Station Eleven begins with the death of Arthur Leander from a heart attack, and then quickly moves to portray a world in which 99 percent of the population has died from a global flu pandemic. In this way, the novel explores death both on a personal and global scale. On a personal level, the primary characters of the novel are all connected to Arthur in some way. His on-stage death affects them all, whether because they witness it, like fellow-actor Kirsten or audience-member Jeevan, or because, as for Clark and Miranda, Arthur was such an important, if complicated, part of their lives. The novel is therefore able to show how different people react to Arthur’s death. This connection of the main characters in the novel through Arthur and his death also emphasizes the impact individual lives, and individual deaths, have on a surprisingly large network of other people. Yet Arthur’s death is immediately followed by the Georgia Flu pandemic, in which billions of people die. Through the juxtaposition of a single death with mass death, the novel is able to suggest how all of the dead are unique and important in the same way that Arthur is, while also depicting how mass death can often make those who died anonymous or just a statistic.
The novel doesn’t just focus on the dead, though. It also depicts the particular experiences, both physical and psychological, of those who survived. For instance, survivors often wonder why they survived while others didn’t, and the novel shows how such a desire to find meaning in survival drives some, like Elizabeth and Tyler, to grow increasingly religious. Meanwhile, the novel also shows just how random survival actually is—both through Jeevan’s luck in receiving a call from a friend warning him of the pandemic and the way that Miranda’s graphic novel, which she had no intention of sharing, becomes an important piece of art for a number of the survivors.
Though surviving the Flu is random, the characters also have to struggle to keep surviving, to stay alive and sane in the harsh and dangerous post-collapse world. Kirsten’s knife tattoos, documenting the people she has had to kill, embody both the stakes of surviving and its toll: she was forced to kill in order to remain alive, but performing those killings has marked and changed her, both figuratively and literally. Meanwhile, Jeevan’s paraplegic brother Frank realizes that he is a burden on his brother, and he kills himself in order to increase Jeevan’s chances of surviving. The novel emphasizes the way that characters try to avoid death at all costs, but it also shows time and again how closely survival is linked to death, like two sides of the same coin. What’s more, as the words of both the Traveling Symphony’s motto and of Kirsten’s second tattoo read, “survival is insufficient.” The novel argues that humans, to be human, must do more than just survive; they must live. It then offers art, ingenuity, and kindness as means of truly living.
Death and Survival ThemeTracker
Death and Survival Quotes in Station Eleven
In the lobby, the people gathered at the bar clinked their glasses together. “To Arthur,” they said. They drank for a few more minutes and then went their separate ways in the storm.
Of all of them there at the bar that night, the bartender was the one who survived the longest. He died three weeks later on the road out of the city.
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."
"You're always half on Station Eleven," Pablo said during a fight a week or so ago, "and I don't even understand your project. What are you actually going for here?"
"You don't have to understand it," she said. "It's mine."
“No one ever thinks they're awful, even people who really actually are. It's some sort of survival mechanism."
“I think this is happening because it was supposed to happen." Elizabeth speaks very softly.
"I'd prefer not to think that I'm following a script," Miranda says.
"If you are the light, if your enemies are darkness, then there's nothing that you cannot justify. There's nothing you can't survive, because there's nothing that you will not do."
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?
The corridor was silent. It was necessary to walk very slowly, her hand on the wall. A man was curled on his side near the elevators, shivering. She wanted to speak to him, but speaking would take too much strength, so she looked at him instead—I see you, I see you—and hoped this was enough.
“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.