Theme of Survival in "The Travelling Symphony"


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Some would argue that the most important thing in this life is to survive, to live and breathe each day. But others would argue that survival is simply just not enough. The Traveling Symphony has it painted on the side of their caravan and Kirsten has it tattooed on the side of her arm, “…survival is insufficient” (Mandel 58). When faced with the question of what matters most one can’t put their finger directly on one item, not one person or calling. However, art manages to encompass a broad range of topics and prove a reason to live in itself; the idea that art is important to life is expressed beautifully throughout Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. This book proves that art is one of the most important things in life and that it gives many a will and reason to live.

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In the event that one is going through a hardship, they may turn to art in order to lift them up or encourage them to keep going. For instance, when Kirsten was crying at the beginning of the book she was given a piece of art to pacify her, “…and Kirsten, teary-eyed and breathless, a few days shy of her eighth birthday, gazed at the object and thought it was the most beautiful, the most wonderful, the strangest thing anyone had ever given her. It was a lump of glass with a storm cloud trapped inside” (15). The paperweight signifies a part of Kirsten and her childhood, art that represents where she has come from and all she has gone through. The cloud in glass was given to her to cheer her up in a moment of darkness and she held onto it throughout her life, showing the importance the object held in her life. Often through hard times one looks for something to brighten up the darkness around them. A good example of this is demonstrated in how the emotional hardship of taking someone’s life is represented through the art of a tattoo. This shows that beauty can spring up from a difficult time, near the end of the book it states, “Is there a tattooist here, Charlie?” Charlie brushed her fingertips over Kirsten’s right wrist, the two black knives inked two years apart. “How many?” “One. An archer on the road” (306). The act of tattooing the number of kills on one’s wrist shows that the act was done and that there will be no forgetting of it.

Continuing, during the hardships of living in the fallen world art has the power to transform the space that people exist in even for just a limited amount of time. The Traveling Symphony offered many types of shows and yet it states, “…what no one would have anticipated, was that the audience seemed to prefer Shakespeare to their other theatrical offerings. “People want what was best about the world,” Dieter said” (38). Art transports people back to what they believe would have been a better time. Another thing that art gives the characters is history, for instance, the museum that Clark makes can be thought of art itself. These relics of the old world have turned into art as Kirsten says, “Because we are always looking for the former world, before all the traces of the former world are gone” (130). Another old relic in the book was electricity and the internet. In life nowadays, people believe the internet to bring many people together and connect them, as it states in the book, “They were told about the Internet, how it was everywhere and connected everything, how it was us” (262). However, in a different world the thing that unites people is art. A great example of this is how the Traveling Symphony brings people together through its art making of music and shows. Correspondingly, the Traveling Symphony doesn’t just bring together the performers and their audiences but it unites all of the performers as a family, Emily St. John Mandel wrote, ““…but the truth was that the Symphony was their only home” (48). Art provides an outlet to meet people of similar beliefs who appreciate the same things. After years on the road with these people, Kirsten grows many bonds with the various people in the Symphony and it’s no wonder why the quote, “Hell is the absence of the people you long for” (144) is proven true when those she is close with get taken from her. Art provides a way to bring people together and unite them into a family that can be very tight-knit.

In addition, a particular art that is very beneficial during stressful times is music. Music has the power to transform any space into what one wishes. Just like how the Traveling Symphony transforms the fallen world for its audiences. Music gives life to everything, radios, tv, movies, live performances, remixes, there are many streaming sources to present this art to listeners. Art takes us to a special place, during troublesome times. Words can be a particularly important part to music and can hold lots of weight, such as the lyrics to a song or words to a story or poem. For example, August wrote a poem for Kirsten to help put her at ease even though he rarely shares his poetry with anyone, “A fragment for my friend-, If your soul left this earth I would follow and find you, Silent, my starship suspended in night” (141). Another work of written words in the book that is highly discussed is Station Eleven, the comics. It is safe to say that the comics represent art through the drawings that Miranda illustrated inside of it and by the story and words used to portray the story and its characters and how that relates to Kirsten and her life in the fallen world. A particularly beautiful quote states, “Station Eleven is all around them” (107). Depicting the idea that the characters are living in a similar state and showing that art encases their lives as well.

Arguably one of the most important quotes in the book states, “All three caravans of the Traveling Symphony are labeled as such, THE TRAVELING SYMPHONY lettered in white on both sides, but the lead caravan carries an additional line of text: Because survival is insufficient” (58). This quote shows the reader that surviving is nothing without a purpose to live. What the Symphony does shows people why surviving can be made better through art. During Jeevan’s time as a paparazzi, he states within his talk with Miranda, “… he says, “I live on that kind of gossip, actually. As in, it pays my rent. What I live for is something different.” “What do you live for?” “Truth and beauty,” he says, deadpan” (102). The simplicity of his words show how important these things are to him and how much art can impact a life and give someone something to live for.

In essence, art is what gives human life meaning and allows humans to flourish. What matters most is not just surviving, finding food and continuing to breathe. What matters most is finding a way to live, finding what one lives for and not on. Art presents a beautiful way to live throughout the book of Station Eleven. Art represents a way to unite people, to get through hardship and stressful times, and something to live for. Art will always survive through all disasters and if art can survive, who’s to say that humans can’t?

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