Masaryk University

Examples with Commentaries

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4.3 Examples with Commentaries

What he saw there became his first memory. A small boy, a room, a bed, closed curtains leaking afternoon light. By the time he came to describe it publicly, sixty years had passed. How many internal retellings had smoothed and adjusted the plain words he finally used? Doubtless it still seemed as clear as on the day itself.

An encounter in a curtained room. A small boy and a corpse. A grandchild who, by the acquisition of memory, had just stopped being a thing, and a grandmother who, by losing those attributes the child was developing, had returned to that state.
George does not have a first memory, and by the time anyone suggests that it might be normal to have one, it is too late. He has no recollection obviously preceding all others – not of being picked up, cuddled, laughed at or chastised.
The first three examples illustrate the thought that people’s first memories are of special importance. Perhaps the logic behind the idea is that if one still remembers the event, the impression must have been powerful and must have consequently influenced the person’s later life. As Peter Childs suggests, it is possible Barnes used the image in order to prepare grounds for the later topic of Arthur’s spiritualism (Childs 144).

The first two excerpts belong to Arthur and apart from Barnes’ repeatedly expressed idea about memories being distorted over time and by constant retelling, he ponders on the cycle of life, in which old people eventually become childlike and fully dependent on the help of others, whereas the child sets out in the opposite direction. George’s part on the first memory demonstrates the difference between the two characters. The lack of positive early memories also suggests he was not a child carefully and lovingly cared for.

When he left, Arthur had imagined that Waller would soon set up his own Edinburgh practice, would acquire a wife and a little local reputation, and then fade into the status of an occasional memory.
The occasional memory could be seen here as an interstage between a state of full awareness and a state of oblivion. However, memory seems to be synonymous with fame or popularity here.

When the parlourmaid admitted him, he tried to suspend his natural professional habits: working out the likely probity and income of the occupants, and committing to memory items worth stealing – in some cases, items perhaps already stolen.

Metaphorically speaking, in this part memory functions as a storage room where one safely keeps valuable items. The room is almost without boundaries, but its dimensions make it difficult to find and collect the previously committed treasures.

'No, Inspector, let me explain.' George had sensed a hardening in Campbell's attitude, and thought it good tactics to relax his rules of engagement. 'When I was four, I was taken to see a cow. It soiled itself. That is almost my first memory.'

Later in the text, Barnes readjusts the account of George’s first memory. If George claims seeing a cow and soiling himself was “almost his first memory”, he must have some idea what his first or earlier memory was, he must have cognizance of its existence. This partially contradicts George’s previous words and supports the reader’s suspicion of an unreliable narrator.

'Oh, I see,' said George, his temper suddenly returning. 'You want me to say I am loony.' He used the word deliberately, in the full memory of his father's disapproval.

'You have a memory of each night?'

'I do not see the point of that question.'

'Sir, I do not ask you to see its point. I merely request that you answer it. Do you have a memory of each night?'

The Vicar looked around the court, as if expecting someone to rescue him from this imbecilic catechism. 'No more than anybody else.'

This excerpt refers to the fact that the reliability of people’s memory is often questioned in court. Not only do people not remember things entirely (and forever), but they are also susceptible to various distortions of memory (Schacter 4).

Maud, whom he had expected to be wailing, surprised him. She had turned her whole body in his direction and was gazing up towards him, gravely, lovingly. He felt that if he could retain that look in his memory, then the worst things might possibly be bearable.

Despite its abstract nature, memory can provide intellectual and emotional consolation in a difficult moment or period of time. The image of the once perceived thing could be recreated at any time and in any place in one’s mind through a process similar to imagination.

He feels as if he has learned the most beautiful love-speech in Shakespeare and now that he needs to recite it his mouth is dry and his memory empty.

This example might attest to the sin of blocking, as the love-speech was clearly learned, but the access to the memory was lost, perhaps due to stress or stage-fright.
From time to time, Arthur's eye is caught by the silhouette of a cat slipping along the wall and keeping well clear of Waller's boot. A sinuous form, easing its way through the shadows, like the memory of a wife discreetly absenting herself. Does every marriage have its own damn secret? Is there never anything straightforward at the heart of it all?
The analogy between a cat slipping past the wall and a wife that is gradually leaving Arthur’s life (dying of tuberculosis) might imply a shared quality - both his wife and his memories will eventually end in oblivion.

'When I was a small boy, I was much pained by the poverty to which my mother was reduced. I sensed that it was against the grain of her nature. That memory is part of what has always driven me on.'

True or false (distorted) and however immaterial, some memories work as powerful forces changing people’s life. Not always are people able to pinpoint a precise moment in their past representing the origin of their future course.

But when they wed, at Thornton-in-Lonsdale with that fellow Waller at his elbow, he had felt a sense of… how could he put it without being disrespectful to her memory?

This is another case of memory being personified, where in the way of metonymy, memory equals a deceased person.

'It was a happy day,' he said firmly, holding to the memory he had made into certainty by repetition. 'The Belle Vue Hotel. The tramway. Roast chicken. Not going to pick up pebbles. The railway journey. It was a happy day.'

People hold to a memory especially when it is a pleasant one. They cherish it and often recall it as something precious. The process described here nevertheless illustrates how by frequent repetition the memory is actually created or at least adjusted in the present. This would attest to the sin of bias from the sins of commission, where one’s current emotions and opinions distort past memories (Schacter 25).

The trail of memory, and all that came with it, had set off in him the tenderest of emotions towards Maud, and a realization that these had been, and would continue to be, the strongest feelings of his life.

The trail of memory might be seen as a cue securing access to one’s memories. The neuronal network is activated by an association or perception, which in turn brings about
a memory (Plháková 301). It is also an interesting metaphor, suggesting memory leaves traces as time progresses.

