I Am Legend

In my reading of I Am Legend by Richard Matheson, I appreciated the story as one well crafted with an unreliable narrator in Robert Neville. By Neville’s own admission, he was crazy, driven insane by the isolation he imposed on himself as protection from the vampires that hunted him. Because he obviously lost it, I didn’t completely believe many of the things he told us, specifically when he said that scientists had not been able to figure out the cause for the spread of the vampirism. What I did believe was that he believed that, and it was enough for me to go with the rest of the story.

The thing is, Neville in the story is a lot like a writer who writes in total isolation and uses that protective stance to keep him or herself out of the writing world. He never reads or interacts with other writers in any way. This writer will slave over what she is convinced is The Best Book Ever, EVER, with the most original ideas known to mankind and even animal kind, and she’ll make money hand over fist because no one has ever seen anything like her book before. His simple isolation is his downfall, because he has no idea what is going on in the rest of the writing world, what is being published, who is writing the stories. For all she knows, this story has been told millions of times. And then spawned a million more retellings.

Neville has no idea what the scientists were able to find out because he never ventures much further than his own neighborhood. For all he knows, the vampires of the new society could have been the scientists in the old world, or even been created in a laboratory. Just because it took him years to decide to study doesn’t mean that no studying had been done.

This is made most obvious when Ruth comes into his life. He hasn’t lost his instincts, which told him that something was not quite right about her when he first sees her. But his need for companionship dulls that sharpness so that she can get inside his home and his head. I thought it was pretty noble of Ruth to allow him a chance to escape, even though I figured Neville wouldn’t take it. He was still blinded by the trappings of his isolation and his belief that he was the only thinking being left on earth.

The story was also an interesting example of the creation of a monster. When we first meet Neville, he is a person a lot like we would probably imagine ourselves to be, a survivor. He continues to survive by his wits and his ability to separate his emotions from the tasks he knows he has to perform to stay alive. But we view him through our human lenses. If we looked at him through the eyes of the dominant culture in his new world, we would have seen him quite differently. He was a renegade who went about killing citizens indiscriminately to ensure his own survival. He has gone from determining who and what is “other” and disposing of them to being The Other that now has to be disposed of.


About rjjoseph

I am a Texas based writer who must produce words to exorcise the voices that will never quiet until I give them their due.
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10 Responses to I Am Legend

  1. Cody L. says:

    I love your take on the unreliable narrator. It never really occurred to me to look at it from that angle; however, once you brought that up, it raises a lot of questions. We only see things from Neville’s perspective and for all we know, it could be lies. I believe your take has given me a whole new perspective. Great work.

    • rjjoseph says:

      I don’t know that he intended to mislead the readers, but all he could tell us was all he knew. And all he knew was all he could take in in his short trips from the house. Yes, being conservative saved his life for a certain amount of time, but that same conservate nature resulted in his being found out before he could put all the puzzle pieces together. Poor Neville!

  2. Jenn Loring says:

    That’s such an interesting point you make about the unreliable narrator. Neville clearly was teetering on the edge of sanity, and humans, being social animals, can’t remain isolated for long without losing their minds. You said, “For all he knows, the vampires of the new society could have been the scientists in the old world, or even been created in a laboratory,” and it would make a lot of sense, wouldn’t it? They developed that pill, after all.

    • rjjoseph says:

      I really wondered how much he didn’t know, Jenn. I realize there’s no way to know absolutely everything, but as I read, all I kept thinking was, “But what do you not know, Neville? What else is there to your discoveries?” I was sad for his conclusion, but satisfied that there was a whole world of unknowns that were working against him. That situation seemed way more realistic to me than his being able to figure out things that an entire world of people was unable to even get close to.

  3. While “Bobby” was leaning on the edge of sanity, I do not believe he was unreliable in any way. He didn’t venture out further because he couldn’t. It wasn’t safe. He took care of his house, kept to routines that had worked and tried to stay alive. What he saw was his world, not a skewed version of it. So, while I think the idea’s interesting, I do not feel he’s unreliable at all.

    • rjjoseph says:

      Neville’s routines did indeed save his life, and I think he truly believed that all he saw was all there was to the world. Unfortunately for him, there was more going on than he was able to see, experience and combat.

  4. nrgalloway24 says:

    I also appreciated your observation of Neville as an unreliable narrator. I agree that his isolation was self-inflicted,but I disagree with the idea that isolation is a bad thing, I think all writers should try to find balance between socialization and isolation.
    For those of you who do not know, I suffer from Asberger’s Syndrome (which is a form of autism without developmental abilities) As a result, It was easy to connect with Neville’s agoraphobia and constant fear. Like Neville, I am afraid to leave my house at times. For me, the world is a terrifying place and simple conversation is extremely difficult. I think this unique perspective adds to my writing, since I understand first-hand he fear of everyday things. I also experience and interpret the world in a unique way. I Reading and writing are the only activities which don not causes anxiety. Sometimes, I have to isolate myself as a way to deal with the overwhelming world and my symptoms. I need a break from that constant fear. Neville dealt with that overload by turning to alcohol and attempting to understand what was happening through research. I, too, use research as a way to escape. Reading helps me understand and adapt to the world. Much like a person has to do in a post-apocryphal environment. That said, it’s important for there to be a balance between socialization and isolation. I am inspired by observing the interactions of every day people, but I need the isolation to foster my creativity. When I am alone and unhindered by anxiety, I am feel free to be myself and experiment. In conclusion, I need socialization and life experience to foster inspiration and isolation to creatively express it. I hope that makes sense.

    • rjjoseph says:

      You make perfect sense, Nicole. I was poking fun at the writers who refuse to acknowledge that there must be some type of balance between the isolation and the immersion of oneself into the world in which they want to work successfully. By no means was I saying that isolation in itself is a bad thing. We met when we both were hiding out during residency, seeking that isolation, for different reasons. Certainly time alone is necessary and sometimes even life saving, especially for Robert Neville.

  5. Jeff Brooks says:

    I’ll go ahead and mimic those before me and say that I really like you emphasis on how unreliable of a narrator Neville is. Especially in regards to him discovering that vampirism was simply a germ. That section of the story was a real stretch for me, simply because he had no science background and he learned something that nobody else in the world had. But because Neville is our narrator, we really have no idea what the rest of the world knew. There were probably a slew of scientists or government officials who knew what was going on. That doesn’t mean Neville had to know, or that the public had to know. I still wish Neville had questioned why nobody else had discovered the germ, even if he came to the conclusion that they probably had, but kept it a secret. That would have dealt with the problem. But then again, would Neville have even thought to ask himself that?

    • rjjoseph says:

      I don’t think Neville would have thought to ask himself that, Jeff, and that’s a great point you bring up. He was doing all he could to simply survive, and if it was a government cover up or the like, Neville nor the rest of the public may not have known.

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