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Alienation, Apocalypse and the Postmodern Condition in "I am Legend" by Richard Matheson

©2015 Hausarbeit 16 Seiten


The work that will be focused on the novel “I Am Legend“ by Richard Matheson brings together the idea of the last living human on earth and the myth of vampires. The author shows the theories of the novel that are hidden between the lines. These theories are on the one hand easy to find and very obvious but on the other hand they have to be decoded word by word. To be more specific, I will try to show that the condition of alienation is one of the main topics in Matheson’s writing. Moreover, I will show some postmodern aspect of the novel and why it is so fascinating to read apocalyptic writings. The novel may be written in 1954 and set in the late 1970s but it can be a model for current interpretations of the apocalypse since apocalyptic writings make sense of bad things and are coping with situations in which people feel helpless.


Table on contents

1. Introduction
1.1 Richard Matheson

2. A short version of I Am Legend

3. Alienation, Postmodernism and the apocalypse
3.1 The Apocalypse
3.2 The postmodern condition and the apocalypse
3.3 Alienation

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Apocalyptic or post-apocalypstic science fiction is a very prominent genre these days. But it is not a 21st century genre. Novels that contructed the end of the world and what could happen after the world breaks down can even be found in the bible. For example the story of Noah and his Ark. To stick with a more modern way of literature the first apocalyptic writing was given to us by Mary Shelley. Her work The Last Man may be from 1826 but the story is used untill today. A group trying to survive in a plague-infected world. The main idea never changed. The only thing that changed ist he imagination of the writers and their readers. Undead creatures have permeated the popular cultural consciousness for many years. Considering the amount of media created around the undead – and therefore around the vampire – and the sustained interest in ist role in the society, it is clearly to see that this phenomenon is underway. It is important for us to question this phenomenon in order to gain some understanding of how and why its appeal has stretched so far.

Since apocalyptic literature belongs to the gothic literature many characteristics can be combined. The work that will be focused on in this essay, Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend 1 , brings together the idea of the last living human on earth and the myth of vampires. Theorists, critics and scientists of the current popular culture focus especially on zombie-, vampire-, paranormal- and apocalyptic literature (and other media). They try to show the philosophy behind those works and which theories of social science cand be seen in those artificial works.

This term paper tries to understand the science fiction novel I Am Legend and to show the theories that are hidden between the lines. These theories are on the one hand easy to find and very obvious but on the other hand they have to be decoded word by word. To be more specific, I will try to show that the condition of alienation is one of the main topics in Matheson’s writing. Moreover I will show some postmodern aspect of the novel and why it is so fascinating to read apocalyptic writings. The novel may be written in 1954 and set in the late 1970s but it can be a model for current interpretations of the apocalypse since apocalyptic writings make sense of bad things and are coping with situations in which people feel helpless2.

1.1 Richard Matheson

The author of I Am Legend, Richard Matheson, was born in 1929 in New Jersey. After graduating in journalism he started writing horror stories around 1950. I Am Legend is his best known work which has also been adapted for major motion pictures four times. Next to several novels and short stories Matheson wrote many screenplays. He even wrote screenplays for his own stories. He said about himself that he wrote about real people, real circumstances and real neighborhoods. They were just about normal people who had something bizarre happening to them in the neighborhood3. In June 2013 Richard Matheson died in California.

2. A short version of I Am Legend

Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend blends science fiction and horror into a pulp classic. When I Am Legend opens in January 1976, it is daytime. Robert Neville is checking his house in Los Angeles to make sure that it is ready for nightfall because that is the time when the vampires attack. He mends broken or vulnerable sections of the house and harvests garlic from his hothouse to use as a weapon against the vampires. Then he starts making stakes so he can kill them. That night they attack, which is a regular pattern. When he is not preparing for an attack or responding to one, Robert Neville is playing his music loud enough to drown out the sound of the massive crowd of vampires outside his walls, or drinking to deaden the pain of being the only living human in a world of vampires. Each day he has a regular routine of maintenance and vampire killing. As he gets supplies and gas, Neville occasionally sees things that remind him of how things were before the vampire plague. More often he spends his time and energy trying to stay alive, trying to figure out why the vampire plague works as it does and why wooden stakes work against them. Neville reviews the “literature” on vampires (such as the novel Dracula), assembling and reviewing a list of vampiric qualities that do or do not hold true. In his despair, Neville drinks heavily, sometimes getting drunk and at least once smashing a glass and cutting himself.

After a while, Neville begins more active testing of the vampires he finds inactive during the day. He drags them into the sun to see how and why sunlight affects them, and he takes one home to experiment on. However, as he is doing so, Neville realizes his watch has stopped, and he has to race home, hoping to beat the vampire mob to his house. He fights his way to his house and collapses inside.