England was a quieter place, just as principled, but less keen on making a fuss about its principles; a place where the common law was trusted more than government statute; where people got on with their own business and did not seek to interfere with that of others; where great public eruptions took place from time to time, eruptions of feeling which might even tip over into violence and injustice, but which soon faded in the memory, and were rarely built into the history of the country

This might be the author’s allusion to the gist or perhaps even the purpose of the book. While back in the time of the novel some eruptions of violence and injustice “soon faded in the memory”, Barnes through his novel brought such memories back to life, so that the nation can reflect upon its own guilt and reconcile with its history.

Interestingly, the metaphorical language used in the excerpt likens a photograph or a painting and a memory, emphasizing the visual aspect of it.

No, George thought, this was ungracious of him. Sir Arthur was doubtless working from memory, from the version of events he had himself told and retold down the years. George knew from taking witness statements how the constant recounting of events smoothed the edges of stories, rendered the speaker more self-important, made everything more certain than it had seemed at the time.
The qualities or rather deficiencies of memory described here correspond with the sins of bias and possibly of suggestibility, where memories could be implanted by leading questions, comments or suggestions, while a person is trying to recall a past experience (Schacter 15).

They are now asked to stand in silence for two minutes to honour the memory of their great champion.

This could be seen as another case of personification, in which memory – similar to a statue, stands for a person usually long dead. It is a commonly held tradition that such representations are treated with great respect, proportionate to the significance of its model.
Examples with History
'Her lungs are gravely affected. There is every sign of rapid consumption. Given her condition and family history…' Dr Dalton did not need to continue, except to add, 'You will want a second opinion.'
The meaning of the word history is quite personal here and even though in some cases it could actually represent the history of a particular family, in this case the meaning is narrowed to a medical history, the serious illnesses her relatives had to deal with.

At school, additional stories and explanations of life were put before him. This is what science says; this is what history says; this is what literature says… George became adept at answering examination questions on these subjects, even if they had no real vivacity in his mind. But now he has discovered the law, and the world is beginning finally to make sense. Hitherto invisible connections – between people, between things, between ideas and principles – are gradually revealing themselves.

The way history is presented in the excerpt, as a school subject, suggests its definite nature, its authoritative voice and power. A complete and final version would stand in strict opposition to Barnes’ thoughts on the multiplicity of historical accounts, as he presented them in A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters.
He joined the Rationalist Association, and found their work necessary, but essentially destructive and therefore sterile. The demolition of antique faiths had been fundamental to human advancement; but now that those old buildings had been levelled, where was man to find shelter in this blasted landscape? How could anyone glibly decide that the history of what the species had for millennia agreed to call the soul was now at an end? Human beings would continue to develop, and therefore whatever was inside them must also develop. Even a clodhopping sceptic could surely see that.
The excerpt above addresses several aspects of memory in the form of history. One of the ideas is that the old must yield to the new, based on the premise of human advancement, or intellectual development. Barnes uses the metaphors of buildings as places protecting people from the outer world. Perhaps the shelter of faith helped people fight the uncertainty that the modern age brought into their lives. The soul being a concept could either transform or eventually end up in oblivion, as even its long history cannot save it forever.

'I would suggest you look into the history of crime in Great Wyrley and its environs in the last years. There have been some… peculiar goings-on. And I suggest you work with those who know the area best. There's a very sound Sergeant, can't remember his name. Large, red-faced fellow…'

George borrowed a history of recent British art, only to discover that all the illustrations of work by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema had been neatly removed by the official razor.
The searches continued, the rub-downs and the dry baths. He read more history than he knew existed, had despatched all the classic authors and was now proceeding through the lesser ones.
He encourages self-sufficiency, sports, riding; he gives Kingsley books about great battles in world history, and warns him of the perils of military unpreparedness.
Whether he needed a lepidopterist or an expert on the history of the longbow, a police surgeon or a chief constable, his requests for an interview would normally be smiled upon.
The history of Zoroastrianism is not helping make the smooth transition she has somehow hoped for. Also, it feels dishonest, against her view of herself.
There were worse fates, George decided, than to be a footnote in legal history.
All these excerpts illustrate the narrowing of the concept of history. From history understood as the sum total of past events, the meaning moves to a temporarily and thematically limited one of a book chronicling some specialized field of human (not necessarily) activity.

From a linguistic point of view, one might reflect upon the ambiguity of the third excerpt from the top - what does one do when he “reads history”?

What story did it all tell? One of money, breeding, taste, history, power. The family's name had been made in the eighteenth century by Anson the circumnavigator, who had also laid down its first fortune – prize money from the capture of a Spanish galleon.
In the last excerpt, Barnes places the word history in interesting company. As if all these were connected, at least in its self-replicating quality. Money brings power (or the other way round), which in turn ensures breeding that eventually cultivates a rich family’s taste, and all these make it certain the family is inscribed in history books.

  1. Memory in The Sense of an Ending

5.1 Plot Summary

The story starts as a series of recollections, in which Tony, the narrator, returns to his school days. He introduces the readers to Adrian Finn, a new boy at school who quickly becomes the fourth member of their clique, together with Alex and Colin. They experience the atmosphere of the 60s and the main protagonist speaks about his outlook on the world at the time of his adolescence. They are eager to take the reins of their life fully into their hands. Tony describes how Adrian stuck out of the class, as he was very bright, well-read and sophisticated.

Tony later starts dating Veronica Ford and during their short relationship he gets to meet her posh family. They eventually break up and as Tony moves to study at university in Bristol, he focuses on his studies and falls out of contact with the rest of the clique, who start studying in other places. Unsurprisingly, Adrian gets a scholarship to Cambridge. Tony lives a usual student life, but towards his graduation he receives a letter in which Adrian asks for his permission to go out with Veronica. Tony first accedes, responding to Adrian with a postcard, but later he becomes emotional and angry and writes a mean letter, in which he mentions that not everything is right with Veronica. He advises Adrian to consult Veronica’s mother in that matter and implies there might have been a history of sexual abuse in her family. Tony never receives a reply and since he does not feel like seeing Adrian (possibly with Veronica), he does not contact the rest of the clique either.

