What does it mean to leave a legacy? Typically it implies that someone has handed down something of value to a successor or the next generation. That legacy can be tangible (wealth, property, artistic works) or intangible (influence on a field or industry, life lessons), and its impacts can sometimes change the world forever. In that way, a legacy is a form of immortality, a theme that doesn’t frequently appear in literature but can be deeply moving and thought-provoking when it does.
So how does a story tackle such ambitious ideas? Let’s use Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven as an example. This post-apocalyptic bestseller begins on the night that a flu pandemic breaks out in Toronto, Canada, then moves back and forth through time to follow its cast of interconnected characters in the years before and after the flu devastates the world’s population. In this way, the premise and the nonlinear structure enable Mandel to examine the theme of immortality. But the heart of her examination beats through two central characters who demonstrate different ways of building a legacy.
Arthur Leander: Lessons Learned from Years in the Tabloids
Arthur Leander is an actor who suffers a fatal heart attack shortly after Station Eleven begins. Then, as the book’s big picture unfolds, readers learn about Arthur’s past, from his early years of partying and acting to his box-office films, three tumultuous marriages, and constant hounding by paparazzi. So it’s no surprise when, during his final days, Arthur realizes “he was a man who repented almost everything, regrets crowding in around him like moths to a light.” (327) To atone for his mistakes, he begins giving away his possessions and offers to pay off his lover’s student loans. In Arthur’s mind, “Wasn’t this what money was for? This was what his life was going to mean, finally, after all these years of failing to win Oscars… He would be known as the man who gave his fortune away.” (322) He knows these acts of generosity won’t fully redeem him, but they might paint a more favorable picture of him once he’s gone.
One character who keenly feels Arthur’s impact on his life is Jeevan Chaudhary, a paramedic who attempts to resuscitate Arthur after his heart attack. In his later scenes, Jeevan reflects extensively on his former paparazzo career, including encounters with Arthur that caused Jeevan to question the integrity of his work. So when the paparazzi pursue Jeevan for details of Arthur’s death, Jeevan’s abrupt answer as to why he left tabloid news (“I want to do something that matters”) (10) confirms his newfound distaste for that field. And from the way he consoles a child actress after Arthur’s passing (“[He] was doing the thing he loved best in the world”) (8), it’s clear that Jeevan deeply respects the man who changed his perspective on life and whose life he tried to save.
That child actress, Kirsten Raymonde, is also moved by Arthur’s legacy. As an adult who survives the pandemic, she travels with a troupe of actors and musicians and collects pre-flu tabloid articles about Arthur as a means of remembering her past. However, in an interview conducted 15 years after the pandemic, Kirsten declines to answer a question about her tattoos, explaining that because of her collection of clippings on Arthur, she understands how permanent records can tarnish one’s image (268). By reading those articles, Kirsten has learned that a person’s actions and choices can be immortalized – and because of Arthur’s failings, she knows better than to share her most private self with the rest of the world.
Miranda Carroll: Creating for the Joy of It, and Impacting the Next Generation
Unlike her ex-husband Arthur, Miranda Carroll doesn’t try to build or repair her own legacy. Instead, she spends decades sketching and crafting her Dr. Eleven comics. It’s a labor of love that she pursues despite criticism from others (“When sober, he suggests that she’s squandering her talent…” (87)), her troubled marriage to Arthur, and her corporate day job. And though she later self-publishes the comics in limited print copies, she’s initially hesitant about publishing them at all, explaining that, “‘It’s the work itself that’s important to me… It makes me happy.’” (95) For Miranda, her art is a means of personal escape and a source of pride. Even if she’s the only person who ever sees the books, she wants them to meet her high standards.
Once Miranda self-publishes the Dr. Eleven comics, she gives two copies of each issue to Arthur, who then passes one pair to young Kirsten and the other to his son Tyler. These books eventually outlive Miranda (who dies from the flu) and impact Kirsten and Tyler as adults. For Kirsten, the comics are her most prized possessions, stories she has memorized and values for the beautiful artwork (42). She also searches for other copies of Dr. Eleven, even asking a librarian if he’s familiar with the series (109). For Tyler, he too finds solace in the comics, but in a more extreme way. He becomes a self-proclaimed prophet who owns a dog named Luli (after Dr. Eleven’s dog) and, in a violent confrontation with Kirsten near the novel’s end, recites lines from the comics as though they’re part of a sermon (302).
