Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel: The Basics

This Resource is ‘A Brief Synopsis’ only for Mainstream English Year 12 Students studying Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel in AOS1, Unit 3: Analytical Study in the VCE Victorian Curriculum.


Instead of Covid-19, Station Eleven’s world is devastated by the ‘Georgia Flu’.  The fictional plague is more deadly and contagious than Covid-19; this flu virus kills 99% of the earth’s population in a matter of weeks.  We, as readers, can see certain parallels with the pandemic that engulfs the world today, such as hoarding of groceries in the early days of Covid-19, overrun hospital emergency departments, face masks and the idea of some similarity to Station Eleven.  Life imitating art.

Yet Station Eleven’s world is a story of complete collapse of civilisation and a rebirth in a world of survivors who are devoid of doctors, countries, communities, no technology and where luck or fate picks who lives or dies.  Children learn to kill or be killed within an ever-thrumming baseline of danger.

However, Emily St. John Mandel’s novel Station Eleven is ‘speculative fiction’ that if there were a doomsday event, there may initially be a period of chaotic social collapse, but gradually the surviving people would organise themselves into communities akin to our contemporary civil society.  Mandel worries that the civilisation we take for granted is fragile and vulnerable, and ‘could fail quite easily’, but she harbours ‘a possibly naïve but stubborn notion that the overwhelming majority of people on earth really just want to live peacefully and raise their kids and go about their business with a minimum of fear and insecurity.’

Emily St. John Mandel

Civilisation in a Post-pandemic World

While Mandel’s central thematic ideas are of truth, hope, love and moral courage, she leaves readers with something positive rather than negative.  The characters are more often inspired by art, knowledge and concern for others than by fear, superficial ideas, authoritarianism or self-interest.  The novel values: trusting rather than controlling others; connecting with and paying attention to each other rather than pursuing the illusory thrills of self-promotion and fame; and above all, creating rather than destroying.  We see how interconnectivity both creates and dismantles civilisation.

Pivotal in the novel’s network of characters is the celebrity actor Arthur Leander, while the ‘Georgia Flu’ provides the pivotal moment of world-wide ‘collapse’ in a narrative timeline which, although presented non-chronologically, spans five decades.  Arthur is performing as King Lear in Toronto’s Elgin Theatre when he, and within days the whole society, collapses.  After this apocalypse, we follow Kirsten and her companions in the Travelling Symphony, Clark who becomes a museum curator in the airport lounge, and Jeevan the paramedic who eventually lives with his family in a community in Virginia.  Readers gradually build a picture of the three decades preceding the apocalypse, as well as the two decades after it, piecing together as the narrative takes us back and forward in time the network of relationships among Arthur, his first wife Miranda, his other wives, his friend Clark, his putative rescuer and erstwhile paparazzo Jeevan, and his son Tyler’s future nemesis, Kirsten.

Perspective on the Text

Emily St. John Mandel’s novel invites readers, not so much to fear doomsday and its dystopian aftermath, as to think about what we truly value in the society we currently inhabit.  Each of Mandel’s main characters represents the good in humanity; each of them is engaged in work that either cares for others and builds community or creates art that shows ‘the best of the world’.  Kirsten, Clark, Miranda, Jeevan, even Arthur, each is honest, creative, and selfless yet strong, even though they are also being human but flawed in some way.

Structure of the Text

Mandel’s non-chronological narrative pivots around the moment of Arthur’s (and the world’s) collapse.  Whilst the narrative point of view is generally omniscient, or third person, readers frequently have access to the thoughts of a character, Miranda, Clark, Jeevan or Kirsten.  The reader becomes aware, after a while, that the non-linear recursive structure reflects the nature of memory.  The plot unfurls across not only timelines but characters and Miranda’s comic book ‘Dr Eleven’ is the portkey that reveals the tangled web we weave of life.

The Importance of the Arts and Sciences

With Miranda’s art (Dr Eleven Comics) as its central motif, the novel highlights the importance in society of both the humanities and the sciences.  We see Mandel’s characters devoting themselves to visual and performing arts because these show the best of a society, and to writing, history and the media because by keeping records of the past, humans have a hope of understanding the present and doing better in the future.  We see the characters remembering electricity and aeroplanes, and hoping for the resurgence of these lost wonders of the world since they represent high points in humankind’s scientific knowledge.

Issues and Themes
Survival is insufficient / survival is arbitrary / human instinctContagion & disasters / death/ violence & abuse in a tarnished new world / fearSociety & the individual / communitarianism versus individualism
Isolation and loneliness versus community connectednessMemory / the self & society/ loss / nostalgia / history / regret / remembering the old world / transience of memoryCreativity / arts / sciences / enduring nature of arts and power to reflect reality
BelongingHope / optimism / luck in a crisisTruth
LoveMoral courageCreating order from chaos
Trust & communityBeauty of life in the old worldReligion
Station ElevenThe paperweightShakespeare
The Letters to VictoriaLuli the dog’s nameFlight/aeroplanes
Water imageryDeath imageryVirus as an avenging angel

Analytical Text Response Topics

  1. “Survival is insufficient.” How does Mandel show that there is more to life than mere survival?
  2. “I see you, I see you, I see you.” ‘Miranda, more than other characters in the novel, makes the best of life despite feeling lonely and disconnected.’ Discuss.
  3. To what extent does Station Eleven suggest that a crisis brings out the best in people?
  4. ‘Arthur may be the central character in Mandel’s novel, but he is not the main character.’ Discuss.
  5. ‘Station Eleven suggests that it is better to be inspired by truth and beauty than by success.’ Discuss.
  6. Discuss the roles played by Dr. Eleven and the Museum of Civilisation in Mandel’s novel.
  7. ‘The characters in Station Eleven are sustained by their memories.’ Do you agree?
  8. ‘Station Eleven is more about creativity in the arts and sciences than about a post-pandemic dystopia.’ Do you agree?
  9. ‘Despite the extreme difficulty of their situation, none of the characters succumbs to fear or pessimism.’ Discuss.
  10. ‘The characters in Station Eleven are motivated more by love than fear.’ Discuss.

All Resources created by Online Tutoring using Zoom for Mainstream English Students in the Victorian Curriculum

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