Memory in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’

Unlike Morrison’s Beloved, Margaret Atwood takes the concept of memory in a different direction in The Handmaid’s Tale. Now, this post is going to be on the shorter side, due to the fact that we are still relatively in the beginning of the book. In Beloved, Sethe is ashamed and destroyed by her past. Slavery had, and always would, haunt her. Although she didn’t necessarily like physically talking about it, the memories engraved into her mind were there to stay. In The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred brings up certain times from her past that make her happy. Her memories make her long for the past, and realize how dreadful the present is.

Through Sethe and Offred, we see how memory manipulates the present…manipulates the emotional and psychological welfare. For Offred, memory forces her to almost be stuck in her own past, causes her to lament for what was and realize what is. In Sethe’s situation, memory drives her away from the past and teaches her to love and appreciate the present. Different emotions come from these situations as well. Offred for example, feels love and excitement and wonder. She mentions how she would pace in a hotel room waiting for Luke before he was still married:

The knock would come at the door; I’d open, with relief, desire. He was so momentary, so condensed. And yet there seemed no end to him. We would lie in those afternoon beds, afterwords, hands on each other…” (51).


So. I explored this room…I didn’t want to do it all at once, I wanted to make it last…I saw the stains on the mattress. Like dried flower petals. Not recent. Old love…when I saw that, the evidence left by two people…I covered the bed and lay down on it…I wanted to feel Luke lying beside me…I wanted to feel Luke lying beside me, but there wasn’t room” (52).

At this point in the book, we are completely aware of the fact that expressing any sort of emotion as a woman is not acceptable. You could almost think of memory in Offred’s situation as manipulative. Unable to erase her past of being content, in love, with a family (etc), Offred is forced to go against the law of society. The way she describes waiting for Luke illustrates young love. It excites the reader. When Offred gets a flashback in this case, she is again in the hotel room. Her memories of Luke and her love come back when she examines the bed. It was a good flashback, but it was a flashback that exemplified how Offred’s past was so much better than her current situation. She laments, she can almost picture the whole scene with the two of them in the bed together again. Why? Because it had happened once, and then many times after that. The feelings she remembered from that experience drove her to want it all over again. She “wanted to feel Luke lying beside” her. To be able to literally re-create her past.

Memory is manipulative, almost torturous for Offred, as well as for Sethe, but for different, obvious reasons. Offred’s memories soothe her, comfort her, yet make her long to live what her life once was. Yet, despite the fact that Offred can almost feel being in the bed with Luke, touching him, loving him, she knows she cannot. Sethe’s memories torture her, emotionally destroying her. When she looks at the present, she is content, for the most part. She escaped slavery, violence, death, and by remembering those emotions, she comes to the conclusion that the present is better. It’s almost as if Sethe’s memories work to her benefit.

Both Atwood and Morrison integrate memory, weave memory, into their main characters. It is interesting as the reader to interpret and then come to an understanding about what memory is doing in each. The power and control memory has on both characters physical actions and emotions is rather significant. For Sethe, the manipulation of her memory works with her, benefits her. Offred’s memory manipulates her into realizing how horrible her life truly is. She remembers the old, and wants to go back. Although not finished with The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred’s flashbacks and memories of her past are sure to have a lasting impact on how she behaves as a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead.

Cognitive psychology behind memory and forgetting

The cognitive psychological studies that have been performed on the human memory are fascinating. Human memory, like memory in a computer, allows us to store information for later use. In order to do this, however, certain processes involved with memory must be mastered.

To be able to compare the human memory to a computer initially relays an idea that sort of categorizes humans above all other life. Computers have abilities and capacities that extend far beyond that of humans. There are however connections that have been made through recent psychological studies that compare the human memory to a computer.

The first point of mastery is called encoding; the process we use to transform information so that it can be stores. For a computer this would mean transferring data into 1’s and 0’s…numbers it can compute and recall easily. For us, it means transforming the data into a meaningful form such as an association with an existing memory, an image, or a sound.

Next is the actual storage, simply holding onto the information. For this to take place, the computer must physically write the 1’ and 0’s onto the hard drive. It is very similar for us because it means that a physiological change must occur for the memory to be stored.

The final process is called retrieval, which is bringing the memory out of storage and reversing the process of encoding. In other words, return the information to a form similar to what we stored. Retrieval is actually remembering memories.