After he graduates he goes on to work and travel for half a year in the United States. Upon his return, he receives sad news of Adrian’s suicide. The suicide note mostly asserts that from a philosophical standpoint, Adrian was justified in taking his own life. Tony’s mom ascribes the act to Adrian’s too high intelligence, whereas the clique seems to believe it was Adrian’s way of dealing with the philosophical issue of life. The first part of the story ends when Alex, Colin and Tony go separate ways and start living their own lives.

In a few paragraphs that follow, Tony informs the readers in a telegraphic manner what his next forty years of life looked like. He starts working in arts administration, meets Margaret, gets married, buys a house and they have a daughter, Susie, who has her own family now. After some time he and his wife become estranged and eventually divorce. They stay in touch and remain friends, but never get back together again.

Then one day Tony receives a solicitor’s letter informing him of the death of Veronica’s mother who bequeathed him 500 pounds and Adrian’s diary. Tony is confused as he nearly forgot all about Veronica and her family, does not know what the money is for and has no idea how Veronica’s mother came into possession of Adrian’s diary. Tony contacts Veronica in order to get the diary and learn more about the matter, but her replies are cryptic and she is reluctant to comply with his requests. Tony does not understand the situation, but the mental strain and some clues from the past help him gradually remember more about the events that transpired forty years earlier.

The rest of the story describes Tony’s effort to come into possession of the diary, for he believes it to be the key to understanding the tragic outcome of the past events, as well as the key to his true memory. Once he regains most of his memory, he also needs to come to terms with his past deeds and their consequences and ponders his own responsibility.

5.2 Analysis

Unlike in A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters and Arthur & George, The Sense of an Ending is related by only a single narrator. From the very beginning, Barnes gives readers clues or perhaps warnings regarding the reliability of the narrator’s account, with Tony making comments such as: “This last isn’t something I actually saw, but what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.” (Barnes 2011: 10). The more the main character recalls from his past, the more it becomes clear he is an unreliable narrator. It turns out not everything the readers were told at the beginning of the story happened the way Tony presented it. However, it seems Tony did not mean to lie and the inaccuracy of his account is rather the result of years of time blocking out or distorting various parts of his memory. The structure of the novel helps Barnes feed us important facts in small doses. While the first of Tony’s versions of events comes out of poisoned or distorted memory, the later effort presents an antidote helping him recover his memory. What Barnes has illustrated on a larger scale in A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters about the qualities of history is still present here (multiple versions of history, factual gaps being filled with speculation etc.), but the focus shifts from the assessment of history and a struggle for global objectivity to the dynamic nature of subjective memory. While Barnes strived in A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters to philosophically appraise history and in Arthur & George he walked the thin line of historiographic metafiction, The Sense of an Ending deals with a past of an individual through the main character’s recollections and truth-seeking. In the case of Tony Webster, it is the past that he has lost access to, perhaps because the emotions connected with it were too painful and unpleasant, or possibly because the events from his twenties were later replaced by other events. More to the point, some of his memories were surely forgotten due to the sin of transience.

The main protagonist’s motivation for seeking the truth lies in several areas. First of all, he is an elderly man whose life has been quite dull and therefore can afford to spend time digging up skeletons from the garden of his memory. Second, it is a common thing for elderly people (not exclusively) to do a certain stock-taking as they reach their last days. And thirdly, in Tony’s case, his “peaceability”, as he puts it, his complacency with his own life as he is living it, is seriously disturbed by the solicitor’s letter. On top of that, the rediscovered fragments of memory shed a new and unflattering light on the image he held of himself. The last point is certainly an arguable element of motivation. Do people really have a twisted desire to delve into and explore their own past misdeeds? Do they seriously want to face the parts of their psyche or memory they have been ignoring, suppressing or possibly trying to forget all their lives?

By giving the readers one piece of information at a time, having first presented an account of events that gives them very valid reasons to doubt its accuracy, Barnes achieves a level of ongoing suspense, not unlike in detective stories. The readers need not necessarily be expected to identify with the tedious and cowardly character of Tony, but they share in his sincere effort to find the truth about his past. Similar features were employed both in A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters, for instance in “The Stowaway” - where the readers are eager to find out who the narrator is, and in Arthur & George, where until the very last pages it is not clear whether the perpetrator of animal mutilations will be convicted or not.

5.3 Examples with Commentaries

Let us now have a look at the examples from The Sense of an Ending containing the subject of memory. The excerpts are ordered chronologically, as they appear in the novel.

We liked a game that ended in a win and loss, not a draw. And so for some, the Serbian gunman, whose name is long gone from my memory, had one hundred per cent individual responsibility: take him out of the equation, and the war would never have happened.

In this excerpt, Tony recalls events from his high school history classes. Apart from introducing the topic of responsibility – and the chain of responsibility, as is explored later in the novel – he refers to his memory. This case of forgetting could be either ascribed to transience – the information has not been recalled for a long time, as it was not needed – or to blocking. According to John Stuart Mill, "Proper names are not connotative"(Schacter 63). Consequently, one might be able to recall people’s faces, their occupation or other characteristic features, but unless their names evoke something familiar, the access to the memory becomes blocked.

Was this their exact exchange? Almost certainly not. Still, it is my best memory of their exchange.

Apart from a signal to the reader that the narrator might be unreliable, the example illustrates a possible sin of bias, which has been a ubiquitous theme in Barnes’ novels. He claims that by applying one’s current knowledge, feelings and opinions on past events, these become distorted (in memory). Barnes addresses the same issue in several places in The Sense of an Ending:

But of course, my desire to ascribe responsibility might be more a reflection of my own cast of mind than a fair analysis of what happened. That’s one of the central problems of history, isn’t it, sir? The question of subjective versus objective interpretation, the fact that we need to know the history of the historian in order to understand the version that is being put in front of us.

