Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell

Emily St John Mandel, Station Eleven (2014)

Emily St John Mandel’s post-apocalyptic novel Station Eleven (2014) is a work of imagination that speculates on what would survive and what would not survive if a pandemic suddenly wiped out most of the world’s human population.  It presents the author’s imaginings on how the small number of surviving humans would cope after the collapse of civilisation and all of its technological facilities and comforts. 

Without electricity and other forms of energy, most modern conveniences would be out of action. There would be a collapse of the Internet, industry, large scale agriculture, motorised transport, the shipping of freight, telecommunications, computing, government administration and borders between nation-states, medical infrastructure, law and order, and city living.  Instead, ancient skills would have to be revived, like hunting and fishing, camping, using horse-powered transport, and self-defence, and people would live in small local communities dotted about the countryside.  People would have to make do without all the modern miracles of technology that they tend to take for granted.  In a sense the novelist was drawing attention to the benefits of the modern world by conveying a scenario that presents their absence. 

Importantly, the author used this post-apocalyptic scenario to proclaim the value of the arts as being essential for a quality of life.  This is expressed in the focus of the novel on the life of a successful actor at the end of his career, on a female business executive whose real happiness comes from her artistic pursuits, and on a travelling troupe of musicians and actors called the Symphony who bring the arts to isolated, remote communities.  It is particularly evident in the slogan that serves as the thesis of the novel: ‘Survival is not enough’, which means that even if civilisation collapses, people will value the arts as a means to bring happiness and fulfilment to their lives. 

The author is fascinated by celebrity culture.  Consequently, she used her novel to criticise the decadent lifestyles and other character flaws of celebrity Hollywood actors.  Through the central character Arthur, who is a successful Hollywood actor, the author draws attention to their numerous affairs, multiple marriages, neglect of their children, and their drug and alcohol abuse.  This successful Hollywood actor is also presented as part of an industry and milieu that suffers from a sense of being self-important, self-absorbed, self-obsessed, and disinterested or uninterested in what other people do for a living. 

In addition, the novel draws attention to the culture of celebrity gossip by pointing out the pressures placed on celebrity actors, like Arthur, by an almost constant media scrutiny.  But the novel does not wish for the readers to completely sympathise with celebrities in this regard, noting how, like Arthur, they can develop fake and insincere personas and, for example, find themselves performing for an anonymous audience in a restaurant rather than expressing genuine feelings towards the real friend who was dining with him.  The novel also looks at the celebrity culture from another perspective, from that of a paparazzi photographer, Jeevan, who was also, for a time, also an entertainment reporter.  In this case, the paparazzi photographer is shown to have a conscience; being bothered by the underhanded tricks he has to pull on celebrities to get the most marketable pictures.  

The novel also speculates that the collapse of civilisation due to a pandemic that killed most people, but bypassed some, will provide the ideal circumstances for the emergence of dangerous doomsday cults that can form around charismatic and ruthless cult leaders.  This novel features a character, Tyler, known as ‘the prophet’ as the villain.  He is fanatical, intolerant, righteous, ruthless, murderous, and also a perverted sexual exploiter of girls, believing he has a divine right to repopulate the world.  Importantly, he is presented as deriving much of his ideology from Christianity, initially from his mother (Elizabeth) who took him as a child to live in the Christian holy land of Jerusalem, and later from the New Testament, especially the Book of Revelation.  In this way, the novel reflects the increasing disdain towards the Christian religion of many among the politically correct Left.  Christianity in the novel represents a potential source cultish fanaticism and cruelty.

Student resources by Dr Mark Lopez

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The purpose of the concise notes of Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell is to provide much needed help to students seeking to unlock the meaning of the texts with which they have to deal.  (More elaborate notes are provided in lessons as part of my private tutoring business.) 

Subject: Station Eleven meaning, Station Eleven themes, Station Eleven analysis, Station Eleven notes