The Memory Police

by

Yoko Ogawa

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The Memory Police: Chapter 17  Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The narrator freezes at the sound of the doorbell. The old man puts an arm around her shoulders, and R looks up at the trap door above them. The doorbell continues to ring, and the three now hear pounding at the door. The narrator whispers that it is the Memory Police. The front door is locked, and the old man decides that it is better to let them in than to pretend the narrator is not home. They need to act as though they couldn’t care less. He assures the narrator and R that everything will be fine. As they climb the ladder out of the room, the old man insists that he’ll be back for his birthday present.
It's noteworthy how quickly the narrator, the old man, and R must make a life-or-death choice, emphasizing again the terror of living under authoritarian governments.
Themes
Authoritarianism and Surveillance Theme Icon
The Memory Police are indeed at the narrator’s front door. They tell her and the old man to put their hands behind their heads. They instruct the old man and the narrator not to touch anything or talk; they’ll be put under arrest if they don’t comply. There are about five or six of them. The narrator thinks how they must be used to giving this speech at people’s doorsteps. She sees through the window that they’ve parked their trucks in front of other houses throughout the neighborhood.
It's telling that the Memory Police appear to have given this speech so many times—this is a frightening reminder that they have arrested so many people on the island. The fact that they’ve parked their trucks around the neighborhood means that it’s a search of the entire block. This is both comforting (because it means that they might not be looking for R specifically) and scary, since the randomness of the searches only adds to the terror of everyday life on the island.
Themes
Authoritarianism and Surveillance Theme Icon
The Memory Police are brusque and systematic. Without “any trace of emotion,” they begin searching the rooms of the narrator’s house. They never take their shoes off, and spots form on the floor from their boots. The narrator tries to keep herself calm by remembering the song from the music box.
The Memory Police’s gruff, cold actions—and their lack of “any trace of emotion”—again signify how they hardly seem human; they are just one, collective, oppressive entity. This emphasizes the dangerous kind of uniformity that frequently takes place within regimes that have absolute control over citizens. 
Themes
Authoritarianism and Surveillance Theme Icon
The Memory Police ask the old man why he is there, and he replies that he’s been doing odd jobs for the family for years. They ask why the sink is full of dirty pots and pans. The narrator amazes herself by being able to lie, saying that she cooked enough for a whole week and froze the food. She is grateful that they left the three dirty dishes in the secret room. This seems to fool the guards, and they move on.
Again, the heightened pressure in this moment demonstrates how dire seemingly every aspect of life can become while living under the constant threat of an authoritarian government. In normal circumstances, it wouldn’t matter much whether or not the narrator left dirty dishes in a separate room—now, though, the fact that she left them out of sight ends up saving her and the others.
Themes
Authoritarianism and Surveillance Theme Icon
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The Memory Police then move upstairs. Though there are fewer rooms upstairs, they seem to search more thoroughly. The old man and the narrator are able to see what is happening in the study because the door is ajar. One man examines a space on a bookshelf behind some books, and another rifles through the narrator’s manuscript pages. The narrator worries about the manuscript’s proximity to the dictionaries on her desk, behind which is one end of the makeshift intercom. She thinks how the Memory Police’s well-tailored coats make the men seem unusually and terribly tall.
The Memory Police’s nice coats suggest that they are hoarding resources from the general population. The fact that the Memory Police look by the bookshelves (and the fact that this makes the narrator nervous) is again a reference to Anne Frank—she and her family hid in an annex whose door was covered by a bookshelf.
Themes
Authoritarianism and Surveillance Theme Icon
A guard then asks the narrator what the pages on the desk are. She looks at the floor and tells them that she is writing a novel. At this, he snorts and throws the pages on the ground. The narrator thinks that his disinterest in books is good luck, because he moves away from the dictionaries.
It's telling that the Memory Police sneer at the idea of a novel, because this shows that they don’t believe in the arts or in the importance of stories. This contributes to the idea of the Memory Police as a single, inhuman entity, since the story argues that novels and books are an important part of what make people feel human.
Themes
Authoritarianism and Surveillance Theme Icon
Storytelling, Longevity, and Defiance Theme Icon
Suddenly, the narrator realizes one corner of the rug that covers the trap door is askew. She begins to chide herself in her head, wondering how she could have been so careless as to not smooth down the rug before she left. She can’t take her eyes off the rug, even though she knows this might draw attention to it. When a Memory Police guard says, “what’s this?” she thinks he must be asking about the rug.
