Study Guide

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Summary

Eternal Sunshine all goes down in a pretty crazy order: we start in the future, shift to a recent past, and then continue reverse-chronologically further back in time, only to end up in the present that continues to the future we already saw and beyond. 

Because we're helpful, we're going to tackle everything as chronologically as possible.

It all starts when Joel goes to a beach party with his friends Rob and Carrie and meets this green-haired, orange-sweatshirted girl named Clementine (okay, maybe it really starts with Joel getting a bath in the sink when he's a baby, but we're skipping that part for now). Anyway, that night Clem breaks into a house with Joel, but Joel gets scared and leaves. Still, he's drawn back to Clem, and he goes to see her at Barnes & Noble, where she works and where they officially start a relationship.

We only know a little about the next two years, but they're mostly happy. There's a hike through the woods in the fall, a trip to a drive-in theater, a parade of elephants.

But eventually things stop working out so well. Joel and Clem lie in bed arguing about communication, and when the two eat out, Joel thinks they are the "dining dead." They argue about having a child, and they argue even more when Clem comes home late, having dented Joel's car. Clem leaves and shortly thereafter goes to Lacuna, a medical business specializing in erasing memories—and, well, she has Joel erased from her memory.


Joel buys her an early Valentine's Day present to make up for what he said to Clem, but when he goes to her work, he sees her kissing some random guy and acting like she doesn't know him. Confused, Joel goes to Rob and Carrie, who tell him about Lacuna.

Joel goes to Lacuna himself, finds out the truth, and returns determined to do to Clem what she did to him. He collects (almost) everything that he has associated with Clem, and the Lacuna professionals, Dr. Mierzwiak and Stan, map his Clem memories using these objects. That night, he takes a pill and crashes on his floor. Patrick (another Lacuna technician) and Stan come in and get to work erasing Joel's memories.

Sort of.

At this point, Mary, the Lacuna receptionist, comes over, and they all drink alcohol and get high. Patrick goes to see Clem—he's totally seducing her using Joel's mementos, which he stole from Lacuna—and she takes him out on a frozen lake. Patrick quotes Joel's lines, and Clem freaks out and goes home.

Meanwhile, Stan passes out and loses Joel, who is purposely hiding in an old unrelated memory being under a table and getting a sink bath (oh, the good ol' days). Stan calls Dr. Mierzwiak over, and he is able to work his magic to find Joel, who is now running around like a chicken with its head cut off trying to preserve his memories.

Mary seems to really like Mierzwiak, and when Stan steps out, she kisses him and starts crying. Just as Mierzwiak is doing a mixture of kissing and comforting her, his wife, Hollis, pulls up and shares the news that Mary and Mierzwiak already had a thing, but Mary has had her memory erased. Disturbed by the experience, Mary decides to send all of the previous Lacuna patients' records back to them, essentially giving them a part of their lives back.

After having the procedure, Joel wakes up and takes a trip to Montauk. He meets Clem, and they bond as if it were their first encounter. They end up at her house for drinks and go and lie on the ice together again the following night.

On the way back to Joel's place, Clem plays the tape of herself erasing Joel that Mary sent her. Joel thinks this is a sick joke and kicks her out of his car. Of course, Joel finds his own tape when he gets home, and when Clem comes over, she is equally upset by the mean things he says about her on his tape.

But as Clem leaves, Joel catches up to her and asks her to wait. They know that if they try a second time at a relationship, it might end up the same way, but they decide they don't care. 

They'll go for it, anyway.

  • Scene 1

    Scene 1

    • Joel wakes up and gets out of bed. We can tell he really doesn't want to.
    • Joel decides to call in sick and take a train to a beach where it's freezing cold—you know, because it's February.
    • Then Joel begins narrating some things to us. He tells us he's not an impulsive person, that sand is overrated, and that his chances of meeting someone new aren't too hot, because he can't make eye contact with a woman he doesn't know.
    • Joel thinks about getting back together with a nice girl he knew. He just really seems to be in a funk, and the cold, gray weather isn't helping.
  • Scene 2

