IBDP Extended Essay in Literature

  Isolation in Richard Matheson's ​I Am Legend

How does Richard Matheson depict the effects of isolation on the protagonist Robert Neville in the novel ​I Am Legend​? 

Extended Essay: English Language and Literature
Category 1
Word Count: 3989

Aristotle's ​Politika explains that: “[m]an is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human. Society is something that precedes the individual. Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god” (Vinciarelli 69). Aristotle proposes that anyone who is able to survive in isolation, is either, above or beneath humans. However, what happens when a human needs to be isolated to survive? "Survival’s” etymology of Latin origin s​ upervivere "live beyond, live longer than," insinuates that to survive, you must live on (Hoad). But is it possible to survive in isolation? Robert Neville, the lone protagonist in the novel I Am Legend, f​ ound himself in this situation, surviving in isolation.
I Am Legend is a post-apocalyptic, science-fiction/horror novel written in 1954 by Richard Matheson. Not only was this Matheson’s first novel, the novel provides "an interesting take on and challenge to the myth of the vampire" (Nail 51). The novel is set in the late 1970s and focuses on the life of Robert Neville: the only human left in a world full of vampires, caused by an evolving, infectious disease. By day, Neville hunts vampires and is free from their capture but during the night, he hides for safety and survival as they awaken. The novel presents a persistent theme of isolation and how it affects the mind and social behaviour of a human. Matheson’s narrative explores how over time, Neville’s isolation has dramatically changed the way he both thinks and acts, hence, the aim of this essay is to answer the question: ​How does Richard Matheson depict the effects of isolation on the protagonist Robert Neville in the novel I Am Legend​?
Isolation is a term that demands separation from others through causes not in one's power. The word originates from Latin: “i​ nsulatus” ​which means “made into an island" suggesting being stranded or stuck (Hoad). Over time, societies have made isolation a punishment; people in prison are thrown in solitary confinement for violating rules and bad behavior (Benjamin 265). Hence, isolation is also torture for humans and thus for characters like Robert Neville. This analysis explores effects of isolation on Neville through Matheson’s use of narrative voice and imagery to portray the change in pace and Neville's state of mind as well as the gradual blend of narration and Neville’s thoughts in the progression of the novel. Finally, it also explores the symbolic use of Ben Cortman and Ruth's characters to represent how isolation makes one crave normality, love, intimacy and family.

Research Justification
This research into Neville’s desperate isolation is worth exploring because ​I Am Legend falls into the horror genre that portrays both reality and fiction, science and superstition. Stephen King is one of the most well-known horror-fiction writers, with many of his texts made into cinematic masterpieces. What some might not know is that he was inspired by Matheson’s I​ Am Legend.​ Although I​ Am Legend is not as famous as King’s the Shining for instance, it has definitely shaped the world of horror, in particular the world of vampires and diseased civilizations. Many praise the novel for being "the first works of fiction to graft the vampire and zombie mythos with dystopian elements" (Browning 41). Even in I​ Am Legend​'s afterword, Stephen King himself agrees that "[Matheson] single-handedly regenerated a stagnant genre, rejecting the conventions of the pulps which were already dying" (Matheson, ​I Am Legend 161). It is clear that the novel that has reshaped the world of horror is worth researching and investigating and this response shows the relevancy of the research and investigation to today's crisi​s​.
Although Matheson wrote I Am Legend more than 60 years ago, the terror and fears of isolation in pandemics still apply to today. With the recent Novel COVID-19 pandemic, this work of fiction helps us view the situation from a new perspective. The vivid depiction of isolation can also be used to understand why fears that originate from isolation are there in the first place and this can be explored by an analysis of Robert Neville’s character and how isolation has affected him.
Many other studies explore portrayals of isolation in this novel as a whole and how the setting around the protagonist symbolizes his state of mind. Other studies explore signs of biocultural discoveries in the novel or political stances represented by the evolving species of the vampires around Neville. All of these points are worth considering; however, this study investigates the implication isolation has on Robert Neville as time progresses in the novel which not only helps define his character but also look at psychological effects of a pandemic.

