested that Batman and Joker “need” each other, even though they’re sworn enemies). All alone in the world, with nothing else to do, Cortman has decided to structure his life around killing vampires—if the vampires were to disappear overnight, his life would be meaningless.

Chapter 16 Quotes

All these years, he thought, dreaming about a companion. Now I meet one and the first thing I do is distrust her, treat her crudely and impatiently.
And yet there was really nothing else he could do. He had accepted too long the proposition that he was the only normal person left. It didn't matter that she looked normal. He'd seen too many of them lying in their coma that looked as healthy as she. They weren't, though, and he knew it. The simple fact that she had been walking in the sunlight wasn't enough to tip the scales on the side of trusting acceptance. He had doubted too long. His concept of the society had become ironbound. It was almost impossible for him to believe that there were others like him. And, after the first shock had diminished, all the dogma of his long years alone had asserted itself.

Related Characters: Robert Neville, Ruth
Page Number: 115
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Neville has crossed paths with a mysterious woman named Ruth (who later turns out to be a vampire). Neville is unsure what to think about Ruth; his first instinct is to distrust her. However, he’s also sympathetic to Ruth, and wonders if he isn’t predisposed to distrust other people, simply because it’s been so long since he’s had human contact. As he notes here, he’s spent years thinking about human contact—and now that he’s found some, he’s frightened of it.

The passage shows how greatly Neville’s years of loneliness have changed him. In order to survive, Neville has forced himself to focus on the present, rather than dwelling on the past (in particular, his memories of his dead wife, Virginia). In a way, he’s built a one-man “society” for himself, founded on discipline, efficiency, and murder—and now, the idea of adding another person to that society is almost intolerable to him. Nevertheless, Neville eventually decides to let Ruth stay in his home—his suspicions aren’t enough to outweigh his persisting need for companionship.

Chapter 17 Quotes

They were silent then and the only sound in the room was the rasping of the needle on the inner grooves of the record. She wouldn't look at him, but kept staring at the floor with bleak eyes. It was strange, he thought, to find himself vaguely on the defensive for what yesterday was accepted necessity. In the years that had passed he had never once considered the possibility that he was wrong. It took her presence to bring about such thoughts. And they were strange, alien thoughts.
"Do you actually think I'm wrong?" he asked in an incredulous voice.

Related Characters: Robert Neville (speaker), Ruth
Page Number: 135
Explanation and Analysis:

In Chapter 17, Neville tells Ruth about his one-man society: he explains that he spends his days traveling around the city, searching for Ben Cortman and other vampires to kill. To his surprise, Ruth is revolted by Neville’s descriptions of killing. She suggests that Neville is killing innocent people: some of his victims, after all, are “living vampires”—human beings who have contracted the vampire plague.

Neville is genuinely surprised by Ruth’s suggestion: he’s been killing vampires for so long that the act of killing has become an utterly uncontroversial part of his existence. Though we don’t realize it at the time, Ruth is actually a vampire—a member of the “new society” of the undead. Ironically, Ruth the vampire comes across as much more emotional, sympathetic, and “human” than Neville. Years of killing have hardened Neville, stripping him of compassion. The passage paves the way for Neville’s epiphany in the final chapter, when he realizes that, from the vampire’s perspective, he’s a heartless monster.

Chapter 19 Quotes

When I was first given the job of spying on you, I had no feelings about your life. Because I did have a husband, Robert. You killed him.
But now it's different. I know now that you were just as much forced into your situation as we were forced into ours.

Related Characters: Ruth (speaker), Robert Neville
Page Number: 143
Explanation and Analysis:

After their romantic encounter, Ruth has attacked Neville and abruptly abandoned him. She leaves a letter for Neville, in which she explains that she’s really a vampire from an intelligent, civilized society. She was sent to spy on Neville, the last remaining human being and her husband’s killer, but she decided to forgive him when she realized that Neville is just as frightened of vampires as the vampires are frightened of Neville.

The passage is important because it introduces the theme of moral relativism: although Neville has spent most of the novel thinking that he’s justified in killing vampires in their sleep, he’s inadvertently murdered Ruth’s husband (and, presumably, hundreds of other civilized vampires). But surprisingly, Ruth is willing to overlook Neville’s murders—she understands that he was just trying to survive, just as Ruth and her fellow vampires are now trying to survive. (To some, it might seem implausible that Ruth would forgive Neville for murdering her husband, and fall in love with him, after knowing him for less than a day.)

