~ an essay on the 1954 novel I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson
The Last Man
In Friedrich Nietzsche’s self-proclaimed magnum opus, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1885), he idealizes the Übermensch. The thinker sets his sights on the philosophical underpinnings to a better model of human behavior and being, his hope for what the species may become in the future given action, creativity, and time. Man as SuperMan; Man as a bridge to something greater, and not an end. The concept is dense, perhaps naively aspirational, and by wayward interpretation happens to be the foundation for the the ideas of a ‘master race’ within the Nazi regime in the 20th century. By Nietzsche’s theorization, the Übermensch is amoral, beyond the religious conceptions of ‘good’ and ‘evil’, and is instead focused on love and creation via artistry; the Übermensch is wise, but forceful and ruthless concerning their desires and ambitions, more than willing to take risks or defy convention to achieve them; an Übermensch is strong, like a warrior, but also graceful, like a dancer. With God declared as dead — and all of His other-worldly promises of spiritual meaning-making and an afterlife destroyed into modernity — the Übermensch is the replacement. The independently pursuable, and personally realizable, paragon for humanity’s new worldly spiritual life.
“Man is something that shall be overcome…. Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman — a rope over an abyss… What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end.”
The most careful ask to-day: “How is man to be maintained?” Zarathustra however asketh, as the first and only one: “How is man to be SURPASSED?”
~ Friedrich Nietzsche
As a kind of mortal-made-god, the Übermensch is difficult for us to understand, let alone relate to. In modern life, with all of our reality-based self-doubts and conflicts, He may forever be a distant goal for our society (…or something to be avoided entirely given the worst kinds of interpretations). The Übermensch’s antithesis, however, in the form of ‘The Last Man’ — which Nietzsche also takes the time to expound upon in TSZ — can be better understood and analyzed, for we see examples of it in the people we know and observe, in fact or fiction. The last man is not only “the bad man,” he is the worthless one. In sum, ‘the last man is the archetypal nihilist, only able to destroy, unable to build and act upon a self-actualized ethos.’ The last man, Nietzsche predicted, would be one response to the problem of nihilism, more relentlessly brought about in the increasingly secular modern age.
‘The last man is only possible by mankind having bred an apathetic person or society who loses the ability to dream, to strive, and who become unwilling to take risks, instead simply earning their living and keeping warm. The society of the last man is antithetical to Nietzsche’s theoretical will to power, the main driving force and ambition behind human nature, according to Nietzsche, as well as all other life in the universe.’
In Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel, I Am Legend, much of the struggle of the principal character — Robert Neville — deals upon this conceptual ground. It is one of the most important progenitors of the apocalyptic fiction we see so much of in the 21st century — in which survivors persist in the new world, post-apocalypse, fighting monsters, each other, their own existential anomie… (also shout out to Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826)). However, in this tale, there is only one survivor, an omega Man, a last man. In I Am Legend, a mysterious plague has seemingly wiped out humanity, turning the remainder into primal nocturnal beings resembling vampires, instinctively prowling the metropolitan wastes for blood. The lone surviving human being in Neville stakes out humanity’s final stronghold within this setting, battling vampires by night and searching for answers by day; the strife of ‘the last man’ is literalized into being as this conflicted man tries to continue to live in this dark new world. Harboring an existence relative to no Others, suffering alone in a sea of monsters, the specter of nihilism is the natural outgrowth of the experience. More than the creatures of the night he barricades himself against, Robert Neville’s truer enemy is this newfound realm of nothingness, and his own apathy in the wake of it.
After his wife and child die at the start of the plague’s spread, the middle-aged Neville immediately enters into a deathless state where he doesn’t care what happens to him any longer. Nothing matters anymore, his life is meaningless (“What was he going to do? Choices seemed pointless now. What did it matter what he did? Life would be equally purposeless no matter what his decision was.”) Yet, he goes on. A proficient survivalist, he fashions his suburban home into a fortress of crosses, mirrors, garlic, and gunfire, and is able to scavenge enough tangible resources to survive. And for a long time, that’s just about all he does. Increasingly despondent and self-destructive, he becomes more reckless in his rangings, more mired in the past, more drunkenly unconscious and indifferent to the present.
