Themes in Literature

Literary Memory

Literary Memory

Memory in literature is the written form of that which has come before. Memories come from the historical past but are also formed by social, political, and religious events in the lives of literary characters. Memory is employed in three distinct fashions, which often exist concurrently in a text: first, to establish the validity and importance of a text based on the expertise and reputation of past writers; second, as a means of instilling a feeling of nostalgia in a text; and third, and most universally, as a method of constructing individual and cultural identity.

The first construction is particularly prevalent in the literature of the English Middle Ages and the romantic movement of the 19th century, while the second has been employed throughout the 20th century by writers of both British and American origin in the wake of the sociopolitical upheavals caused by World Wars I and II. The third construction is ubiquitous in all written works dealing with individual or cultural issues, and because of this, memory serves as a literary theme of profound importance. The earliest written epic works establish memory as a central literary theme. Homer’s The Iliad and Virgil’s The Aeneid serve to establish the character and ideology of the Greek and Roman nations, respectively, through the blending of fictional elements with the recording of great men, heroic battles, and important, long-past events. It is here that the use of the catalog, or list of important historical figures, is employed not only to give the work authenticity through the presence of verifiable historical names and places, but also to convey a sense of historical memory to works that are primarily fictional in nature. Through the heroic actions of Achilles and his comrades in arms on the battlefields of the Trojan War, Homer sets down his view of the national identity and character of ancient Greece, a view that prevails today. Deliberately crafting his work on the model of Homer’s by incorporating elements both from The Iliad and The Odyssey, Virgil constructs a national history of Rome, linking Augustus himself to the ancient world and thus reinforcing his provenance to rule through the tale of Aeneas’s journey from the ruins of Troy to found Rome. Virgil, however, takes memory further in the Aeneid: Making use of the catalog and of the presence of events from Homer’s work, he expands on the theme through the instance of Aeneas’s dalliance with Dido.

Sworn to travel to the location of the future Rome and establish the foundations of that great city, Aeneas finds himself delayed by an affair with the queen of Carthage; he seemingly forgets his purpose and must be reminded of his destiny by Mercury, messenger to Jupiter, the king of the gods. In this manner, Virgil adds the importance of individual memory to his text, expanding the role of memory in his writing from a collective to an individual construction. Medieval writers, steeped in the Scholastic tradition of thought, which required proof based in Scripture or other foundational texts of each point or idea presented within a text, probably did more than any other group to construct memory as a literary theme of supreme importance in its own right. Through compendia, or collections of writings, religious authors sought to establish validity of thought in their writings; through catalogs based on ancient Greek and Roman models, religious and secular authors alike sought to establish textual authority and to craft a memory tradition of thinking and cultural identity. Geoffrey Chaucer provides an excellent example of this in The Canterbury Tales, in which assorted travelers on pilgrimage to the shrine of Thomas à Beckett at Canterbury Cathedral stop at an inn and conduct a storytelling contest. In this work, Chaucer not only creates a fictional cross-section of British society in his time but does so by having each of his travelers tell his or her story in a literary genre suited to his or her station in life.

For example, the Knight, a noble, tells a romance; the lower-class Miller tells a fabliau, or dirty tale; the middle-class Wife of Bath tells an Arthurian legend; the Nun’s Priest tells a beast fable, or story with personified animals as the main characters; and the Second Nun tells of a saint’s life. In this fashion, Chaucer creates a compendium of literary genres fashionable in his time, in addition to providing a glimpse of British attitudes toward social, political, and religious issues in his day, and his work therefore serves as an excellent example of the use of memory to construct collective identity. The British romantics transformed the use of memory in literature, often basing their writing on earlier forms and themes, upon which they embroidered a highly personal nostalgia and quest for identity. William Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed A Few Miles above Tintern Abbey” is widely acknowledged as the work that ushered in the romantic movement. As the narrator returns to a spot he visited years earlier, he is swept away by the changes in the abbey and in himself, while simultaneously delighting in the eternal quality of the countryside surrounding him. The inclusion of personal memory in the form of nostalgia, married to collective memory in the public form of the abbey itself, demonstrates the power of memory to evoke strong emotion. John Keats similarly makes use of the individual/collective dichotomy in his “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” in which he observes the eternal images painted on an ancient vase, constructs stories about them derived from his knowledge of ancient culture, and simultaneously considers his own ephemeral place in time. His recollection of history, fused with his own mortality, render the poem highly emotional. Rather than using memory to underscore textual legitimacy or to convey national ideology, the romantics employed it to evoke nostalgia and to highlight personal conflicts in the search for identity. Marcel Proust furthered the evolution of memory in his monumental autobiographical novel Remembrance of Things Past. In this work, Proust is plunged into memories of his childhood through the taste of a madeleine (small cake) dipped in tea. From the original flashback evoked by the taste of the cake, he maps an inner landscape of the mind through further mental associations with that first, sense-based moment, thus evolving the story from a single memory to a vast panorama of identity constructed through memory. This work more than any other has profoundly impacted the use of memory in modern literature; with it, Proust wrested memory entirely from its original use as a means of establishing textual authority and national character, recreating it as a means of personal exploration of self and the world. Twentieth-century writers have tended to follow Proust’s use of association in the construction of memory. Perhaps the single best example of this is T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” A modern poem about the collapse of tradition and history and the struggle for identity in the wake of World War I, “The Waste Land” is a masterwork of association, employing allusions to historical events, contemporary affairs, literature, music, art, the occult, science, astronomy, important centers of learning and culture, and various figures (both real and fictional) to underscore the impoverished state of postwar society. Eliot’s use of memory is a subversion of the traditional; his is a construction of memory as that which has been forgotten.

He employs vast references to the past in order to underscore their absence in the present. Panoramas of ancient cities such as Alexandria and cultural centers such as Vienna, the pageantry of Shakespeare’s Cleopatra on the barge, the splendor of Elizabeth I’s reign, the glory of King Arthur’s legend, and the foundational humanity of Ovid’s mythological figures are juxtaposed with the garbage of modern picnickers floating down the Thames River, with throngs of dejected workers filing down the streets of London and with an overall barrenness in the modern landscape, in order to highlight the national and personal crises of identity that for Eliot marked the modern era. His work, then, not only serves as a sort of compendium of European culture but also as a call to mindfulness in the reader; through the authority of the objects, events, and people incorporated in his allusions, the reader is free to indulge in nostalgia for the great moments of the past as well as to make associations with them, leading to highly personal questions of identity and nationalism. In the modern world, then, memory is as important as ever as a means of establishing authority, evoking nostalgia, and helping to forge personal and national identity.

See also Bambara, Toni Cade: Salt Eaters, The; Cather, Willa: My Ántonia; Dickens, Charles: David Copperfield; Ellison, Ralph: Invisible Man; García Márquez, Gabriel: One Hundred Years of Solitude; Joyce, James: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, A; Momaday, N. Scott: Way to Rainy Mountain, The; O’Neill, Eugene: Long Day’s Journey into Night; Rhys, Jean: Wide Sargasso Sea; Rushdie, Salman: Midnight’s Children; Welty, Eudora: Optimist’s Daughter, The; Wiesel, Elie: Night; Wilder, Thornton: Our Town; Williams, Tennessee: Glass Menagerie, The; Woolf, Virginia: To the Lighthouse.

8 thoughts on “Literary Memory

  1. I think this was very useful as it has helped me in writing my essay on the role of the concept of Memory in literature. However, I would like to know the name of this article’s writer so that I can cite him/her in my essay. Can anyone help me out? Thanks in advance.

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