While in the case of history the sin of bias projects itself in grander dimensions – since history ultimately seeks a certain level of objectivity, the same principle is responsible for the distortion of personal, subjective memories.

I was so ill at ease that I spent the entire weekend constipated: this is my principal factual memory. The rest consists of impressions and half memories which may therefore be self-serving:

Here Tony uses the expression “factual memory”, meaning this is the only thing he remembers for sure, the rest might have become distorted. According to Tulving (Tulving, 1972 qtd. in Plháková 207), factual information is stored in people’s semantic memory. Even facts are usually learnt in particular episodic situations, although due to the nature of the semantic memory the circumstances are usually forgotten. Another important point with this example is that while the constipation (the remembered fact) might have been a result of the emotional distress from a new environment and a socially stressful situation, it might have also been the other way round. The physical condition would certainly negatively affect his experiencing. Furthermore, as Tony suggests, the rest of his memories might have been distorted – the sin of bias would manifest in the projection of his present feelings on the past experience.

I wish I’d kept that letter, because it would have been proof, corroboration. Instead, the only evidence comes from my memory—of a carefree, rather dashing woman who broke an egg, cooked me another, and told me not to take any shit from her daughter.

The main character wishes to have some hard evidence that would confirm what he remembers. It would not only confirm his memory, but it would help him preserve the image he currently holds of himself. In the part on autobiographical memories, Plháková nevertheless mentions that people have a tendency to remember their own behaviour in various situations in a favourable way – they believe they said or did the right things, although the reality might have been different (Plháková 220).

Yes, why her, and why then; furthermore, why ask? Actually, to be true to my own memory, as far as that’s ever possible (and I didn’t keep this letter either), what he said was that he and Veronica were already going out together, a state of affairs that would doubtless come to my attention sooner or later; and so it seemed better that I heard about it from him.

Tony keeps undermining the readers’ belief that what he is remembering and saying is true and/or complete. The author sets the scene for a gradual reconciliation of the facts regarding the past events. Furthermore, Tony’s constant doubts might be the reaction of his mind to the confrontation with unpleasant details from his past that had been inaccessible for a long time.

Again, I must stress that this is my reading now of what happened then. Or rather, my memory now of my reading then of what was happening at the time.

Another issue is addressed here through the voice of the main character. One’s memories might be true, but the more often an attempt to recall them is made, the more distorted they might become. The memories may comprise mere fragments, images, sensory perceptions, but it is the mind’s nature to adjust them so they make sense. Thus they are turned into meaningful narratives, despite the fact that the original memories were fragmentary or even illogical. The two mentioned principles would fall under the sin of commission and specifically that of suggestibility (Schacter 115). On top of that, all this would be irrelevant had Tony not understood the situation at the time.

But our lives were already going in different directions, and the shared memory of Adrian was not enough to hold us together. Perhaps the lack of mystery about his death meant that his case was more easily closed. We would remember him all our lives, of course.

"Shared memory”, a commonly used idiom, is an illusion of sorts. People may naturally remember the same things from the past, but they tend to remember them in their own specific way. Barnes here also points to the idea that missing facts, incompleteness of information and mystery add to one’s curiosity. Everyday experience as well as laboratory studies show that a heightened level of emotion increases a person’s ability to remember (Schacter 162).

We live with such easy assumptions, don’t we? For instance, that memory equals events plus time. But it’s all much odder than this. Who was it said that memory is what we thought we’d forgotten? And it ought to be obvious to us that time doesn’t act as a fixative, rather as a solvent. But it’s not convenient—it’s not useful—to believe this; it doesn’t help us get on with our lives; so we ignore it.

The first part of the statement clearly contradicts what the main character has been discovering about the nature of memory throughout the novel. Also, the claim “memory equals events plus time” seems like an intentional oversimplification. The second part – memory as what one thought one had forgotten – could refer to the fact that long-term memory stores the information for a very long time (Plháková 203), sometimes for one’s whole life. This is true unless the information is replaced by another piece of information, especially a very similar one. Connectionist theories assert that it is only a matter of having the right key to access the memory stored in people’s long-term memory (Plháková 22).

But my memory has increasingly become a mechanism which reiterates apparently truthful data with little variation. I stared into the past, I waited, I tried to trick my memory into a different course. But it was no good.

The key words here are “apparently” and “variation”. Whatever the original memory might have been, the result of many recollections and perhaps retellings will probably be quite different, affected by the sins of transience and especially the sin of bias. So the account seems so truthful to Tony mainly as a result of clinging to the reconstructed version coherent with his image of himself for a long time.

I recognised at that moment another reason for my determination. The diary was evidence; it was—it might be—corroboration. It might disrupt the banal reiterations of memory. It might jump-start something—though I had no idea what.

This extract might present the sin of blocking, where the diary would serve as a retrieval cue that could trigger recall (Schacter 62).

And now I began to elaborate a different life for Veronica’s brother, one in which his student years glowed in his memory as filled with happiness and hope—indeed, as the one period when his life had briefly achieved that sense of harmony we all aspire to.

This excerpt presents another example of a possible bias. Veronica’s brother made a certain impression on Tony that over the years grew into Tony’s idea of what the brother’s further life must look like. This invented life would be congruent with the memories that Tony has now and his memories would on the other hand be affected by Tony’s current opinions and attitudes. It is a rather complex cycle that can only produce a distorted memory, or an alternative life of somebody’s, as it was in this case.

But I’ve been turning over in my mind the question of nostalgia, and whether I suffer from it. I certainly don’t get soggy at the memory of some childhood knickknack; nor do I want to deceive myself sentimentally about something that wasn’t even true at the time—love of the old school, and so on. But if nostalgia means the powerful recollection of strong emotions—and a regret that such feelings are no longer present in our lives—then I plead guilty.

