In The Memory Police, objects on an unnamed island gradually and inexplicably start disappearing. An unknown force causes many of the island’s inhabitants to immediately lose their memories of “disappeared” things and to dispose of them in turn. There are some people who retain their memory, though, and a government-run militia called the Memory Police hunts them down, arrests them, and sometimes even kills them. The narrator, a young woman on the island, is affected by the disappearances (meaning she loses her memories right away). Every time there is a new disappearance—whether it is roses, calendars, or even a body part—the narrator and other people on the island seem to adjust to their new way of life “without much fuss.” The inhabitants’ ability to adapt may at first seem commendable, but by the end of the book, it’s clear that their hearts and minds have been hollowed out as a result of forgetting so much. The more things disappear, the colder and less helpful the townspeople become to one another, and the less they care to fight back or change what is going on. In this sense, the novel portrays memory as a fundamental part of the human experience—without it, people find it more difficult to connect with one another and lead purposeful lives.
Amid all of this, the narrator (who is a novelist) shelters her editor, R, from the Memory Police because he does not forget things when he is supposed to. R constantly tries to assure the narrator that the memories everyday objects trigger are much bigger than the items themselves—these objects can connect people to their family, friends, past generations, even the future. But the disappearances never stop, and eventually the narrator’s entire body and voice disappear—which, in turn, causes her to lose her sense of self. By the end of the novel, the narrator is completely gone. Her disappearance suggests the danger of forgetting things (even seemingly mundane objects) completely and the importance of holding on to memories if we are to retain our connections to other people—and indeed, if we are to be fully alive.
Memory and Connection ThemeTracker
Memory and Connection Quotes in The Memory Police
Ribbon, bell, emerald, stamp. The words that came from my mother’s mouth thrilled me, like the names of little girls from distant countries or new species of plants. As I listened to her talk, it made me happy to imagine a time when all these things had a place on the island.
Yet that was also rather difficult to do. The objects in my palm seemed to cower there, absolutely still, like little animals in hibernation, sending me no signal at all. They often left me with an uncertain feeling, as though I were trying to make images of the could in the sky out of modeling clay. When I stood before the secret drawers, I felt I had to concentrate on each word my mother said.
The little brown creature flew in a wide circle and then vanished north. I couldn’t recall the name of the species, and I found myself wishing I’d paid more attention when I’d been with my father at the observatory. I tried to hold on to the way it looked in flight or the sound of its chirping or the colors of its feathers, but I knew it was useless. This bird, which should have been intertwined with memories of my father, was already unable to elicit any feeling in me at all. It was nothing more than a simple creature, moving through space as a function of the vertical motion of its wings.
“But why do they take people away? They haven’t don’t anything wrong.”
“The island is run by men who are determined to see things disappear. From their point of view, anything that fails to vanish when they say it should is inconceivable. So they force it to disappear with their own hands.”
“Do you think my mother was killed?” I knew it was pointless to ask R, but the question slipped out.
“She was definitely under observation, being studied.” R chose his words carefully.
“It’s true, I know, that there are more gaps in the island than there used to be. When I was a child, the whole place seemed…how can I put this?...a lot fuller, a lot more real. But as things got thinner, more full of holes, our hearts got thinner, too, diluted somehow. I supposed that kept things in balance. And even when that balance begins to collapse, something remains. Which is why you shouldn’t worry.”
“Sometimes I try to remember—those were precious moments with my mother—but I can’t recall the objects. My mother’s expression, the sound of her voice, the smell of the basement air—I can remember all that perfectly. But the things in the drawers are vague, as though those memories, and those alone, have dissolved.”
“Memories don’t just pile up—they also change over time. And sometimes they fade of their own accord. Though the process, for me, is quite different from what happens to the rest of you when something disappears from the island.”
“Different how?” I asked […]
“My memories don’t feel like they’ve been pulled up by the root. Even if they fade, something remains. Like tiny seeds that might germinate again if the rain falls.”
In this way we managed to live in relative security. Everything went according to plan, and we seemed to have solutions for any problems that did occur. The old man did much to help us, and R did his best to adjust quickly to the secret room.
But quite apart from the small satisfactions we enjoyed, the world outside was deteriorating day by day. The disappearances, which had slowed down after the roses, returned with two in quick succession: first, photographs, and then fruits of all sorts.
“You’ll forget you ever had a voice,” he continued. “You may find it annoying at first, until you get used to it. You’ll move your lips as you just did, go looking for a typewriter, a notepad. But soon enough you’ll see how pointless it is. You have no need to talk, no need to utter a single word. There’s nothing to worry about, nothing to fear. Then, at last, you’ll be all mine.”
“I think all this crying must be proof that my heart is so weak that I don’t know how to help myself.”
“But I’d say it’s just the opposite. Your heart is doing everything it can to preserve its existence. No matter how many memories these men take away, they’ll never reduce it to nothing.”
“I hope that’s true.”
I looked at R. I needed only to lean slightly in his direction for us to be touching. He raised his hand and brushed away a tear at the corner of my eye with his fingers.
Needless to say, R was violently opposed to losing our collection of novels.
“You’ve got to bring them all here,” he said, “including your manuscript.”
If I do, the room will be buried in books, with no place for you to live.” I shook my head.
“Don’t worry about that, I don’t need much space. If we hide them here, they’ll never find them.”
“But what happens to them? What’s the point of storing away books that have disappeared?”
He sighed and pressed his fingers to his temples—as he always did when we talked about the disappearances. Try as we might to understand each other, nothing changed for either of us. The more we talked, the sadder we became.
When we’d finished eating, the old man went to find the music box hidden in the bathroom. He set it on the table and we listened together. As always, it faithfully repeated its tune, over and over. We stopped chatting, sat up straight, and closed our eyes. I had no idea where or how one was supposed to listen to a music box, but I had decided arbitrarily that closing my eyes would enhance the effect R had hoped it would induce in us.
“Even if the whole island disappears, this room will still be here,” R said. His tone was even and calm, filled with love, as though he were reading an inscription engraved on a stone monument. “Don’t we have all the memories preserved here in this room? The emerald, the map, the photograph, the harmonica, the novel—everything. This is the very bottom of the mind’s swamp, the place where memories come to rest.”