Station Eleven is a story about the collapse of modern civilization, but it also explores just what civilization is. By telling the story of the collapse and including depictions of life both before and after it, Mandel is able to explore civilization through different lenses. Before the collapse, civilization is presented as mundane and at times stifling, or even as misguided and problematic. Arthur and Miranda’s transition from their small native island to larger cities exhibits the disconnection between humans and nature. On Delano Island, for example, the night sky was filled with stars, but in a large city like Toronto, the stars are obscured by light pollution. Though civilization appeals to Arthur and Miranda for the anonymity, privacy, and freedom it offers, the difficulty of describing their island home to others also illustrates the way that civilization also disconnects human beings from each other. In the golden age of technology, humans seem to sleepwalk through life. Indeed, the only “zombies” in this apocalypse story are cellphone zombies who walk around completely disconnected from their environments and the people around them.
But after the collapse, devices and technologies that had come to seem mundane are suddenly revealed to be miraculous. In the depiction of modern society, people seemed to be isolated by their technology. But in a world without technology – no airplanes, television, radio, or internet – people are truly, physically cut off from each other, unable to know what is going on in the world at large or even in the next town over. Meanwhile, the loss of antibiotics and medicine make formerly routine infections suddenly life threatening. Even getting food or finding shelter becomes profoundly difficult. Devices taken for granted twenty years earlier now seem to survivors as miraculous, and get preserved as artifacts in the Museum of Civilization by those hoping to preserve knowledge of and eventually return to that civilized world that they now think of as a kind of paradise. The way that the survivors think about the civilization that has disappeared shows how much humans rely on civilization, and yet also underscores how many of its miracles are taken for granted.
The novel makes clear that a part of the reason people take the privileges of civilization for granted is our inability, or perhaps refusal, to see just how fragile civilization is. For instance, at one point Mandel traces the design, production, and shipping of one product that passes through countless human hands on the way to the consumer. In following the journey of this product, Mandel shows that such a journey, passing across so many minds and hands, is miraculous, but also that the entire journey is in some sense invisible: neither the person receiving the product nor those along the product’s path ever thinks of it in its entirety. In a sense, then, modern civilization is built on connections while at the same time hiding those connections. At the same time, by highlighting how the connected world can accomplish such marvels, Mandel also captures the irony that this very connectivity is what enables the destruction of civilization: it is because our civilization is so advanced and connected that the virus is able to spread so quickly and efficiently throughout the globe. Finally, by highlighting the human enterprise that goes into each object, Mandel emphasizes that even while our civilization has produced amazing technology, it is not technology that makes civilization—it’s people, and the failure of civilization occurs not with the failure of technology, but with the mass death of human beings.
However, Mandel also makes clear that while civilization is made by humans, civilization is not what makes us human. During the collapse, many people can’t accept that civilization has truly fallen. Instead, they believe that soon the lights will turn back on and the Red Cross will arrive. In other words, they can’t imagine civilization failing and they continue to believe that civilization will “show up” and save them. Such fantasies provide comfort, of course, but they also fit the Georgia Flu epidemic within a larger narrative in which human civilization is unstoppable and always progressing. Civilization, though, does collapse; the Red Cross never rides in to the rescue. And yet, the novel makes clear, life continues. Towns slowly emerge out of the chaos. The Travelling Symphony travels from town to town, bringing art and culture that has endured. A museum devoted to the memory of the past emerges. Religious groups seek meaning. The post-collapse world is tenuous and dangerous, and the people in it can do terrible things, but they can also love, and build connections, and use their ingenuity, and create art. So when at the end of the novel Kirsten sees a town in the distance that seems to be using electricity, it is not the story of civilization returning, like some airplane suddenly appearing in the sky. It is instead part of the story of humanity, and how humans – because they are humans, and because for humans survival is insufficient – are creating civilization anew.
Civilization Quotes in Station Eleven
No more flight. No more towns glimpsed from the sky through airplane windows, points of glimmering light; no more looking down from thirty thousand feet and imagining the lives lit up by those lights at that moment. No more airplanes, no more requests to put your tray table in its upright and locked position—but no, this wasn't true, there were still airplanes here and there. They stood dormant on runways and in hangars. They collected snow on their wings. In the cold months, they were ideal for food storage. In summer the ones near orchards were filled with trays of fruit that dehydrated in the heat. Teenagers snuck into them to have sex. Rust blossomed and streaked.
They'd performed more modern plays sometimes in the first few years, but what was startling, what no one would have anticipated, was that audiences seemed to prefer Shakespeare to their other theatrical offerings.
"People want what was best about the world," Dieter said.
What was lost in the collapse: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty.
All three caravans of the Traveling Symphony are labeled as such, THE TRAVELING SYMPHONY lettered in white on both sides, but the lead caravan carries an additional line of text: Because survival is insufficient.
"The flu," the prophet said, "the great cleansing that we suffered twenty years ago, that flu was our flood. The light we carry within us is the ark that carried Noah and his people over the face of the terrible waters, and I submit that we were saved"—his voice was rising—"not only to bring the light, to spread the light, but to be the light. We were saved because we are the light. We are the pure."
Some towns … want to talk about what happened, about the past. Other towns, discussion of the past is discouraged. We went to a place once where the children didn't know the world had ever been different, although you'd think all the rusted-out automobiles and telephones wires would give them a clue.
I was thinking about the island. It seems past-tense somehow, like a dream I had once. I walk down these streets and wander in and out of parks and dance in clubs and I think "once I walked along the beach with my best friend V., once I built forts with my little brother in the forest, once all I saw were trees" and all those true things sound false, it's like a fairy tale someone told me. I stand waiting for lights to change on corners in Toronto and that whole place, the island I mean, it seems like a different planet.
On silent afternoons in his brother's apartment, Jeevan found himself thinking about how human the city is, how human everything is. 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, all of them working unnoticed around us, and when people stop going to work, the entire operation grinds to a halt.
“Well, we'll just stay here till the lights come back on or the Red Cross shows up or whatever."
“What makes you think the lights will come back on?" Frank asked without looking up. Jeevan started to reply, but words failed him.
I’ve been thinking about immortality lately. … They're all immortal to me. First we only want to be seen, but once we're seen, that’s not enough anymore. After that, we want to be remembered.
I can't remember the year we spent on the road, and I think that means I can't remember the worst of it. But my point is, doesn't it seem to you that the people who have the hardest time in this—this current era, whatever you want to call it, the world after the Georgia Flu—doesn't it seem like the people who struggle the most with it are the people who remember the old world clearly?
I think about my childhood, the life I lived on Delano Island, that place was so small. Everyone knew me, not because I was special or anything just because everyone knew everyone, and the claustrophobia of that, I can't tell you. I just wanted some privacy. For as long as I could remember I just wanted to get out, and then I got to Toronto and no one knew me. Toronto felt like freedom.
“I was in the hotel,” he said finally. “I followed your footprints in the snow.” There were tears on his face.
“Okay," someone said, "but why are you crying?”
“I'd thought I was the only one,” he said.
When it came down to it, François had realized, all of the Symphony's stories were the same, in two variations. Everyone else died, I walked, I found the Symphony. Or, I was very young when it happened, I was born after it happened, I have no memories or few memories of any other way of living, and I have been walking all my life.
She had once met an old man up near Kincardine who'd sworn that the murdered follow their killers to the grave, and she was thinking of this as they walked, the idea of dragging souls across the landscape like cans on a string. The way the archer had smiled, just at the end.
She stepped back. “It isn't possible,” she said.
“But there it is. Look again.”
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.