Memory – what is it?

Remembering Mrs Dalloway

I am currently reading Mrs Dalloway, and a theme that stands out for me is memory.

“it was extraordinary how vividly it all came back to him, things he hadn’t thought of in years” (p.66) this is a line from Peter Walsh when he casts his mind back his younger days spent with Clarissa, it is a book peppered with characters thinking of their past.


Septimus, used to be a solider and is seemingly suffering from some kind of post traumatic stress disorder and is plagued by his past, seeing his friend Evans, who died in the war all over Regents Park – much to the distress of his young Italian wife who can feel their marriage tearing at the seams. The kind of passage I have been reading in Mrs Dalloway reflect the Proustian notion of memory, it is very fitting for Woolfe’s style as she is constantly in the heads of her characters and the Proustian flashback is the perfect fit – a present day experience of one character brings back a flood of memories for that character, as if you yourself have been transported back in time and can re-watch your memory like a DVD, it is a very strange sensation. There are plenty of examples in Mrs Dalloway:

–       Peter Walsh looking at the houses that frame Regents Park transport him back to visiting Hugh Whitbread

–       Clarissa mending a dress that once belonged to Sally Seton sends her back to her youth and life with the characters when they were young.

This understanding suggests that all our memories are there; they just need to be brought out by an experience in the present. Apparently the most powerful one is smell, and it is the example that Proust uses in his own works, he smells the cakes and has a powerful memory of madeleines. Do you think memory works like this? Is it preserved perfectly like a HD DVD, which our mind can bring forth when confronted with the right triggers? Is memory a perfect photograph? Do my memories exist, as something in the world. For example when I think back to when I was watering the plants, is that memory a physical thing. It seems no, it is a moment that has gone – yet when I cast my mind back to the hydrangeas it still feels real, I can talk of colours, smells, sounds and even textures.


Memory is not perfect. We can misremember certainly, so how can we know what is a true memory and what is a ‘false’ one. Is it a personal thing a memory is a memory if you can recall it false or other wise it doesn’t matter what you picture simply is your memory, or is  a true memory something validated by lots of others having the same memory. What if I misremember only a small thing, say the colour of the socks I was wearing when I was watering the plants, would that invalidate the memory.

A book that looks at this kind of thing is Julian Barnes ‘The Sense of An Ending” with a plot revolving around memory and history and how the two can alter each other: “what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed” I particularly enjoyed this novel. A key question is when do we have the most accurate understanding of something is it when the event has just happened? A further question is how much your memory can alter what responsibility you feel towards an incident. Do we have to wait for time to pass for more facts to come to light to help us understand what happened, but this is a problem for if time passes we presumably remember less of the detail we personally feel at the time and surely this weakens the Proustian line of the flashback style. For example when I smell sun cream I often have call to remember my first time at the seaside and throwing my pants defiantly into the sea, but is this truly my memory of history or is it my parents who have told me about it subsequently, I do not have a memory of what I felt at the time, I just know it happend. An interesting line in the novel is a play on ‘history is written by the victors’ and how we cannot trust the losers because they are sure to feel sorry for themselves and have excuses; rather we have to rely on the accounts of the impartial. Objectivity is what we need to strive for in history and memory.

In a way Woolfe has elements of this in her novel, by which I mean she combines the emotional Proust style flash backs, but she also draws upon corroboration, so we have other characters talking of their past memories in an attempt to support the descriptions of Sally Seton et al that we have already read. However on top of this Woolfe lets in objectivity, we have examples of Peter Walsh observing Septimus and his wife in the park, describing what he sees in an impartial way. This is a powerful triptych of memory  (personal, 3rd person and objective) and it links all the characters pasts and presents.

So memory, time and history are very interesting topics in literature and causes us to ask what do you think memory is?


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