An Ultimate Guide to Station Eleven

Published on
February 8, 2024
An Ultimate Guide to Station Eleven

Mandel’s Station Eleven endeavours to present both honesty and optimism in its portrayal of how humanity deals with – or attempts to deal with – the collapse of society around them. Filled with almost-contradiction, Station Eleven exhibits the extremes of human courage, against deep cowardice and fear; the modern world is both a masterful infrastructure of human connection and yet utterly devoid of soul, filled with populations described in terms of the half-alive – zombies, ghosts, sleep-walkers. By contrast, the world without its structure is a cutthroat and violent environment, but one which strangely allows the evolution of a “transcendent” beauty, in its performance, art, and community.
 

Mandel’s desolate, apocalyptic landscape is undeniably colourful – what, then, does it say about humanity, that crisis yields both the very best and very worst in us? 

Key Themes 

Role of Art 

“What was lost in the collapse: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty.”

Station Eleven is a tale of art’s survival, as it remains a constant where so much else in society proves fragile and becomes obsolete. The weaving of multiple media of art throughout the novel proves art’s dominating presence in the lives of the survivors. Additionally, art is demonstrated as a method for preserving individual legacy – for example, Miranda’s initials inscribed on one of the Dr. Eleven comics. The pieces of art which capture individual perspectives are presented as able to transcend the limitations of distance, time, and death, lending them a potency for conserving legacy in a way which perpetuates both “truth and beauty”. 

Art is additionally characterised as a source of meaning or purpose. Despite the merciless context of the flu’s aftermath, Mandel reiterates that, regardless of the difficulty of surviving, “survival is insufficient”. The obvious implication of the motto and tattoo is a questioning of what is sufficient, and Station Eleven’s own title may suggest the answer; it is art which makes life worth living. The novel is littered with examples – unnamed violinists and flautists risking their lives to perform, Miranda’s devotion to her illustrations, August’s poetry, Arthur’s love of acting, the clarinet’s playwriting, Kirsten’s collection of magazines and, unsavoury although no less a basis for his life’s purpose, Tyler’s ideological obsession with the Dr.Eleven comics. 

This assertion is fostered by art’s additional power in forming communities in the face of isolation. Outside of the purpose and joy which creating art provides, the act also unites the troupe of actors and musicians known as “the Travelling Symphony”. Mandel layers this with the connection the symphony forms with its audiences – Mandel’s metaphorical description of “casting a spell” insinuates a magical degree of power in and enjoyment from their theatrical performance. 

Related evidence:

  • What made it bearable were the friendships, of course, the camaraderie and the music and the Shakespeare, the moments of transcendent beauty and joy”
  • “What the symphony was doing, what they were always doing, was trying to cast a spell…the lives they brushed up against were work-worn and difficult, people who spent all their time engaged in the task of survival.” 
  • “There were moments around campfired where someone would say something invigorating about the importance of art, and everyone would find it easier to sleep that night. At other times it seemed a difficult and dangerous way to survive.” 
  • “I could throw away almost everything, she thinks, and begin all over again. Station Eleven will be my constant.” 
  • “For a moment everything is still. Station Eleven is all around them.” 
  • “People want what was best about the world.” 

Memory & Legacy 

“Always these memories, barely submerged.”

Memory in Station Eleven does not exist solely in the past. It is a force which has undeniable impact on the present, generating a deep sense of loss and guilt. The Undersea encapsulates the terrible resentment of nostalgia, as those who “just want to go home” are incapable of moving beyond their mourning, and become trapped forever in literal (and metaphorical) darkness. While Mandel engenders sympathy for those that are prisoners of their own memory, they are ultimately the “enemies” of the comics, and by extension Tyler the closest there is to the antagonist of the novel. This vilification of those who are bound by the guilt and loss in their memories condemns their inability to move on as the cause of their subsequent immorality. 

While memory is devastating for those who have to mourn the former world, it also motivates much of the preservation of the past: Kirsten wants to find traces in abandoned houses and magazine clippings and Clarke’s ex-boyfriend’s curatorial profession inspires the creation of the Museum of Civilisation. Jeevan naming his son Frank is another expression of memory, also of a deep loss, but used in light of a beautiful addition to his life. Thus, Mandel demonstrates that the human attachment memory can inform the present productively, inspiring further discovery and creation. 

The question of legacy – how memory of a person continues, or fades from existence – is thoroughly explored in Station Eleven. As referenced above, the creation of art sustains individual legacy. Mandel also demonstrates relationships and human connection as a vehicle for legacy, as Kirsten preserves Arthur’s memory in Diallo’s oral history because of a fleeting interaction, where he gifted her the Dr. Eleven comic. In a combination of artistic work and human kindness, Arthur claimed the remembrance he desired, entirely outside of the fame he pursued in his life. Thus, Mandel presents the futility of aiming for immortalisation, while simultaneously demonstrating the avenues by which a person can be deservedly remembered. 

