On a snowy Torontonian night, the production of King Lear commences. On the same night, a swine flu pandemic known as the Georgian Flu commences as well. It is Year 0, the flu spreads rapidly in the city, killing the majority, “There was the flu that exploded like a neutron bomb over the surface of the earth … everyone caught on that there was no place they could walk to where life continued as it had before” (37). The pandemic wipes out most of earth’s population, with those who remain struggling to find themselves in a world that once was. The survivors who continue to exist all seem to forget the past, leading to prevail an identity they did not endure before. In Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, remembering and imagining seem to be the heart of the novel. Through the characters of Kirsten, Tyler and Miranda, Station Eleven offers a way of giving readers a heartfelt dive into the theme of memory and identity loss, from pre-flu to post-flu.
Kirsten is apart of the Travelling Symphony, a group of actors who travel to different cities and perform Shakespearean plays for the remaining survivors. This connects to a part of her life before the pandemic, being a child actress during the production of King Lear. Kirsten uses the Travelling Symphony as a way to get fragments of memories back from before the dystopian world she currently lives in. During this time, Kirsten confesses that she has killed two people while trying to survive with her new life, “She turned her wrist to show the knife tattoos. Two.” (chapter 45). The first man, who symbolizes her first knife tattoo, tried to rape her during her first year with the Symphony, where at the time she was fifteen. The knife was thrown into his neck, killing him almost right away. Her second tattoo represents men who tried to rob her, along with other members in the Symphony. Without hesitation, she acted in order to survive. Kirsten proves herself to be a victim of identity loss, as killing those men was not something she would have done before the Georgian Flu. Kirsten merely remembers anything from her past, and nothing of the first year, but in order to try to preserve some of her memories, she collects Station Eleven comics and other tabloids. Miranda publishes the “Station Eleven” comics, which in turn have a great effect on Kirsten in the Post-flu world, “Dr. Eleven, Vol. I, No. I: Station Eleven and Dr. Eleven, Vol. 2: The Pursuit. By Year Twenty, Kirsten has them memorized” (42). She uses these as a way to keep her vision of the ‘original’ earth alive. Yet, this further proves that Kirsten needs ‘reminders’ due to the fact that her memories can easily slip away.
Tyler is introduced into the novel as someone who becomes stranded at Severn Airport as the pandemic hits. Throughout the novel, Tyler displays memories of trauma which impacts him negatively. He resembles his father (Arthur) as he was before the flu by how he was hopping around from wife to wife. This led to his father leaving Tyler and his mother, “Arthur had promised to be in Jerusalem for Tyler’s birthday, but he’d made that promise ten months ago and had frankly forgotten about it until Tyler had called him yesterday. Arthur’s apologies hadn’t landed” (chapter 53). He uses this trauma in the future and twists it, giving him his position of power. In the future, Tyler creates a religious group where he is known as the prophet. He believes the flu is delivered to the world on purpose to cleanse the population, “The flu, 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 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.’ (chapter 12). This religious view overcomes him where he too is subjected to identity loss. During his time as the prophet, he resembles his father where he begins to marry multiple wives some who are underage, usually by force. He tends to signify the disgusting nature of humans as soon as they have some sort of power – and start to abuse it, “He suggested that we consider leaving Alexandra, as a guarantee of future good relations between the Symphony and the town … He said he’s looking for another bride” (65). His dominance causes him to lack empathy for other people and commits vile acts with no remorse. What Tyler has experienced in his past life is implemented to his current life where his memories got the best of him and causes him to lose his identity.
Miranda looses herself in both before and after the Georgian Flu. When introduced into the novel, Miranda is someone who is not involved with aspiring for lime light and expensive things. She can even be seen calling someone a “dira” for wanting something expensive. As she dresses expensively and strictly focus on her appearance as she is about to meet Arthur, it shows readers how anyone can lose their identity to wealth, “Miranda spent some time on her appearance before she left the hotel room, trying to make herself look as little as her old self as possible. She pinned and slicked her hair … and dressed in her favourite suit” (208). The physical change reflects her state of mind, and shows how easy it is to lose yourself. Miranda usually repeats the phrase, “I regret nothing” (206) Miranda usually repeats this phrase when she does something out of character, in this case, caring about her physical appearance. She reflects her past life and acknowledges the difference in her now. This becomes her coping mechanism to use to cope with the sad reality of losing herself. Just like her change in identity, she understands her memories of earth must fade away, “I stood looking over my damaged home … earth” (84). Miranda struggles with having to forget the amenities of earthly life in order to move on. Although Miranda is the only character in the novel who represents changes in identity from before the pandemic, it is safe to say that her memories are the catalyst for this change.
Through the characters of Kirsten, Tyler and Miranda, Station Eleven represents how memories account for one’s identity change. Kirsten uses old comics to remember how everything used to be and how much she has changed. Tyler uses power and dominance like his father, to show readers how his past memories have changed the way he lives life. Miranda’s identity is lost before and after the Georgian Flu, who is the only character to do so. The Georgian Flu has changed the way survivor’s live their life, positively and negatively.
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