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.
Survival and Violence ThemeTracker
Survival and Violence Quotes in I Am Legend
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.
He thought of the eleven—no, the twelve children that afternoon, and he finished his drink in two swallows.
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.
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.
He couldn't even scream. He just stood rooted to the spot, staring dumbly at Virginia.
"Rob...ert," she said.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.