Throughout the plot of the 2014 novel Station Eleven byEmily St. John Mandel, many themes appear and affect the characters and thebook as a whole. One of the themes that seems to have the greatest effect onthe characters is the question whether remembering or forgetting the memoriesthey made before the Georgia Flu hit is the preferable option. The novelswitches back and forth between before and after the Georgia Flu, allowing thereaders to see the characters in both situations.
The novel starts with theplay King Lear, which is being performed before the pandemic killsninety-nine percent of the population. This play turns out to be a significantevent in Kirsten’s life, one of the main characters of the novel whom was veryyoung when this play occurred. Arthur Leander, the actor who played the main characterin the play, has a heart attack on stage. Another significant character thatwas affected by the outcome of this event was Arthur Leander’s son Tyler, wholater becomes more religious and becomes the Prophet.
Not long after this majorevent occurs, the novel switches to after the Georgia Flu has occurred. It thenintroduces the reader to the Traveling Symphony, a group that performsShakespeare plays to people in the area. The novel continues in this patternand follows the characters who make up that group, back and forth between thepast and the present pandemic-ridden world. The thoughts and rationales of thecharacters are provided through the explanation of a third-person omniscientnarrator, a God-like figure that can see all the thoughts and actions of thecharacters. The two characters that were mentioned above stand out in the noveldue to their standings and opinions on the theme of remembering versusforgetting. Kirsten longs to remember her life before the Georgia Flu changedsociety as she knew it. She collects mementos of her past life, specifically ofthe play she attended starring Arthur Leander, to keep those memories fresh.
This is made clear many times throughout the novel as she continued to buildupon her collections of items that mentioned the past and Arthur Leander.”There werecountless things about the pre-collapse world that Kirsten couldn’tremember—her street address, her mother’s face, the TV shows that August neverstopped talking about—but she did remember Arthur Leander, and after that firstsighting she went through every magazine she could find in search of him. Shecollected fragments, stored in a ziplock bag in her backpack.
” (Mandel, 2014,p. 47)Unlike Kirsten, Tyler is keen on the life that he develops afterthe Flu hits due to his new religious beliefs and the power he gains as timepasses. Kirsten is one of the main characters in thenovel, therefore the readers are given many instances where she is affected bythis theme. She holds onto the memory she has of the play and the death ofArthur Leander, it is a significant reason why she is so devoted to acting,even when society has resorted to merely surviving. Jeevan says to Kirsten “hewas doing the thing he loved best in the world” and to reassure her he followedwith “my point is, if acting was the last thing he ever did then the last thinghe ever did was something that made him happy” (pp. 15-16). Kirsten held thesewords near and dear to her since she related to them so strongly.
Kirsten wantsto remember her memories of the past because it drives her need to contributemore to society, this is reflected also by the Traveling Symphony’s willingnessto contribute to the arts. But, Kirsten’s opinions on this subject get slightlycomplicated when it comes to the year following the spread of the Georgia Flu.She doesn’t remember that period of her life, but unlike her memories of beforethe pandemic, but she isn’t torn up about the loss of these memories like sheis about the memories of her family and Arthur. Kirsten doesn’t dig to rememberwhat happened to her during that time, she will happily leave those memories inthe past.
Kirsten doesn’t want to remember the events that occurred in thatperiod because she will subject herself to all of the pain of what she’s lostand all that she will never regain. Kirsten discusses her views on memory andthe year after the Georgia Flu when she says, “What I mean to say is, the moreyou remember, the more you’ve lost” (p. 195).The next character that is quite an influentialcharacter throughout the novel is Tyler, another survivor of the pandemic whotakes refuge in the airport but later becomes the character known as theProphet due to his religious journey and devout following. But, unlike Kirsten,Tyler’s views on remembering the past are quite the opposite. What Tyler hasdeveloped and acquired during his transition into the Prophet is something thathe likes and prefers over what he knew in his past life.
Before his death,Arthur subjected Tyler to a lot of emotional trauma, such as having multiplewives over the years. Due to the behavior that he watched his father portray,Tyler would force girls to marry him as Eleanor said “I’m promised to theProphet. I didn’t have a choice, I was going to be his next wife” (pp. 99-100).
While he and others were living in the airport, Tyler’s mother, Elizabeth, thesecond of Arthur Leander’s multiple wives and an actress, would tell Tyler andthe others that “everything happens for a reason” (p. 79). This belief was saidmany times to Tyler while he grew up, it contributed to his religious beliefsand his development into the Prophet since he believes and repeats thisthroughout the novel. “The flu,” theprophet said, “the great cleansing that we suffered twenty years ago, that fluwas our flood.
The light we carry within us is the ark that carried Noah andhis people over the face of the terrible waters, and I submit that we weresaved”—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.”(p.
66)But, before the Flu broke out, another significant event thatoccurred early in the spread of the Georgia Flu was the arrival of a secondairplane to the airport where the current refugees were taking cover. But inorder to protect themselves from falling victim to the Georgia Flu theysacrificed the people on the plane by keeping it sealed. As Tyler became morereligious, he would go out to the abandoned airplane and read to the dyingpeople who still resided on it. He would read them passages from the bible and say,”I just want them to know that it happened for a reason” (p. 206). This theme is something that all the charactersstruggle with, deciding whether they want to risk remembering something thatthey may never get to experience again or forgetting their loved ones and themoments they treasured. Before the pandemic hit, society was at a technologicallevel that had never been reached before and the human race was getting smarter.
But since the Georgia Flu wiped out much of the population, society went backto the basics of technology. As the years pass and generations are born intothe post-pandemic society, “Some towns… want to talk about what happened, aboutthe past. Other towns, discussion of the past is discouraged” (p. 115). Thecharacters must decide whether they want to remember before the Georgia Flu orforget all of the memories they created and start over with what they have now.Kirsten and the Prophet do not feel the same about memory throughout thisnovel. Kirsten holds the memories she has of the pre-pandemic world close toher heart while the Prophet would rather leave those memories in the past andfocus on building upon the life has created after the Georgia Flu.
The theme of memory in this novel is not one thatcan have a quick simple answer. Choosing whether to remember or forget thememories of the pre-pandemic time is something that the characters struggledwith throughout the novel. Kirsten’s will to remember her past has a strongconnection to Arthur Leander and their shared passion for acting.
I agree withthoughts on memory because I would also want to remember the people around meand those that matter to me but another reason that I would want to rememberthe past is so that I could try to rebuild it. Before the Georgia Flu wipedninety-nine percent of the population, technology was at its most advancedlevel yet and forgetting the past would be a disadvantage for the remainingpopulation and the future generations. I also relate to the Prophet a smallamount; I would want to forget the past due to the trauma it caused me. If Ihad to witness other people dying from such a painful illness, I also wouldprefer to forget those memories as well.
I relate to both of these charactersin the novel; picking a preferable option between remembering and forgetting alarge part of your life is not an easy decision.