The major difference between humans and computers in terms of memory has to do with how the information is stored. For the most part, computers have only two types; permanent storage and permanent deletion. Humans, on the other hand are more complex in that we have three distinct memory storage capabilities (not including permanent deletion). The first is sensory memory, referring to the information we receive through the senses. This memory is very brief lasting only as much as a few seconds.

Of course we have our long and short term memories. There are certain types of long term memory, including declarative, semantic and episodic. It does get a bit complicated, but it just goes to show how much the human memory is capable of.

Below is a video from BBC that goes a little more in depth of how the human memory works. It is sort of on the long side, but includes some really interesting facts. There are experiments performed that explain the basics behind the memory of children, adults and older adults. Tests include children’s reactions to themselves in the mirror and so on. The video opens with a general overview, stating that in our lifetime, we see roughly 5,800 movies, come to know about 1,700 people personally. All of this reiterates how fascinating our minds are.

To sort of wrap up, the video also tracks the story of one man, John, who cannot remember anything. He was born premature, and his ability to remember things has never fully developed. Neurologically, John is not mature. He has home videos and pictures of his entire life because he cannot remember any of it. He writes down what he has to do, just to get by. John’s story should make us thankful, and amazed, about how much we can remember, mostly without even thinking it.

**Definitions and bolded terms came from The Virtual Psychology Classroom

Memory on NBC

It’s amazing how many movies and TV shows there are out there that deal with memory. With some, memory isn’t necessarily what we would consider to be the main aspect. Memory sometimes works for effect, to enhance a certain idea or bring attention to a certain issue.

Personally, I’m excited for NBC’s new original series “Awake”. “Awake” focuses on detective Michael Britten who finds he is leading an arduous double life that defies reality. He cannot remember anything. He cannot remember what might be real, and what might not be. He lives two lives.

Following a tragic car accident, Britten finds himself awake in two separate realities: one where his teen son, Rex died in the crash and his wife, Hannah survived and another where Hannah has perished, leaving Michael and Rex to pick up the pieces. In order to keep both of his loved ones alive, Michael begins living in two dueling realities, churning up confusion.

Trying to regain some normalcy, Michael returns to solving crimes in both worlds with the help of two different partners, Detective Isaiah and Detective Efrem Vega. Michael is assigned a different case in each reality and quickly discovers that his dual existence is actually a powerful tool. He begins to solve impossible cases by using his two realties to gain unique perspectives and link clues that cross over from world to world.

Helping Michael to navigate his two realities are his two therapists. While both therapists work to untangle his two worlds, Michael has no interest in proving either one is false. But when memories of the accident begin to haunt him, he is forced to confront the truth about what really happened the night of the crash.

To see the official preview for the show, which premiers shortly, click on the link below. For some reason, I am unable to post the video into the blog…apparently the link isn’t even showing up. SO if you would like to see the clip if you haven’t already seen it on TV, go on youtube and search it. 🙂

“Awake” illustrates how sometimes we can manipulate our memories, which can work to our advantage, but also destroy us. The Michael is faced with memories he can’t explain, can’t understand, and must choose what memories he wants to keep in his memory. This show really highlights the intellectual power memory has on the human race.

Memory in Beloved

Since we are working on Beloved, I thought it was appropriate to discuss the meaning of ‘memory’ in the novel so far. Among Morisson’s incredibly rich choice of vocabulary and complicated path of narration, there are moments of clarity, of sanity. It takes a lot for the reader to understand what is going on in terms of context let alone figure out a hidden meaning or side concept. Memory is one of the only things throughout the novel that remains constant. The reader has a solid understanding of how memory fits in. The entire novel is based off of memory. The memory of Baby Suggs, Sethe, Paul D., Denver…Beloved, everyone has a memory. Everyone expresses emotion through memories.

The novel starts off with memories of being a slave, from being freed, from suffering loss, finding love, and it is because of all these recollections that we as readers are able to understand each character. We are able to go to the depth’s of their emotion because of memory. At one point, when Denver saw her mother praying by the side of her bed next to a ghost-like figure, the concept of ‘memory’ becomes readily apparent to the reader from Sethe’s perspective:

“What were you talking about?”

“You won’t understand, baby.”

“Yes, I will.”

