The Great Plague raged through England in the late seventeenth century and was by far the most tragic pandemic experienced in that country. The Great Plague caused many villages like Eyam to break off contact with surrounding towns. Some people blamed the horrible disease on various groups, individuals or leaders. Plague sufferers were particularly upset with religious leaders, who they felt had not prepared them for the plague. However, while some blamed the church, others flocked to it. Many embraced religious practices, hoping that they would be saved by God. Intervention by religious leaders often superceded medical care. Priests required that plague victims receive the sacraments before being helped by a doctor. Some people were so far in denial and stress that they would do anything to escape from the Great Plague. While sufferers were trying to escape, King Charles II was trying to handle the crisis. The plague of the seventeenth century brought chaos to England, because of the number of lives lost, the emotional turmoil, and the social upheaval it caused.
Richard Matheson’s novella I Am Legend focuses on a pandemic similar in many ways to the Great Plague, in that thousands are left dead and many families ripped apart by its spread. However, the pandemic of I Am Legend is spread not by germs, but by the supernatural force of a zombie army. Matheson’s novels all focus on the conflict between man and some threatening element of the supernatural world, whether it presents itself in the form of apparitions, houses possessed by evil spirits, or bloodthirsty zombies. This struggle, while fantastical, symbolizes the universal struggle between mankind and that which is mysterious in the universe. For example, Professor Robert Neville’s struggle to understand the pandemic and the destruction it has caused worldwide is symbolic of the universal human struggle to understand death and the pain of loss. Like Matheson’s other protagonists, Neville is only able to come to terms with the mysterious forces that plague him when he accepts that not everything that happens can be explained by logical reasoning.
Major Works Consulted:
Dunn, John M. Life During the Black Death. San Diego: Lucent, 1949.
Photo Credit: “Richard Matheson.” Audiobooks Today. 6 Mar. 2012. http://audiobookstoday.blogspot.com/
Matheson, Richard. I Am Legend. New York: Tom Doherty, 1999.
--. A Stir of Echoes. New York: Tom Doherty, 1999.
Nardo, Don. The Black Death. San Diego: Greenhaven, 1999.