Rather than the word memory used in the excerpt, the part “that wasn’t even true at the time” could be explained within the framework of sins of memory. To be more precise, it would again correspond with the sin of bias, where one’s current state tends to interfere with one’s past memories, even changing their polarity. Aesop’s Fable “The Fox and the Grapes” comes to mind, with its resolution – the grapes were sour anyway. The love surely could not have been true, as it did not last. The bias would help reduce the psychological discomfort arising from conflicting thoughts and feelings, called “cognitive dissonance” by psychologists (Schacter 130).

At the same time, it made sense that Veronica didn’t give me a simple answer, didn’t do or say what I hoped or expected. In this she was at least consistent with my memory of her.

The phrase “being consistent with my memory” has many possible layers of interpretation. First of all, Tony had an experience, a life encounter with Veronica during their brief relationship. This and the fact she later dated one of his friends, and very much to his dismay, must have influenced his thinking about Veronica. It is also implied in the story that Tony believed for some time Veronica was responsible for Adrian’s death. All these things are combined in an idea, impression, opinion or even judgement that Tony held of Veronica at the time of the tragic event. But over time these memories became prone to the sin of bias, as Tony unknowingly adjusted his image of Veronica, however inaccurate from the beginning, to the image compatible with himself and the version of his personal history that would generally support his present self-image.

When you are in your twenties, even if you’re confused and uncertain about your aims and purposes, you have a strong sense of what life itself is, and of what you in life are, and might become. Later … later there is more uncertainty, more overlapping, more backtracking, more false memories. Back then, you can remember your short life in its entirety. Later, the memory becomes a thing of shreds and patches. It’s a bit like the black box aeroplanes carry to record what happens in a crash. If nothing goes wrong, the tape erases itself. So if you do crash, it’s obvious why you did; if you don’t, then the log of your journey is much less clear.

Barnes establishes in this excerpt that memory at a young age allows people to remember their short life in its entirety. Such a claim seems bold and generally untrue and the issue could be addressed differently. Do people, in their youth actually feel the need to look back and to remember their short life in its entirety? Do they not rather focus on the present and perhaps on the future? Do they care about their past memories much? While saying no to these questions, it could be said in accord with Barnes that with a gradual accumulation of life experiences and knowledge the memory becomes fragmentary, as it also has its limits (Plháková 203).

You’re doing it for yourself, of course. You’re wanting to leave that final memory, and make it a pleasant one. You want to be well thought of—in case your plane turns out to be the one that’s less safe than walking to the corner shop.

The “final memory” refers to one’s wish to live in the minds and hearts of people (in their memories) after one’s death, but the desire is not only to be remembered, but to be remembered “correctly”, in a way that is congruent with one’s self-image. Could such

a polished, censored, neat version of who one is make its way into the memories of one’s friends and relatives? Considering the sin of bias in which one’s current emotions and opinions also affect one’s memories, this is entirely possible.

After his death, her mother had sold the house in Chislehurst and moved up to London. She did art classes, started smoking, and took in lodgers, even though she’d been left well provided for. She had remained in good health until a year or so ago, when her memory began to fail. A small stroke was suspected. Then she started putting the tea in the fridge and the eggs in the breadbin, that sort of thing. Once she nearly set the house on fire by leaving a cigarette burning. She remained cheerful throughout, until she suddenly went downhill. The last months had been a struggle, and no, her end had not been gentle, though it had been a mercy.

This reference is a reminder of the physical nature of memory, as it is closely related to the functions of the brain. The described erroneous behaviour bears signs of the sin of misattribution, which is the usual impact of a stroke on memory functions (Schacter 92). The second part concerned with the burning cigarette would attest to the sin of absent-mindedness, in which the event is not encoded properly into memory due to one’s lack of attention (Schacter 167).

When you start forgetting things—I don’t mean Alzheimer’s, just the predictable consequence of ageing—there are different ways to react. You can sit there and try to force your memory into giving up the name of that acquaintance, flower, train station, astronaut … Or you admit failure and take practical steps with reference books and the Internet. Or you can just let it go—forget about remembering—and then sometimes you find that the mislaid fact surfaces an hour or a day later, often in those long waking nights that age imposes. Well, we all learn this, those of us who forget things.

The second half of the excerpt most resembles the sin of blocking, where in some cases the blocked memory pops up when one’s attention is directed elsewhere. Perhaps one’s effort and clinging to some abstract cloud of desired memory prevents one from accessing and retrieving the blocked information (Plháková 229).

But we also learn something else: that the brain doesn’t like being typecast. Just when you think everything is a matter of decrease, of subtraction and division, your brain, your memory, may surprise you. As if it’s saying: Don’t imagine you can rely on some comforting process of gradual decline—life’s much more complicated than that. And so the brain will throw you scraps from time to time, even disengage those familiar memory loops. That’s what, to my consternation, I found happening to me now. I began to remember, with no particular order or sense of significance, long-buried details of that distant weekend with the Ford family.

Similar to the example above it, this excerpt might attest to the sin of bias. Additionally, the process in which some parts of one’s memories reappear may be explained by the theory of loss of cues within the connectionist network. The information is stored in one’s long-term memory, but one needs a cue to trigger its retrieval (Plháková 229).

On the train up to town, there was a girl sitting opposite me, plugged into earphones, eyes closed, impervious to the world outside, moving her head to music only she could hear. And suddenly, a complete memory came to me: of Veronica dancing. Yes, she didn’t dance—that’s what I said—but there’d been one evening in my room when she got all mischievous and started pulling out my pop records.

Again, this recollection could be ascribed to a spontaneous trigger allowing the retrieval of a seemingly lost memory. Apart from blocking, the sin of bias might be observed, as the opinion presently held by Tony was that Veronica had never danced.

At first I couldn’t make any sense of this: she was the one who had told me I was now on my own. But then I had a memory from a long way back, from the early years of our marriage. Some chap at work gave a party and invited me along; Margaret didn’t want to come. I flirted with a girl and she flirted back. Well, a bit more than flirting—though still way below even infra-sex—but I put a lid on it as soon as I sobered up.