Related evidence:

  • “I stood looking over my damaged home and tried to forget the sweetness of life on earth.”
  • “The more you remember, the more you’ve lost.” 
  • “We were younger than you were when everything ended, Kirsten thought, but not young enough to remember nothing at all. Because there isn’t much time left, because all of the roofs are collapsing now and soon none of the old buildings will be safe. Because we are always looking for the former world, before all the traces of the former world are gone.” 
  • “Whatever else the prophet had become, he’d once been a boy adrift on the road, and perhaps he’d had the misfortune of remembering everything.” 
  • “First we only want to be seen, but once we’re seen, that’s not enough anymore. After that, we want to be remembered.” 

Community & Belonging 

“Hell is the absence of the people you long for.”

The formation of communities is a hard-won prize in the post-apocalyptic setting of Station Eleven. The climate of fear in an environment where death is so widespread creates an “archipelago of islands”, where insular groups come together to protect themselves – contradictorily, relationships form, and are simultaneously prohibited from forming, as these communities are hostile to others. However, Mandel presents, against the instinct for survival, a willingness to try forming such communities anyway; for example, the Travelling Symphony choose a “difficult and dangerous way to survive” that allows them to perform in many towns, aiming still to “expand [their] territory” even with the threatening possibility of violence. 

Mandel’s appreciation for the capacity to form communities is one iteration of the novel’s overall admiration for human adaptability. As so many individuals have lost their families, there is nevertheless a trend to form new homes and new communities. From Tyler’s cult to Jeevan’s wife and child, the community at Severn City Airport or the Symphony – “their only home” – it is clear that people are capable of creating a place for themselves, and forging meaningful connections, by using shared works of art or value systems in order to bring people together. 

Related Evidence:

  • “The world’s become so local, hasn’t it? We hear stories from traders, of course, but most people don’t leave their towns anymore.” 
  • “These towns had fought off ferals, buried their neighbours, lived and died and suffered together in the blood-drenched years just after the collapse, survived against unspeakable odds and then only by holding together into the calm, and these places didn't go out of their way to welcome outsiders.” 

Authenticity vs Superficiality 

“The corporate world’s full of ghosts. And actually, let me revise that…adulthood’s full of ghosts.” 

Mandel presents an almost paradoxical image of the modern world, where despite immense connectivity and capacity for communication, meaningful connection is rare. There is an acknowledgment of the human ingenuity involved in the construction of such an infrastructure, and the connection that emerges from a society that is so interdependent. However, this world is inescapably artificial. The opening scene establishes this from the first line; Arthur, described as the king he is playing and not by his own name, surrounded by snow made of plastic that is only a synthetic imitation of the natural. From Clarke’s perspective, the people around him are barely human, described as “zombies” and “ghosts” that unintentionally move through life without meaningful connection. 

By contrast, despite the isolation engendered by the Georgia Flu, the crisis appears to create opportunity for realisation which allows individuals to live more authentically. This is particularly true of Clarke, who questions “when was the last time he’d been truly moved by anything”, only to develop a purpose that left him “moved by every object he saw there” in his Museum of Civilisation. Mandel also creates a parallel between Kirsten and Arthur – both Shakespearean actors, both wearing a “crown of flowers” as they perform as Titania and Lear respectively – which demonstrates the transition between acting as a superficial, fame-oriented career into a genuine expression of passion. This aligns with the transition of the theatre as an institution, and as Mandel notes the return to “a twilight once more lit by candles”, as it was in Shakespearean times, it is evident that the theatre has developed into a less glamorous and far more authentic mode of performance. 

Related Evidence: 

  • “We bemoaned the impersonality of the modern world, but that was a lie, it seemed to him; it had never been impersonal at all. There had always been a massive delicate infrastructure of people” 
  • “The snow was plastic, Jeevan noted peripherally, little bits of translucent plastic.” 
  • “I want to do something that matters” 
  • “Kirsten stood in the state of suspension that always came over her at the end of performances, a sense of having flown very high and landed incompletely, her soul pulling upward out of her chest.”

Rich with symbols and metaphor, Mandel’s Station Eleven is consistently and deliberately ambiguous, allowing the text to rigorously explore so many complex questions – specifically, what creates value in individual lives, and in civilisation as a whole? The nuances with which Mandel addresses these questions make this novel challenging to analyse, but recognising these subtleties will only make your writing stronger. Additionally, these themes are all interrelated – community and art completely intertwined, the exploration of legacy a display of the superficial and the authentic. The weaving of so many connections and contrasts makes Station Eleven such a vibrant novel, and if analysed, will allow your analysis to have similar brilliance.
 


