by Scotty Villhard
I’m about to spoil Station Eleven, Casablanca, Dracula, and The Importance of Being Earnest for you, so if you don’t want that to happen, go read Station Eleven (and those other ones too, I guess).
My fascination with literary coincidences began in June of 2020. It had been a while since I had read for pleasure, so I borrowed my friend’s copy of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven with the hope that a little apocalyptic fiction would jumpstart a literary revival in my life. Station Eleven takes place in the post-apocalypse, after a plague (oof) has wiped out most of humanity. The novel follows a travelling band of Shakespearean actors who perform for various townships that have cropped up since the fall of Civilization. The main character, Kirsten, has a copy of a mysterious comic book entitled Dr. Eleven that she takes with her on her travels with the troupe. Through flashbacks, the reader learns that the comic book was given to her by Arthur, a famous actor. He received it from his ex-wife Miranda, who had worked on it as a passion project for years.
The novel is absolutely bloated with coincidences, as seemingly every character has encountered every other character – or every other character’s brother – at one time or another, across decades and hundreds of miles. But I want to focus on the climactic moment of the novel, when the Prophet, a young cult-leader, has Kirsten at gunpoint. In this moment, the Prophet begins to speak of the Undersea, a place where people wait in fallout bunkers after a nuclear apocalypse. Kirsten recognizes the Undersea as a location in Dr. Eleven and begins to quote the comic. This distracts the Prophet long enough for a dissident cultist to kill him, saving Kirsten.
How does the Prophet, a man Kirsten had never met until that day, know about Dr. Eleven? Because he’s the child of Miranda and Arthur, of course.
Station Eleven led me to consider the role of coincidence in fiction — not as it pertains to plot, but as it pertains to theme.
I love coincidences like this. Although multitudes of writing-help websites love to hate the coincidence as fiction-breaking or just bad writing, for me a good coincidence can tie everything together, bringing new meaning to characters and events that might have been omitted in a more “realistic” situation. Station Eleven led me to consider the role of coincidence in fiction — not as it pertains to plot, but as it pertains to theme. Kirsten and the Prophet’s coincidental relationship reinforces two of the major themes in the novel — the interconnectedness of humanity, and the importance of shared art. In Station Eleven, one of the keys to not dying in the apocalypse is who you know and who likes you. The Shakespeare troupe not only performs, but transmits information over long distances: an invaluable service in a world without internet or post service. Their web of connections saves the troupe on more than one occasion, including this final one, and the importance of interdependence (and refutation of the libertarian individualism so common in apocalyptic fiction) finds a firm foothold in this lucky break. But the most prevalent theme of the book is the importance of common art. As the troupe travels the country performing Shakespeare, Mandel emphasizes the importance of performing and sharing the same art to as many people as possible, reconnecting humanity even more intimately than through mere information. When the Prophet and Kirsten have that moment of connection over Dr. Eleven, they too are sharing art, art that they have both found themselves linked to by coincidence.
Of course, Station Eleven is not the only piece of media to put such emphasis on a coincidence. The most notable coincidence in film history is summed up by one of the most famous lines in film: “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”
Casablanca (1942) has been hailed by many as the greatest film to ever come out of the Hollywood studio system. I don’t know if I would go quite that far, but it’s a damn good movie all the same. The plot kicks off with a single, now-legendary chance encounter: Ilsa Lund, former romantic partner of protagonist Rick, arrives in Rick’s Casablanca nightclub along with her husband, a Czech resistance leader. It’s World War II, and the couple needs to escape to America to continue their revolutionary work against the Axis Powers.
Sometimes coincidence can be a web of interconnection rather than a single event.
The remarkable thing about this coincidence is that it’s not really a coincidence at all. Before Ilsa ever arrives, the film establishes that if you want to escape the Axis Powers’ reign of terror in Europe, you need to go through Casablanca. And if you want to get out of Casablanca alive, then chances are you’ll end up in Rick’s nightclub, looking for a smuggler named Ugarte. Ilsa ends up in this gin joint, of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, because nearly everyone who flees the Nazis ends up in Rick’s establishment. The film focuses on Rick’s claimed neutrality, as he tries to avoid intervening in the war effort one way or another. Ilsa’s arrival, coincidence or no, is remarkable because of how unremarkable it is. Made during World War II, Ilsa represents every refugee of the Axis Powers, and Rick represents every American isolationist who opposes involvement in the war. In the face of evil, neutrality helps only the villains. But that revelation can only come about as the result of this coincidence, of Ilsa happening to walk into Rick’s nightclub just as every other refugee has before her.