“The silence of the library was complete save for the thudding of his shoes as he walked along the second-floor hallway. Outside, there were birds sometimes and, even lacking that, there seemed to be a sort of sound outside. Inexplicable, perhaps, but it never seemed as deathly still in the open as it did inside. a building. Especially here in this giant, gray-stoned building that housed the literature of a world’s dead. Probably it was being surrounded by walls, he thought, something purely psychological. But knowing that didn’t make it any easier. There were no psychiatrists left to murmur of groundless neuroses and auditory hallucinations. The last man in the world was irretrievably stuck with his delusions.”
“As he left the Science Room, he looked up at the clock over the door. The red hands had stopped at four-twenty-seven. He wondered what day they had stopped. As he descended the stairs with his armful of books, he wondered at just what moment the clock had stopped. Had it been morning or night? Was it raining or shining? Was anyone there when it stopped? He twisted his shoulders irritably. For God’s sake, what’s the difference? he asked himself. He was getting disgusted at this increasing nostalgic preoccupation with the past. It was a weakness, he knew, a weakness he could scarcely afford if he intended to go on. And yet he kept discovering himself drifting into extensive meditation on aspects of the past. It was almost more than he could control, and it was making him furious with himself.”
For one living out their days at the fixed endpoint of history, they perhaps necessarily must become obsessed with the past. The past, where all of the meaningful action was, where there was still time for things to change, for personal actions to produce a different world than the present. In an apocalypse, all that has past is dredged more easily, with the utmost clarity, and is undoubtedly laced with regret. Imprisoned in his own personal age of anxiety, Neville cannot escape himself, and nor can he escape the amaranthine dangers around him. This last man, surrounded by predators of an endless night, isolated and unable to travel far, incapable of meeting any of the potential last vestiges of humanity, living without passion, purpose, love… why does he persist? Why not end it all, end this journey to nowhere, accept the inevitability of fate? Why not just die and tie off the struggle with nihilism and nothingness? Why? For a long time, even as he refuses to end it, Neville doesn’t have an answer. The peace of death might make sense to him, it might be better rationally — but instinctively, he cannot commit suicide so easily. The unconscious drive to survive supersedes the conscious drive unto death. Like Nietzsche’s last man, he is tired of life but unable to quit it, going on without passion or purpose, self-hating and self-destructive. In an apocalyptic setting, of course, it is also understandable because it is unprecedented. How can we judge?
“A man could get used to anything if he had to.”
We may be able to survive alone, but we, as human beings, absolutely need Others to live well and for the long-term. And over the course of the observable life of this last man, we see Neville’s journey to try and expel his own nihilism, and provide answers to the restless loneliness within him. Three chronological sagas within the novel — the problem, the dog, the woman — exemplify Neville’s arc at the end of the world. They are the progressions of his trying answers to the existential level of loneliness he experiences.
As Neville proclaims, the last man ‘can get used to anything’ — any suffering, any tedium, any bloodshed — by necessity. Being ‘used to life’ is the signature of the last man. But this kind of life is a bare minimum, unfulfilled and without meaning. To create meaning anew for his existence, Neville turns to science, and to a problem in the form of a question. His detrimental fixation upon the past, in fact, ends up driving him to the source question at the heart of his present world: what caused this? How did this happen? A virus, a germ, a curse? Why do they exhibit the characteristics of the mythological ‘vampire’? In trying to answer these questions, Neville is faced with theoretically solvable problems in the form of research projects into human biology and bacteriology. These episodes serve to slice the components of his endless alone time into manageable and even satisfying moments of steady discovery. Intellectual pursuits tranquilize his mind. They create an avenue for the mind to go down. A mind in solitude, in need of a problem to grasp with a potential, achievable solution, Neville finds it in the form of trying to answer these culminating questions at the bottom of the most momentous event in human history — what caused the apocalypse? The last of humanity not knowing this makes an insufferable circumstance even worse; finding out the truth offers solace amidst the flames. Simply, to know more about the terrible thing makes it less terrible.
