A Byronic Hero in Post-Apocalyptic America
Robert Neville is a significantly different character than the typical hero of past vampire novels. In Robert’s apocalyptic situation, the roles have been reversed in a significant manner, as not only is he the “hunter”, he is also the “hunted”. Neville exhibits several of the traits of the stereotypical Byronic hero: he is intelligent to the point of arrogance, struggles with himself and the past, and holds a distaste for social institutions and norms. He is quite the contrast from the protagonists found in the other vampire stories that we have read this semester. Neville’s depiction as a hero depends very much upon whether or not the reader sides with Neville or the vampires.
I actually found Neville to be most similar to Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, when compared to all the other stories we have read, because of the alienation and despair that he endures and the death that he dishes out on a daily basis. Neville sees it as his duty to rid the world of as many undead as he can, even though he knows that he is fighting a losing battle. “Despite everything he had or might have … life gave no promise of improvement or even of change.” (95). Having lost his wife and daughter, Robert has nothing left to lose -- the possibility of being shot for not burying his wife means little to him, other than that he will no longer be alive. Being the last “living” human being on Earth took its toll on Robert’s psyche, as “[t]he thought of forty more years of living as he was made him shudder” (95).
For being the last “living“ being, Neville is certainly not kind to himself. He abuses his body out of boredom and because of the solitude he faces, as “[t]rying to analyze it, he came to the conclusion that his last drunk had put him on the bottom, at the very nadir of frustrated despair. Now, unless he put himself under the ground, the only way he could go was up” (110). Robert knows that his only true escape is death, and for the most part, he does not fear death, as exemplified when he thinks to himself “I’ll drown myself in whiskey! Like Clarence in his malmsey, I’ll die, die, die!” (92). With all Byronic heroes, his tragic flaw is his need for companionship, as “he had clung to the hope that someday he would find someone like himself -- a man, a woman, a child, it didn’t matter. Sex was fast losing its meaning without the endless prodding of mass hypnosis. Loneliness he still felt” (101).
Robert’s interaction with the dog offers a great deal of insight into his loneliness and Matheson’s views on the food chain. Upon seeing the living dog, Robert undergoes a change, as he can no longer stand his loneliness and simply needs a companion. Matheson writes that “Somehow, though, he managed to ignore his iconoclastic self and went on praying anyway. Because he wanted the dog, because he needed the dog” (97). Similar to Heathcliff, Neville does whatever it takes to get the dog inside of his house. Neville is amazed by the dog’s intelligence and ability to survive just as long as he has, and even though it is another losing battle, he feels it to be his duty to nurse the dog back to health. The relationship with the dog is also representative of the dilemma he faces with the vampires -- “trust” (107). The dog does not trust Robert because of the actions of the undead. If Robert and the vampires were to even consider calling a truce, there would similarly be no trust because of everything that has already happened.
I found it quite interesting when Neville began to turn to science and technology in his search for the possible causes and cures of the disease. Neville’s relationship with technology is quite similar to his struggle against the vampires: as much as he loathes technology for what it has caused, he knows that it is the only way that he can possibly cure and end the disease. At the same time, as much as Neville taunts and hates the vampires around his house, he needs them in order to have a purpose in his solitary life. Neville obsesses about finding a cure much in the same way that Dr. Seward obsessed over his psychiatry but also in the same way that Carmilla obsessed over Laura and “the men” obsessed over Dracula’s demise.
I found Neville’s relationship with Ben Cortman, his neighbor-and-friend-turned-vampire, to be another interesting aspect of the story. Cortman’s taunting of Neville becomes expected after a while -- it’s almost as if it wouldn’t be nighttime without the vampire Ben saying “Come out, Neville!” (23). Neville, out of boredom and out of spite, plays games with the vampires. Ben Cortman and Robert Neville, two beings that were friends in a past life, are both out for each other’s blood -- yet when there is a possibility that Neville might not be the one to end Cortman’s undead existence, Neville feels distressed. “He couldn’t fight the sick apprehension he felt at the thought of Cortman’s being killed by these brutal strangers. Objectively, it was pointless, but he could not repress the feeling. Cortman was not theirs to put to rest” (159). I think this is a fascinating contrast when compared to Dracula and Carmilla, as the men kill the vampires out of fear, rather than spite. Neville knows that life as he knew it is over, and his post-apocalyptic lifestyle will come to an end sooner than later as well. Robert compares the situation to the “end of Oliver Hardy, he thought, the death of all comedy and all laughter. He didn’t hear the continuous full-scale of shots. He didn’t even feel the tears running down his. His eyes were riveted on the ungainly form of his old friend inching up the brightly lit roof” (160). Without a rival, Neville’s life would be even more unfulfilling -- just as he treats the undead as worthless unnatural beings, the undead treat him as worthless aside from the blood he will provide. Yet both need each other: Neville needs the vampires to keep his sanity, while the vampires need Neville to rally against and help form their new society.
Written in post-World War II American society, I found this story to be a great contrast to the other vampire novels and stories we have read this semester. Instead of a fear of Victorian decline, Americans at the time feared post-war change and the political based “Red Scare”, or fear of Communism. It is interesting especially as the roles have been reversed: instead of a society of humans fighting a single vampire, it was a society of vampires fighting against a single human -- “the world that was theirs and no longer his” (162). I also found Matheson’s usage and explanations of the stereotypical vampire hunting tools to be enjoyable. As Neville states, “Witches, vampires -- in all these feared being there was a sort of interwoven kinship. Legends and superstitions could overlap, and did.” (116). Matheson has twisted the archetypical vampire story into a new tale of survival, yet the underlying themes remain similar to the other vampire and gothic novels we have read so far this year.