Literary Memories

What is memory?

Try typing the term ‘memory’ into Google. The search results are far from simple and yield answers from assorted fields such as theory, psychology, and neurology. However, they all have one concept in common, defined as the following by google’s dictionary: “the faculty by which the mind stores and remembers information”. Such an intense focus on memory appears to indicate a correlation between our personal past and our definition of self. This indication leads us to new paths of thought.

Does memory make us who we are, who we will be, and define how we will get there?

Within Octavia Butler’s novel Fledgling, the concept of memory and/or loss of memory plays a central role. The main character, Shori, wakes from an intense trauma with memory loss later defined by her as amnesia. Medical News Today defines hard blows to the head as traumatic amnesia. Shori’s symptoms as presented within the novel (loss of consciousness and memory) coupled with the knowledge of her injuries indicate that she suffers from traumatic amnesia.

Treatments for traumatic amnesia range from Alzheimer’s medication to psychotherapy. However Shori never receives any treatment for her memory loss, yet rather seems to begin to remember certain aspects of day to day living while the memories of her past remain locked away for the entirety of the novel. Her random recovery of memories appears to be unrealistic.

For example, within the beginning of the novel the audience is left to watch Shori fumble around her environment and search for clues as to her whereabouts and condition. It is at the juncture that language and the conveyance of the story to the audience become stumbling blocks. In a movie, such introductory scenes would be displayed with pictures, dramatizations that are immersive. The audience would observe as a third party that understands the environment depicted better than the subject (Shori). As it is, with language, the depiction of amnesia seems a bit stretched.

After a time, I came to understand, to remember, that what I was lying on should have been a bed. I remembered little by little what a bed was. My hands were grasping not at a mattress, not at pillows, sheets, or blankets, but at things that I didn’t recognize, at first. Hardness, powder, something light and brittle. Gradually, I understood that I must by lying on the ground – on stone, earth, and perhaps dry leaves. (1)

Shori is introduced in an infantile state of injury within the opening phases of healing, when she supposedly doesn’t even have enough control over herself to recognize another being as human. How is it then that she has the mental capacity to remember the abstract concepts such as what the ground is in relationship to the ideas of stone, earth, and leaves? The language, while orienting the audience, betrays an argument (amnesia, accidental death) that is central to the plotline of the novel.

Throughout the introductory chapters, each time Shori remembers something, language is used to delay the announcement of her discovery/memory such as ‘after a time’, ‘eventually’.

I got wet as soon as I crawled out of my shelter where the remains of my prey lay rotting. I sat still for a while, feeling the wetness – water falling on my head, my back, and into my lap. After a while, I understood that it was raining – raining very hard. I could not recall feeling rain on my skin before – water falling from the sky, gently pounding my skin. (3)

However well intended, this repetitive language usage eventually fails at its intended purpose (portrayal of time) because especially within the first few pages Shori is remembering something every few paragraphs. The feeling of true amnesia is further clouded by her extensive vocabulary; something that is necessary to communicate with the audience in absence of pictures, yet something that if she truly had amnesia would be a bit more difficult for her to process.

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