“Time had lost its multidimensional scope. There was only the present for Robert Neville; a present based on day-to-day survival, marked by neither heights of joy nor depths of despair. I am predominantly vegetable, he often thought to himself. That was the way he wanted it.”
And so, we discover one salve for the last man is the possibility of progress — the discoverability of answers & explanations to his condition. To have a horizon to look to with any quantum of promise at all… a final salvation for his soul. As he does these experiments, shedding a meager light upon the darkness of the world around him, Neville’s strange, melancholy loner existence is imbued suddenly with meaning, providing for him the fuel to live, and to continue the work of survival with more novelty than ever before.
However, the half life of interesting problems lasts only as long as they remain interesting, their means progressible, their ends sanguine.
The last man can spend all day keeping himself busy, productive, doing real work, all the while never solving the real problem at the heart of his existence — the lack of others.
“All the knowledge in those books couldn’t put out the fires in him; all the words of centuries couldn’t end the wordless, mindless craving of his flesh.”
All of the gratification and progression of his work upon the problem of the vampire instantly pales in comparison to the powerful passages detailing the saga of a living dog — a real, flesh and blood potential companion — appearing in the vicinity of his house midway through the tale:
“To his complete astonishment, he later found himself offering up a stumbling prayer that the dog would be protected. It was a moment in which he felt a desperate need to believe in a God that shepherded his own creations. But, even praying, he felt a twinge of self-reproach, and knew he might start mocking his own prayer at any second. Somehow, though, he managed to ignore his iconoclastic self and went on praying anyway. Because he wanted the dog, because he needed the dog.”
“At last he stumbled home, his face a mask of hopeless dejection. To come across a living being, after all this time to find a companion, and then to lose it. Even if it was only a dog. Only a dog? To Robert Neville that dog was the peak of a planet’s evolution.”
“But it was hard to keep his hands still. He could almost feel them twitching empathically with his strong desire to reach out and stroke the dog’s head. He had such a terrible yearning to love something again, and the dog was such a beautifully ugly dog.”
Oh, my God, the thought came then, what if it comes back tonight for the meat and they kill it? What if he went out the next morning and found the dog’s body on the lawn and knew that he was responsible for its death? I couldn’t take that, he thought miserably. I’ll blow out my brains if that happens, I swear I will.
The thought dredged up again the endless enigma of why he went on. All right, there were a few possibilities for experiment now, but life was still a barren, cheerless trial. Despite everything he had or might have (except, of course, another human being), life gave no promise of improvement or even of change. The way things shaped up, he would live out his life with no more than he already had. And how many years was that? Thirty, maybe forty if he didn’t drink himself to death. 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. He wasn’t resigned to anything, he hadn’t accepted or adjusted to the life he’d been forced into. Yet here he was, eight months after the plague’s last victim, nine since he’d spoken to another human being, ten since Virginia had died. Here he was with no future and a virtually hopeless present. Still plodding on.
Instinct? Or was he just stupid? Too unimaginative to destroy himself? Why hadn’t he done it in the beginning, when he was in the very depths? What had impelled him to enclose the house, install a freezer, a generator, an electric stove, a water tank, build a hothouse, a workbench, burn down the houses on each side of his, collect records and books and mountains of canned supplies, even — it was fantastic when you thought about it — even put a fancy mural on the wall?
Was the life force something more than words, a tangible, mind-controlling potency? Was nature somehow, in him, maintaining its spark against its own encroachments? He closed his eyes. Why think, why reason? There was no answer. His continuance was an accident and an attendant bovinity. He was just too dumb to end it all, and that was about the size of it.
