With its plot set both before and after the Georgia Flu pandemic, Station Eleven depicts both pre-collapse civilization as it was and that same civilization as it is remembered by characters who have survived. Through these characters, and the different way they experience and respond to their memories, the novel engages in a nuanced exploration of memory itself. Through Kirsten alone, for instance, the novel shows how memory can be a comfort and source of hope, as Kirsten seeks out books and gossip magazines in abandoned homes in order to spark memories of people and the world she used to know to keep her vision of that world alive. At the same time, the fact that Kristin even needs such “reminders” speaks to how easily memories can slip away and be lost, and how the sense of losing one’s memories can be a source of terrible anxiety.
And yet, further complicating things, the novel also shows how lost memories can be a blessing: Kirsten regards her inability to remember any of Year One after the collapse as a gift, an escape from otherwise unbearable trauma. The novel also shows how memories of trauma can impact people. For instance, Tyler’s polygamy as the Prophet bears a sort of resemblance to his own father Arthur’s wife-hopping in pre-collapse days – wife-hopping that resulted in Arthur leaving Tyler and his mother – and seems to suggest that Tyler is in some sense re-enacting those memories in a twisted way that puts him in the position of power. The novel also shows that even good memories can be painful or damaging, as those who best remember civilization before the collapse often miss it most after. Through character after character, the novel shows how memories – both good and bad – can influence a person’s behavior and identity.
But it’s not just individuals who have to navigate memory in the novel. Mandel also explores what might be described as communal memory. Among the survivors, there are those who remember the pre-collapse world very well, those who are younger and remember it indistinctly, and those who were either so young when the collapse occurred or who were born post-collapse and therefore can only know of the pre-collapse from what they are told. Put another way, this last group only knows of the world before based on what other people remember and choose to tell them. Communal memory, then, has an element of choice to it, and the novel portrays different communities making different choices. Some towns decide to tell their children almost nothing about the pre-collapse world in the hopes of protecting their children from the pain of having lost out on that old world. In contrast, other characters see preserving memory of the past as critical. The Traveling Symphony can be seen as preserving memories of the past by performing their art. Clark preserves memory of the past with his Museum of Civilization.
Ultimately, the novel seems to side with the idea that communities have an obligation to preserve and pass memories on. Part of this obligation is immediately practical, such as the transfer of skills that pertain directly to survival or the preservation of knowledge that, in the particular setting of the novel, makes it possible for the post-collapse world to, perhaps, eventually recreate its lost technology. But even more importantly, the novel portrays how shared memories build social bonds. It shows how the strength of communities, in effect, are founded on communal memories, whether they are preserved in art, or museums, or stories told by the old to the young. Memory is valuable then, not only because it is practical, but also because engagement with communal memory is an engagement with human history, and contributing to and learning from communal memory is a way of holding on to humanity after the collapse.
Memory 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.
"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.
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.
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.