Station Eleven': Plot Summary
In Emily St. John Mandel’s post – apocalyptic novel ‘Station Eleven’ memory plays a significant role in the lives of the characters. Due to the Georgia Flu, wiping most of the worlds population and creating a world destruction, the characters in Mandel’s novel are ripped from the warmth and safety of their civilised lives and world and thrown into the deep end being an era of chaos and cruelty.
Though these characters learn to survive this new world, at times when they all seem to thrive there is still that longing for the old world and the past. For those characters old enough to recall the word before its collapse, remembering this can help them move forward into the new world with fond memories of the past. Some characters also do find the nerve to ask themselves whether they need these old memories or should they be forgotten, tossed aside as remains of the distant past.
Memories of the old world carry a great level of significance for those who are searching for meaning an identity in their past lives. This is evident in Kirsten’s obsession with Arthur, whose death is “the clearest memory she has retained” from the past world. Though she struggles to remember the little things such as “her street address” or “her mothers face”, her mind keeps going back to Arthur, as she is consumed by the want to learn more about him. She continues to search for objects from the past, such as old magazine clippings and the Dr. Eleven comics that she remembers receiving as child from Arthur. By seeking out relics from the old world that may illuminate her old life, Kirsten is able to maintain a sense of hope and preserve the vision she has of the old world to which she clings so desperately to. Kirsten notes that “the people who’s struggle the most with it are the people who remember the old world clearly”. Although Kirsten meets Arthur’s best friend, Clarke, the the novel’s conclusion, there is still no-one alive who can shed light on the relationship she shared with Arthur in another lifetime.
The changeable and short-term nature of memory further complicates the character’s extent to clearly and accurately remember the old world. Kirsten’s memory of Arthur is only “a fleeting impression of kindness on grey hair”, she is responding to an impression she had retained from twenty years ago. As she lives in a violent and disorganised world, it is understandable that she would remember a memory of a ‘kind’ past life. In this way, she is perhaps showing, through Arthur, how she wishes and longs the world could still be like as she progresses her way through this new life, holding on to such kind memories.
For some characters, this is a different feeling with these memories. Living in an era of hardship provokes feelings of bitterness and distaste towards the former world. Dieter finds it increasingly difficult to look back on a society that was once happy, safe place and filled with wonders like technology and air travel. Aged twenty at the time of the collapse, Dieter “remembered everything” causing conflict between him and Kirsten, whom he regards as lucky to have forgotten all about their past lives and the old world. Dieter hopes beyond hope to see the wonders of the old society, in particular air travel, resurrected, “for a whole decade after the pandemic, I kept looking at the sky.” His exhaustive recollection of the old world inspires hope.
While some are unable to accept the demise of the old world, other recognise their good fortune at having been witness to its many wonders, but those born after the the pandemic are not given either as an option. In contrast to Dieter’s dependency, Clarke recognises how lucky he is “ to have lived among these wonders for so long.” His pleasant associations with the old world lead him to found the ‘Museum of Civilisation’, preserving the memory of the past world through objects. Similarly, Francois Diallo believes that “the more we know about the former world, the better we’ll understand what happened when it fell”, and seeks to document recent events so that they are never forgotten. The children born into the new world are presented with and interesting dilemma articulated by Kirsten, when she wonders, “as she always did when she saw the children”, if it was “better or worse to have never known any world except the one after the Georgia Flu”. While these children have no memories from the old world to inspire them or to dishearten them, their innocence protects them from understanding the horror that caused a crack in the human history.
Station Eleven explores the complexities and shading of memory in the ways in which it can be quite difficult and affect the human spirit. Mandel shows how memories can be used to promote greater links to past, and also to identities but also calls into question the reliability of memory. In the novel memories of the old world provoke both positive and negative reactions to Mandel’s characters, with some grateful of there memories of the past accomplished civilisation, while others feel downhearted knowing what humankind has lost and how it can be like that forever.
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