Jonathan Nolan's "Memento Mori": Analysis


Narrative Point of View

The story is told by two different narrators. A first-person narrator writes to a "you," who is gradually revealed to be Earl. A third-person narrator reports on Earl's actions from outside the story-world.
First-person narration
The story begins with a first person narrator who is addressing a "you." We really don't know who the "you" is in this first section. What we do find out is that the narrator is communicating to someone who has had a traumatic experience of memory loss. The narrator explains the condition of the "you" in careful detail.

It's only at the end of the section that the narrator reveals his purpose in telling the "you" all the details of his condition, which he can't understand and can't remember.

The narrator tells "you" the one thing that he will always remember is what happened to his wife and, most importantly, You remember his face. The narrator says, This is why I'm writing to you. Futile, maybe. I don't know how many times you'll have to read this before you listen to me. I don't even know how long you've been locked up in this room already. Neither do you. But your advantage in forgetting is that you'll forget to write yourself off as a lost cause.

Now the deliberately withheld punchline: Sooner or later you'll want to do something about it. And when you do, you'll just have to trust me, because I'm the only one who can help you.

So finally, we begin to understand, the narrator is writing in order to help the person he's addressing find and kill his wife's murderer.

The narrative surprise isn't over. In the next section, which shifts the narrative point of view to third-person, we find out that the "you" the first-person narrator has been addressing, is Earl. This third-person section give us an objective view of Earl's condition. The details of Earl's actions and the notes on the ceiling and the walls make sense because of what the first-person narrator has explained in the first section.

In the next section, #3, the first-person narrator continues explaining Earl's condition to him and reflecting on the meaning of his condition. And once again ending with an exhortation to "you" to work at figuring out how to get revenge.

The story alternates this narrative switching from the first-person narrator addressing a "you" and the third-person narrator telling about Earl's experiences in a series of rooms from sections #4 through to section #8.

In section 8 Earl wakes up in a motel room. At the end of the section, he takes a piece of notepaper out of a desk drawer and starts writing.

The next section, #9, begins I don't know where you'll be when you read this. I'm not even sure if you'll bother to read this. I guess you don't need to. It's a shame, really, that you and I will never meet. But, like the song says, "By the time you read this note, I'll be gone."

Now, finally, we understand. The first-person narrator is Earl who has been writing to himself. The "I" and the "you" are both Earl. A lovely little narrative trick. Nolan has misled us into believing that the "I", the narrator, is a separate person talking to and about Earl.

So what's the point? Why this elaborate deception? It's a perfect means to tell the story of Earl's condition.

The "I" who writes notes is the Earl who is living in his present 10 minutes of passing time. The "you" he is addressing is the future Earl, the Earl who will start the next 10 minute cycle after the Earl who is currently writing has faded away. As the current Earl says, "By the time you read this note, I'll be gone." A wonderful narrative idea. The Present Earl writes to a Future Earl of the next 10 minutes, then disappears. The Future Earl will become the next Present Earl who reads what his past self has said and then writes more to the Next Earl. Each Earl reads and writes for the Next Earl and bit by bit Earl develops a plan for escaping the hospital and avenging the death of his wife.

Third-person narration
The function of the third-person narration is to juxapose an external view of Earl with the internal views that Earl expresses in his writing. The third person narrator describes how Earl's short-term memory loss affects his behavior. The external narrator shows Earl stumbling around and reading his endless notes.

The other narrative function of the third-person narrator is to describe the changing settings in which Earl finds himself. The external narrator describes Earl waking up in different rooms. Each of the externally narrated sections: 2, 4, 6, 8, and 10, describe Earl in a different location.

Gradually, by means of the details of the third-person narration, we understand that Earl has escaped from his hospital room and has driven a car somewhere a fair distance north of the hospital, which is registered by the detail of the tanned-over white area on his wrist where his watch used to be, before he made the trip.

In Section #8, we realize that Earl is in a hotel room near his wife's killer and he is preparing to go after him.

Section #10 presents Earl in either a cab or a police car, leaving the body of his wife's killer. Nolan has wisely skipped the actual confrontation and killing and just presented the end result.

This scene powerfully dramatizes the irony of Earl's condition. At the beginning of the scene, Earl is happily looking at the dead man and enjoying his moment of revenge. But then, he suddenly feels his 10 minutes of present time slipping away and realizes he has to write down the fact that he killed the man. He struggles desperately to find a pen, but fails and he forgets what he has done. He begins again to look at the tattoo on his arm, which will take him again to the picture of the man he's just killed, but he won't know it. The next time he wakes up he'll go through the same cycle of looking for his wife, remembering her and the man, encountering her funeral photograph, then grieving and beginning to plan again for the impossible revenge that he already has had but has forgotten.

