The Bourne Identity is obsessed with memory and the past. Bourne spends the whole novel racing around trying to regain his memory and piece together his former life. The book is structured as layer after layer of revelation: little by little, you uncover what happened way back when, you get to see the hero slowly revealed, and you finally learn about Bourne's mission and his goal. Sometimes the past even breaks through the present through traumatic flashbacks (see "Symbols: Flashback"), the past breaks through to the present as a traumatic return.
At the same time, though, there's an odd sense in which memory and the past actually aren't important at all. Bourne doesn't need his past to fight and win; he doesn't need his past to be a good person; he doesn't need his past to fall in love. It's as if who you are is a truth that has nothing to do with who you were, or what you've done.
Bourne is able to search for his past with such well precisely because everything that matters —his skills, his goodness, his mission—don't actually depend on his memory. The book can make discovering the past so central because the past isn't really needed: you can put it all at the end of the book, and the plot will still galumph along, leaving the question unresolved.
Questions About Memory and the Past
- After she meets Bourne, is Marie's past important to who she is or what choices she makes?
- Do Bourne's flashbacks help him? Do they harm him? Do they have real effect on the story?
- What if Bourne had just decided to make a new life for himself and abandon his past? Could there still have been a novel? Would more or fewer people have died? Would the outcome have been better or worse?
Chew on This
Bourne is motivated by his past, even when he can't remember it.
Bourne is motivated by not having a past, even when he begins to discover what his past is.