 The Impact of Imagery and Narrative voice on the Pace of the Novel
Matheson’s complex and evolving use of narrative voice and elaborate visual imagery is one of the ways in which he successfully conveys how Robert Neville's thoughts consume him to make him insane as the pace of the narrative structure changes. In particular, the drastic changes in the formality present in the narration and the detailed descriptions of Neville's mundane life indicate Neville's state of mind and accentuates his loneliness.
Visual Imagery and Narrative Structure:
During Chapters 1-3, the spiritless life of Robert Neville is described by Matheson so as the novel progresses, the style and change in narrative pace becomes distinct. Matheson uses visual imagery to convey Neville’s isolation and to quicken the pace of the narrative. Instances where “Robert Neville sat down with a sigh and began to eat” (Matheson 6) or when “Robert Neville reached out a numbed arm in the morning and pushed in the stop” (11) and even when “Robert Neville’s heart was pounding so heavily” (33), show us how the narrative structure proceeds very slowly and methodically. The slow pace is accentuated by the use of Neville's first and last name as it prolongs the sentences, making it boring for the readers to read which in turn depicts Neville's current lifestyle. The repetition of his full name also indicates how monotonous Neville's new lifestyle is. As Neville "passed slowly through the dim silence of the living room" his boredom and loneliness evokes pathos in the readers as they feel pity for his quiet existence (Matheson 1). "Dim silence" although describes sound, does also describe the atmosphere allowing for the readers to imagine the environment around Neville visually. The boredom and mundane actions portrayed show Neville’s behavior as civilized, which foreshadows what Neville truly seeks in his life towards the end however with the presence of vampires, Neville's life is far from the normality he wishes for. This indicates the beginning of how Neville realizes how much he misses his old life and family which is the first consequence of suffering through isolation.
When using only Neville's name and his human actions, Matheson is also able to amplify the silence present in Neville’s life hinting to the readers that Neville is indeed the only human in the world. This is further emphasised by the fact that the novel lacks another person’s dialogue, again revealing Neville's empty, isolated life. In the narrative, we get only Neville’s own thoughts and views as well as significant descriptions about his surroundings and his everyday routine which slows down the narration at certain points in the novel. Illustrating Neville's repetitive and lifeless surroundings in chapter one, Matheson writes that Robert:

started the car and backed quickly into the street and headed for Compton Boulevard. There he turned right and headed east. On both sides of him the houses stood silent, and against the curbs cars were parked, empty and dead...There was no one to be seen anywhere” (Matheson 10).

