Masked people standing six feet apart. Empty shelves in the supermarket. No children in sight outside the school during recess.
The social upheaval caused by COVID-19 evokes many popular dystopian or post-apocalyptic books and movies. Unsurprisingly, the COVID-19 crisis has sent many people rushing to fiction about contagious diseases. Books and movies about pandemics have spiked in popularity over the past few weeks: stuck at home self-isolating, many people are picking up novels such as Stephen King’s The Stand or streaming movies such as Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion.
Yet no one seems to fully agree on why reading books or watching movies about apocalyptic pandemics feels appealing during a real crisis with an actual contagious disease. Some readers claim that contagion fiction provides comfort, but others argue the opposite. Still more aren’t totally sure why they these narratives feel so compelling. Regardless, stories about pandemics call to them all the same.
So what, exactly, does pandemic fiction offer readers? My doctoral research on contagious disease in literature, a project that has required me to draw from both literary studies and health humanities, has taught me that a contagious disease is always both a medical and a narrative event.
Art reflects life
Pandemics scare us partly because they transform other, less concrete, fears about globalization, cultural change, and community identity into tangible threats. Representations of contagious diseases allow authors and readers the opportunity to explore the non-medical dimensions of the fears associated with contagious disease.
Pandemic fiction does not offer readers a prophetic look into the future, regardless of what some may think. Instead, narratives about contagious disease hold up a mirror to our deepest, most inchoate fears about our present moment and explore different possible responses to those fears.
One novel that has grown in popularity over the past few weeks is been Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. Mandel’s novel follows a troupe of Shakespearean actors touring a post-apocalyptic landscape in a North America decimated by contagious disease.
Mandel’s novel serves as a test case for understanding the cultural response to COVID-19. The current pandemic sharpens fears about the relative instability of our communities (along with posing an immediate threat to our health, of course).
Coverage of Station Eleven claims that the text is uniquely relevant to the COVID-19 situation. This response treats Mandel’s novel as through it predicts what will happen as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. Some news outlets even call the novel a “model for how we could respond” to an apocalyptic pandemic.
This is not the case. Station Eleven draws from apocalyptic literature, a narrative form that tells us more about the present than the future. Mandel herself has called Station Eleven more “a love letter to the world we find ourselves in” than a handbook for a post-apocalyptic future Indeed, Mandel herself publicly suggested that her novel is not ideal reading material for the present moment.
In fact, Station Eleven spends almost no time focused on the actual epidemic. The vast majority of the novel takes place before and after the outbreak. The medical details of the disease are less important than the rhetorical impact of the destructive virus.
Those fears in Station Eleven coalesce in scenes where communities must shift how they understand their relationship to one another. Characters stranded in an airport hangar, for example, must work together to build a new society that accommodates their shared traumatic experience. The pandemic in Mandel’s novel dramatically emphasizes to the characters not how to respond to a virus but, instead, how powerfully interconnected they truly are — the same thing COVID-19 is doing to us right now. Part of what pandemic fiction illuminates is how fears of invasion and the perceived threat of outsiders can diminish our humanity.
Fear of outsiders
A virus crosses the boundary of your body, invading your very cells and changing your body on an incredibly intimate level.
It is unsurprising, then, that scholars see a strong relationship between contagious diseases and community identity. As anthropologist Priscilla Wald puts it, contagious disease “articulates community.” Pandemics emphasize how our individual bodies are connected to our collective body.
Left unchecked, the rhetorical implications of these narratives can lead to discriminatory behaviour or racism.
In Station Eleven, the villain — a cult leader prophet — continually denies his fundamental connection to those around him. He claims that he and his followers survived the epidemic because of their divine goodness and not because of luck. As a result, he engages in violent, abusive behaviours intended to quash the fear associated with interdependence — a common response to this fear.
The prophet in Station Eleven does not survive the novel; the surviving characters are the ones who accept that they cannot extricate themselves from connection to other people.
Contagious diseases — both in fiction and in real life — remind us that the social and cultural boundaries we use to structure society are fragile and porous, not stable and impermeable.
Although these works of literature cannot prophecize an imminent post-apocalyptic future, they can speak to our present.
So if reading a book about a pandemic appeals to you, go for it — but don’t use it as an instructional manual for an outbreak. Instead, that work of fiction can help you better understand and manage how the virus amplifies complex, diverse and multi-faceted fears about change in our communities and our world.