“I was talking about time. It’s so hard for me to believe in it. Some things go. Pass on. Some things just stay. I used to think it was my memory. You know. Some things you forget. Other things you never do. But it’s not. Places, places are still there. If a house burns down, it’s gone, but the place – the picture of it – stays, and not just in my rememory, but out there, in the world. What I remember is a picture floating around there outside my head. I mean, if I don’t think it, even if I die, the picture of what I did, or knew, or saw is still out there. Right in the place where it happened” (38).

“Can other people see it?” asked Denver.

“Oh yes. Oh yes, yes, yes. Someday you be walking down the road and you hear something or see something going on. So clear. And you think it’s you thinking it up. A thought picture. But no. It’s when you bump into a rememory that belongs to somebody else. Where I was before I came here, that place is real. It’s never going away. Even if the whole farm – every tree and grass blade of it dies. The picture is still there and what’s more, if you go there – you who never was there – if you go there and stand in the place where it was, it will happen again; it will be there for you, waiting for you. So, Denver, you can’t never go there. Never. Because even though it’s all over – over and done with –  it’s going to always be there waiting for you. That’s how come I had to get all my children out. No matter what.”

“If it’s still there, waiting, that must mean that nothing ever dies”

“Nothing ever does.”
There is so much that can be taken out of this passage. Sethe brings up the physicality of memory, how even if something is physically gone, it is still sort of engraved in our minds. She shows almost an extreme emotional maturity, when she brings up the fact that Sweet Home still exists. Her past still exists. Probably, Sethe has images in her head of lavish plantation mansions, endless, bountiful fields. But she also has memories of shacks, whips, and pain. The pictures of the plantation and of her life as a slave will never leave her, even if that place is no longer physically existing.

“Nothing better than to start the day’s serious work of beating back the past” (77). 

Sethe also implies to Denver, that when revisiting your past, physically returning to a certain place, will cause you to remember everything about it. Everything you felt and experienced once will come back again. It’s waiting for you. That’s really just fascinating. It is an abstract way of interpreting memory, and again, it shows a lot of wisdom and emotional maturity.

Sethe ends with a bit of irony, when she says that nothing ever dies. Even though she may have lost all of her children, she is implying that none of them are dead in her memory. Physically, they are gone, but spiritually and emotionally they are within her. This is readily apparent with the presence of Beloved, and her daughter-like connection she seems to loath with Sethe.

Clearly, Morisson bases the entire novel off of memory.

The Beauty of a Memory

I Had the Best Day…

There are certain songs that you can always play, and they will bring you back to a particular point in your life. This weekend my mother and I took a roadtrip down south, and listened to music all the way there. At one point, the song The Best Day by Taylor Swift came on and I was immediately whisked back to my childhood. My mother has been the biggest influence on my life, and as weird as it may seem, she is my best friend. She has always been there for me. When this song came out I was fifteen years old. My mom and I have considered this our song since because it explains almost everything we have been through together, while also signifiying the evolution that comes with a mother-daughter relationship as the years continue to pass.

I’m five years old, it’s getting cold, I’ve got my big coat on
I hear your laugh and look up smiling at you, I run and run
Past the pumpkin patch and the tractor rides, look now, the sky is gold
I hug your legs and fall asleep on the way home

I don’t know why all the trees change in the fall
But I know you’re not scared of anything at all
Don’t know if Snow White’s house is near or far away
But I know I had the best day with you today

I’m thirteen now and don’t know how my friends could be so mean
I come home crying and you hold me tight and grab the keys
And we drive and drive until we found a town far enough away
And we talk and window shop ’til I’ve forgotten all their names

I don’t know who I’m gonna talk to now at school
But I know I’m laughing on the car ride home with you
Don’t know how long it’s gonna take to feel okay
But I know I had the best day with you today

I have an excellent father, his strength is making me stronger
God smiles on my little brother, inside and out, he’s better than I am
I grew up in a pretty house and I had space to run
And I had the best days with you

There is a video I found from back when I was three
You set up a paint set in the kitchen and you’re talking to me
It’s the age of princesses and pirate ships and the seven dwarfs
And Daddy’s smart and you’re the prettiest lady in the whole wide world

And now I know why the all the trees change in the fall
I know you were on my side even when I was wrong
And I love you for giving me your eyes
For staying back and watching me shine
And I didn’t know if you knew, so I’m takin’ this chance to say
That I had the best day with you today

Memory in Art

Many people find it easy to express their emotions through art. Photographs, paintings, collages. Art allows memories to be expressed purely, without passing any sort of judgement. Someone can look at a painting or photograph and not understand it at all. Art is very difficult to understand from the viewer’s perspective, but as the creator, we know exactly what we see and what we think.