“Burying the dog had not been the agony he had supposed it would be. In a way, it was almost like burying threadbare hopes and false excitements. From that day on he learned to accept the dungeon he existed in, neither seeking to escape with sudden derring-do nor beating his pate bloody on its walls. And, thus resigned, he returned to work.”
“He suddenly realized that he had become an ill-tempered and inveterate bachelor again. He no longer thought about his wife, his child, his past life. The present was enough. And he was afraid of the possible demand that he make sacrifices and accept responsibility again. He was afraid of giving out his heart, of removing the chains he had forged around it to keep emotion prisoner. He was afraid of loving again.”
The vulnerability of the mere possibility of being able to love something again nearly crushes Neville. In his hard-won journey away from nihilism, it is an instant and devastating setback. The hope of the dog’s life alongside him, the brief time they spend together, and the dog’s inevitable death, strikes him back into the depths of an apathetic deathlessness.
At the final stage of his journey, at the very end of his rope, Neville finally encounters another human being. A woman. A living, breathing human woman, apparently uninfected. A true opportunity for companionship. And yet, he cannot accept her presence. It’s too unbelievable, she must be a deception. A mirage, or worse — an agent of the vampires. His routines upset, a tinge of reactionary paranoia driving his decisions from then on, for better or worse, the intervention of the woman into his life ends his role as ‘the last man.’ Out of the fear and dread and finally hope of loving once more, Robert Neville takes risks anew, he invites her in, speaks to her, listens to her, elaborates his discoveries and his journey, interrogates her presence to the utmost, ultimately trusting her, wishing to help her, wanting to live with her.
And though none of it goes according to plan, Robert Neville’s final acts in this final saga step him away from the last, and closer to the Über. Why? Because they are borne of passion for humanity, and not mere knowledge or distraction; he resolves to act finally not for his own or ‘goodness’ sake, but beyond them, for love.
Myth Swallows Science
One of the worldly themes of I Am Legend is the conflict between mythology and science. In a microcosm play of the progression of human history, Robert Neville begins his omega man existence unable to defy the supernatural circumstances of a world consumed by blood-sucking vampires. This fearful confusion initially shapes his worldview.
“The immortal creatures of night, having leapt from our fictions into our reality, defeated us because we no longer believed in them!”
Thusly, the vampire killed the unbelieving, nihilistic world, circling our own self-fulfilled prophecy of self-destruction. Only slowly, painstakingly, through the steady application of the scientific method, does Neville come to dispel these final myths. Extraordinary yet simple scientific discoveries compel him toward an understanding of their emergence in the world, slicing through their apparent supernaturalism.
Not vampires, but a germ | Not the rapturous apocalypse, just the end of one species and the rise of another…
But, as the fables of The Last Man go, it is all discovery coming too late to do anyone any good beyond his own peace of mind.
“He stood there for a moment looking around the silent room, shaking his head slowly. All these books, he thought, the residue of a planet’s intellect, the scrapings of futile minds, the leftovers, the potpourri of artifacts that had no power to save men from perishing.”
“World’s gone to hell. No germs, no science. World’s fallen to the supernatural, it’s a supernatural world.”
“THE STRENGTH OF THE vampire is that no one will believe in him.”~ Dr. Van Helsing / Thank you, Dr. Van Helsing, he thought, putting down his copy Of “Dracula.” He sat staring moodily at the bookcase, listening to Brahms’ second piano concerto, a whisky sour in his right hand, a cigarette between his lips. It was true. The book was a hodgepodge of superstitions and soap-opera clichés, but that line was true; no one had believed in them, and how could they fight something they didn’t even believe in?
Throughout history, often it is our myths ultimately trumping our sciences, our emotions and despairs overtaking our rationality and our aspirations. One could argue this is because of our instincts, our psychology, our fears.