After three years, Neville sees an apparently uninfected woman abroad in the daylight and captures her. Her name is Ruth. After some convincing, Ruth tells him her story of how she and her husband survived the vampire apocalypse. Neville is puzzled by the fact that she is upset when he speaks of killing vampires. He thinks that if her story of survival was true, she would have become hardened to the act. He attempts to test whether she is a vampire by exposing her to garlic, which causes her to recoil violently. At night Neville is startled awake and finds Ruth fully clothed at the front door of the house. Suspicious he questions her motives but relates the trauma of his past, whereupon they comfort each other. Ruth reluctantly allows him to take a blood sample but knocks him unconscious when the sample reveals that she is infected.

When he wakes, Neville discovers a note from Ruth confessing that she is actually infected and that Neville was responsible for her husband's death. Ruth admits that she was sent to spy on him. The infected have slowly overcome their disease until they can spend short periods of time in sunlight, and are attempting to build a new society. They have developed medication which helps them to overcome the most severe symptoms of the infection. Ruth warns Neville that her people will attempt to capture him, and that he should leave his house and escape to the mountains.

Neville cannot bring himself to leave his house, however, and assumes that he will be captured and treated fairly by the new society. Infected members of the new society eventually attack the house. During the attack, the members of the new society violently dispatch the other vampires outside the house, and Neville becomes alarmed at the grim enjoyment they appear to take from this task. Realising that the intention of the attackers may be to kill him rather than to capture him he tries to defend himself with a pistol, leading to one of the infected shooting and badly injuring him.

Neville wakes in a barred cell where he is visited by Ruth, who informs him that she is a ranking member of the new society but, unlike the others, does not resent him. Ruth attempts to present a facade of indifference to Neville, but is unable to maintain it during her discussion with him. After discussing the effects of Neville's vampire killing activities on the new society, she acknowledges the need for Neville's execution and gives him pills, claiming they will „make it easier"4. Badly injured, Neville accepts his fate and asks Ruth not to let this society become heartless. Ruth kisses him and leaves.

Neville goes to his prison window and sees the infected waiting for his execution. He now sees that the infected view him with the same hatred and fear that he once felt for the vampires. He realizes that he, a remnant of old humanity, is now a legend to the new race born of the infection. He recognises that their desire to kill him is not something he can condemn. As the pills take effect, he thinks: „[I am] a new superstition entering the unassailable fortress of forever. I am legend"5.

3. Alienation, Postmodernism and the apocalypse

3.1 The Apocalypse

Speculative fiction such as fantasy, science fiction and supernatural horror fiction characteristically proceeds from a radical „What if...“ premise. But what makes those writings so fascinating and catching are the things they have with the „real“ world in common. Those lines where bounds of fiction are blurred. Today the apocalypse is one oft he guiding fictions of our culture. The apocalypse has a rich way of transmuting ideas of disaster and the fear of disaster into meaningful fictions about an ordained structure and teleologically driven end6. I Am Legend offers a speculative account of what happens when basic human needs are suppressed. Matheson portays the struggles of a man completely cut off from other human beings and trapped in a severely threatening environment. In this way Matheson taps into an intuitive understanding of human nature to make his story believable and interesting. Those apocalyptic stories can be both a metaphor and a story, as well. Just as it is simultaneously a sense-making structure and a promise of hope given to a troubled humanity7.

Apocalyptic fiction and vampire fiction belong to the main genre of gothic literature. Gothic literature was highly influenced by the eighteenth century. A time that was wrecked by many contradictions and opposition in economic and culture. Out of this unhappiness oft he people the vampire figure was a creation oft he capitalism. Vampires embody the peoples’ fears, denials and contradictions. Especially Karl Marx linked the vampire tot he workings of capitalism8. Generally spoken, gothic literature can be seen as „The literature of alienation“9 since all four main categories of Karl Marx’s alienation concept10 are themes in gothic writings. Authors pick different symbols or characters in their works to express or to embody the different arguments philosophers, socialists or theorists have. In the case of I Am Legend, Richard Matheson chose the character oft he vampire to express the alienation from humanness. Vampires offer an imaginary transcendence to culturally-imposed limitaion on th body and the self11. The living vampires in I Am Legend are the ones who find a scientific solution to their problem. They find it in form of the pills:

„You may not believe that we can live with the germ now. That’s why I’m leaving one of my pills. I took them all the time I was here. I kept them in a belt around my waist. You’ll discover that they’re a combination of defebrinated blood and a drug. (...) The blood feeds the germ, the drug prevents ist multiplication. It was the discovery of this pill that saved us from dying, that is helping to set up society again slowly.“12

The pills transform the vampires into some sort of humans. Some sort of new posthuman existence. At the beginning Neville sees the vampires as „legend passed from century to century“13 but becomes the legend himself at the end14. Not realizing that the vampires are a real thing going on outside his house is another form of alienation to Neville. In the science of theology alienation is connected to faithlessness or disbelief. Alienation is overall as the faith in god is removed. „Wenn der Gottesglaube wegfällt, ist Entfremdung total“15. It was only after Neville started his research he realized that vampires had not been legends. Vampires were there in front of his house. He may looked for a scientific solution and he may found out that a germ was the origin of this apocalypse but after his investigation he accepted the legend. And became unwillingly a legend himself.