The part attesting to a sin of memory would be – “I put a lid on it”. Enclosing a certain memory in order to protect one’s integrity or self-image is connected to the process of directed forgetting and retrieval inhibition. These processes are related, although not identical to the Freudian notion of repression. The retrieval inhibition is especially common in the category of people named “repressors”, who tend to report low levels of anxiety and stress in a reaction to a person or situation, even though the physiological measures indicate the contrary. Since such people do not admit these feelings, they also have a tendency to block the negative events from a future recollection, compared to “non-repressors” (Schacter 81).

At least, that’s how I remember it now. Though if you were to put me in a court of law, I doubt I’d stand up to cross-examination very well. “And yet you claim this memory was suppressed for forty years?” “Yes.” “And only surfaced just recently?” “Yes.” “Are you able to account for why it surfaced?” “Not really.” “Then let me put it to you, Mr. Webster, that this supposed incident is an entire figment of your imagination, constructed to justify some romantic attachment which you appear to have been nurturing towards my client, a presumption which, the court should know, my client finds utterly repugnant.”

The judge’s assessment of the situation would attest to Tony’s sin of commission and specifically that of bias, where the present feelings and opinions retrogradely affect one’s memories. Tony’s description of the situation would on the other hand point in the direction of the sin of transience, or perhaps the sin of blocking, where again a certain cue can help bring back memories buried deep in one’s unconscious.

I could only reply that I think—I theorise—that something—something else—happens to the memory over time. For years you survive with the same loops, the same facts and the same emotions. I press a button marked Adrian or Veronica, the tape runs, the usual stuff spools out. The events reconfirm the emotions—resentment, a sense of injustice, relief—and vice versa. There seems no way of accessing anything else; the case is closed. Which is why you seek corroboration, even if it turns out to be contradiction. But what if, even at a late stage, your emotions relating to those long-ago events and people change? That ugly letter of mine provoked remorse in me. Veronica’s account of her parents’ deaths—yes, even her father’s—had touched me more than I would have thought possible. I felt a new sympathy for them—and her. Then, not long afterwards, I began remembering forgotten things. I don’t know if there’s a scientific explanation for this—to do with new affective states reopening blocked-off neural pathways. All I can say is that it happened, and that it astonished me.

Based on the sin of bias, it is rather the other way round with “the events reconfirm the emotions”. One’s emotions help the memory retain and recall mainly things that are congruent with one’s current state of emotions, opinions and self-image. The second part of the excerpt, mainly the phrase suggesting “affective states reopening blocked-off neural pathways” would quite closely correspond with both the sin of blocking and the theory of cues, which draw from connectionist theories and the role of neurons and synapses in both encoding and recalling information (Plháková 301).

The time-deniers say: forty’s nothing, at fifty you’re in your prime, sixty’s the new forty, and so on. I know this much: that there is objective time, but also subjective time, the kind you wear on the inside of your wrist, next to where the pulse lies. And this personal time, which is the true time, is measured in your relationship to memory. So when this strange thing happened—when these new memories suddenly came upon me—it was as if, for that moment, time had been placed in reverse. As if, for that moment, the river ran upstream.

This philosophical reflection on the nature of time and its relation to memory might remind readers how some people tend, as they get older, to focus more on the events long past and take no notice of current events. As if they were saying the past is their real life, whereas the present, negatively affected by illnesses of old age and especially by the deterioration of memory, has nothing to offer to them.

She didn’t reply. I shouldn’t have been surprised. From my knowledge and memory of her, outdated though it was, car talk was never going to be Veronica’s thing.

The image one has of other people, especially of those one has not seen for a long time, might remain conserved to a certain degree, but it is also a subject of decay, due to the sins of omission. The image could also become a victim of one’s reassessment or selection of information due to the sin of bias. In a way the old image lives its own life and develops independently of the actual person. As a result, when the two images meet after years of separation, some of the features match and some of them are completely divergent.

What had begun as a determination to obtain property bequeathed to me had morphed into something much larger, something which bore on the whole of my life, on time and memory.

The regained memory cast a new light on Tony’s past deeds and consequently on the life he had been living until then. By facing the unpleasant unearthed facts, Tony corrected his self-image and reassessed his role in the past events accordingly.

I didn’t know why I wanted to know. But as I say, I had no sense of urgency. It was like not pressing on the brain to summon a memory. If I didn’t press on—what?—time, then something, perhaps even a solution, might come to the surface.

Here Barnes refers to the mechanism described earlier in which mental strain may function as an active component in blocking certain memories, whereas a relaxed state of mind provides space for some cues that can help a seemingly lost memory reappear.

Examples Regarding History

There are a few places in the novel where Barnes meditates on the subject of history, although with far less frequency than in A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters.

What was the line Adrian used to quote? “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”

What Barnes might be hinting at here is that history is easily established in the absence of both living people and relevant or sufficient documentation to contradict the version of history, the narrative, the story a historian decides to tell.

Narrative Therapy

There is one part in the text that seems to overlap into the area of narrative psychotherapy.

I was saying, confidently, how the chief characteristic of remorse is that nothing can be done about it: that the time has passed for apology or amends. But what if I’m wrong? What if by some means remorse can be made to flow backwards, can be transmuted into simple guilt, then apologised for, and then forgiven? What if you can prove you weren’t the bad guy she took you for, and she is willing to accept your proof?

The main character wishes his remorse had the power to change his past, or at least the past in the eyes of people he cares for. Interestingly, narrative psychotherapy allows

for a similar thing. By retelling one’s life story and by creating new narratives one’s life story is gradually transformed from a difficult, indigestible form into an acceptable one. As a result, the client is able to change their past along with their self-image (Plháková 221). Similarly, Schacter believes that disclosing difficult experiences to others and creating narratives can have profoundly positive effects (Schacter 152). An analogy with the process of writing could be observed here, where converting one’s traumatic or otherwise emotionally charged experiences into a fiction can have similarly positive effects on the writer.