Our most powerful myths, in the form of beliefs about this world (politics & morality) and the potentiality of the next (religion & spirituality), forge worldviews within humanity. Worldviews create reality for an individual, and as a collective, they build the world we come to reside in in the form of social bonds and norms, systems and structures. Materially, our most widespread political, economic and social systems rely upon historical, reality-based evidence and economics, as objectively presented to the people as a human being can hope to communicate. But even so, these systems — oligarchy or democracy, capitalism or socialism, individualism or collectivism — are all mythic in the sense that they ultimately rely upon an underlying belief within their constituents about what is good in this world, and about what people will be motivated to do within their reign. Theories about human relationships to freedom, responsibility, cooperation, power, control — and how they may be combined to create the most well-being for a society (or the most wealth…) — dominate the conversations of these systems and structures and their development throughout history.
Immaterial, or spiritual, myths such as those concerning Gods, messiahs, the afterlife, the soul — they are wholly consumed by faith-based beliefs that exist without the kind of evidence we mortals are used to. And throughout history, throughout the life of a single individual, it is these immaterial myths that have stronger, more long-lasting foundations. Spirituality deals in a higher Truth, the kind that cannot be verified with facts and reason.
Why is that? Myths, legends, and religions comes to swallow science, economics, and ‘reason’ because of our psychology and our instincts. I would argue our myths create a more cogent reality than our science will ever be able to, because they are more psychologically compelling, more understandable than the mysteries of the cosmos — and more hopeful. They are about us, they center around us, and feature us as integral. After all, we create our myths. In some way, we design and affirm our own beliefs. Science, on the other hand, is a discovery of what is already there, filtered through our subjective interpretations and comprehensions as best we can manage. Science, physics, the great unknowns and the limitations of our bodies and the spaces around us are intractable, suffused with many potentially unanswerable questions; worse, their answers may have nothing to do with us or our little hopes and dreams at all. However, our soul and our beliefs about what lies beyond this cosmos, how and why it originated, what might happen once we shed this mortal coil — these mythic concerns are amenable to our hopes and dreams. And they are impossibly larger than our material, mortal existence.
“Robert.” Her voice was as broken and lost as his. “Why were we punished like this?” she asked. / He drew in a shuddering breath. “I don’t know,” he answered bitterly. “There’s no answer, no reason. It just is.”
An apocalypse without a reason is worse than hell. For a human being, having to face the darkness of night without an understanding of what brings on that tenebrous curtain across the sky, is a continuous and inescapable existential terror. At least in hell, given a knowledge of its myth and memories of your past, you know why you are there. The ancient man responded to this kind of problem by painting his own psychological map onto the stars, in the form of myths, monsters, and gods. The modern man does much the same in the form of religions and conspiracy theories… We must seek answers, answers, answers. And it is no mistake these answers usually draw upon mythologized beliefs in higher powers.
For Neville, in a world of nameless monsters, unclassifiable outside of their passe resemblance to one of humanity’s most melodramatic and ridiculous myths, he similarly seeks such answers.
Through his scientific work, in readings and experimentation, Robert Neville comes to dispel the supernatural tenor of this dark new world. The ‘vampires’ are obsessed with blood because their condition is due to a bacteria in their blood, which is capable of controlling their bodies after death — and not from an immortal curse or supervirus from medieval antiquity; the living vamps fear the sight of their own reflection and of crucifixes for purely psychological reasons, the horror of their changed form and the mythic memory of their former religion’s totem brings terrifying realization within their fraying, psychotic minds; the dead vamps are killed with a stake because of their decrepitude and due to a lack of air within their bodies; neither can live in the sunlight because it destroys their cells filled with the controlling bacteria, though, unlike a virus and like a human being, the bacterial core of their new existence allows for them to mutate and change and eventually evolve past such limitations.