    Scene 2

    • A random girl Joel saw walking on the beach sees him at a local restaurant, then at the train station, and then on the train. She tries waving to him and being friendly, but Joel is very shy.
    • On the train, the girl sits by Joel and introduces herself as Clementine.
    • Joel and Clementine talk about hair dye and the "Clementine" song, which Joel insists he has never heard before. We also find out that Clementine doesn't think a whole lot of nice things about herself.
    • Joel tries to be nice (he says "nice" a lot), but it backfires, because Clementine doesn't like "nice." But then she decides she does like "nice, "and she apologizes. She is confusing.
  • Scene 3

    Scene 3

    • Joel gives Clementine a ride home, and when she offers to let him come in and have a drink, he doesn't seem too thrilled.
    • But what do you know? Joel's suddenly inside with Clementine, drinking and, um, sort of talking. Joel isn't really much of a conversationalist.
    • Clementine sits uncomfortably close to Joel and tells him she knows that she's going to marry him. Okay.
    • She asks him out of the blue to drive to the Charles River with her. 
    • Joel still seems a little uncomfortable, but they go. 
    • After all, she's definitely brought him out of the mundaneness of his boring life.
  • Scene 4

    Scene 4

    • Clementine and Joel walk on the ice. Clementine is daring and has to coax Joel to come out with her, convincing him the ice is thick and won't crack.
    • Joel and Clementine lie down, and Clementine asks which constellations Joel knows. Not knowing any, he makes one up.
    • Always a kidder, that Joel… Not really.
    • Joel drives Clementine home, but she sort of invites herself to sleep at his place. Joel is a nice guy and doesn't say no.
    • While Joel's waiting for Clementine, some random dude asks him what he's doing there.
    • Joel is confused, and the dude goes away.
  • Scene 5

    Scene 5

    • Joel is driving on a dark rainy night, crying to himself in his car.
    • Joel gets home, and some weird people in a suspicious van find him. Apparently, they were looking for him.
    • Joel's neighbor Frank chats him up and say he's lucky to have Clementine, especially given that Valentine's Day is approaching.
    • Joel doesn't look to happy about Frank mentioning Clementine, so we're guessing that's what he's sad about.
    • Inside his apartment, Joel takes a pill, which knocks him out.
    • The people from the van come in carrying some very strange equipment, such as a metal helmet straight out of some B sci-fi flick.
  • Scene 6

    Scene 6

    • Joel is in bed remembering his talk with Frank. The memory slowly disappears until it's finally gone.
    • Then Joel's at Carrie and Rob's house, explaining this thing that just happened. He and Clementine haven't been doing so hot, so he goes and gets her an early Valentine's Day necklace to make up for it.
    • But when Joel goes to Clementine's work to give it to her, it's like she doesn't even recognize him. She's also kissing some total stranger named Patrick.
    • We see Joel leave the bookstore, and that memory fades, too—if it is a memory at all and not the present. What time we're at is very unclear.
    • Then the big news happens: Rob shows Joel a slip of paper from Lacuna that says Clementine has had her memory of Joel erased. Rob says no one should mention this to her.
    • Joel is not happy. Things are starting to make both more and less sense.
  • Scene 7

    Scene 7

    • Joel goes in to this Lacuna place, where he gets confirmation that this whole "memory erase" thing is no hoax.
    • The doctor tells Joel that all information is confidential, and he should have never seen the slip of paper.
    • The only thing the doctor can tell Joel is that Clementine wasn't happy and wanted to move on.
  • Scene 8

    Scene 8

    • In his anger and sadness, the non-impulsive Joel makes another impulsive decision. He wants to erase Clementine, just like she erased him.
    • On the doctor's orders, Joel cleans out his place of all items that have any association with Clementine.
    • Apparently, the Lacuna people can use these things to create a map of Clementine in Joel's mind so that she can be erased.
    • Joel will go to sleep, and then the procedure will begin (we've already seen the start of this).
  • Scene 9

    Scene 9

    • Joel goes to Lacuna with his bags of stuff to prepare for the procedure.
    • The doctor has Joel recount how he met Clementine. He says it was at a beach party that Rob and Carrie invited him to.
    • When Joel asks if there is risk of brain damage, the doctor says that, technically, the procedure is brain damage. So that's reassuring.
    • The technician Stan has Joel focus on the objects he associates with Clementine so that his brain can be mapped.
  • Scene 10