  1. Lexical Field of Memory / History in Individual Works

In order to compare how the concept of memory was dealt with in the selected works by the author, statistical methods were used. A corpora were created out of individual novels as well as all three of the three books combined and these were processed by The Sketch Engine, an online software tool used in corpus linguistics.

The main interest lay in the proportion of the words related to memory in individual works. The questions of whether the linguistic means used for writing about memory could be divided further into subjective and objective expressions and whether these roughly correspond with the words memory and history presented a significant challenge.

In order to determine the ratio and compare individual works, it was necessary to define the lexical or semantic field of the word memory and subdivide it further into the subjective and objective fields.

The very definition of lexical field presents a certain issue. How does one delineate a set of words that are semantically related? How does one decide on the size of the set and its limits?

"A lexical field is a set of lexemes that are used to talk about a defined area of experience; Lehrer (1974), for example, has an extensive discussion of the field of 'cooking' terms. A lexical field analysis will attempt to establish the lexemes that are available in the vocabulary for talking about the area under investigation and then propose how they differ from each other in meaning and use. Such an analysis begins to show how the vocabulary as a whole is structured, and more so when individual lexical fields are brought into relationship with each other. There is no prescribed or agreed method for determining what constitutes a lexical field; each scholar must draw their own boundaries and establish their own criteria. Much work still needs to be undertaken in researching this approach to vocabulary. Lexical field analysis is reflected in dictionaries that take a 'topical' or 'thematic' approach to presenting and describing words."
(Jackson 106)

Lexical field has to be defined based on one’s judgment, the unifying aspect of which being the semantic relationship between the words.

Oxford Thesaurus – An A-Z Dictionary of Synonyms

memory n. 1 recall, recollection, retention: My memory of the incident is very vivid. She has a poor memory for faces. 2 recollection, reminiscence, thought: The interviewer was drawing on grandfather's memories of the 1920s. 3 remembrance, honour, homage, respect, tribute, celebration: He wrote a sequence of poems in memory of a dear friend.
The words related to memory that were found in the thesaurus were carefully selected based on their supposed relevance to memory/history. Words coming from the area of synonymy and hyponymy, as well as antonymy were considered. Words that did not occur in the corpora were eliminated. The final list was further divided into subfields of memory and history, where the first one was to represent a more subjective aspect of the concept and the second a more objective one. However, since some words could easily express either category depending on their use, the desired accuracy would require a check of individual occurrences. For that reason these words were included into both subsets.

The data about relative frequency of lemmas specified in the lexical field (and subfields) were extracted through the function “Word List” in the Sketch Engine.

The Sketch Engine is for anyone wanting to research how words behave. It is a Corpus Query System. It lets you see a concordance for any word, phrase or grammatical construction, in one of the corpora that we provide, or in a corpus of your own. Its unique feature are word sketches, one-page, automatic, corpus-derived summaries of a word's grammatical and collocational behaviour (
In order to extract precisely the specified set of words (lemmas), a whitelist containing the words in the required format was uploaded to The Sketch Engine. Two whitelists were used in this task – one for the subfield of memory and one for the subfield of history.

The results are presented in the following tables, comprising mainly of printscreen images of the data exported by The Sketch Engine.

Lexical Subfield for MEMORY

Lexical Subfield for HISTORY

Lexical Subfield for MEMORY

Lexical Subfield for HISTORY

Lexical Subfield for MEMORY

Lexical Subfield for HISTORY

Lexical Subfield for MEMORY

Lexical Subfield for HISTORY

Lexical Subfield for MEMORY

Lexical Subfield for HISTORY







  1. Conclusion

This master’s thesis has analysed three selected novels by Julian Barnes with regards to the concept of memory in its various forms. The hypothesis claiming Barnes has over time shifted in his writing from objectivity to subjectivity was tested and seems to be defensible.

The first selected novel, A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters (1989) deals mainly with memory in the form of history. As the title suggests and the number of analysed samples confirms, history is a focal point of the novel. Its fragmentary nature with a structure comprised of short stories results in an image of the world in which there is no single history, but as many as there are historians, narrators and generally those who try to grasp an understanding of the past.

Although the novel is fiction, the critique of history that supposedly manipulates facts and distorts memories resonates with Paul Ricoeur’s division of historical discourse into the documentary level, the level of explanation/understanding and the level of literary representation of the past. Furthermore, according to Ricoeur, the historical discourse is
a subject of interpretation on each of these levels (Ricoeur 185) which in turn attests to Barnes’ satirical depiction of history.

Barnes ponders the cyclical and deterministic quality of history and claims a proper understanding of it is necessary should its fatalistic dictate be rejected. The novel emphasizes the struggle of individuals to resist its intimidating and manipulative forces. When he deals with individual memory, Barnes usually refers to a larger time perspective, to a particular history. Finally, Barnes suggests the negative force of history could only be overcome by love, as both art and religion fail to offer any assistance.

In spite of the disrupted chronology, various styles of writing and an unreliable narrator, the resulting image of history is coherent and serves as an analogy of the process of historiography, which is susceptible to interpretation on every level of the process.

The novel Arthur & George (2005) proves its relationship with the concept of memory by the very choice of the topic, in which Barnes brings to light a hundred-year old case of criminal and judicial injustice that draws from historical facts known about the Wyrley case.

The concept of memory here oscillates between its individual and collective forms. The first being presented by a subjective third-person narration of the main characters who at times refers to various aspects of human memory, mainly its unreliability. The second is manifested in Barnes’ effort to revise and rework a relatively recent history, in order for the nation to cure its past trauma and come to some reconciliation with its past. Despite the huge amount of historically accurate details, it has been exemplified that Barnes is not always faithful to history and at times subjects the story’s veracity to his artistic license. This is however congruent with his previous claims about the nature of art with regards to truth and history.