Narrative Structure

The story is composed of eleven distinction sections: Six notes and letters by Earl--#1,3,5,7,9,11-- and five told in the third-person--2,4,6,8,10.

The story alternates the first person and third person narrators, beginning with the first-person and ending with the first-person.

Setting

The story employs five different settings. Understanding each setting is crucial to understanding what Earl is doing. Here are the five settings:

  1. Section #1: Hospital room.

    The world of his disorientation. We see him moving around, reading notes and signs. The description of this world helps create the sense of his condition by showing how he copes with the physical world that he finds himself in.

  2. Section #4: A different room.

    The room has a yellow ceiling with a sign on ceiling: "Get up. These people are trying to kill you."

  3. Section #6: A Tattoo shop. "I raped and killed your wife."

  4. Section #8: Motel room.

    Message on the ceil: "Look at tattoo." Begins writing a note. We realize now what he's been doing from the beginning. Not speaking but writing to himself.

  5. Section #10: In a car.

    Earl has killed the guy who murdered his wife. But by end of the section, he has forgotten what he's done and is looking at the tattoo that will lead to the picture of the killer.

Character

The intriguing aspect of Earl's character development is the way Nolan alternates between first and third person narration in presenting how Earl views himself and his condition of "backward amnesia" juxtaposed to how Earl behaves in the world as a result of his condition. So the reader sees Earl from the inside and the outside. An effective and complex means of creating a fully developed character.

Earl's character is made made even more complex by Nolan's spin on the use of the first-person narrator. Nolan uses a traditional form of a character dialoguing with himself--the "I" writing to himself as "you." But he gives this form a special panache by making the "you" a Future Earl, and not just one Future Earl, but the ones who emerge every 10 minutes.

This is a brilliant narrative strategy for creating a sense of what the loss of short term memory means. Such a loss creates an endless succession of 10 minute Earls, each one who repeats the cycle of bewilderment, the remembrance of the attack--the wife looking at him and the face of the man, the frantic search for her, the shock of her funeral photograph, the grief and the desire for revenge against that never-to-be-forgotten face.

The power of the story is in the first person writing in which Earl in part of each of his 10 minute cycles, writes notes to himself in which he explores various aspects of what living is like as the ten-minute man. By means of writing notes to the next emerging self, Earl slowly can understand the words of his past self and then a bit more to the plan so that eventually, a future Earl can read and act on the plan created bit by bit by the earlier Earls. Earl is able to escape from the hospital, find the guy and kill him.

Mementos and Memento Mori

Theme

The focus of the story is on Earl's reflections on the meaning of his condition of short-term memory loss. What it means to be unable to make new memories, to be forever stuck in the past time of just before the murder of his wife and forever living in 10 minute cycles of the present, which always disappears.

Earl's asserts that his short-term memory loss is actually advantageous to him. He won't lose the meaning of his wife's murder. . Because he deeply loves his wife, he is thankful that he will never be able to forget the horrible trauma of her looking at him for help and the face of her killer. And that he will always have the full and immediate experience of her loss. Just because he can't create new memories, he will be in a permanent state of grief. Earl is saved from "living in the next moment" in which he will slowly, moment by moment, lose his feelings for his wife.

Even though he wants revenge and he works diligently to get it, he won't remember it. But that's the great thing about being the 10 minute man. He'll always grieve for his missing wife and feel a never ending anger at the man who destroyed her.

Here's the great thematic statement in section #11:

Who wants to be one of those saps living in the safety of the future, in the safety of the moment after the moment in which they felt something powerful? Living in the next moment, in which they feel nothing. Crawling down the hands of the clock, away from the people who did unspeakable things to them. Believing the lie that time will heal all wounds—which is just a nice way of saying that time deadens us.

But you're different. You're more perfect. Time is three things for most people, but for you, for us, just one. A singularity. One moment. This moment. Like you're the center of the clock, the axis on which the hands turn. Time moves about you but never moves you. It has lost its ability to affect you. What is it they say? That time is theft? But not for you. Close your eyes and you can start all over again. Conjure up that necessary emotion, fresh as roses.

This theme reminds me of Hiroshima Mon Amour, a film that explores the anguish of forgetting. The tragedy of living in time is that we are condemned to always "living in the next moment." And so we will forget Hiroshima and our loves. But lucky Earl will not.