Chapter 20 Quotes

Robert Neville felt tight fists shaking at his sides. He didn't like the looks of them, he didn't like the methodical butchery. They were more like gangsters than men forced into a situation. There were looks of vicious triumph on their faces, white and stark in the spotlights. Their faces were cruel and emotionless.

Related Characters: Robert Neville
Related Symbols: Vampires
Page Number: 147
Explanation and Analysis:

Neville has learned that there’s a new race of intelligent, organized vampires, and late at night, he sees the new vampires attacking the wild, feral vampires with pikes and other deadly weapons. Neville immediately despises the new vampires: he finds their acts of killing to be vicious and brutal, and detects “triumph” on their faces (although Matheson says in the next sentence that the vampires’ faces are emotionless—it’s not clear how a face can look triumphant and emotionless at the same time.)

The irony of this passage is that, after nearly three years spent killing vampires on a daily basis, Neville can’t stand to see other vampires doing the same thing. What, we might well ask, is the difference between Neville’s own daily killings and the new vampires’ “methodical butchery?”

There are two possibilities. First, it’s possible that Neville treats killing vampires as an unfortunate duty—something he has to do in order to survive—whereas the new vampires clearly get real pleasure from killing their feral cousins, suggesting that the new vampires are a cruel, sadistic race. The second, more intriguing possibility is that there is no substantive difference between Neville’s killing and the vampires’—a murder is a murder. Thus, Neville’s realization that the new vampires are brutal, cruel people paves the way for his epiphany during the final chapter, during which he’ll come to realize that he, too, is a cruel monster, who’s spent years methodically taking vampire lives.

Chapter 21 Quotes

"New societies are always primitive," she answered. "You should know that. In a way we're like a revolutionary group—repossessing society by violence. It's inevitable. Violence is no stranger to you. You've killed. Many times."
"Only to ... to survive."
"That's exactly why we're killing," she said calmly.

Related Characters: Ruth (speaker), Robert Neville
Related Symbols: Vampires
Page Number: 155
Explanation and Analysis:

In the final chapter of the novel, Neville finds himself in a prison cell, next to Ruth—who, he now knows, is a member of the new vampire society. Neville accuses Ruth and her fellow vampires of being needlessly cruel and violent, but Ruth responds that all new societies are—but she implies that one day, the society of vampires may become more peaceful. Ruth also draws a comparison between Neville and the vampires. Echoing the themes of the previous chapter, Ruth points out that Neville, no less than the vampires, is a systematic, emotionless killer—he’s spent years of his life killing vampires in their sleep, and thinks of killing as an uncontroversial part of his life.

Ruth hits home her point by stressing that the new vampires kill to survive—in other words, killing is a duty, not a pleasure for them. Neville has seen first-hand that Ruth is wrong: some of the vampires do seem to enjoy killing for the sake of killing. However, over the years, Neville has also shown signs of enjoying killing vampires. Neville tries to tell himself that he’s the “good guy”—the civilized human being who kills only to survive—but he’s finding it increasingly hard to believe this.

"I'm a ranking officer in the new society," she said. His hand stirred under hers.
"Don't ... let it get . .." He coughed up blood. "Don't let it get . . . too brutal. Too heartless."
"What can I—" she started, then stopped. She smiled at him. "I'll try," she said.

Related Characters: Robert Neville (speaker), Ruth (speaker)
Page Number: 157
Explanation and Analysis:

In this ambiguous passage, Ruth has just informed Neville that her fellow vampires are going to execute him. Neville has spent years killing the vampires’ families and loved ones, including Ruth’s husband. Now, it’s time for Neville to pay the price for his murders.

Strangely, Neville seems calm as Ruth tells him that his life is about to end. Instead of begging for his life, he asks Ruth—who, it’s revealed, is a powerful figure in the new society of vampires—not to let “it” get too brutal.

On the most obvious level, “it” refers to Neville’s execution. However, there’s a second, more interesting interpretation of “it.” Perhaps Robert intends for “it” to refer to the “new society” that Ruth has just mentioned. After three years, during which he’s built a one-man society founded in the heartless murder of vampires, Neville encourages the vampires not to make the same mistake he (and other humans, who destroyed themselves through war) made—in other words, to be civilized and peaceful, not “heartless.”