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The question of literature’s utility in relation to the “real world” has been asked since at least the time of Plato. This essay examines an extreme instance of this problem by investigating two works, Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron (1349-1353) and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (2016), that argue for the value of art in the midst of catastrophe. Boccaccio’s collection of 100 tales, written in the context of the Black Plague, and Mandel’s post-apocalyptic novel about a world devastated by a killer flu, overlap and diverge in instructive ways in making their cases for the important role of literature in confronting suffering, trauma, and loss. Specifically, this essay contrasts Boccaccio’s vision of literature as encouraging a lucidly compassionate embrace of flawed humankind that looks to the future, and Mandel’s evocation of Shakespeare as a trope for civilization that is more nostalgically oriented towards the recovery of the past as a response to the tragic present.



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