The narrator’s certainty that the rug will be the thing that gives her away shows just how terrified she is, and how much risk she and the old man are taking by hiding R. Again, the idea that something as small as a rug’s misplaced corner shows that every little detail can be life-or-death under authoritarian regimes.
Themes
Authoritarianism and Surveillance Theme Icon
Luckily, the guard only holds an old datebook that the narrator had missed when gathering up all her calendars, and she is able to calmly say that she’d forgotten it was there because she hardly used it. The Memory Police guard flips through it and tells her that she should have gotten rid of it, then lights it on fire with a lighter from his pocket and tosses it out the window. She hears it hit the river. Just then, the guard in charge calls for the men to stop, and they immediately form a line and march down the stairs. They leave the room a mess. When they are out of the house, the narrator collapses into the old man’s arms.
There’s a small moment of relief here, since the narrator is mistaken about what she thought the Memory Police found. The guard’s gruff, automatic behavior shows that the men who work for the Memory Police hardly seem like individuals anymore. The narrator takes refuge in the old man’s arms once the Memory Police are gone, showing how much she needs him.
Themes
Authoritarianism and Surveillance Theme Icon
People from the neighborhood look outside to watch the Memory Police leave. The narrator notices three figures come out of the house east of hers. She hears some of her other neighbors talking: the ex-hatmaker says that he had no idea that the young couple had been hiding people in their house. The two were part of an underground group. He never would have guessed it. They note that the third person getting escorted away is only a child, a teenager. The old man and the narrator hold each other’s hands tightly.
It's telling that the neighbors had no idea that the young couple were hiding anybody, which shows how isolated even neighbors have become from each other—a distance that is seemingly necessary if people want to resist an oppressive regime. The Memory Police again show themselves to be cruel and merciless, as they arrest not only a very young person but also those who were hiding him.
Themes
Loss, Isolation, and Identity Theme Icon
Authoritarianism and Surveillance Theme Icon
Quotes
Later that night, back in the secret room, the narrator weeps for longer than she ever has in her life. She knows she should be happy that the Memory Police didn’t find anything, but she seems to be overcome with emotion. She doesn’t even know how to describe what she is doing, exactly—she isn’t sad, and the crying isn’t relieving tension. It is more that the tears are impossible to stop. R sits next to her, trying to comfort her. She tells him that for once, she’s happy about the tiny size of the room, because it means the two of them are close, and it’s peaceful to be together in such a small space.
The narrator’s intense response to the raid shows how much pressure she was under trying to keep the hidden room a secret. However, her belief that she’s not crying to release tension suggests that there is also something deeper going on—a wave of emotion that is very hard to pin down. R is very concerned for the narrator and shows that he cares for her by trying to comfort her. Their relationship feels like it has been leading to this point. The fact that the narrator thinks the small room is a blessing, for once, shows that she is truly in love with R and just wants to be close to him.
Themes
Loss, Isolation, and Identity Theme Icon
Authoritarianism and Surveillance Theme Icon
Quotes
The narrator thinks she can smell the slightest hint of the old man’s birthday cake from earlier. R tells the narrator that she can stay in the room as long as she’d like. She can’t seem to stop crying, but through her tears she assures R that she’s not crying out of fear. She thinks it must be because her heart has weakened, but R says it is the opposite: her tears are a sign that her heart is doing “everything it can to preserve its existence.”
R and the narrator will go back and forth about the narrator’s ability to resist the disappearances for the rest of the novel—R is always optimistic and thinks that the narrator’s heart and mind is trying to “preserve” itself, but the narrator is not quite so sure.
Themes
R wipes a tear from the narrator’s face and holds her. The narrator thinks how, sitting there in the quiet, it feels surreal that the Memory Police rang the doorbell only an hour ago. In fact, everything from that night feels like a “distant past”—but now, alone in the room, she and R are “entirely in the present.” The narrator, her cheek on R’s chest, thinks about all the memories he has stored in his heart. She tells him how after the Memory Police left, she stood outside in the cold without a coat or gloves, hoping to figure out where her memories went if she waited long enough. Before she can tell him that she’s sure she’ll never figure it out, he kisses her.
It is meaningful that the narrator and R share their first kiss, because she’s always had deep feelings for him, and he appears to finally feel the same way. They’ve connected over the shared difficulty of their situation and over a mutual respect for the other. However, although they are both living through the same time, their experiences are very different, and the end of this chapter foreshadows that their differing realities (R’s full of memories and the narrator’s full of holes) will be a challenge to overcome.
Themes
Memory and Connection  Theme Icon