Station Eleven is commonly chosen as assigned text for the Creative Component of Unit 3&4 VCE English, which requires a solid understanding of the text, especially its narrative style and stylistic features. To help you tackle this task with ease, we have written an overview of the text, and outlined the most effective strategies employed by our students to score a high mark in the creative assessment.

This blog will explore the post-apocalyptic novel ‘Station Eleven’ by Emily St.John Mandel. The novel is set in the near future, after a pandemic has wiped out most of the world’s population. Station Eleven follows a group of survivors who are travelling around the Great Lakes region of North America, performing Shakespeare plays in an attempt to keep the memory of civilisation alive. The novel has a non-linear narrative style, which can be challenging for students to interpret. However, by analysing the use of flashbacks and foreshadowing, students can better understand the story’s complex plot.

Stylistically, the novel is written in a poetic and lyrical style, which can be difficult for students to replicate in their own writing. However, by studying the use of imagery, metaphor and simile, students can create writing that is similarly descriptive and evocative.

Many reviewers have praised the way that the novel balances the dark and the light, and the way that it finds hope in the midst of tragedy.

“a beautiful and haunting exploration of the relationships that sustain us, the ones that transcend time and space.”

The New York Times Book Review

About Station Eleven: 

Written by Nalini J

Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven is a dystopian, non-linear novel set in the near, post-apocalyptic future in which a virus, known as the ‘Georgia Flu’, has wiped out the vast majority of the world’s population. The novel follows various characters as they attempt to navigate a world plagued by theft, food shortages, violence, and terror, while attempting to maintain their morality and preserve the past. 

Mandel employs multiple perspectives and timelines throughout the novel, through which she both celebrates shared humanity and mourns the ephemerality of human experience. Through the nonlinear construction of the characters’ stories, spanning across over a decade and multiple locations, she also mimics the fragmented nature of human memory. 

Mandel makes explicit reference to both fictional and non-fictional works of art throughout the novel. The story begins with a performance of Shakespeare’s King Lear, in which Arthur Leander, Hollywood actor and main lead, collapses onstage of a heart attack. While he doesn’t get much air-time before his death, Arthur becomes the centrepiece character in Station Eleven. The reader is thrust back in time through a series of glimpses into Arthur’s past, and will soon notice that the ageing actor is intimately connected with many of the other characters, whether that be as an ex-husband, colleague, or friend. 

Arthur’s performance as King Lear, which ultimately serves as a centrepoint of so many characters’ memories of the world before the pandemic, represents the perpetuity and integrity of art as a means of preserving the past. So, too, does Miranda’s comic, Station Eleven. The comic serves as the novel’s namesake, symbolic of the ability of art to transcend time and speak to fundamental human experiences. Similarly, the characters of the Travelling Symphony continue to perform Shakespeare’s plays such as King Lear, as they attempt to bring joy to the dilapidated, violence-stricken towns that they travel through on their seemingly never-ending journey. 

Themes in Station Eleven:

Mandel explores human resilience, and our ability to remain stoic amidst adversity. The characters in the novel experience many devastating events, such as the death of loved ones and the collapse of civilisation, but they continue to find ways to live and connect with one another. The author seems to be suggesting that, even in the darkest of times, humans are capable of finding hope and happiness.

“a brilliantly plotted novel that ponders the fragility of civilization and the tenuousness of human existence.”

The Washington Post

Morality and Courage

By using the setting of a post-apocalyptic dystopia, Mandel is able to explore questions of survival, ethics, morality and common good. Mandel’s characters embody the good in humanity and exhibit unwavering moral strength through a myriad of selfless choices despite the scarcity of resources and harshness of the environment. Instead of focusing on mere survival, they are drawn to sources of inspiration, such as art, music and literature. The author creates extreme difficulties also to emphasise human’s capacity to change and adapt, and also to remain stoic and resilient amidst adversity. Personal agency allows characters such as Miranda to propel themselves forward despite the isolation that her life entails. However, Mandel’s portrayal of the human condition is not one-dimensional, but instead complicates binary opposites. Through dualities and parallels, she constructs characters that are both morally strong and weak, evoking tolerance and empathy from the readership. Fear and courage co-exist, and individuals may harbour private insecurities despite a strong outward appearance. 

