Memento Mori by Jonathan Nolan: Summary, Analysis and Review

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Memento Mori is a short story written by Jonathan Nolan. In this short story, he takes time and its relationship with a man to a whole new level, and introduces the reader to to what he calls a ‘ten-minute man’.

“Believing the lie that time will heal all wounds is just a nice way of saying that time deadens us.” 

Memento Mori: Summary and Plot Analysis

The story revolves around Earl, a patient of anteretrograde amnesia (a condition that involves short-term memory loss), having sustained injuries from a gruesome assault – one that also led to the death of his wife.

He is shown to be stuck in time just before his wife’s murder. His life is a long array of ten-minute chunks, after every one of which he is a clean slate.

The story opens with Earl waking up, with no memory, in what looks like a hospital room, covered in what seems to be filled with predominantly white colors. The room is rather large and he finds notes stuck everywhere from his toothpaste, his washroom or his cigarettes.

By the time he starts making sense of the environment, his memory resets, and he finds himself going through this – sometimes even doing the same thing – over and over again.

The story goes back and forth between two different settings.

The first one is where Earl is confined to a mental health institution. He goes about with his day following the notes that he has left for himself.

The second one being the one where he seems to be on the run trying to hunt down the man that killed his wife and reduced his life to that of a vegetable.

The author delves into the deeper topic of life and its meaning, looked at from the perspective of a person whose ability to make new memories is severely impaired. This is captured through a constant dialogue that happens between him ten minutes back and him in the present.

His past self mentions forgetting and how that is deeply embroiled in the life that he lives, every 10 minute chunk to another. His past self reminds him that his wife is dead and that he might be hurting but he will forget it in the next 10 minutes.

His condition in addition to him not being able to remember anything, is a constant reminder of what misfortune led him to that point. 

Memento Mori: Analysis and Review

Locked in his hospital room, and through means of notes that he leaves for himself, he tries to devise ways to make use of his life, to get revenge, the irony being that he would never remember having sought revenge, even after he did. Turning his life into one gigantic Groundhog day replay albeit in painful 10-minute chunks. 

Memento Mori is derived from Latin and means ‘remember to die’.

In olden days, this was a reminder for people to be living a moral life keeping in mind the inevitable judgement day.

There are a variety of interpretations and adaptations of this concept in other cultures.

Earl buys himself a bell to serve as the memento for himself. This bell, on which he inscribes his date of birth and date of incident, later appears when he looks for a pen after completing his mission. He lives outside of time.

In his conversations with his past self, there are a lot of epiphanic moments, some humor, some hopelessness which alternate in intensity, but a burning desire for revenge shines.

Consider, for example, when the Past Earl mentions forgetfulness to him, taking a dig at his state and the society that we live in.

Sure as hell can’t hold a job. Not too many professions out there that value forgetfulness. Prostitution, Maybe. Politics, of course.

Another one, where he blatantly discredits his current state and tries to reinforce his purpose – revenge.

So the question is not “to be or not to be”, because you aren’t. The question is whether you want to do something about it. Whether revenge matters to you.’

In his desperation of not being able to do anything with his limited time and a continual reset, he even goes to the extent of blaming his inaction on cowardice.

‘And time eventually convinces most of us that forgiveness is a virtue. Conveniently, cowardice and forgiveness look identical at a certain distance. Time steals your nerve.’ 

And to the advantages of having a list for a person as impaired as him

It’s like a letter you write to yourself. A master plan, drafted by the guy who can see the light, made with the steps simple enough for the rest of the idiots to understand. Follow steps one through one hundred. Repeat as necessary.’

And it might sound cliché’d but the wisdom in these words cannot be undermined.

‘After all, everybody else needs mirrors to remind themselves who they are . You are no different’

Although overshadowed by its cinematic counterpart, Memento – a movie by Christopher Nolan, this short story has a lot to offer and promises to stay in your memory much longer than Earl’s.


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