“Station Eleven”: What Happens to Art in a Dystopia?


By Pamela Bedore, Ph.D.University of Connecticut

“Because survival is insufficient.” That’s what’s written on the side of the lead caravan of the Shakespearean troupe in Emily St. John Mandel’s award-winning 2014 novel, Station Eleven, a post-apocalyptic narrative about art in a dystopia set 20 years after a plague has wiped out most of humanity. The words are taken from Star Trek, which along with Shakespeare’s plays, serves as a backdrop to the new world.

A masked man holding a cudgel.
The question about survival is central to dystopian works of fiction. (Image: Kjetil Muri Skarstein/Shutterstock)

Dream of a Utopia

Utopian imaginings sneak into apocalypses. Why? Maybe it’s as simple as the idea that faced with a disaster that exceeds our worst imaginings, anything approaching normalcy looks like a utopia. Or maybe there’s a sense that we have to blow up the world before we can rebuild it in a more ethical, utopian form. 

Maybe we all have that core of optimism that seems embarrassingly idealistic in our cynical world, but that whispers that no matter how bad things get, we can imagine—and maybe even attain—something better.

This is a transcript from the video series Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of LiteratureWatch it now, on Wondrium.

What’s Different in Station Eleven?

Kirsten Raymonde was eight when the pandemic hit. Now, 20 years later, she is a member of the Traveling Symphony, a ragtag group of artists who perform Shakespeare and Beethoven in various small towns in exchange for food and other bartered goods.

A destroyed car abandoned in front of an abandoned facility.
In that world, people didn’t try to make previous technologies like cars work again. (Image: bociek666/Shutterstock)

This is a very different view of the post-apocalyptic landscape than we’re used to. No one has tried to get the power grid back up. No one drives cars; the narrator explains that the fuel was only good for a few years. 

People survive. They form back into communities but without nearly as much technology. And the Shakespearean troupe that includes Kirsten? Well, they travel a fairly small circuit, and when they arrive in a new town, they bring news as well as art.

Art in a Dystopia

In dystopias like Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four, the state controls art in order to control society. Think of Mustapha Mond’s wonderful pronouncement in Huxley’s novel, “You’ve got to choose between happiness and what people used to call high art. We sacrificed high art.” And in A Clockwork Orange, we have art—in the form of Beethoven’s Ninth—used as part of an apparatus of torture and control.

Station Eleven examines art in many forms, through flashbacks and in the present. The novel opens on the night the pandemic starts when Kirsten is a child actor in a performance of King Lear. The actor who plays Lear suffers a heart attack during the performance, and young Kirsten doesn’t know what to do in the ensuing chaos; her mother doesn’t pick her up until 11, and the production person who usually watches out for her is nowhere to be found.

Learn more about George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

The Value of Art

A stranger from the audience briefly cares for her. Kirsten asks if the actor playing Lear is going to be OK, and the stranger, Jeevan, hesitates. The dialogue is so simple, but it’s compelling, “My point is if acting was the last thing he ever did,” Jeevan said, “the last thing he ever did was something that made him happy.”

“Was that the last thing he ever did?”

“I think it was. I’m so sorry.”

This little moment between Kirsten and the stranger she is to remember all her life sets up the main themes of the novel, the value of art and the value of the kindness of strangers. It also sets up some of the poignancy. Jeevan and Kirsten are both to be survivors, although neither of them knows that it’s already Day One of the pandemic. And Kirsten is to think of Jeevan often as she moves through the world, but always imagining he is dead.

Survival Is Insufficient

Image of a hand controlling a marionette.
Station Eleven argues that much can be sacrificed in the search for human community, but never art. (Image: SvetaZi/Shutterstock)

Kirsten interacts with art in many ways, large and small, and each of these interactions serves to form a tapestry that argues against the idea that high art must be sacrificed for utopia. Station Eleven argues that much can be sacrificed in the search for human community, but never art. Kirsten is an actor, part of the Shakespearean troupe. She carries a paperweight, an object with absolutely no utilitarian value, in her backpack because she thinks it’s beautiful.

Whenever Kirsten scavenges a home, she seeks out the magazines, looking for mentions of Arthur Leander. And she always keeps an eye out for Station Eleven, a comic book of which she has one of the few prototypes. Further, Kirsten has three tattoos. One is the troupe’s motto, tattooed on her arm, “Survival is insufficient.”

Learn more about Aldous Huxley and dystopian pleasure.

Mankind Will Prevail

William Faulkner was a huge fan of Shakespeare and would perfectly understand the appeal of Bard’s plays in the post-apocalyptic world of Station Eleven. In his 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Faulkner reflected upon the post-atomic-bomb world, and about the bomb’s influence on literature, with young writers unable to think beyond the question, “When will I be blown up?” Here’s Faulkner’s response:

I decline to accept the end of man. I believe that man will not merely endure, he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.

The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.

Common Questions about Station Eleven and What Happens to Art in a Dystopia

Q: Why do utopian images come up in works of fiction dealing with apocalypses?

Perhaps in these works, after a devastating disaster, if there’s normalcy in the aftermath, it feels like a utopia. It also may be that we feel to build a utopia, we have to demolish what we have first.

Q: How is Station Eleven‘s image of the aftermath of an apocalypse different from what we’re used to seeing?

In this world, the fuel for cars and airplanes no longer exists but interestingly, nobody has tried to fix anything. The power grid remains down. The novel instead focuses on art in a dystopia.

Q: What are some other examples of bleaker images of the future of art in dystopian novels?

In novels like Nineteen Eighty-Four or Brave New World, art is controlled by the state as part of a scheme to control the population. In other works, like A Clockwork Orange, art is used as a torture device.

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