The past is inspiring. Things we have heard of, listened to, watched, can be things that stay with us for the rest of our lives. Art is physical representation of the human memory. And it is perplexing, confusing.

A couple of years ago my mother, grandmother and sister went into New York City for the day. We decided to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and MoMA (Museum of Modern Art). Now, I am someone who may not have the greatest appreciation for art. I am not necessarily ‘good’ at drawing, or inspired to go and paint something…ever. My sister is a person who loves art, who appreciates style, technique, texture, tone. She tries to understand why the artist might have done things a certain way. She is interested in  more than just looking at the art, but understanding the purpose, the memory behind the pieces. I did have a little more admiration and respect for the art in the MET, however MoMA was pretty much a joke to me. I don’t understand how a ball of string tied to a twig can be considered worthy of being in a museum, let alone a piece of artwork in the first place. Give me a few minutes. I’ll go outside, find a twig, grab a ball of string out of my mother’s sewing box. TADA! I made art.

Memory in art allows people to express what is meaningful to them. After that day in the museums, I can’t necessarily say I enjoyed it all too much. I did however, come to an understanding that there are a lot of different types of people out there. What inspires one person might not even cross the mind of another. But these inspirations come from memory. And for me, walking around and looking at those sculptures, paintings, posters, I realized how vast the human memory is. Everything and anything can spark inspiration.

Doris Salcedo, a well-known Colombian sculptor, discusses the role memory plays in the work she creates.

There are a lot of pieces in that video that I didn’t understand. Certain sculptures had no meaning for me. I wouldn’t personally call it ‘art’. But that’s just me. Salcedo’s take on art can be considered a more abstract one, more specific to her life. Other types of art can be understood by more people. For me, I can understand a collage or a painting more easily than a sculpture. The bottom line is, memory is in every piece of art, whether or not we can understand it or not.

African Memory Jug

A photograph of one artist’s “memory lane’

Venice from memory

Memory in art is expressed in infinite ways. Below is a concluding video,  about how memory and history function in art. The “Art in the Twenty-First Century” documentary “Memory” explores these questions through the work of the artists Susan Rothenberg, Mike Kelley, Hiroshi Sugimoto, and Josiah McElheny, and concludes with an original video artwork by Teresa Hubbard / Alexander Birchler. It is rather long, so the first couple minutes will suffice.

Memory in Art

An Introduction To Memory

The word memory is probably one of the most prevalent words identified through human nature. Everything we have done is a memory, everything we will do is a memory. Something done five minutes ago is a memory. Whether or not it is noteworthy is the difference. People don’t realize how many memories are made in a day. Some of those memories last only a few minutes after they’ve occurred, while others, last a lifetime.

Our memories make us who we are. Memory is a representation of what we value, what we find important…memories establish what we value, who we love.

The etymology of the word ‘memory’ is rather simple. Created during the 13c., the word memory was established as a ‘recollection (of someone or something); awareness, consciousness”. It is also “fame, renown, reputation,” from Anglo-Fr. memorie, from L. memoria, from memor “mindful, remembering,” from PIE base*men-/*mon- “think”. Meaning “faculty of remembering” is late 14c.

The more contemporary definitions of ‘memory’ include:

1. the mental capacity or faculty of retaining and reviving facts, events, impressions, etc., or of recalling or recognizing previous experiences.
2. this faculty as possessed by a particular individual: to have a good memory.
3. the act or fact of retaining and recalling impressions, facts,etc.; remembrance; recollection: to draw from memory.
4. the length of time over which recollection extends: a time within the memory of living persons.
5. a mental impression retained; a recollection: one’s earliest memories.

I am grown old and my memory is not as active as it used to be. When I was younger I could remember anything, whether it had happened or not; but my faculties are decaying now and soon I shall be so I cannot remember any but the things that never happened. It is sad to go to pieces like this, but we all have to do it. [Mark Twain]