The Museum of Civilization, Shakespearean Plays, and Legacy
Station Eleven also explores immortality and legacy through institutions and art. The Museum of Civilization, for example, is unofficially founded at the Severn City Airport when stranded airline passengers collect passports, electronics, newspapers, and other items rendered obsolete by civilization’s collapse. Survivors travel to the airport to trade or add items to the museum, reflect on the past, and educate children who were born after the pandemic. At one point the curator observes, “[t]here seemed to be a limitless number of objects in the world that had no practical use but that people wanted to preserve.” (258) Thus, the museum serves its purpose by paying tribute to the pre-pandemic world, teaching children about humankind’s achievements and history, and offering survivors a haven for their nostalgia.
And what about Shakespearean plays? Two in particular appear during Station Eleven: King Lear, during which Arthur dies onstage; and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which Kirsten and the Traveling Symphony perform after the pandemic. In fact, the Symphony’s actors perform only Shakespeare, since their audiences seem to prefer his plays over more modern productions. As one actor puts it, “‘People want what was best about the world.’” (38) Seeing Shakespeare’s plays – which, in the real world, continue to be performed worldwide and widely analyzed over 400 years after his death – living on in a post-apocalyptic society speaks volumes of their timelessness.
Keys to Exploring Legacy as a Theme in Your Work
Even without using a second novel for comparison, we can already see the elements that Mandel employs to explore the theme of legacy in Station Eleven. Here are the most notable ones:
- “Mirrors” of Legacy: Mirror characters can illustrate how some people are aware of their impact on the world and how others are not. In this case, Arthur and Miranda are the primary “mirrors.” Arthur is conscious of how others might think of him after his death, while Miranda creates out of self-fulfillment rather than a desire to be published.
- “Mirrors” of Impact: Likewise, mirror characters can show the diverse ways in which people can be influenced by one person’s legacy. Readers can see this in how Arthur’s way of life has shaped Jeevan’s and Kirsten’s values, and how Miranda’s comic books hold drastically different meaning for Kirsten and Tyler.
- Existential Dilemmas: Throughout Station Eleven, legacy-conscious characters like Arthur and Jeevan contemplate questions such as “How do I want to be remembered?” or “What do I want to do with my life?”. Witnessing characters make these choices and change as a result highlights how people in real life can be concerned with creating a meaningful life and, possibly, a legacy reflecting that life.
- “Devices of Preservation”: In Station Eleven, Mandel uses the Museum of Civilization as well as media such as photographs, magazines, and books to inform characters about the past. Many of these “devices” existed before the pandemic, thus demonstrating how history, artifacts, and literature can outlast a human lifetime.
- An Expansive Timeframe: Exploring legacy as a theme requires showing the moments that shaped a person as well as their influence on the next generation. It also requires a large span of time to show all of this successfully. Mandel stretches Station Eleven’s events through five decades, from Arthur’s college days to twenty years after his death.
It’s Your Turn!
- What books have you read that demonstrate the themes of immortality and/or legacy? How was this accomplished?
- Write a story in which the protagonist realizes how his actions of the past and present could impact future generations. How would his legacy differ if he considers his choices carefully versus making impulsive decisions?
- If you’ve read Station Eleven, what other themes did you notice in the novel? How do those themes intertwine with legacy and immortality?
What topics would you like to see featured at Theme: A Story’s Soul? Share your thoughts by commenting below or tweeting me at @SaraL_Writer with the hashtag #DIYMFA.
Sara Letourneau is a fantasy writer in Massachusetts who devours good books, loves all kinds of music, and drinks too much tea. In addition to writing for DIY MFA, she is a Resident Writing Coach at Writers Helping Writers and is hard at work on a YA fantasy novel. She also freelanced as a tea reviewer and music journalist in the past. Her poetry has appeared in The Curry Arts Journal, Soul-Lit, The Eunoia Review, Underground Voices, and two print anthologies. Visit Sara at her personal blog, Twitter, and Goodreads.