Station Eleven's Form and Features 

The construction of Station Eleven is not at all typical. There is no one main character, and the storyline unfolds in pieces scattered across the novel’s timeline. These structural features are, of course, choices of the author and therefore evidence of the novel’s central messages – they should form as great a part in any analysis as quoting the text itself. 

Non-chronological order 

The story of Station Eleven flashes forward, and backward, and forward again, constantly contrasting the past and present. This breaking of chronology serves several purposes in the novel; it particularly highlights the ongoing influence of memories, as the novel’s structure mirrors the process of remembrance and reflection. This structure also enhances the comparisons which Mandel frequently draws between characters, institutions, and the nature of the world before and after the flu. Specifically, it creates a strong focus on the development of individual characters, such as Jeevan and Clarke, who drastically change their personal philosophies and professions. 

This contrasting is not limited only to character. The theatre, for instance, is an institution which drastically transforms from a space “like a terminal” to a “permanent home”. The money and glamour of Arthur Leander’s career is positioned as drastically inauthentic against the makeshift costumes and candlelit performances of the Travelling Symphony, and, on a more personal level, the genuine friendship between Kirsten and August is resolutely distinguished from Arthur’s detachment from his family. Therefore, Mandel’s broader statements about the renewed authenticity of art, or superficiality preventing human connection, are underpinned by the structure of the novel. 

Mandel also uses this fragmented narrative to highlight the fragility of society. Mirroring Kirsten and August’s searches through abandoned houses, the evidence of ‘what used to be’ reinforces how vulnerable such institutions were – in this case, the supposed safety and comfort offered by a home. Every aspect of setting in these flashbacks highlights the vast shift in reality: the presence of electricity, the utility of light switches, the casual ability to make a phone call. The novel’s flashes to the past serve as constant reminders of what was lost – “these taken for granted miracles that had persisted all around them.”

On another note, the consistent return of the narrative to the past adds a cyclical feel to the progression of the novel. As the audience constantly revisits the past in reflection of the present, what emerges is not just reflection on the evidence of loss, but also a clear recognition of the threads of continuation – the total transformation of society didn’t change everything. These threads exist on every page of Station Eleven; particularly obvious is the ongoing references to Shakespearean plays, which continue to be performed and rehearsed in every stage of the novel’s timeline. A consistent desire for connection, an ongoing preoccupation with legacy, a love of art, a reliance on forces outside one’s control – all of these are exhibited as inherently human traits, affected by the collapse, but persistent in their presence. 

This implication of a cyclical civilisation is ambiguous in its conclusion. Like any other piece of evidence, this feature is open to interpretation: is it a commentary on our inability to let go of the past, and leave the worst of the old world behind? Or is it an endorsement of humanity’s tenacity to keep “what was best about the world” alive? If it does imply hope that civilisation, as part of a cycle, could fall and rise, is it a good or bad thing that the pre-collapse world might resurge? 

Ensemble Cast 

Who is the main character in Station Eleven? The novel opens with Arthur’s death, and as its narrative unfolds the audience learns more and more of his life. Arthur might lead King Lear, but can a man who dies before the Flu even begins claim to drive the novel’s narrative? Miranda authors the Dr.Eleven comics, whose setting is significant enough to become the novel’s title. Still, she dies alone in Malaysia while the story of Station Eleven continues. The audience views the pandemic’s unfolding through Jeevan’s eyes, yet he fades from relevance. 

The answer to this question is annoyingly non-committal: there isn’t one. But it is only non-committal because Station Eleven refuses to choose a main character – this is a novel which does not focus on the development of a single person, but rather surveys the world through the experiences of a diverse ensemble. This allows Mandel to reinforce ideas by repeating narratives through multiple characters: Clarke and Jeevan both finding authenticity in their professions, Miranda and Clarke both experiencing the loneliness of the corporate world, Kirsten and the Museum and Francois Diallo all attempting to preserve records of the past. The collection of characters displaying the same instincts lessens the importance of the individual, as Mandel suggests these tendencies or experiences are universal – instead of exploring why one person might want to create art, for example, Station Eleven examines how all people derive meaning from art. 

Intertextuality & Multimedia 

Another distinctive feature of Station Eleven is its interweaving of different forms of literature, and references to other real work, within the world of the novel. 