Art

The novel begins with Shakespeare’s King Lear, introducing the audience to the pivotal role art and literature play in shaping individuals’ knowledge of the world. Shakespeare’s drama ignites the audience’s hope that peace will prevail against malice, and Mandel’s deployment of her art carries the same biblical function in the novel. The parallel between the world of theatrical works and the events unfolding in real life demonstrates how art imitates life and inspires viewers’ ideas and values. Owing to art, characters have experienced epiphany, awe and transcendence. This speaks to the transformative and healing power of creativity, as it combats depravity loss and exploitation. Music, novels and art shield characters from feelings of loneliness, preventing one from being indoctrinated into destructive ways of living in the pursuit of survival . Art and imagination provide individuals with a sense of control as well as escape, bridging disparate worlds in providing hope to those who live in the midst of uncertainty.

Beauty and Simplicity

Station Eleven also fosters the audience’s appreciation for the beauty of simple things in everyday life. The ubiquitous descriptions of natural landscapes, when juxtaposed against the devastation brought on by dark force, also reminds the readers of its ephemerality, and by extension, the extraordinariness of the ordinary. Beauty is premised on scarcity; it only emerges when we acknowledge the finitude of things. Through the book’s setting and genre, Mandel creates the prospect of finitude and shows how it enriches human life, and how forms of life are as persistent as they are discontinuous (bolstered by the notion of beauty, in that such is only discernible once it has deteriorated); Station Eleven shows that part of the cost is the cancelation of a beauty that paradoxically depends on the acknowledgment of loss.

Other Themes:

The importance of community is also shown throughout the novel. The characters in Station Eleven are all connected in some way, and they rely on each other for support. The Traveling Symphony provides a sense of community for the people they meet. The characters also come together to rebuild civilisation. Community is essential for humans to survive and thrive.

The Chicago Tribune said that it is “a novel that is both elegy and celebration – a reminder of what we have lost, and a hope for what we may find again.”

Human Resilience: The characters in Station Eleven are portrayed as brave and resilient. They have all faced tragedy, loss, and heartache, but they continue to persevere. This resilience is evident in many of the characters, but it is especially evident in Kirsten. Kirsten has faced more tragedy and loss than anyone else in the novel, but she never gives up. She is constantly fighting for survival and for the survival of her friends – her resilience is a testament to the human spirit.

Creative Writing Tips:

To emulate Mandel’s writing style, you should experiment with creating sensory images, symbolism and fragmented, non-linear structure. Her writing is particularly poetic and lyrical, and the use of dream-like sequences may help.

We also recommend doing the following to replicate her writing:

  • 1) mixing different types of narration (third person limited, first person, second person, etc.)
  • 2) using unconventional sentence structures
  • 3) employing a wide variety of descriptive words and phrases
  • 4) varying the lengths and rhythms of your sentences
  • 5) playing with punctuation, including ellipses, dashes, and parentheses
  • 6) experimenting with narrative devices, such as flashbacks, flashforwards, and dream sequences
  • 7) varying the tone and perspective of your writing to create a sense of ambiguity or mystery
  • 8) using poetic devices, such as alliteration, assonance, and onomatopoeia
  • 9) including elements of suspense and mystery in your writing
  • 10) creating a sense of atmosphere and mood with your words

Inspirations for the creative assessment:

Glimpses into the past:

The airport was always busy, but on that day, it was busier than ever. More people were coming, and more were leaving. The security line was always long, and the wait to board was always interminable. The airplane was always cramped, and the air always stale. But still, people got on them. They put their luggage in the overhead bins and squeezed into their seats. They fastened their seatbelts and put on their oxygen masks. And then they took off, into the sky.

Light as a symbol:

The light will always find a way to justify its own existence, or to justify the actions it takes to survive. Kirsten observes the streaks of sunlight filtering through the trees, and relieved to see the darkness of yesterday replaced by fresh hope.

About human fragility:

The corridor was silent. It was necessary to walk very slowly, her hand on the wall. A man was curled on his side near the elevators, shivering. She wanted to speak to him, but speaking would take too much strength, so she looked at him instead—I see you, I see you—and hoped this was enough.

Eventually she made it to the nurses’ station, and there was a cup of water waiting for her. The water was cold and refreshing, and she drank it slowly, feeling the liquid slide down her throat and giving her a moment of relief. Yet, she knew that the respite would be temporary. The virus was relentless, and it would not stop until it had claimed her. And with that realisation, she knew that she was ready to die. She savours the taste of water and the warmth of sunlight gently touching her face. […]

Note: The first passage was from Chapter 41. We can start using a quote or moment from the book and go from there!

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