In Dr. Kathy Davis Patterson’s essay about I Am Legend, the key point is the fact that in the novel there are very clear racial undertones. She brings up the fact that I Am Legend was actually written the same year that the Supreme Court decided that segregated was unlawful. She also brings up the fact that vampires in various novels (She uses the Count in Dracula as an example) often reflect whatever social turmoil happens to be occurring in the time period. The fact that at the time of this book’s publishing white people were just adjusting to the new idea that African Americans were going to be interacting with them in everyday life, may have lent to the racial undertones. Dr. Patterson sees the vampires as being black, because they are seen as ‘invading’ society (portrayed as Robert Neville) as it was known. It is essentially two cultures shown at war with each other, one doing whatever is possible to keep the other out and the other trying to overtake and destroy the other.
It’s interesting to read the story while being aware of the racial undertones. The fact that Robert is avoiding the vampires as much as he can takes on more meaning that just survival. It begins to be viewed as white society avoiding the black society, and perhaps viewing them as a necessary evil.
In one passage of her essay, Dr. Patterson talks about how the vampires are seen as the “threatening Other” (Patterson). She says “Thanks largely to the lasting impact of slavery and its attendant prejudices, the black African in this context is constructed as a monstrous Other that threatens the dominant society” (Patterson). This passage is significant because it explains why the racial tone of this book is the way it is. White society was threatened because, in a way, their way of living was over. Slavery was abolished, and segregation was unlawful. Everything they had been told about black people being less than people had to be reversed and they had to accept them into their society. Their fears definitely play out in how the vampires keep attacking Robert Neville’s house, and demanding to be let in.
Another interesting passage in this essay is the one in which Dr. Patterson talks about the ways that vampires attempt to invade Robert’s space. She mentions violence, but “The most dangerously effective strategy, however, is sex. Female vampires can rouse Neville’s lust with ease” (Patterson). Though he feels lust towards them, he refuses to act upon his desires. It reflects how people felt about interracial couples at the time, and how they still somewhat feel today. It was unheard of to date someone of another race, and even now interracial couples are rare. She goes on to say “For Neville, mating with a vampire would involve the penetration of his body not only by vampire fangs, but by the bacteria vampires carry. In his world of strict binaries, this type of mixing is a possibility he refuses to allow. His blood remains uncontaminated and he is determined to keep it that way” (Patterson). The fact that having sexual relations with a vampire would contaminate him also shows the feelings of white society at the time. They did not want to be contaminated by people of another race. It also shows how white society viewed themselves as ‘pure’ while everyone of a different race was ‘contaminated’. This is also show later in the essay “In Neville’s worldview, hybrid blood equals contaminated blood. His obsessive studies of blood and his efforts to identify, prevent, and possibly cure blood contamination reflect a desperate desire to restore homogeneity and, with it, a social order that he recognizes.” (Patterson). As she says, this is a desperate attempt to preserve the society as it once was, before it was introduced to vampires. It’s interesting how far people will go to bring back something they recognize, so they feel safer.
Another passage focuses on the way the Robert violates the female vampires. She points out that although Robert kills them, he does not sexually violate them in the traditional way. However, the fact that he stakes the vampires carries a sexual tone. “The phallicism of the stake, however, ensures that the sexual connotation remains.” (Patterson). She says “The Otherness of these women precludes their suitability as sexual partners and marks them as perceived threats to Neville’s life, to the sanctity of both his body and his home. As such, they become expendable.” (Patterson). It’s interesting that because if something is viewed as a threat to us, we find it alright to kill it. This can even be seen today in the issue of self defense. If we feel threatened by someone and do something to defend ourselves, it is seen as acceptable in our society. Even if defending ourselves mean killing another. This brings the interesting question of when it is acceptable to end another human life. Apparently, it is okay when we feel threatened, but what of racial crimes of our society’s past? The white society felt threatened, and sought to eliminate that threat. However, this was seen as wrong. Since it was an elimination of a threat, what distinguishes this from a self defense from, say, a murderer coming in the night? The vampires were considered a threat to Robert, and he kills them. In the same passage, Dr. Patterson includes this quote from the book “Usually he felt a twinge when he realized, but for some affliction he didn't understand, these people were the same as he.” (Page 39). He is able to look past the differences and actually realize that basically, they were the same. However this does not stop him from killing the vampires. It is saying something though, that he was able to see them as the same as himself.
As a whole, I do agree with Dr. Patterson about the racial subtext of I Am Legend. It’s easy to see how the vampires and Robert are seen as different races, and their differences basically facilitate all the conflict between them in the novel.
Echoes of Dracula: Racial Politics and the Failure of Segregated Spaces in Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. By Dr. Kathy Davis Patterson
Matheson, Richard. I Am Legend. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, LLC, 1995. Print.