I Am Legend

I Am Legend Chapter 17 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Neville and Ruth eat supper together. Neville explains to Ruth that he doesn’t understand how the vampires are surviving: surely their nourishment is running out, and they spend their days lying in a coma. Ruth seems surprised to hear about the vampires—she claims that she and her husband never realized that the vampires had come back from the dead. However, she agrees to let Neville check her blood in the morning. Neville realizes that he’s afraid to check Ruth’s blood, in case she really is infected.
Neville brings up an important question: if the vampires survive by drinking the blood of the living, why aren’t the vampires dying out now that almost all human beings are dead? Ruth’s behavior is becoming increasingly suspicious: it seems impossible that she could fail to recognize that vampires come back from the dead. But even though Neville has some suspicions about Ruth, he’s so desperate for companionship that he continues talking to her.
Themes
Otherness Theme Icon
Grief, Loneliness, and Depression Theme Icon
Survival and Violence Theme Icon
Science Theme Icon
Neville explains to Ruth that crosses are sometimes an effective deterrent to the vampires, but not always. Vampires who weren’t Christians in life don’t care about crosses. As he speaks, Neville notices that Ruth has a body like a young girl—it seems unlikely that she gave birth to two children. He also notices that, in the last few years, his sex drive has virtually disappeared—he’s “submerged himself in investigation” for the last two years. Thus, he feels little to no desire for Ruth now. He also feels a vague suspicion that Ruth isn’t telling him the truth.
In these sections of the book, Neville shares the knowledge he’s accumulated over the past two years: for example, he’s learned that crosses only repel vampires who were Christians during their time as human beings. Over two years, Neville has forced himself to repress his sexual instincts; as a result, he isn’t sure how he feels about Ruth.
Themes
Otherness Theme Icon
Grief, Loneliness, and Depression Theme Icon
Science Theme Icon
Ruth looks at Neville carefully, and says, “You don’t believe a word I’ve said, do you?” Neville demands that Ruth tell him more about her husband, but Ruth begs, “Not now. Please.” Neville isn’t sure what to believe—he’s not sure why she would lie. He resolves to check her blood first thing in the morning. He also tells Ruth his theory—he seems to be immune to the vampiris germ, which would suggest that there are other people who are immune to it too; perhaps Ruth is one of these people. Neville thinks about Ruth some more: if she really is immune to the disease, the two of them could have a family together. Such a possibility seems “terrifying” to Neville—he’s lived as a bachelor for the last three years.
Instead of doing the sensible thing and checking Ruth’s blood immediately to determine if she’s lying or telling the truth, Neville decides to wait until morning to check—for now, he just wants to talk. But even if Neville is glad to have another human being to talk to, he’s also repelled by the possibility of having to live with another human being from now on. He’s settled into his own routine and doesn’t seem to want many changes. Neville’s attitude toward Ruth parallels his attitude toward the vampires at the beginning of the novel: he’s at once drawn to them and repelled by them.
Themes
Otherness Theme Icon
Grief, Loneliness, and Depression Theme Icon
Survival and Violence Theme Icon
Science Theme Icon
Neville tells Ruth about something else he’s discovered: he can make Cortman panic by waving a copy of the Torah in his face. Since Cortman was Jewish in life, the sight of the Jewish holy book would naturally make him frightened as a vampire. Neville also tells Ruth that bullets have no effect on dead vampires. Privately, Neville thinks about why this is: he’s discovered that the vampiris germ creates a “powerful body glue that sealed the bullet openings as soon as they were made.”
Neville tells Ruth about his discoveries (and, at the same time, provides the reader with some much-needed exposition). The reason that Neville’s gunshots couldn’t kill Cortman or the other vampires is that vampires’ bodies are impervious to bullets.
Themes
Otherness Theme Icon
Grief, Loneliness, and Depression Theme Icon
Survival and Violence Theme Icon
Science Theme Icon
Get the entire I Am Legend LitChart as a printable PDF.
I am legend.pdf.medium
Ruth asks Neville, “Tell me about yourself,” and Neville isn’t sure how to reply. Neville realizes how greatly isolation has changed his personality; he’s no longer sure how to interact with other people. Ruth, sensing Neville’s discomfort, asks him to tell her about the vampire plague instead. Neville explains that the vampire plague is caused by a vampiris germ. This germ causes the various symptoms of being a vampire, including elongation of the canine teeth. When vampires die from a lack of blood, their bodies disintegrate into dust. Then, dust storms blow vampiris spores across Los Angeles, infecting more people. Neville hypothesizes that he’s immune to the disease because he was bitten by a vampire bat during his time in Panama, causing him to develop an immunity.
Neville’s time alone has permanently altered his personality: after years of isolation, he can barely hold an ordinary conversation. Indeed, he’s spent so much time studying vampires that vampirism is the only topic he’s comfortable talking about. Matheson again uses this passage to provide some backstory and exposition. Before this chapter, for example, we didn’t know that Neville is immune to the vampire plague because he was bitten by a bat during his time in Panama.
Themes
Otherness Theme Icon
Grief, Loneliness, and Depression Theme Icon
Survival and Violence Theme Icon
Science Theme Icon
Neville also explains that wooden stakes kill the vampires. The stakes don’t have to penetrate the heart, contrary to legend; anywhere on the body will do (and, in fact, a wooden stake isn’t necessary; any sharp object will do). The reason that a stake kills the vampire is that the stake lets air into the body “and keeps the flesh open so that the body glue can’t function.” In spite of the knowledge he’s accumulated, Neville says, he still doesn’t know how to cure the vampire plague—he’s experimented with antibiotics, but nothing works.
Neville has amassed a lot of knowledge about vampires, but he’s been unable to determine how to cure the disease. Indeed, Neville’s vampire research has only made him more adept at killing vampires in their sleep, so that, from a vampire’s perspective, he’s just become a more efficiently murderous monster.
Themes
Otherness Theme Icon
Grief, Loneliness, and Depression Theme Icon
Survival and Violence Theme Icon
Science Theme Icon
Ruth then asks Neville a question: if, as he says, some of the vampires are still living, how can Neville know “they’re not going to stay alive?” Neville, feeling vaguely defensive, insists that the only way to protect himself is to kill vampires before they kill him. Neville is amazed by Ruth’s question—in three years, he’s never once considered that it’s wrong for him to attack the vampires during the day. Neville asks Ruth, “do you think I’m wrong?” and Ruth replies, “It’s not for me to say.”
Neville is so used to being the last man left on Earth that he’s genuinely surprised when anyone questions whether he’s doing the right thing. However, Neville doesn’t seem to be trying to cure the vampires anymore—recognizing that antibiotics aren’t working, he’s just continued to kill the vampires in their sleep. Ruth’s question suggests that she thinks that what Neville is doing is morally wrong; however, she refuses to elaborate on her feelings.
Themes
Otherness Theme Icon
Grief, Loneliness, and Depression Theme Icon
Survival and Violence Theme Icon
Science Theme Icon