All of the terrifying, supernatural mythology of his foe drains away at these revelations, as well as any hopes for a simple solution to their reign. Science reveals, but it does not save. They are not ‘vampires’, they are something else. Nevertheless, they are no longer human — and Neville’s belief of their vampiric character caused him to take certain actions with conviction (crucifixes, wooden stakes, mirrors, garlic, avoiding the night). These actions were both wise and effective, allowing him to survive for years. And though he shot through their mystery with knowledge wrought from science, Neville started from the preconceived basis of a myth, and then worked from there. It was only in the profound interplay between mythology and science that he arrived at something resembling an answer. The truth. And even so, this ‘truth’ no longer has any purposeful avenue. It is just knowledge with no actionable recourse, inside of a singular man soon to be dead, part of a species soon to be extinct…
Thus, in this case, we may come to the conclusion that it is mankind’s great ingenuity — and curse — to personalize and anthropomorphize our condition to our seminal myths and our beliefs, to rationalize at the last to powers beyond us or past, if only to save our hearts, minds and souls, if not our bodies. When science provides us no definitive answer, we make up our own. Even when it does, and the answer given is accidental or stupid or unsatisfactory — a self-imposed mistake, a virus we created or a bacteria that we engendered the environment for — we go elsewhere with our mind’s resources. Presented an unsatisfying truth, without solution or recourse, we cannot accept it as fact, and so we make up a different, better, one and go forth.
No matter to the scientific truth underlying reality, the myth swallows us into its holds, wielding us for its own purposes; much like a human being, it adapts to any environment, capable of consuming anything and everything for its own perpetuating benefit.
The Meaning of the Vampire
Vampires fascinate and terrify and seduce us. An immortal, fanged being, living amongst us as aristocratic mysterions in ivory towers, or as feral beasties haunting the shadows, they awaken these fears and fascinations in equal measure. Their myth cuts to a central force within our psychology — that of life and death, its end — and its potential continuity.
Our long ago evolution into conscious beings bred a primordial fear of death, of the end of that consciousness. So it makes sense that we craft myths to counter this fear, afterlife kingdoms for the ‘Good’ and stories of gods and demons playing out their wars until the end of time. More localized into the day-to-day lives of the community’s constituents and recapitulating ancient fears of essence-stealing spirits and flesh-eating beasts of the night, the vampire myth was born in antiquity. If a demon plays upon our fears of losing control of our bodies and minds via possession — the vampire preys upon our fear of being unable to resist our worst urges and desires that already lie within us, and of ultimately being cursed to succumb to their pathological ends of sex, murder, and carnage upon those around us.
The vampire is the anti-Man, an antithesis to a human being — yet, importantly, they must also be born from Man. The curse (or in modernity, the virus) amplifies within Man all of his flaws and pathologies, freeing him from his conscience for the sake of an eternalized hunger for blood, for the essence of life itself. The man-turned-vampire becomes immortal, but at the cost of their humanity. They must seek the blood of innocents in order to prolong their existence, stealing life to sustain life. Immortalized, but insatiable, singularly powerful but now unable to collaborate with other humans or vampires, carrying no concern beyond its own existence and its everlasting hunt, the vampire is deranged but still conscious. Conscious of its own suffering and sin. Always hungry, incapable of letting itself die, the vampire can still feel shame and regret at its condition, forever unable to change. The accursed vampire is a wretched, ugly thing – but nevertheless, is fascinating to us, even attractive to some…
“The blood is the life!”~ Bram Stoker
Though their lifespans are indefinite, the vampire can be killed. From a stab through the heart, the locus of the blood circulating through our system, the symbolic flow of life within Man — or — from exposure to direct sunlight. The Sun, the original symbol of God, a purifying light of truth, and of fiery vengeant force, is the ultimate vanquisher of the vampire. A creature of evil forever forced to live within the shadows, the vampire can no longer feel the earthly delights of its world: conventional foods turn to ash in their mouth, they cannot cross water, they are unable to enter homes without an invitation, they cannot feel the Sun upon their skin. They bear no reflection in mirrors (they have no soul!), they have an aversion to garlic (too much flavor!), they run from the sign of the cross, the crucifix (they fear the light of God!) Vampires are monsters of our own making, and we fear them not just because they kill us, but because we can become just like them.