The resulting effect of his writing leaves the readers in a state of uncertainty about the reliability of the source. It is neither a true historical novel nor is it purely fiction, as it contains a lot of accurate biographical data. Perhaps this is exactly the message Barnes is trying to convey – neither artistic nor historic rendition of the past is absolutely dependable and one has to manage it with common sense and keep faith that the accounts presented at least strive to narrate the historical truth.

The third selected novel, The Sense of an Ending (2011), puts forth the concept of memory in a very personal manner, through the main character’s gradual retrieval of the memories long lost. This self-reflective novel with autobiographical elements lent itself naturally to an interpretation based in cognitive psychology and more specifically, with the focus on various types of memory distortion. Although the novel occasionally refers to history, its gist lies in the meditation on the qualities of individual memory and reflects on the topics of personal guilt and responsibility. Similarly to Arthur & George, the re-working of the past allows for reconciliation. However, in this case the discovered trauma and the re-worked personal history does not necessarily lead to the main character being healed, but it helps him to re-adjust his self-image and come to terms with his life.

Finally, based on the selected topics, the general structure and the techniques used in the above-mentioned Barnes’ novels, it could be argued Barnes’ way of treating the concept of memory has changed over time, shifting from the more objective to the more subjective. This has been exemplified in the provided literary analysis and the idea is also supported by the statistical data extracted from the books’ corpora, showing the overall increase in the occurrence of expressions pertaining to the lexical subfield of memory in contrast with history.

  1. Works Cited and Consulted

Primary Materials

Barnes, Julian. A History of the World in 10½ Chapters. New York: Random House/Vintage, 1990. Print.

Barnes, Julian. Arthur & George. London: Vintage, 2006. Print.

Barnes, Julian. The Sense of an Ending. London: Jonathan Cape, 2011. Print.

Secondary Materials

Guignery, Vanessa. The Fiction of Julian Barnes. Basingstoke [England: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. Print.

Groes, Sebastian, and Peter Childs. Julian Barnes: Contemporary Critical Perspectives. London: Continuum, 2011. Internet resource.

Childs, Peter. Julian Barnes. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2011. Print.

Barnes, Julian, and Vanessa Guignery. Conversations with Julian Barnes. Jackson: U of Mississippi, 2009. Print.

Moseley, Merritt. Understanding Julian Barnes. Columbia, S.C.: U of South Carolina, 1997. Print.

Ricœur, Paul, Kathleen Blamey, and David Pellauer. Memory, History, Forgetting. Chicago, IL, Etc.: U of Chicago, 2004. Print. Pellauer. Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 2004. Print

Plháková, Alena. Učebnice obecné psychologie. Prague: Akademia, 2004. Print.

Schacter, Daniel L. The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001. Print.

Jackson, Howard. Lexicography an Introduction. London: Routledge, 2002. Print.

Barnes, Julian. Flaubert's Parrot. London: Picador, 1985. Print.

Roberts, Ryan. "Julian Barnes Website: Homepage." Julian Barnes Website: Homepage. Ryan Roberts, 11 May 2014. Web. 28 May 2014. .

Brown, Jeffrey. "Conversation: Julian Barnes, Winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize." PBS. PBS, 8 Nov. 2011. Web. 28 May 2014. .

Gillett, Sarah, and Susanna Nicklin. "Writers: Julian Barnes." Julian Barnes. British Council, 2011. Web. 28 May 2014. .

Stout, Mira. "Chameleon Novelist." Books, The New York Times on the Web. N.p., 22 Nov. 1992. Web. 19 Jan. 2015.

"Julian Barnes @ Passa Porta Festival 2013, Brussels." YouTube. YouTube, 28 Mar. 2013. Web. 27 Apr. 2015.

Amanda Smith, "Julian Barnes," Publishers Weekly 236 (3 November 1989): 73.

Rackham, Arthur. "The Fox and the Grapes." Aesop's Fables. Dover ed. New York: Avenel, 2009. Print.

"25 Famous Scientists Who Believed in God." Famous Scientists. Web. 29 Apr. 2015. .

Cook, Pat, and Phillip Gowan. "Titanic Survivor | Mr Lawrence Beesley." Encyclopedia Titanica. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Apr. 2015.

"Brian Finney Essay on Julian Barnes." Brian Finney Essay on Julian Barnes. Web. 29 Apr. 2015. .

Davies, Glyn. A History of Money: From Ancient times to the Present Day. Cardiff: U of Wales, 1994. Print.

Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Bibles, 2001. Print.

"Sketch Engine: Text Corpus Query System for All." Sketch Engine: Text Corpus Query System for All. Web. 27 Mar. 2015. .


This master’s diploma thesis analyses the concept of memory in three novels by the British novelist Julian Barnes: A History of the Worlds in 10 ½ Chapters (1989), Arthur & George (2005) and The Sense of an Ending (2011). The thesis explores the hypothesis that Julian Barnes’ writing about memory has over time shifted from objectivity to subjectivity, from reflections on memory in the form of history and its truthfulness to his later focus on the individual memory and its (un)reliability. The chapters analyse the novels from the perspective of literary criticism, philosophy, cognitive psychology, and, in small part, corpora linguistics.


Tato magisterská práce analyzuje koncept paměti v románech Historie světa v 10 ½ kapitolách (1989), Arthur a George (2005) a Vědomí konce (2011) britského spisovatele Juliana Barnese. Práce zkoumá, jestli se autor v úvahách o paměti časem neposunul k větší subjektivitě, od psaní o pravdivostní povaze historie, k myšlenkám o (ne)spolehlivosti paměti jednotlivce. Jednotlivé kapitoly poskytují rozbor z pohledu literárního kriticismu, filozofie, kognitivní psychologie a v malé míře také korpusové lingvistiky.

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