Memory Hole

The memory hole is a term that comes from George Orwell’s 1984. It refers to a hole in the wall into which paper and photographs are destroyed.

It is an opening connected to a small chute that leads to an incinerator. There are memory holes around the Ministry of Truth where Orwell’s main character Winston Smith works. They’re used when someone needs to throw away, permanently, something Big Brother/ the Party wants to be censored. 

Today, the words “memory hole” are used in everyday conversation. For example, someone might say, “down the memory hole” to describe forgetting something they were supposed to remember. “I tried to remember what he said, but it just ended up down the memory hole” is a more extended example. More commonly, the phrase is related to politics and may be used when someone appears to be attempting to erase the public’s memory of an event. This may include erasing embarrassing images, messages, and more. 



Memory Hole Definition

The memory hole is an opening in the wall that leads to an incinerator.

At the Ministry of Truth, Winston Smith holds the job of revising old newspaper articles. He makes the changes that the Party wants him to in order to make sure the narrative serves the Party’s best interests. 

For example, if someone was praised by the Party who later did something against their ideals, Winston would have to find a way to change the old articles, making it appear as though that person was never in the Party’s good graces. That way, the propaganda is as faultless as possible. If the Party doesn’t appear to ever make a mistake, then there is no reason for anyone not to trust them. 

The best definition from a memory hole comes from 1984 and then the narrator’s descriptions in Chapter 4: 

In the walls of the cubicle there were three orifices. To the right of the speakwrite, a small pneumatic tube for written messages, to the left, a larger one for newspapers; and in the side wall, within easy reach of Winston’s arm, a large oblong slit protected by a wire grating. This last was for the disposal of waste paper. 


Examples of the Memory Hole in 1984 

Winston’s Job at the Ministry of Truth 

The first time the memory hole was mentioned in 1984 is in Chapter 4 when Winston is at work. As noted above, they were in easy reach for anyone working in the same role as Winston. Plus, the narrator describes, they were all over the building. George Orwell writes: 

Similar slits existed in thousands or tens of thousands throughout the building, not only in every room but at short intervals in every corridor. For some reason they were nicknamed memory holes. 

Those who worked in the building knew when documents needed to be destroyed. See this quote from 1984

When one knew that any document was due for destruction, or even when one saw a scrap of waste paper lying about, it was an automatic action to lift the flap of the nearest memory hole and drop it in, whereupon it would be whirled away on a current of warm air to the enormous furnaces which were hidden somewhere in the recesses of the building.

As Winston works he receives, messages that slide out of a tube. When done with the message, he disposes of it in a memory hole. Sometimes he consults the Newspeak dictionary on the shelf. He also uses other Orwellian-named devices, like the “speakwrite.” One such message that Winston put down the memory hole was: 

times 3.12.83 reporting bb dayorder doubleplusungood refs unpersons rewrite fullwise upsub antefiling

There was nothing scandalous about this message except that it was now useless since he completed his job. But, it does represent the fact that the Party is changing the past to suit their narrative. 

Julia’s Message 

On page 136 of the novel, Winston throws a message Julia gave him down a memory hole. It read: 

I LOVE YOU. 

This shocked Winston to his core. So much so that at first he was: 

too stunned even to throw the incriminating thing into the memory hole. When he did so, although he knew very well the danger of showing too much interest, he could not resist reading it once again, just to make sure that the words were there. 

O’Brien’s Address 

When O’Brien tries to convince Winston to come to visit him, he passes him a scrap of paper with his address written on it. Orwell writes: “he scribbled an address, tore out the page, and handed it to Winston.” Then, Winston is left holding the piece of paper. He determined it would be best to memorize the address, believing he’s now in a co-conspiracy of sorts with someone in the Brotherhood. 

[Winston] carefully memorized what was written on it and some hours later dropped it into the memory hole along with a mass of other papers.


Photograph of Jones, Aaronson, and Rutherford 

The photograph of the three Party members that Winston had briefly in his possession and then destroyed comes back into the novel in Part II. O’Brien holds in his hands: 

the photograph of Jones, Aaronson, and Rutherford at the party function in New York, which he had chanced upon eleven years ago and promptly destroyed.

O’Brien goes on to try to convince Winston, through doublethink, that he never saw the photo. He walks across the room:  

in the opposite wall. O’Brien lifted the grating. Unseen, the frail slip of paper was whirling away on the current of warm air; it was vanishing in a flash of flame. O’Brien turned away from the wall.

Once it’s gone, O’Brien suggests that it “does not exist. It never existed.” Winston fights back, saying, “But it did exist! It does exist! It exists in memory. I remember it. You remember it.’” O’Brien chilling says, “I do not remember it.” This is one of the best examples of doublethink in the novel, especially in regard to how it connects to the other tenants of INGSOC, the mutability of the past, and Newspeak. 

FAQs

What does the memory hole symbolize?

The memory hole symbolizes the Party’s attempts and successes at controlling their citizens’ thoughts and remaking the past in their image.

What is the purpose of Ampleforth’s job?

Ampleforth rewrites old poems in order to remove all religious references and connect them instead to Big Brother. They all glorify the government.

Is the memory hole a symbol in 1984?

Yes, the memory hole is a symbol of the Party’s control over the past and their broader control over their citizens’ thoughts.

 

Related Terms in 1984 

  • INGSOC: newspeak for English Socialism, the governing system used throughout Oceania. 
  • Doublethink: cognitive dissonce. Or the act of thinking two contradictory things at once. Or believing that the two things are true. 
  • Ministry of Love: responsible for brainwashing the citizens of Oceania. 
  • Ministry of Truth: the ministry responsible for changing history to suit the Party. 
  • Thought Police: the group responsible for arresting those charged with thoughtcrime. 
  • Room 101: a room to which Winston Smith, and others, are taken when they are within the Ministry of Love. It contains everyone’s worst fears. For Smith, this is rats. 
  • Newspeak: the invented language that shortens words and removes others entirely from the English language. 


Other Resources 

Send this to a friend