3.2 The postmodern condition and the apocalypse

As Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend was first published in 1954, the novel can be seen as a postmodern novel.

But what really is postmodernism or the postmodern condition? In easy words, postmodernism is an attempt to make sense of what is going on now. Postmodernism is the „thing“ that comes after modernism. The era of Picasso, Eliot and Joyce. The era of new styles and trends in the first half of the 20th century. Before the modern period there were the values of the 18th century, the age of enlightment, also known as the age of reason. The main value of that age – besides reason – would be the idea of progress. In the 18th century thinkers became optimistic that by using the universal values of science, reason and logic they could get rid of all the myths and holy ideas that kept humanity from progressing16. They felt this would eventually free humanity from misery, religion, superstition, all irrational behaviour and unfounded belief. Humanity would thus progress to a state of freedom, happiness and progess. Francis Bacon saw progress taking the form of a wise, ethical and science-minded elite who would be the guardians of knowledge and who – though living outside the community – would nevertheless influence it. Karl Marx also believed in progress and envisioned a Utopia. But Marx’s utopian vision was of a perfect world brought about by a materialist science17. Where Picasso, Eliot and Joyce sought to restore a deep new centre, a new sense of purpose, a new sense of design, form and depth, a new sense of primordinal origin in myth postmodernists often see no reason for a centre. Instead they favour a decentering. A play of chance, antiform and surface. Postmodernists often create, compose or paint entirely by chance18.

Jean-Francois Lyotard explained in his work The Postmodern Condition that narratives, popular stories, myths, legends or tales legitimize themselves just in the telling. They make themselves believable and at the same time they legitimize the society in which they are told. The teller of the tale does not have to argue or prove like a scientist. The narrator has authority to tell the story because he has heard it himself. Anyone listening gains the same authority only by listening. It is even claimed that the story has been told forever. The myth, the narrator, the audience, all form a kind of social bond. A social group that legitimizes itself through the telling of the story19. The goal of postmodernism would be to expose the meta-narratives within we unconsciously navigate. Postmodernism is intensively subjective, aggressively theoretical, skeptical of established ideas, of value judgements and norms, of traditional aesthetic models and of grand narratives.


1 Matheson, Richard: I Am Legend, 1954 (London 2009).

2 Rosen, Elizabeth K.: Apocalyptic Transformation. Apocalypse and the Postmodern Imagination, Lanham 2008, p. 125.

3 N.N.: Richard Matheson In: (access: 25.02.2015, 21:08h).

4 Matheson, Richard: I Am Legend, 1954 (London 2009), p. 158.

5 Ibid, p. 160.

6 Rosen, Apocalyptic Transformation, 2008, p. 125.

7 Ibid, p. 176.

8 Williamson, Milly: The Lure of the Vampire. Gender, Fiction and Fandom from Bram Stoker to Buffy, London 2005, p. 183.

9 Ibid, p. 183.

10 Geyer, R. Felix: Alienation Theories. A General Systems Approach, Oxford 1980, p. 98. The four main concepts of Karl Marx are Objectivation (the man as a world-producing being), Objectification (refers to the ways in which the man-produced world is seen and understood), Alienation („forgetting“; the process by which the unity oft he producing and the product is broken) and Reification (is viewed as the objectification in an alienated way).

11 Williamson: The Lure of the Vampire, 2005, p. 184.

12 Matheson, I Am Legend, p. 144-145.

13 Ibid, p. 17.

14 Elber-Aviram, Hadas: Constitutional Amnesia and Future Memory: Science Fiction’s Posthuman Vampire In: Simon Bacon and Katarzyna Brouk (eds.): Undead Memory. Vampires and Human Memory in Popular Culture, Oxford 2014, p. 116.

15 Zein, Huda: Entfremdung als Form der Vergesellschaftung, Freiburg 2006, p. 34.

16 Butler, Christopher: Postmodernism. A Very Short Introduction, Oxford 2002, p. 5-6.

17 Ibid, p. 123-127.

18 Butler, p. 16-18.

19 Lyotard, Jean-Francois: Memorandum über die Legitimität In: N.N.(ed.): Postmoderne und Dekonstruktion. Texte französischer Philosophen der Gegenwart, Stuttgart 2010, p. 54-70.


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ISBN (Buch)
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Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn
2021 (September)
Apocalypse science fiction fiction I am Legend Richard Matheson Alienation Postmodernism

Titel: Alienation, Apocalypse  and the Postmodern Condition in "I am Legend" by Richard Matheson