    Scene 10

    • We cut to the procedure taking place in the apartment.
    • Joel is in his own head, looking at the memories as they're being erased. It's all very vivid, but it's not especially orderly.
    • We find out that the dude working with Stan is named Patrick. He's the same guy that was acting a bit aggressively to Joel outside of Clementine's place when they first met.
  • Scene 11

    Scene 11

    • As the memories of Lacuna shoot by, we stop at a particularly important one: the last time Joel saw Clementine.
    • Clementine comes home really late after having dented Joel's car; she was driving drunk.
    • Clementine says Joel is scared she had sex with someone, and Joel says he assumes she did, because that's how she gets people to like her. Smooth Joel, real smooth.
    • Clementine leaves.
  • Scene 12

    Scene 12

    • As the memory continues, Joel chases after Clementine, yelling that he's already having her erased—and that she started it.
    • Clementine keeps disappearing and reappearing, and cars start falling out of the sky as the memory collapses.
    • Joel can hear the voices of Stan and Patrick. Patrick is talking about how, when they erased Clementine's memories, Patrick fell in love with her, stole her panties, and then went to her work and asked her out.
    • Stan and Patrick briefly consider the ethics of using their profession to pick up single, unsuspecting women… but then they laugh it off and drink some beer.
  • Scene 13

    Scene 13

    • The memories keep on going.
    • Joel still hears Patrick and Stan talking as he eats takeout and watches TV with Clementine.
    • Then it's Halloween, and Joel pretends to be killed. But Clementine isn't amused.
    • Then Joel and Clementine are at a market and Clementine says she wants to have a kid. Joel asks Clementine if she thinks she should take care of one. Once again, real smooth, Joel.
  • Scene 14

    Scene 14

    • Mary, the receptionist, comes over while Joel sleeps.
    • Stan and Mary steal some of Joel's liquor and kick back for a good time. It looks like these erasing nights are a usual get-together.
  • Scene 15

    Scene 15

    • Joel is in bed with Clementine and, when she tells him that he needs to open up more, he responds that constantly talking isn't necessarily communicating.
    • Wow, now this whole "erasure" thing is starting to make more sense.
    • Then they're eating at a restaurant and Joel wonders if they're one of those couples everyone feels sorry for, the "dining dead."
    • Patrick calls his girlfriend, who we know is Clementine and who he calls Tangerine. She is sad and Patrick asks to leave.
    • Stan says no but Mary says yes.
    • Mary definitely doesn't like him.
  • Scene 16

    Scene 16

    • Patrick hangs out with Clementine, and the situation is worse than we thought.
    • Patrick literally has all of Joel's mementos in his backpack, and he is referencing them to help along his relationship with Clementine. He even gives Clementine a necklace Joel bought but never had a chance to give her himself.
    • Back with Joel, Mary and Stan are smoking pot and dancing to music with fewer clothes on than they had before.
    • Mary is talking about how amazing Doctor Howard is for giving the gift of memory loss to so many people.
  • Scene 17

    Scene 17

    • Clem and Joel are in bed, and Joel is convincing her that she's pretty.
    • Then Clementine and Joel are lying on the ice, and Joel tells her that he could die at that moment and be perfectly happy.
    • Joel realizes that losing all the bad memories isn't worth losing all the good memories. He wants to make it stop.
    • Joel grabs Clementine, and they run through various memories.
    • Joel runs to Doctor Howard. We see Patrick stealing Joel's information and Dr. Howard explaining that he is only a figment of Joel's imagination.
    • In the meantime, Patrick is lying on the lake with Clem, and he uses Joel's words about being happy—but this only makes Clem upset. She wants to leave.
  • Scene 18

    Scene 18

    • Clem and Joel are chilling in a forest.
    • Clem, who, remember, is just a figment of Joel's imagination, tell him he should wake himself up.
    • Joe opens his eyes, and for a moment, he can see the ceiling of his apartment. But then it's gone.
    • Then Joel and Clem are sitting on the couch, and Clem tells him they should hide in a different memory before the eraser people show up.
    • This seems like a decent idea to Joel, so he thinks about a time when he was outside in the rain as a kid.
    • The plan works. But this memory quickly changes into another memory in which Joel is very young and playing with a yo-yo under the table.
    • Joel wants to be noticed by his mom… and he wants ice cream. He has the mental faculties of a four-year-old.
  • Scene 19

