In I am Legend by Richard Matheson, Robert Neville struggles with a swarm of infected humans that constantly try to take him out. These beings exist at night, and their sole purpose is to feast on blood, making them modern day vampires. Robert is alone in this new apocalyptic world, and Matheson weaves a story of intrigue that explores the effects of a bacteria driven infection, and how devastating it could be for the human race through a single phrase, “Bacteria can mutate” (Matheson . He uses this dystopian world to showcase evolution of a race and how this shows the development of people.
In the first half of the story, Robert drives himself into a toxic cycle, searching out these vampires and killing them during the day, while drinking at night. He is isolated, and the constant threat of the vampires wreaks havoc on his psyche. While Robert is not infected by the bacteria, he also begins to “mutate” in his own way, becoming disheveled as he had “had long before given up shaving” (Matheson 65) and going through mental mood swings. The lack of shaving and taking care of his appearance show him mutating In the human psyche as he was once a clean and caring man. He had a loving wife and child, but when the disease took them away and he was forced to live in solitude for a span of several years, he let himself revert to a more primitive self as he lost hope.
Towards the middle of the story, Robert finds meaning, and in doing so, undergoes another ‘mutation’. He begins to search for the cause of the vampiric disease, conducting research in a library, and searching into the deeper roots of the infection. As he undergoes this process, he finds himself drinking less and having more motivation to go through the day. Robert begins to wonder about the rest of the world and how he has not seen any survivors. This clear shift in mental focus shows him evolve as a character and a person, for he now begins to have thoughts of others. The attention he shows towards finding a cure and other survivors reveals that his humanity was hidden under his wild demeanor and looks. While he certainly is following this pattern of ‘mutation’ there also lies the fact that he was capable of these thoughts and actions for a while, but was not able to act on them. Robert also chooses a very intriguing aspect of the disease to study. He begins with “for want of better knowledge, he had set up a possible basis, and that was blood.” (Matheson 1926, 42) Blood remains a vital aspect of the story and the medical profession itself. By focusing on blood, he reads texts and research on how possible aspects of blood can contain and transmit the bacteria. This shows a connection to the health field as bloodwork is one of the first things that doctors and researchers perform when diagnosing and treating unknown pathogens.
Robert’s investigation into the blood of the infected, leads him to find the bacteria that has caused all the affliction that has shut down the world. This whole process repeats a motif that is present throughout the book, which is repetition. Every day is a repetitive cycle for Robert, whether it is the beginning of the book where his days are spent killing and his nights are spent drinking, to even the little things like when “he broke thirteen slides” (Matheson 1926, 46) as he prepared to do tests on the blood. The repetition in the story helps to highlight the mutations that occur, as each mutation leads to a new cycle that Robert falls into throughout his degeneration.
As the story comes towards the end, the final aspect of mutation comes into play. In this section of the book, Robert first hand experiences mutation; he sees it in the bacteria, not himself. As Robert discovers a woman in daylight, he is fascinated, but also wary. Up until this point he had been alone with no other survivors, but now he sees this person walking around in daylight that would kill any of the infected. After he takes her in, he listens to her story, but does not quite believe it. He finds flaws in her stories but also ends up ignoring them for the most part. As he grows strong and asks to check her blood, he is attacked by the woman who was an undercover vampire, and wakes up to find out that his fears were true. This helps to connect many points in his research as he finds two types of vampires through his roaming, but was not able to explain the difference until the bombshell that some infected remain alive and in control of themselves, while others are just mindless drones. This mutation is key, as it leads to the culmination of Matheson’s story. When Robert is taken by this new society of ‘alive’ vampires, he finds out he is in essence the last of his race. This is put into even more clever words when Ruth says that he is “the last of the old race.” (Matheson 1926, 94) The combination of the words last, and old when pertaining towards humans as they once existed is just another nod towards evolution which by itself is just mutations that allow a species to survive in changing times. The ‘alive’ vampires are not a new race compared to the elder race of humans, but just a mutation in the evolutionary line of people. They have found a relationship with the bacteria that infects them which has altered their way of life, but also brings forth a new society that at the end of the story is very much in its infancy.
The key theme of mutation in I am Legend helps to portray evolution and human psyche development throughout the story. Matheson crafted a fictional book that not only teaches about the medical field, but investigates a host of mental and physical illnesses in a way that is easy to understand and follow. His use of repetition only highlights his points, as he uses a dystopian world to showcase evolution and possible paths for the future of humanity.
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