35 pages 1 hour read

Richard Matheson

I Am Legend

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1954

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Summary and Study Guide


I Am Legend by Richard Matheson was published in 1954. The novel depicts a post-apocalyptic world in which people infected with a contagious disease behave like vampires. The last human man, Robert Neville, must protect himself as he studies the scientific basis for the disease. I Am Legend discusses moral relativism, the evolution of the horror genre, and loneliness. It has been adapted several times, most recently as the 2007 film I Am Legend starring Will Smith.

This guide is based on the 1995 TOR paperback version.

Content Warning: I Am Legend depicts death by suicide. There are also mentions of suicidal ideation and sexual assault throughout the novel.

Plot Summary

In 1976, Robert Neville is the last human man on Earth. He has outfitted his house into a fortress to protect himself from the threat of the Undead—people infected with the vampiris bacteria who died and came back to life exhibiting vampiric behavior. Alongside the Undead are infected humans who have yet to die, who also behave like vampires. Neville’s despair and desperation for a female companion contribute to his alcoholism. It has been months since his wife, Virginia, died; his young daughter Kathy died shortly before her.

Neville lacks purpose and considers why he doesn’t die by suicide by letting the Undead drink his blood at night. During the day, Neville hunts the sleeping Undead in their houses and destroys them using wooden stakes. One day, after a drunken bender, Neville spends too long visiting the crypt that houses his wife’s coffin and does not return home before sunset. He forgot to lock his garage, so the Undead destroy his generator and other supplies; the Undead attack him. He manages to fight his way into the house, but the event disturbs his daily routine. For the next several weeks, Neville must repair the damage done to his house. Working distracts him from drinking, and he begins to think more clearly about his situation, realizing he knows nothing about the physical nature of the Undead nor how the original contagion spread. He resolves to study immunology, bacteriology, anatomy, and psychology. Neville drives to the Los Angeles library and takes the books he needs.

Neville acquires a microscope and begins experimenting on the Undead by bringing them out into the sunlight, injecting them with garlic’s essential oil, and forcing them to confront the cross. Through his studies, he discovers that the vampiris bacteria is responsible for the anatomical symptoms of the Undead and was rapidly spread through mosquitos and dust storms, caused by bombings from another country during an implied wartime. The image of the vampire had been so rampant in the media at the beginning of vampiris’s spread that Neville concludes the Undead and infected aren’t actually vampires. They expect themselves to be, and so create their own weaknesses to garlic, mirrors, crosses, and moving water.

One day, Neville finds a stray dog on his lawn. He becomes hopeful of capturing the dog as his pet. He believes that if a dog has managed to survive, then more humans must be out in the world. Neville spends weeks feeding the dog on his front porch and trying to win his loyalty, until the latter becomes infected with vampiris. He takes the sick dog into his house and nurses him until the latter’s death a week later.

Neville studies the Undead for the next two years, keeping to his house and settling into a routine. He no longer thinks about the past as it causes him to drink; he is fully committed to the present. While out one day, Neville spots a young woman, Ruth. He chases her, then brings her to his house. He is worried that she is infected, but the hope of having a companion is too strong to resist. Over dinner, Neville reveals everything he’s discovered about the nature of the Undead and infected. Ruth vaguely explains her past, as well as the recent death of her husband and children, but much of her story doesn’t add up. Though Neville is suspicious of her, he promises to help her if he can. He takes a sample of her blood to check for infection. Ruth hits him over the head until he is unconscious, then escapes.

The next morning, Neville finds a note from Ruth explaining that she was sent as a spy from a group of evolved infected who plan to establish a new society. She implores him to leave the house before they come for him. However, Neville can’t bring himself to leave the house. When the infected come to capture him, they massacre the Undead of Los Angeles. Neville fights the infected but ends up imprisoned. Ruth provides him with suicide pills to take before his public execution. Neville does so, realizing that his life and death will pass into legend for the new society of infected.