    Scene 19

    • Stan realizes that he's lost Joel.
    • Mary suggests they call Howard. Stan doesn't want to, but he does, anyway, because he can't think of what else to do.
    • Joel and Mary are both still pretty high.
    • Meanwhile, Clementine and Patrick are driving away from the lake. Patrick is using Joel's stuff, but this is just freaking Clementine out even more.
    • Joel and imaginary Clementine are still in Joel's mom's kitchen, hiding. But Howard is on the case, so things might get tricky.
  • Scene 20

    Scene 20

    • Yep: Howard finds Joel getting a bath in the sink and flushes him down it.
    • Suddenly, Joel's eyes are open. Howard is not happy about this. He gives Joel a shot of something to put Joel under even deeper.
    • But Joel is still on the run. Clementine, always full of good ideas, tells him to hide in buried, embarrassing memories.
    • First, Joel tries a memory in which his mom walked in on him masturbating. Then, he thinks about a time when he smashes a dead bird with a hammer under peer pressure.
    • But Howard is able to track Joel down, even so.
  • Scene 21

    Scene 21

    • Mary really admires Howard's work. Like, she really admires everything about Howard.
    • Stan steps outside to "grab some fresh air," and Mary starts putting the moves on Howard.
    • Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately), Howard's wife stops by and catches Howard and Mary kissing.
    • Mary tries to apologize, but Mrs. Howard tells her that Mary and Howard already had a thing before.
    • Howard doesn't really want to talk about it, but apparently Mary herself has had the Lacuna procedure to forget her relationship with Howard.
  • Scene 22

    Scene 22

    • Joel and Clem are at Barnes & Noble, where Clem works.
    • Clem says she didn't expect to see Joel again, given the way he ran off. Nevertheless, Joel wants to take her out.
    • Clem tells Joel she's not going to deal with his marriage, and she isn't going to fix his life. She's just looking for her own peace of mind.
    • Clem and Joel laugh at this memory.
    • Clem asks Joel to remember her; then she disappears.
    • Back in the present, Mary is in Howard's office, listening to the tape of herself recounting her memories of him.
  • Scene 23

    Scene 23

    • We've made it to the final memory—which is the first memory.
    • Clem and Joel meet at a beach party. Joel is immediately taken by her, especially her orange sweatshirt which he will come to love, then hate.
    • Being impulsive as always, Clem breaks into a house and starts going through the liquor cabinet. Joel is scared and wants to leave.
    • Joel does leave, but in the memory he says.
    • As the house disappears around Joel and Clem, they have a last goodbye.
    • Clem whispers, "Meet me in Montauk."
  • Scene 24

    Scene 24

    • Rob, Carrie, and Joel are driving home.
    • Joel looks out the window and watches all of his memories of Clementine fly by.
  • Scene 25

    Scene 25

    • Stan and Howard finish up the job at Joel's.
    • When Stan goes to take the van back, he sees Mary leaving with her stuff.
    • What Stan doesn't see is that Mary's also leaving with everyone else's stuff—the patients' stuff, that is.
  • Scene 26

    Scene 26

    • We see the same opening from the beginning of the movie. Joel wakes up, finds the scratch that drunken Clementine left on his car, and makes a rare impulsive decision by taking a train to Montauk.
    • We fast forward to where we left off. Clementine goes inside to grab her toothbrush, but she also grabs her mail.
    • Clementine finds a letter from Mary that tells her what happened. Mary thinks memory erasure in unethical, and she's giving patients their tapes back.
    • Clem plays the tape in Joel's car. Joel freaks out, thinks Clem is messing with him, and makes her leave the car.
  • Scene 27

    Scene 27

    • Clementine goes over to Joel's place. He's playing his tape.
    • Joel wants to turn it off, but Clementine says it's only fair for him to hear her.
    • Joel starts saying lots of mean things, like how Clementine uses sex to get people interested in her.
    • Clementine leaves, but as she walks down the hall, Joel catches up to her and asks her to wait.
    • Joel tells Clementine that he can't see anything about her that he doesn't like. She counters that in time, he will, and that she will get bored with him because that's what she does.
    • Joel says, "So?"
    • Joel and Clementine laugh. They agree to try again for the first time.
    • The final shot is of Joel and Clementine playing on a snowy beach, having fun.