Sometimes coincidence can be a web of interconnection rather than a single event. In Bram Stoker’s seminal vampire novel Dracula, many of the protagonists, who all know each other before the events of the novel, just happen to run into Dracula’s forces of darkness independent of one another. For starters:
While Jonathan Harker, a newly-qualified solicitor, is summoned to Dracula’s castle for a land deal in England, his fiancée’s best friend Lucy Westenra is preyed upon by Dracula himself. At the same time, one of Lucy’s suitors, Dr. John Seward has in his care one Renfield, who happens to be Dracula’s familiar. Learning about the vampire’s involvement in Lucy’s plight, Seward then contacts Dr. Abraham Van Helsing, famed vampire hunter, who also happens to be Seward’s old teacher.
It only seems like coincidence because we can’t see the whole scheme.
This summation only scratches the surface of Dracula’s dark influence on the lives of this one particular circle of socialites, raising the question: why? Why, in all of England, are these few connected gentlepersons the ones to whom Dracula brings terror and destruction?
Apart from economy of story, the answer is simple: evil is everywhere, and infiltrates everything. Theme, rather than causality, has saturated the Harkers’ social world with Dracula and his agents. The count has a presence in the lives of each of these co-protagonists because he, as the manifestation of evil, has a presence in the lives of everyone. It is only by exposing such evil to the light that we realize how it reaches us all. It only seems like coincidence because we can’t see the whole scheme. If Dracula happens to be here, and there, and there once more, then where isn’t he hiding?
The last stop on our coincidence tour is not quite as famous as Casablanca’s but still well-known. Oscar Wilde’s 1895 play The Importance of Being Earnest has earned its place in dramaturgical canon through its pithy societal commentary and farcical dialogue, and remains one of the greatest English comedies. It also hinges on a massive coincidence.
A young, unlettered man named Jack has been wooing a young woman, Gwendolyn, by pretending to be a man named Ernest; unfortunately for Jack, Gwendolyn believes she can only fall in love with a man named Ernest. Jack, who was found in a handbag as a baby, has to contend both with Gwendolyn’s classist mother as well as his friend Algernon, Gwendolyn’s cousin, who also pretends to be Ernest in an attempt to woo Jack’s attractive ward, Cecily. Long story short, it turns out that Cecily’s governess was also infant Jack’s nursemaid, and accidentally left him in a handbag in a train station. Not only is Jack actually Algernon’s older brother, and of nobility, but his real name would have been Ernest all along. A charming coincidence to wrap up a convoluted and comical little play.
Humans love to pattern-match, making connections that may not really be there. The world is both very big and very small: very big, because so many things can happen, and very small, because so few of those things will actually happen. So when they do, and when we recognize them, they catch our eye and we grant them special meaning.
Except, the coincidence is the entire point of the play. As Jack, a man born into the lower classes, attempts to woo the higher-class Gwendolyn, he is held back by his name and his birth. Jack has made a life for himself of success and wealth, but in the face of England’s class hierarchy of the late 19th century, nothing he did after he was born matters. Despite all his efforts, both legitimate and deceitful, he only wins the hand of Gwendolyn when it turns out that he was really a nobleman by the name of Ernest all along. Wilde uses the impossible happenstance of Jack’s identity to highlight the reality of class division and stagnation in English society. As it turns out, it is much more important to be Ernest than earnest.
Coincidence is everywhere, but it need not be avoided. After all, it abounds in our everyday lives. Humans love to pattern-match, making connections that may not really be there. The world is both very big and very small: very big, because so many things can happen, and very small, because so few of those things will actually happen. So when they do, and when we recognize them, they catch our eye and we grant them special meaning. In the same way, authors imbue their coincidences with meaning. It is a small gesture, but a human one, and it just so happens that sometimes all we need is a gesture in the right direction.