This rather ordinary description of driving his car portrays his solitary existence. Matheson personifies the houses, claiming that they ‘stood’ silently, as if looking over him and only him. Matheson also uses triad listing, through the description that the cars were ‘parked, empty and dead’ and this too creates an eerie atmosphere of emptiness and silence. The polysyndeton at the beginning where Neville 'started the car and backed quickly into the street and headed for Compton Boulevard', although slight, does change the rhythm of the text, building on to the momentum to provide a more detailed and vivid description of Neville's movements. This directly juxtaposes with the silent, dead and still world around Neville signifying its impact on his very human life in an inhumane world. From this, it is clear that Matheson accentuates liveliness in a dead world which conveys Neville's isolated state to the readers, justifying his latter insanity.
Narrative Voice Representing Neville's state of Mind:
In Chapter 3, we see a precarious side of Neville which familiarises us to mania and madness: both dangerous and two additional side effects of isolation. “I’ll choke myself! [Neville] stormed. I’ll strangle myself, I’ll drown myself in whisky!... I’ll die, die, die!” (Matheson 82). The anaphora present not only increases the pace of this section, but also reminds the readers of how lonely Neville truly is as the pronoun "I'll" is repeatedly used. The connotation of "stormed" in this sentence elucidates anger and self-loathing that Neville feels which highlights the changes in his state of mind. Neville also realistically thinks of death as an option which is why the idea is given more importance by repetition of the word "die", illustrating the strong urge of giving up that isolation encourages. Hamed Faizi who is an expert critic in dialogismmentionedinastudyofI​ AmLegend'sdialoguestructurethat“[we]seehimlivinga literally solitary life due to which he is getting depressed” (38). Although depression might be the first intensified emotion we notice, it is also mania that Faizi fails to mention which truly depicts an alteration of the mind in a situation like this. Neville's solitude is so impactful that "strangling" himself and "drowning" himself are the first two options that come to his mind which exposes his well thought out ideas of suicide further emphasising his suffering in the reader's eyes.
The distinction between narration and Neville also slowly becomes less clear from when we read about "Robert Neville" doing simple mundane actions contrasting significantly to the end of the novel, as his name seems to be rarely mentioned. A separation of the narrative voice and Neville's conscious thoughts are hence present in the novel in the beginning. In the last chapter, we see that these separations have been broken, combining Neville and the narrator's voices. Matheson mentions that there is “a new terror born in death, a new superstition entering the unassailable of forever. I am Legend." (Matheson 160). The phrase "I am Legend" implies that the narration and Neville's conscious thoughts have combined and that they are one at the very end. This connotes that Neville has finally let his thoughts in isolation capture him and he has given up, which points out the final consequence of isolation: death.
Louise Nuttall in her psychological study conducted on I​ Am Legend ​agrees that someone with a similar mental-state as Neville "also has important consequences for [their] ethical judgements'' which emphasizes how isolation can negatively alter someone's decision making as a result of their insanity (27). This is seen especially when "[he] stayed drunk for two days and planned on staying drunk till the end of time" (Matheson 83). His dangerous actions with no judgement and consequences, portray how isolation has driven a respectable family-man like Neville into a surprisingly chaotic, mad and insane character. Chris Koenig-Woodyard, a mathematician and literary professor states that as Neville consumes "alcohol excessively, he teeters on the threshold of sanity" depicting once again how being alone, and desolated can impact the psychology of a character like Neville (85). In this way, Matheson conveys Neville’s insanity, and his chaotic experience and ultimately his isolation, through the use of narrative voice.
Matheson successfully portrays how isolation allows a person to lose their mind as they collapse in the stillness and emptiness of the world through narrative voice. Mathias Clasen, a literary critic mentioned in his biocultural critique of ​I Am Legend that “In [the novel], Matheson translates his fears into an emotionally saturated narrative” (317). Clasen argues that there may be a presence of psychological realism in the novel as Matheson embeds his own fears of isolation through Neville’s experiences, evident in the novel’s relatability. As the novel’s “use of free indirect discourse” offers “a window into [Neville’s] thoughts, emotions and inner struggles,” readers feel empathetic towards the situation and the dangers that isolation brings deepening their understanding of the issue (Clasen 317). The blend of narration with Neville's thoughts signifies deep loneliness in Neville's life and Matheson uses this to warn his readers of the dangers that isolation brings.

