UPDATE: More material, academic papers, analysis & critique @ my current blog Elastic Collisions - http://elasticollisions.blogspot.com/.
Richard Matheson has a way of leaving the reader in suspense near the end of every chapter with a story unfolding of a monstrous plague that is well paced and culturally relevant. When reading through I Am Legend I recall elements ranging from literature such as Dracula and early films such as Night of the Living Dead. This is because I Am Legend features many elements that would go on to inspire the horror genre, but it is also inspired by the gothic literature before it. This is all very apparent with the traits seen in the book: Neville finds the corpse in town and assumes sunlight kills these people like vampires is a great example. These similarities help toward the understanding of the text, especially since this book reminded me of a much slower paced, but also gothic piece, predating it by almost a hundred years.
A resemblance to the classic novel Jane Eyre resonance when reading through I Am Legend. In Eyre there is a man named Rochester who reveals, on his wedding day, that he is in fact already married, but that he keeps his wife in the attic. Throughout the novel, we never see the wife’s perspective, only Rochesters. We do not know if this woman, named Bertha, was made crazy, born crazy or is in fact crazy. Bertha could represent many ideas: she could be an example of what happens to a woman when trapped in a voctorian ruled world. She could be an example of the stifled fate of women and the lack of gender equality. She could be a representation of how old monarchal rules amalgamated with middle class morality tears a person apart.
However, when one looks at the protagonist Robert Neville in I Am Legend, you can see similarities between these two works. Consider that Neville is immune to this disease that has spread throughout all of mankind because he has been bitten by a vampiric bat. This seems historically inspired of itself immediately, as smallpox was originally vaccinated by administering a patient cowpox. This was discovered when smallpox epidemics would break out, with everyone becoming infected except the farmers. This immunity that Neville has allows him justification to assume that he is the lone survivor. We know early on that Neville is prone to addictions and vices; he smokes cigarettes constantly. Interestingly, Bertha in Jane Eyre is described as having addiction problems, which cause her to go mad due to her ‘unfavorable genetics’. Neville has favorable but altered genetics, in an unfavorable landscape. Still, the only perspective we receive in this tale, at least so far, is Nevilles. He makes it seem as if he is not crazy, making to do lists that involve hauling bodies and checking generators, but what is most striking, is that he actively fights this aggression coming at him. Is this all really outside influence, or is it brought on Neville?
From this point it is interesting to consider that Richard Matheson took part in World War II as an infantry soldier. Although he was American and not Russian, I am sure he saw his fair share of bodies in the war. I researched some of his other stories and found many shorts with twists endings, along with other first person narratives. With Neville, we have a strong perspective of his character. He retreats too drinking often, is sarcastic, and understandably gloomy. But he is quite active against the horrors around him. This could be a commentary on the human condition; how impossible the onslaught of war is. What hope does Neville have, if he assumes the world is taken over? Only to stake the hearts of his neighbors until his death? Are we reading a mental account of Neville considering suicide? Is this a metaphor for a man locked in an asylum, much like Bertha is locked in the attic? Or, what I find most plausible, is Matheson really bringing us into the mind of someone with post traumatic stress disorder?
Consider again the corpse Neville assumed was killed due to sunlight. Was the man a man before, or a corpse? Again, everything is assumed from the narrators point of view. This leads me to believe that most of what I am reading is culturally relevant in its commentary of post world war 2 lifestyle being attacked, on violent human nature in general and, more importantly, the lack of help from the outside world It helps that Matheson, like Bronte, can craft a good story too go with it with a protagonist who is arguable both stubborn, heroic, addicted and insane. The eventual introduction of Ruth helps the tension raise, and where it is going, seems to have a very Kafka potential.