Some examples of real-world texts in Station Eleven
The epigraph (Czeslaw Milosz poem) 
Shakespearean plays – King Lear, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet (by name only)
Star Trek: Voyager 
The Passage, by Justin Cronin (not mentioned by name) 
The Bible 
Sartr – “hell is other people” 
Yeats – “Love is like the lion’s tooth” 

Examples of non-real texts:
Dr. Eleven comics 
Dear V. 
Diallo’s transcripts 
Magazines 

These serve as constant reminders of the human desire to create and share art. Throughout Station Eleven, the joy and meaning in artwork is an enriching force in Mandel’s otherwise harsh narrative of survival. Additionally, the heavy presence of reference in the novel creates a sense of a continuous culture which stubbornly survives, and even evolves, through the destruction of the Georgia Flu. The intertwining of art with human life also reinforces the potency of art as a unifying force, forming communities and connection in a distinctly hostile environment. 

Key Symbols 

Paperweight

“The paperweight was a smooth lump of glass with storm clouds in it, about the size of a plum. It was of no practical use whatsoever, nothing but dead weight in the bag, but she found it beautiful.” 

The paperweight symbolises art’s ability to survive the changing nature of society. In a world where “the cabs were stripped of everything that added excess weight”, this “dead weight” is preserved by Kirsten despite the disadvantage it poses. The reasoning behind it is a common motivation in Station Eleven: the appreciation of beauty. As Mandel creates a direct opposition between the priority of survival and the human tendency to seek beauty, the paperweight demonstrates the dedication of humanity to sustain art against the odds. 

The possession of the paperweight also travels throughout the course of the novel. First a gift from Clarke to Miranda, then from Arthur to Tanya, it ends up in Kirsten’s backpack, one of the few items she carries. Consequently, it serves as a physical representation of the interconnectedness of these people who, without realising, have all shared ownership of this object. This detail reinforces the interlinked nature of humanity, while also establishing the power of art to provide human connection. 

Related evidence: 
“She [Miranda] held the paperweight for a moment, admiring it in the limelight.” 
“The last thing he [Arthur] wanted in his life was a paperweight” 
"There seemed to be a limitless number of objects in the world that had no practical use but that people wanted to preserve: cell phones with their delicate buttons, iPads…a number of impractical shoes, stilettos mostly, beautiful and strange.” 

Airplanes 

“I dreamt last night I saw an airplane,” Dieter whispered… “In the dream I was so happy…There was still a civilisation somewhere.”

Station Eleven continually examines civilisation, questioning its definition and exploring its fragility. Within this examination, “airplanes” symbolise the heights of technological progression and capability which existed in the modern world. As characters mourn the loss of flight, and simultaneously dream of its wonder, Mandel praises the inspirational nature of human ingenuity. 

In addition to implying the incredulous loss of technology, the symbol of the “airplane” demonstrates the grave personal sacrifices involved in the collapse. This is most exemplified in the “ghost plane”, Air Grade Jet 452, where individuals chose to quarantine themselves so as to avoid further infection, choosing instead to commit to their own deaths. The sacrifice is haunting, and as Tyler chooses to make the symbol of his cult an “airplane”, it is clear that the traumatic confrontation with death lingers in the memories of survivors. Exemplifying the heavy presence of survivor’s guilt, this symbol provides a contrast between the passengers’ nobility and Tyler’s brutality, outlining the best and worst of human reaction to crisis. 

Related evidence:
“No one emerged from the Air Gradia jet on the tarmac.”
“The symbol itself, the pattern of the scar…It’s an airplane.” 

Pinpricks of light / Electricity 

“In the distance, pinpricks of light arranged into a grid. There, plainly visible on the side of a hill some miles distant: a town, or a village, whose streets were lit up with electricity.” 

The final line of Station Eleven is a powerful statement of optimism. The “pinpricks of light” epitomise Mandel’s quiet hopefulness, hinting at the possibility that civilisation could endure this wave of destruction. Electricity, similarly to flight, is a small part of the technological capability which created the connected infrastructure of society. Throughout the novel, the wonder with which characters speak about – or imagine – electricity characterises innovation as a cycle of inspiration, which transcends the limitations of the technology itself. 

Related evidence: 
“A few of the younger Symphony members had felt a little thrill…wondered if the Internet might still be out there somehow, invisible pinpricks of light suspended in the air around them.” 
“She [Kirsten] was fascinated by electricity.” 

Rich with symbols and metaphor, Mandel’s Station Eleven is consistently and deliberately ambiguous, allowing the text to rigorously explore so many complex questions – specifically, what creates value in individual lives, and in civilisation as a whole? The nuances with which Mandel addresses these questions make this novel challenging to analyse, but recognising these subtleties will only make your writing stronger. Additionally, these themes are all interrelated – community and art completely intertwined, the exploration of legacy a display of the superficial and the authentic. The weaving of so many connections and contrasts makes Station Eleven such a vibrant novel, and if analysed, will allow your analysis to have similar brilliance.