Memory loss as a trope is something that can be used in a wide variety of ways. It’s also a trope that’s been used for a long time, Ancient Greek and Roman writers wrote about the river Lethe, the river of forgetfulness, which flowed through the underworld. Whichever soul drank from it would immediately experience oblivion and was freed from their earlier self. The idea of identity was in those times linked with memory so amnesia offered the ability to be re-birthed into a new entity.
The Indian play Shakuntala from the 4th century AD written by Kālidāsa features a young girl, Shakuntala, who having married King Dusyanta is cursed with having her husband forget her. The only way to remedy this is to show her husband her wedding ring, as this would make him remember her instantly. This shows how important of a role memory plays in identity and love, we need to have our memory to have an identity, but we also need others to remember us for it to play any role in our lives.
When talking about memory loss it’s important to define what exactly it is. There’s typically two types of amnesia that people suffer from; Retrograde amnesia is when a person forgets memories they’ve already formed and Anterograde amnesia is when a person is no longer able to form new memories. Retrograde amnesia is the type we see most often in media and literature, but in real life Anterograde amnesia is more common.
Amnesia as it’s showcased in fiction differs wildly from real-life amnesia, and it can be seen as unrealistic and ridiculous when the two are compared. It should however be noted that the purpose of memory loss in fiction isn’t to provide scientific descriptions of amnesia to the readers, but instead to provide entertainment. It should therefore not be written to seem realistic for clinical professionals but instead be written as being plausible for the general public. When assessing amnesia used in literature one should therefore ask if the portrayal is understandable to the audience, if it performs its job in the plot, and how it helps showcase the message of the piece.
Asking these questions helps keep the limits of real-life amnesia in the piece of fiction. As mentioned above the fact that amnesiacs in fiction most often suffer from retrograde amnesia but not anterograde amnesia, and that the memory loss involves all information about identity rather than other aspect of life, can say something about intuitive conceptions of memory. And the fact that cases like these are rare in real life also says something about the mechanisms of memory. So instead of seeing memory loss in fiction as being inaccurate, it’s better to see it as a thought experiment.
In modern media and literature, the memory loss trope is used for all sorts of reasons. It’s often used as a set-up for stories, it’s the problem the protagonist faces from the start of the story and the arc is about them regaining their memories.
The memory loss trope can be uses in many different ways though, and in different intensities. Some of them being:
- To show the growth of the protagonist. Due to the memory loss the protagonist goes back to who they were before their character growth, thereby showing the reader just how far they’ve come.
- The memories of certain events are removed. In this scenario the character often retains the feeling of what they’ve lost, so it will lead to the character looking for what it is they’ve lost.
- The character forgets their relationship with someone they love. This causes tension between the character and their loved one and when it gets resolved it triggers a happy reaction from the reader.
- An antagonist gets amnesia. This makes them act like a good person for the time being, but they will usually regain their memories and turn bad again. This shows the reader that the antagonist isn’t all bad.
- The protagonist is a god. They think they’re a mortal and they’re lacking all their god powers, but when their memory eventually comes back so does their powers and they’re able to save the day.
- The hero suffers from amnesia and gets influenced by the antagonist. This is the opposite of the antagonist getting amnesia and shows the reader that the hero isn’t always good all the way through.
- The protagonist forgets their life. In this scenario they live a normal life until their memory is restored, or they’re found by their old allies and told who they are, thereby restoring them back to who they were before.
- A normal person discovers something they shouldn’t have. This results in them getting their memory wiped to ensure the secrecy of whatever it is they found out and allows the character to go back to normal.
- Someone has implanted memories. An event that didn’t happen or an altered version of an event that did happen, gets implanted into someone’s head making them believe said event actually happened.
As you can see the memory loss trope can be used in a variety of different ways and can have different effect on elements of the story ranging from relationship troubles to narrative struggles.
Memory loss in literature can therefore be a device used to explore topics as varied as identity, rebirth and even the capability to look forward.
As mentioned above memory loss is a popular trope in literature so here are some books that feature it:
- We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
A beautiful and distinguished family.