 Effects of Isolation Shown Through the Symbolic Nature of Vampire Characters
While Neville's manic reaction to the world around him could be a defence mechanism against the vicious vampires that crowd near his house every night, he encounters two vampire characters throughout the novel who remind Neville of how isolated, desperate and lonely he is. Ben Cortman symbolizes Neville's old life which he misses every day while Ruth symbolizes something much more natural and instinctual: the desire for human touch and companionship both of which are taken away from Neville during his solitary existence.
Ben Cortman's Characterisation
Matheson's symbolic use of Ben Cortman explains how yearning to get his lost life back is stronger than Neville could control. Ben Cortman interacts with Neville as his former friend and neighbour. He is a recognizable face symbolizing Neville's past life and self; however, he turns into his enemy, changing their relationship in a matter of minutes. Since "[it] was strange to stand there looking out at Ben Cortman; a Ben completely alien to [Neville] now" it confirms the changed relationship between the two (Matheson 53). Here, the word ‘alien’ suggests a clear distinction between Cortman and Neville. This amplifies Neville's isolation, showing him as distant to everything that he once knew.
Cortman is a character that often triggers revealing flashbacks in the novel that give the readers more information about Neville and his family. Chapter 6 is a flashback of the time when Neville's wife and daughter have been infected with the vampire virus. This flashback ends with a human Ben Cortman wishing Neville "Good morning" (Mathson 46). From here, the novel shifts to the present, making Cortman a transition between Neville's past life into his current. The particular phrase "Good morning" indicates that Cortman is the one to wake Neville up from his haunted past into his equally haunted present implying that Neville is stuck in a state of agony and pain with Ben Cortman to remind him of everything that is arduous in his life.
In addition, Ben is given the repeated dialogue “Come out Neville'' particularly representing a sense of familiarity yet a threatening connotation. The tone of the phrase "come out" implies a dangerous environment, especially regarding his unknown future. Using Neville's  last name suggests a past and familiar relationship between Cortman and Neville, enticing Neville to give up and trust Cortman. It is as if Cortman is the only one that is able to reach out to Neville acting as an unchanged element of his life. The repetition of the phrase throughout the novel heightens its connotation of being dangerously familiar to Neville which drives him mad.
Furthermore, Cortman also exhibits how Neville longs to get his past life back. Hamed Faizi in his study argues that Neville wants to find a cure “because it is clear that he will not accept the presence of a party other than his own” (38) and although that might be true on the surface of the matter, deeper down, Neville yearns for the presence of another human and so, although there is the presence of hostility between the vampires and Neville, it doesn’t explain why he would choose not to kill Cortman. Cortman is an opportunity for Neville to fix his life and so he shows desperation towards finding a cure for Cortman in particular.
Evidently, Matheson introduced the character of Ben Cortman to convey that isolation prevents one from moving forward and creates desperation. Clasen mentions that "Fear is probably the key word in Matheson’s work, and the defining effective feature of horror fiction" (Clasen 316). However, the fear Matheson creates is not the fear that we as readers are quite familiar with in the genre of horror, Matheson instead describes the fear of being alone and in solitudewithnoonearoundus.KolsonSchlosseragreesinhisarticleA​ pocalypticImaginaries, Gramsci, and the Last Man on Earth that "​I Am Legend is persistently frightening to audiences because of the human evolutionary desire for collective security" and when denied the collective security, it becomes almost impossible to survive. Ben Cortman is a symbol that constantly reminds Neville of everything that he has lost, making him feel lonely and distant to the collective security his nature desires, driving him even more insane.

Ruth's Characterisation:
Ruth's character in the novel is also a symbol of how isolation can diminish human instincts, take away physical touch and make someone crave human companionship. Towards the end, “After almost three years of bleak, solitary existence, Neville miraculously discovers another survivor, Ruth” who first appears in front of Robert as a white spot in the field illustrating purity and innocence (Clasen 315). At first, Robert cannot believe that after so long there was indeed another human “I’ve gone mad” he thought “he felt less shock at the possibility than he did at the notion that she was real” (Matheson 110). After such solitude and madness, Ruth was a glimmer of hope for him, his sanity and the human race, hence, Ruth is symbolic of not only hope and a way out for Neville, but she also illustrates how isolation makes us lose our instincts, and how we interact with other humans. Ruth was seen first in the day which confirms that she is human. However, in the next chapter, Neville finds it difficult to trust Ruth as he has lost his social skills. Matheson writes that, “All these years, he thought, dreaming about a companion. Now [he met] one and the first thing [he did] is distrust her, treat her crudely and impatiently” (116). Here, his tone suggests that Neville blames himself for not accepting Ruth, making him feel guilty for the current events. The idea of self-loathing and blaming can be seen again as Neville punishes himself. The word "impatiently" suggests that Neville has nothing better with his time to do than take time and trust which highlights his solitude further​. ​Although Neville is right not to trust a complete stranger so quickly, under the circumstances, he is helpless. Perhaps the desire to get along with Ruth stems from the fact that she is Neville's only chance to repopulate the human species on Earth and the urge to keep one’s population alive is a natural thought and a purpose of life itself (Basten 2).
In chapter 17, Robert Neville finds out that Ruth absolutely despises garlic as she screams “It smells!” and begs Neville to “stop it! Please!” when he brings a plate of food (Matheson 118). The punctuation in this quote communicates true fear and disgust towards garlic which should have been a clear indication to Neville that Ruth is far from human. However, he allows her to become more intimate with him and allows himself to trust her despite the fact that "Ruth is tied to Robert’s death" which was mentioned in a study by Jeremiah Morelock as well (73). This proves the clear connection that Neville fails to see. Isolation has not only made Neville’s instincts weaker, it has made him so desperate for company, touch and communication that he is willing to risk his own life.
Isolation is a painful punishment for Robert Neville, imprisoning him in his own thoughts. Through the particular symbol of Ruth, Matheson communicates to his readers that isolation can make even the strongest member of a species feel hopeless and helpless. This desperation and loneliness makes the readers sympathetic towards Neville and the novel more relatable. “The leitmotif of all [Matheson’s] work . . . is as follows: The individual isolated in a threatening world, attempting to survive” (Matheson ​Richard Matheson 7) which again shows a presence of psychological realism in his work. ​I Am Legend in particular reveals a lot about the horror that we are living through today. This makes the entire novel more suspenseful and us the readers more fearful of our own unknown sides as a literary professor, Thomas Foster mentions that “[even] a respectable man has a dark side” (18).