In I Am Legend, vampires rule the new world. And though Robert Neville discovers their origins are borne of an easily transmittable bacterial infection, and their vampiric characteristics are due to latent psychological factors within the changed humans and within himself, they may still be called vampires — for they are born from man, changed and obsessed with blood, and must be relegated to the shadows. How and why the bacteria spawned remains ambiguous. In flashback conversations between Neville and his wife at the onset of the plague’s spread, before much at all is known of its effects, they theorize two avenues as to its origins: 1) a bioweapon “superbug” created within a lab somewhere, accidentally released into the general public, or 2) another consequence from the ‘bombings’ of a recent war, a war America apparently won, though not without some recourse to life (“Nobody won it.”) and to the environment (rampant dust storms ravage their sect of suburbia).
And no matter to origins, before he understands their true nature, or even the important distinctions between the living vampires and vampires captured by some strange ‘unlife’, Neville is slaying them during the day, as they ‘sleep’ inside of the darkness of the structures of his local metropolis. Using wooden stakes he carves up himself, he kills them in scores as he ranges through the wasteland, scavenging for supplies, searching for other humans. Like a professional athlete, he excels at this day job from consistent, rote repetition. Day in and day out, taking down as many as he can, creatures mostly unable to defend themselves in such states, a massacre of the inert monsters.
Why? It’s never elaborated why Neville does this, beyond the implicit call a lone hero has to destroy evil, the abominations that have taken over his world and threaten to devour him every night waiting outside his house… But killing them is not necessary for his survival, he goes out of his way to do it. He has established an effective wall between himself and them. Only the night is stolen from his activity due to their presence. Does he believe himself to be able to eventually, given his dedication to the art, kill them all? Or does it just feel good to vanquish this ‘evil’, piece by piece, even if he knows he will never get them all, he will never win? Much like the research into their origins, playing as dispassionate vampire slayer by day likely provides for him a mind-solacing task to accomplish. Understanding their inherent, mythic malevolence, being a “vampire-slayer” instantly affords one the title of hero.
“I’m a man, not a destroyer.” Upon nascent considerations of the morality of his actions, and the natural prejudice he wields against the vampire, Neville declares this to himself as an affirmation of his righteousness. Or at least, of the amorality of his actions. You cannot be called a destroyer — a decidedly negative connotation — against an unholy, blood-sucking abomination, not fit for any kind of existence… From his perspective, of the human, he cannot be classed as a murderer. However, from the perspective of the vampire, from the view of those he hunts — he is certainly a destroyer. Akin to a vengeful God, he slaughters them with methodical, genocidal, horrifying efficiency en masse, every single day. They can do nothing about it except find new hiding spots. They cannot kill him, even though they know where his castle lies. Neville has forged for himself an unassailable fortress from which he can operate in relative freedom. In a reversal of the classic tale, they are the oppressed community below Dracula’s castle, which houses a mysterious killer, isolated and unstoppable in his tyrannical machinations, preying upon their people at his whim.
“Robert,” she said, “listen to me. They mean to execute you. Even though you’re wounded. They have to. The people have been out there all night, waiting. They’re terrified of you, Robert, they hate you. And they want your life.”
The deep breath he took made the pain wrench at his insides. His eyes were stark with pain as he shuddered. It’s got to end soon, he thought. I can’t stand much more of this. No, death did not frighten him. He didn’t understand it, but he didn’t fear it either. The swelling pain sank down and the clouds passed from his eyes. He looked up at her calm face.
“I hope so,” he said. “But — but did you see their faces when they — they killed?” His throat moved conclusively. “Joy,” he mumbled. “Pure joy.” Her smile was thin and withdrawn. She has changed, he thought, entirely.
“Did you ever see your face,” she asked, “when you killed?”