A private island.
A brilliant, damaged girl; a passionate, political boy.
A group of four friends—the Liars—whose friendship turns destructive.
A revolution. An accident. A secret.
Lies upon lies.
We Were Liars is a modern, sophisticated suspense novel from New York Times bestselling author, National Book Award finalist, and Printz Award honoree E. Lockhart.
And if anyone asks you how it ends, just LIE.
- The Dakest Minds by Alexandra Bracken
When Ruby woke up on her tenth birthday, something about her had changed. Something alarming enough to make her parents lock her in the garage and call the police. Something that gets her sent to Thurmond, a brutal government “rehabilitation camp.” She might have survived the mysterious disease that’s killed most of America’s children, but she and the others have emerged with something far worse: frightening abilities they cannot control.
Now sixteen, Ruby is one of the dangerous ones.
When the truth comes out, Ruby barely escapes Thurmond with her life. Now she’s on the run, desperate to find the one safe haven left for kids like her—East River. She joins a group of kids who escaped their own camp. Liam, their brave leader, is falling hard for Ruby. But no matter how much she aches for him, Ruby can’t risk getting close. Not after what happened to her parents.
When they arrive at East River, nothing is as it seems, least of all its mysterious leader. But there are other forces at work, people who will stop at nothing to use Ruby in their fight against the government. Ruby will be faced with a terrible choice, one that may mean giving up her only chance at a life worth living.
- Don’t Look Back by Jennifer L. Armentrout
Samantha is a stranger in her own life. Until the night she disappeared with her best friend, Cassie, everyone said Sam had it all – popularity, wealth, and a dream boyfriend.
Sam has resurfaced, but she has no recollection of who she was or what happened to her that night. As she tries to piece together her life from before, she realizes it’s one she no longer wants any part of. The old Sam took “mean girl” to a whole new level, and it’s clear she and Cassie were more like best enemies. Sam is pretty sure that losing her memories is like winning the lottery. She’s getting a second chance at being a better daughter, sister, and friend, and she’s falling hard for Carson Ortiz, a boy who has always looked out for her-even if the old Sam treated him like trash.
But Cassie is still missing, and the truth about what happened to her that night isn’t just buried deep inside of Sam’s memory – someone else knows, someone who wants to make sure Sam stays quiet. All Sam wants is the truth, and if she can unlock her clouded memories of that fateful night, she can finally move on. But what if not remembering is the only thing keeping Sam alive?
- Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac by Gabrielle Zevin
If Naomi had picked tails, she would have won the coin toss. She wouldn’t have had to go back for the yearbook camera, and she wouldn’t have hit her head on the steps. She wouldn’t have woken up in an ambulance with amnesia. She certainly would have remembered her boyfriend, Ace. She might even have remembered why she fell in love with him in the first place. She would understand why her best friend, Will, keeps calling her “Chief.” She’d know about her mom’s new family. She’d know about her dad’s fiancée. She never would have met James, the boy with the questionable past and the even fuzzier future, who tells her he once wanted to kiss her. She wouldn’t have wanted to kiss him back.
But Naomi picked heads.
After her remarkable debut, Gabrielle Zevin has crafted an imaginative second novel all about love and second chances.
- The One Memory of Flora Banks by Emily Barr
HOW DO YOU KNOW WHO TO TRUST WHEN YOU CAN’T EVEN TRUST YOURSELF?
I look at my hands. One of them says FLORA BE BRAVE.
Flora has anterograde amnesia. She can’t remember anything day-to-day: the joke her friend made, the instructions her parents gave her, how old she is.
Then she kisses someone she shouldn’t, and the next day she remembers it. It’s the first time she’s remembered anything since she was ten.
But the boy is gone. She thinks he’s moved to the Arctic.
Will following him be the key to unlocking her memory? Who can she trust?
For further reading into how memory loss and amnesia is used in fiction check out the article “Stranger than fiction: literary and clinical amnesia“ by Sebastian Dieguez & Jean-Marie Annoni