Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend is a science fiction adventure and a terrifying horror story. But unlike most works of horror, I Am Legend is not a black-and-white tale of “us versus them”; in other words, a story in which a hero fights off a monstrous villain. Matheson’s novel is set in a futuristic version of Los Angeles, in which Robert Neville, the last man left on Earth, fights against a terrifying race of vampires. However, the book does not simply glorify Neville and demonize the vampires. Instead, Matheson uses Neville’s interactions with the vampires to study the concept of “otherness”—the way that one group interacts with and conceives of a radically different group. As I Am Legend goes on, it becomes clearer and clearer that there are no real heroes or villains in the book: just two groups (humans and vampires), each of which fears, and is equally alien to, the “Other.”
One of Matheson’s most important points about otherness is that the Other is both repulsive and attractive. In the year 1976, Robert Neville navigates the city of Los Angeles, looking for sleeping vampires to kill with a wooden stake. He’s terrified of vampires, and for good reason: Every night, they gather outside his house and yell for him to come outside (presumably so that they can bite him and infect him with their vampire plague). But although Neville despises vampires and considers them a threat to his very existence, he’s curiously drawn to them. He spends all his time learning about vampires, feels sexually attracted to female vampires, and repeatedly expresses sympathy for them. In part, Neville’s feelings of attraction for the vampires stem from his loneliness and sexual frustration. But at the same time, he seems to feel a profound sense of connection between himself and the vampires: they are, after all, just human beings who’ve contracted a disease. By portraying the Other—the race of vampires—as both terrifying and sympathetic, Matheson complicates the typical horror novel scenario. Instead of a heroic human being fighting off demonic vampires, Matheson portrays a morally ambiguous human being fighting against morally ambiguous vampires. (See Survival and morality theme.) Neville hates vampires, and thinks of them as being totally “Other” than himself; however, he also seems to realize, deep down, that humans and vampires aren’t so different.
At the end of I Am Legend, Matheson brings the concept of Otherness “full circle” by showing that Neville is just as “Other” to the vampires as they are to him. After being captured by a race of intelligent vampires, Neville is sent to be executed for his “crimes” against their race. As he marches to his death, Neville realizes that, from the perspective of the vampires, he is a monster. Just like a vampire, he’s snuck into his enemies’ homes and killed them in their sleep. Neville’s realization leads him to utter the book’s final line, and title: “I am legend”—the suggestion being that, to the vampires, Neville is a terrifying, supernatural creature who needs to be destroyed before he can kill again. In short, at the end of the book, Neville finally sees through the eyes of the Other—he sees the world from a vampire’s perspective, and comes to understand that he, too, is a foreign, alien being. Over the years, various scholars and critics have interpreted I Am Legend as a metaphor for the experience of homosexuals, African Americans, or immigrants. Indeed, the vampires in Matheson’s novel could represent any and all minority groups that have been demonized and treated as the “Other” in the United States. While it’s all-too easy to portray an unfamiliar group as foreign, frightening, and unknowable, Matheson’s novel shows that Others may be just as frightened of “us” (whatever that might mean) as we are of them—and that, in fact, the distinction between “us” and “them” may be less important than what “we” have in common.
Otherness Quotes in I Am Legend
With a stiffening of rage, he wrenched up the record and snapped it over his right knee. He'd meant to break it long ago. He walked on rigid legs to the kitchen and flung the pieces into the trash box. Then he stood in the dark kitchen, eyes tightly shut, teeth clenched, hands clamped over his ears. Leave me alone, leave me alone, leave me alone!
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.
At one time, the Dark and Middle Ages, to be succinct, the vampire's power was great, the fear of him tremendous. He was anathema and still remains anathema. Society hates him without ration.
But are his needs any more shocking than the needs of other animals and men? Are his deeds more outrageous than the deeds of the parent who drained the spirit from his child? The vampire may foster quickened heartbeats and levitated hair. But is he worse than the parent who gave to society a neurotic child who became a politician?
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.
Oliver Hardy always coming back for more, no matter what happened. Ripped by bullets, punctured by knives, flattened by cars, smashed under collapsing chimneys and boats, submerged in water, flung through pipes. And always returning, patient and bruised. That was who Ben Cortman was—a hideously malignant Oliver Hardy buffeted and long-suffering.
My God, it was hilarious!
He couldn't stop laughing because it was more than laughter; it was release.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
He didn't know how long it was they sat there holding each other close. He forgot everything, time and place; it was just the two of them together, needing each other, survivors of a black terror embracing because they had found each other.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
"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.
A coughing chuckle filled his throat. He turned and leaned against the wall while he swallowed the pills. Full circle, he thought while the final lethargy crept into his limbs. Full circle. A new terror born in death, a new superstition entering the unassailable fortress of forever.
I am legend.