It’s a special human malady to be able to effortlessly moralize the murder of our enemies, even if they are vampires. Though Neville seems to hold little regret concerning his efforts to cull the seas of vampire population about him, knowing what he knew of their threat, even he understands that it matters how and why you kill. At different points, he is repulsed by the process, as he sees women burning to a char within the sun, or disintegrating into dust before his eyes. Even killing the primal undead vampire, unthinking, abominable and irredeemable, more than willing to take you if you don’t take them… the killing is hard, and we feel bad, because they still hold some semblance of a human frame (read: uncanny valley). Neville is psychologically damaged from the work, even as he continued it. A vampire slayer is still a human, they are not free of their conscience like their enemy. So naturally, being a prolific slayer carries the threat of fraying at one’s humanity; every kill becomes just a little bit easier to justify unto yourself.
At the climax of the novel, the woman Neville comes across, named Ruth, turns out to be a mutated living vamp — able to be in the sun due to technology (a form of makeup), her bacterial symptoms lessened from the dose of a new drug — sent to spy on him, the destroyer of her people, the last living human they know of. She represents the new sect of society, separate from the pathologically violent undead vamps, ready to build out civilization anew in spite of their condition. Even in their short time together, she and Neville build a shared compassion for the other, even as he is ignorant of her true role. She escapes and leaves a merciful note, allowing for him to escape. He does not, incorrectly anticipating these ‘conscious’, civilization-building vamps to deal with him reasonably, peacefully…
“Robert Neville,” she said, “the last of the old race.” His face tightened. “Last?’ he muttered, feeling the heavy sinking of utter loneliness in him.
“How long did it take for a past to die?” For as long as the last Man breathes. These vampires, the new iteration of Mankind upon the planet, are presented not as the antithetical shadow of Man to be dispelled, but as the next logical stage in our evolutionary development. We build our own monster, and then become him. Birthed as the just desert of our constant conflicts and hyperviolent desires leading to the forging of nuclear weapons capable of total extinction upon the planet, or as simple dumb luck, the vampire is Earth’s next alpha. A new being for a dark new world, well-deserved, inevitable. And ultimately, these people must do away with the past. They must slay their slayer, the last Man, in order to go on with their own lives.
Robert Neville, the last man, peacefully executed of his own volition, dies in a fit of cynical chuckling, resigned to the terrifying and strange faces of this brave new world, one he will never see.
Robert Neville, our hero, a legend because he is the last man carrying humanity’s story, bearing out hopes and fears reflective of our lot to the end, holding the torch to its nub unto our denouement into ‘The Age of the Vampire.’
Robert Neville, their slayer, a legend because he is the eternal enemy, the hated, genocidal killer from the old world passing into history. He will live on forever in their superstitions and mythology, not only as ‘The Last Man’ but as “The Destroyer.” ~
He fell against the window and looked out. The street was filled with people. They milled and stirred in the gray light of morning, the sound of their talking like the buzzing of a million insects. He looked out over the people, his left hand gripping the bars with bloodless fingers, his eyes fever-lit. Then someone saw him. For a moment there was an increased babbling of voices, a few startled cries. Then sudden silence, as though a heavy blanket had fallen over their heads. They all stood looking up at him with their white faces. He stared back. And suddenly he thought, I’m the abnormal one now. Normalcy was a majority concept, the standard of many and not the standard of just one man.
Abruptly that realization joined with what he saw on their faces — awe, fear, shrinking horror — and he knew that they were afraid of him. To them he was some terrible scourge they had never seen, a scourge even worse than the disease they had come to live with. He was an invisible specter who had left for evidence of his existence the bloodless bodies of their loved ones. And he understood what they felt and did not hate them. His right hand tightened on the tiny envelope of pills. So long as the end did not come with violence, so long as it did not have to be a butchery before their eyes.
Robert Neville looked out over the new people of the earth. He knew he did not belong to them; he knew that, like the vampires, he was anathema and black terror to be destroyed. And, abruptly, the concept came, amusing to him even in his pain.
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.