In Richard Matheson’s science-fiction novel, ​I Am Legend,​ the central concern is that of isolation and its deadly effects on the lonely and purposeless protagonist Robert Neville, as he tries to survive in a chaotic world, surrounded by vampires. Throughout the novel, Matheson successfully renders how isolation forces someone to lose their identity and sanity. The constant repetition of Robert Neville's full name and visual imagery of an empty world around Neville all remind us just how dull and lifeless his existence is. His natural environment is laboriously described by Matheson, using figurative language to create an eerie tone and atmosphere of desolate, isolation. Matheson also introduces suicidal thoughts where ending his life seems like the only option for Neville, showing a lack of control as his thoughts consume him. Neville’s dark thoughts are also portrayed through changes in formality of the novel's narration as both the narrator and the protagonist become one at the end.
We also see how the vampire Ben Cortman represents Neville's desire to live his past life although it torments him. Cortman constantly reminds Neville of everything that is harrowing in his life and Matheson does this by using specific diction and tone seen in Cortman's signature dialogue as well as the flashbacks he triggers. Cortman also indicates Neville's limited and difficult options in his present which only include fighting or giving up however Cortman’s character also allows an opportunity for Neville to fix an aspect of his tragic past and so he perilously hunts for a cure. In this way through the character of Ben Cortman, Matheson exposes the fear of loneliness which triggers past elements to remind Neville of everything he has lost, which causes him to become manic in his adversity.
Furthermore, Ruth, the seemingly innocent girl who turns out to be a vampire, symbolizes Neville's lack of natural human instincts after three years of isolation and his desperation for intimacy and closeness with another human. Ruth’s characterisation also illustrates how isolation is a prominent factor in weakening Neville’s human instincts making him covet human touch and company so much so that he ignores the dangers in communicating with Ruth. In the back of his mind, Neville is aware that Ruth is not safe to be intimate with but under the circumstances, he feels absolutely forlorn and willing to risk everything with nothing to lose. Matheson’s portrayal of this recklessness increases the suspense in the novel as even the last human alive feels no burden to continue his species anymore.
The answer to the question how does Richard Matheson depict the effects of isolation on the protagonist Robert Neville in the novel ​I Am Legend is that Matheson effectively uses narrative voice and structure, visual imagery, figurative language, tone, diction, symbolism and characterization to lead to the deteriorating mind of Robert Neville and to portray the many effects that isolation has. Vampirism illustrates “selfishness, exploitation and refusal to respect the autonomy of other people'' making it inhumane and emotionless (Foster 16). The evolution of vampires at the end of the novel indicates that humans cannot survive in an environment of solitude. The rather realistic and memorable fact from this novel is that in ​I Am Legend,​ the hero does not win, in fact the weight of the impacts of isolation surpasses the strength of the only human being, alive and desperate in a world occupied by ever-evolving vampires.

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