Chapters 7–12 Summary and Analysis
Last Updated on January 20, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1434
Twenty years later, the Traveling Symphony is moving near Lake Michigan during a July heatwave. They are a theater company of sorts; Kirsten is reading from King Lear. Gil, the seventy-two-year-old director, is riding one of the horses. August is playing Edgar; Dieter is learning the part of Lear. Alexandra, fifteen, was found on the road as a baby.
After the pandemic, people first traveled, then hunkered down where they could. The Symphony began when a conductor of a military orchestra set out walking from the air base where the orchestra was living and then bumped into Gil's company of Shakespearean actors. They have been traveling together ever since, performing music and Shakespeare.
When they stop, Alexandra asks Kirsten about Traverse City, where an inventor has rigged up a bicycle to power a laptop. Kirsten says she can't remember what computer screens really looked like, but she doesn't believe modern inventors could ever find the Internet again.
Now, Kirsten and August often break into abandoned houses and steal TV guides and books of poetry. Kirsten in particular searches for celebrity gossip magazines, having once found a picture of Arthur in one of them. She remembers little about the pre-flu world, but she remembers Arthur, the man who once presented her with two comic books. Today she collects whatever she can find written about him.
The two comics Arthur gave Kirsten were the first two volumes of a series called Dr. Eleven. Kirsten now has them memorized.
Dr. Eleven is a physicist who lives on Station Eleven, a space station resembling a small planet. The comics are incredibly beautifully produced; the author is given only as “M.C.,” and a note indicates that only ten copies of each book ever existed.
Kirsten has taken care of the comics, but they are dog-eared. The first issue falls open to an image of Dr. Eleven standing on dark rocks overlooking an indigo sea with his dog, Luli. The text reads: "I stood looking over my damaged home and tried to forget the sweetness of life on Earth."
The Symphony arrives in St. Deborah by the Water, where, two years ago, they left pregnant Charlie and the sixth guitar, the baby's father. They expect these old friends to come out and greet them as they move toward the camp at the Walmart, playing their instruments, but they do not.
The Symphony members park their caravan and horses at the Walmart. August suggests that their old friends are off working, but the town feels too empty, and one actor, Sayid, suggests that playing King Lear will make the place more depressing. Gil suggests A Midsummer Night's Dream instead.
As they rehearse, Dieter and Kirsten discuss how creepily empty the town seems. On previous visits it was full of people.
Kirsten is playing Titania opposite Sayid's Oberon: she and Sayid were a couple for two years until Kirsten slept with a traveling peddler, making their current roles now rather awkward to play.
The Symphony suffers from the same interpersonal squabbles and irritations suffered by all groups before the pandemic as well as after it. Relationships, jealousies, neuroses, and medical issues notwithstanding, the group travels, rehearses, and performs together 365 days of the year, always on tour and united by a camaraderie despite it all.
Sometimes people leave the Symphony, but as time goes on, the small towns that still exist have become increasingly less welcoming of outsiders. August is three years older than Kirsten and remembers slightly more about the time before: he knows that small towns have always been difficult, but now they are impossible. Only the Symphony is home.
After the rehearsal, Kirsten tells August she is going to go and look for Charlie. The oldest families in town lived in the Motor Lodge; the McDonald's housed families last time they were here, but they have gone now. At the Wendy's, an unfamiliar woman opens the door, and Kirsten asks after Charlie, a cellist, who lived here two years ago with her husband, Jeremy.
Inside the Wendy's, the town midwife, Maria, recognizes Kirsten and says that Charlie had her baby, Annabel, but they had to leave town afterward because Charlie rejected the prophet’s advances. She says that the Symphony should leave town as soon as they can.
As Kirsten walks back to the Symphony, Dieter intercepts her and takes her to see three painted markers bearing Charlie, Jeremy, and Annabel's names. But Dieter notes that the ground is undisturbed; nobody is buried there. He also points out that a child is following them and suggests they ask her. The girl says that Charlie and Jeremy left town but runs away before she will say more.
The tuba player later returns to the camp and says that, according to an acquaintance, an epidemic hit the town, and twenty families left. They discuss the prophet. Gil says that they couldn't have predicted this when they left Charlie and Jeremy here.
Kirsten reminds them all that the midwife said they should leave quickly. The conductor says he will make more enquiries after the show.
Although almost everything and everyone was lost in the collapse, beauty remains. Sayid and Kirsten are speaking lines written in 1594, wearing clothes scavenged from abandoned houses. Kirsten knows that plague repeatedly closed the theaters for Shakespeare; now they perform by candlelight, as he did.
Kirsten and the Symphony feel alive only when they perform, because "survival is insufficient" without art.
After the play finishes, a youngish man with blond hair stands up and addresses his "people." He tells them that the virus was "perfection," a cleansing that equated to the biblical flood. He says that those who survived are "the pure" and are intended to preserve the light but that there will be more "cullings" to come.
The conductor is uncomfortable and says to the prophet later that there are no other towns near this one; the prophet says that despite this, his people are all free to go if they wish.
When they ask about the gravemarkers, the prophet says that when people leave "without permission," gravemarkers are erected because they are essentially dead. The prophet has a dog called Luli. He calls to it, and he and his people slink away.
The Symphony quickly pack up and begin walking. They encounter a young boy who asks if they have permission to leave. The conductor tells the boy that they don't have permission; the boy says that when people leave without permission, funerals are held, and if they come back they are killed.
The boy asks if he can come with them, but the conductor is afraid of being accused of kidnapping, so the Symphony keep walking into the night.
The conductor tells Kirsten that, after the concert, the prophet suggested leaving Alexandra as a guarantee of good relations for the future, to be the prophet's bride.
Later the Symphony stops to rest, and the conductor consults a map. The conductor decides they will continue south along the lakeshore and possibly encounter some former Symphony members in Severn City who could help guide the group back to their usual territory.
Kirsten climbs up into the driver's seat of the second caravan to rest. She looks through her clippings about Arthur and his family.
This section is entitled A Midsummer Night's Dream and, from the beginning, underscores the fact that although much of the old civilization has been lost, in many ways it is only the twenty-first century that has disappeared. The Traveling Symphony represent an older time: they share the same issues all groups of people do, but they also stand for the continuance of art. They perform Shakespeare in a way that still appeals to the people they see in the disparate remaining towns, and they perform it as Shakespeare's troupes once did.
In these chapters, the narrative shifts twenty years into the future. The preceding section having set the pre-pandemic scene, this section introduces us to the new reality in which the reader will spend a considerable amount of time—but the two timelines are connected. Kirsten and Arthur represent the link between the old world, as depicted in the opening scene before everything changed, and the new one in which the Symphony live. The young children indicate that life has continued and that there are already people who cannot remember what things were like before the flu hit. The travels of the Symphony are a reminder that humanity will continue not only to exist, but to create and enjoy themselves, even in the worst of times.