When Ove first appears in the novel, he's a man driven to suicide by his memories and grief over Sonja, his late wife. Ove attempts to make his memories of Sonja perform the same actions as she did while she was alive—motivating and inspiring him to do the right things—and though Ove’s memories of Sonja are powerful, they aren’t enough to pull Ove out of his grief. In this way, the novel sets out to explore the potentially disastrous consequences of dwelling on memories to the extent that Ove dwells on his memories of Sonja.
The novel makes it very clear from the beginning that memories are inescapable and necessary to understanding who a person is. Nearly half the book consists of flashbacks of Ove's life, spanning from his childhood to the day his boss forced him to retire the day before the novel begins. This structure allows the reader to learn about Ove through his memories, and shows how Ove uses memories to form his conception of the world. For example, Ove uses the memories of his father's kindness and honesty to guide his actions as he goes through life. He remembers what people said about his father and endeavors to behave in such a way as to inspire people to talk about him in the same way. Through Ove's other memories, many of which are exceptionally sad, the reader learns that Ove isn't indiscriminately mean for no reason. Rather, Ove is often unkind because he is mired in grief and sad memories, and haunted by the times that people tricked and humiliated him.
Although memory works positively as a teaching tool for characters as well as for the reader, the novel also offers several situations in which memory is used in ways that aren't useful or helpful. Most of these situations are ones in which elements of grief and anger are added to memories, making it difficult for Ove to move on from his memories and live his life. The novel states several times that Ove is a man made for a time long gone. Although he lives in the twenty-first century, he mentally inhabits a world that simply doesn't exist anymore, where a man is only a man if he works outside the home, where there are clearly delineated gender roles for men and women, and where people in general do things for themselves rather than use automated systems (one of Ove's greatest pet peeves is that people drive cars with automatic transmissions). Because Ove lives entrenched in his memories of how the world used to be, his memories lead him to develop disdain and hatred for everyone in his life who doesn't feel the same way he does.
Individuals like Patrick then become prime targets for Ove's scorn. Patrick works from home as an IT consultant, drives an automatic transmission, and can't perform "simple" tasks like unjamming a window or bleeding a radiator. Ove feels angry and superior when he encounters people like Patrick, which in turn isolates Ove even further from the greater community. Similarly, rather than use his memories of Sonja as positive reminders to love others and engage fully with the world as she did, Ove's grief keeps him seeking a relationship with her that no longer exists after her death. Rather than allowing his memories of Sonja to remain in the past, as Ove did when his father died, he remains fully committed to trying to keep Sonja's memory alive at the expense of everyone and everything else—including his own life. He does this by refusing to remove any of Sonja's things from his home and buying flowers for her grave from her prepaid debit card on a weekly basis. Similarly, although his suicide attempts are all unsuccessful, they're meant to keep Ove from having to relegate Sonja to memory: he believes that when he dies, he will be reunited with her in the afterlife.
Following Ove's own death, Parvaneh and Patrick offer an alternative to how Ove tried to honor his memory and deal with their own grief. Rather than keep Ove as a private memory, they engage with the community to start a relief fund for orphaned children in Ove and Sonja's name. It is noteworthy that the pages following Ove's death are overwhelmingly positive and happy—not because people are happy Ove is dead, but because they choose to celebrate his life. The friends he leaves behind choose to honor his memory by doing good things that will benefit future generations. In doing so, the novel presents the possibility that memories can be harnessed to create positive change in the world—not just to hold people back from life.
Memory and Grief ThemeTracker
Memory and Grief Quotes in A Man Called Ove
Every morning for the almost four decades they had lived in this house, Ove had put on the coffee percolator, using exactly the same amount of coffee as on any other morning, and then drank a cup with his wife.
Because nowadays people are all thirty-one and wear too-tight trousers and no longer drink normal coffee. And don't want to take responsibility. A shed-load of men with elaborate beards, changing jobs and changing wives and changing their car makes. Just like that. Whenever they feel like it.
And if you could just go and buy everything, what was the value of it? What was the value of a man?
Since his father's death he had begun more and more to differentiate between people who did what they should, and those who didn't. People who did and people who just talked. Ove talked less and less and did more and more.
Straight lines, even edges. People don't shovel snow that way anymore. Nowadays they just clear a way, they use snow blowers and all sorts of things. Any old method will do, scattering snow all over the place. As if that were the only thing that mattered in life: pushing one's way forward.
It wasn't supposed to be like this. You work and pay off the mortgage and pay taxes and do what you should. You marry. For better or for worse until death do us part, wasn't that what they agreed? Ove remembers quite clearly that it was. And she wasn't supposed to be the first to die. Wasn't it bloody well understood that it was his death they were talking about? Well, wasn't it?
And now she stood outside the station with his flowers pressed happily to her breast, in that red cardigan of hers, making the rest of the world look as if it were made in grayscale.
As if the kitchen had been built for a child. Parvaneh stares at them the way people always do when they see it for the first time. Ove has got used to it. He rebuilt the kitchen himself after the accident. The council refused to help, of course.
Every human being needs to know what she's fighting for. That was what they said. And she fought for what was good. For the children she never had. And Ove fought for her.
Both men, once as close as men of that sort could be, stare at each other. One of them a man who refuses to forget the past, and one who can't remember it at all.
Rune and Anita's lad grew up and cleared out of home as soon as he got the chance. And Rune went and bought a sporty BMW, one of those cars that only has space for two people and a handbag. Because now it was only him and Anita, as he told Sonja when they met in the parking area. "And one can't drive a Volvo all of one's life," he said with an attempt at a halfhearted smile. She could hear that he was trying to swallow his tears. And that was the moment when Ove realized that a part of Rune had given up forever.
When he almost imperceptibly takes a half step backwards into the hall...he notices, from the corner of his eye, the photo of Sonja on the wall. The red dress. The bus trip to Spain when she was pregnant. He asked her so many times to take that bloody photo down, but she refused. She said it was "a memory worth as much as any other."
He thinks about how Sonja would have taken it if she'd found out. If she'd known that her best friend had not asked for her help because Sonja had "enough problems." She would have been heartbroken.
"They can call me whatever they like. No need for you to stick your bloody nose in."
And then he puts up the drawings one by one on the fridge. The one that says "To Granddad" gets the top spot.
The woman is pregnant. Her eyes glitter as she walks through the rooms, the way eyes glitter when a person imagines her child's future memories unfolding there on the floor.