Station Eleven Themes

The main themes in Station Eleven are the value of art, life and death, and religion and fate.

  • The value of art: Art is deeply important to the characters and the continuance of civilization, illustrating the Traveling Symphony’s motto that “Survival is insufficient.”
  • Life and death: Arthur’s death affects the central characters’ lives in unexpected ways, while the mass deaths caused by the pandemic drastically change life for the survivors and their descendants.
  • Religion and fate: Fate seems to draw together those who knew Arthur and have been affected Dr. Eleven, including Kirsten and the fervently religious Tyler.

Themes

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Last Updated on January 20, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 991

The Value of Art

Station Eleven is a book that revolves around the importance of art and the extent to which making art, preserving art, and taking sustenance from art is a central part of the human experience. The book's title itself is a reference to the fictional Dr. Eleven ...

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The Value of Art

Station Eleven is a book that revolves around the importance of art and the extent to which making art, preserving art, and taking sustenance from art is a central part of the human experience. The book's title itself is a reference to the fictional Dr. Eleven series of comic books, drawn by Arthur Leander's first wife, Miranda Carroll. These comic books, a labor of love to which Miranda dedicated years of her life and into which she poured her own hopes, dreams, and despairs, survive the end of the world and become for Tyler a new Bible and for Kirsten a source of hope and strength. In the final scene of the novel, Clark looks out at the world and thinks of Miranda's Dr. Eleven drawings, wondering whether society is even now rebuilding itself. Miranda's art, and the hope it contains, touched barely anyone in the world before the collapse, but in the world after the pandemic, it plays a central role in the lives of multiple people, especially once it is enshrined in Clark's museum.

Miranda's comic books are far from the only evidence of art's survival in the post-pandemic world. Shakespeare is a point of reference throughout the story: Miranda herself has a name from the Shakespearean canon, while in the very first scene of the novel, Arthur Leander dies onstage in the middle of a performance of King Lear. The members of the Traveling Symphony, meanwhile, move from one town to another performing Shakespearean plays, as well as symphonies. They take inspiration from the fact that many of Shakespeare's plays emerged from a time of plague that frequently closed his theaters. Just as people survived that, so, too, will they survive this. But so-called "lowbrow" art, like comic books and television, are not disregarded as important in this new world. On the first of the Symphony's caravans is daubed a quotation from Star Trek: "Survival is insufficient." This is the motto by which the Symphony lives. It is possible to survive without art, but it is not possible to truly live.

Life and Death

On a very basic level, Station Eleven is a book about life and death. It begins with the death of Arthur Leander, a man who, because he was famous, was honored in a newspaper obituary after his death onstage. There are many ironies, however, tied up in Arthur's demise. It is notable that there were very few people personally close to Arthur toward the end of his life; his producer was unsure who should be notified, and Arthur feared that his life had been inconsequential. Yet despite this—and despite the fact that his death by heart attack presaged billions of other deaths from the Georgia Flu—Arthur's death has a ripple effect upon numerous people. His death affects and connects Kirsten, a child actress who knew him and who spends years trying to find traces of him; Elizabeth, Tyler, and Clark, who travel on the same plane to reach his funeral and are diverted together to Severn City Airport; and Jeevan, who tried to perform CPR on Arthur and whose name none of the others know. Arthur's death was considered important in the old world because he was famous, but it becomes much more important in the post-pandemic world, in many unexpected ways.

Why, Mandel seems to ask, are some deaths momentous while others are statistics? The death of Frank, Jeevan's disabled brother, is barely mentioned, but years later he is remembered in the name of Jeevan's son. Frank dies so that Jeevan can survive, and his brother honors him for that. This seems to offer a clue: while the novel revolves around those who were affected by Arthur Leander's death, there were surely just as many people affected by the deaths of every other person who died of the Georgia Flu, every other body the Symphony came across decaying in an abandoned house. Every person's death is meaningful to some and meaningless to others. Nothing makes this clearer than a pandemic. 

Religion and Fate

Fate, religion, and the many different forms religion can take are all central to this book. It is evident that all the central characters are connected to each other purely because they happen to have had some connection to Arthur Leander. In a world in which billions of people have died, it is pure fate that drew together the only two people, Kirsten and Tyler, who had ever read the Dr. Eleven comics. It is pure fate that Clark should come across a newspaper carrying an interview with Kirsten in which she discusses the death of Clark's best friend, Arthur. It is fate alone that caused Kirsten's path to cross that of the Symphony, such that she eventually finds herself at Severn City Airport with Clark.

Kirsten herself does not explicitly wonder why she and these other people who knew Arthur have survived while others have not. She uses the Dr. Eleven comic books as a source of solace, not as an overtly religious text. But for other people, with different personality types, religion is a means of survival. For Tyler, the same texts take on different meanings. Tyler becomes obsessed with the New Testament and later incorporates his favorite comic books into a new religious cult, which uses an airplane as its insignia and believes that the plague was a cleansing. Evidently, many others feel the same need for a religious motivation, because Tyler's cult following soon grows. When Tyler dies, Kirsten recognizes that, although she and Tyler diverged in how they incorporated Dr. Eleven into their lives and belief systems, they each relied upon the comic books in their own ways. It is for this reason, and because she senses this connection, that Kirsten folds the torn-out page from the treasured comic into Tyler's dead hand. For him—as it is, in a different way, for her—it is a religious tract.

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