Study Guide

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Themes

  • Memory and the Past

    Don't tell us you're surprised, folks—after all, memories literally are the whole movie. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind takes place within the memories of Joel; it's a movie that explores how and why we remember things—and the impact that these memories have on our lives. It's also about what happens when these memories disappear: does the self created by these memories also go away?

    Joel's firsthand experience with his own past gives him personal insight into who he is and what he and Clementine had together when things were going well. But over the course of the movie, even his memories of memories are washed away, and he becomes like a blank slate, ready to move out in the world and relive the last two years of his life.

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. Does Joel ever truly recognize his flaws when he sees himself in his memories?
    2. Does dream-Clementine act like real-Clementine, or has she been tainted by the bias of Joel's memory?
    3. If Joel and Clem both had their memories restored, do you think they would still want to be together? Does the good outweigh the bad in their relationship?

    Chew on This

    The flaw of Lacuna's process is that the memories must be erased. If Lacuna could simply remind people what their past experiences were like without getting rid of them, their treatment would lead to happier, healthier individuals.

    The only reason Joel decides he wants to save his memories of Clem is that he has forgotten all the bad memories already.

  • Identity

    Memory and identity are inseparable. Our accumulated experiences are how we form a conception of what it means to be us. If you suddenly forgot everything you've done, you won't know who you are. What if you start thinking you're a high-school student when you're really a rocket scientist turned astronaut, or fifty-three aliens simulating a human life-form? Hey, it's unlikely, but you would never know.

    In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Clem and Joel both have their memories wiped so that they can forget each other. Their memories of the last two years centered on each other, and now, with their memories wiped, they feel lost and empty. It's not a surprise, because they have both lost pieces of themselves in the erasure process.

    Questions About Identity

    1. Is Joel's identity affected when he re-experiences his memories? Does he become, however briefly, a different person by gaining insight into the person he is or was?
    2. Is there evidence that Joel's and Clem's identities have rubbed off on one another? Is Joel in any way more spontaneous or Clem more reserved?
    3. Do Clem and Joel have an accurate idea of who the other is? Is their struggle a misunderstanding, or is it deeper rooted than that?

    Chew on This

    You can never really change who someone is. Even though Clem and Joel have had some memories erased, they're still the same people they used to be, minus a few kisses and arguments.

    Joel and Clem can never have the relationship they first had, because their identities have been altered by the information that they were once together. This will always be with them, affecting the decisions they make and ultimately affecting who they are as individuals.

  • Happiness

    Everyone wants to be happy. In fact, maybe that's the only thing that anybody wants. But happiness can be hard to come by, especially when you're trying really hard to be happy instead of just enjoying what you have. This is what seems to be happening to Joel in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: he's discontent with who he is and the funk he's stuck in. He can't make eye contact with a woman he doesn't know, and apparently his relationship with Naomi is a little rocky.

    So when Joel meets Clem, he thinks she's going to be the one to pull him out of his rut and make him feel alive. The problem is that he doesn't listen to her when she tells him that's exactly what she isn't going to do; she's just another person looking for happiness, too, like Patrick and Mary and all the other characters in the movie. Unfortunately, Joel finds out that when true happiness finally comes, it can be fleeting.

    Questions About Happiness

    1. What makes Joel so happy as he lies on the ice with Clem, and what exactly makes it go away? Is he still just relishing in the honeymoon phase of their relationship, or do you think they ever really had a deeper kind of love for each other?
    2. At the beginning of the film, we think of Joel as a sad person, but this is only after he's had the procedure. Would a Clementine-less Joel necessarily be unhappy, or is his unhappiness just a product of his memory loss?
    3. Is having the procedure always a mistake? Will remembering the forgotten always make people happier?
    4. Do you think Mary made a mistake in sending patients their information?

    Chew on This

    Eternal Sunshine shows that it's wrong to make another person responsible for your happiness. Joy and fulfillment should come from within, not from some exterior source whose constancy is unreliable.

    Being happy is all about surrounding yourself with happy people. Only when Clem and Joel grow apart do they become unhappy. Sharing happiness is a necessity.

  • Fear

    Just because Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind isn't a horror movie, that doesn't mean it isn't scary. Joel is forced to deal with some difficult things inside of his own mind, but it's not just in his memories that Joel is afraid. He's also afraid when he meets Clem again; he's afraid to make eye contact, afraid to start a relationship, and just as afraid to give up the past. But that's kind of the point, really: relationships are scary. Life is scary. None of it is easy. But will running away and erasing everything painful make it any better?

    Questions About Fear

    1. Does Clementine help Joel overcome his personal fears, or is she just a crutch that he can rely on to pull him along when he's too afraid to do something?
    2. Joel's procedure forces him to confront things he is afraid of. Do you think this is a healthy form of therapy, or are these painful memories doing more bad than good?
    3. We never get a clear look into Clem's mind, but what do you think she is afraid of? Do you think that Joel might be braver than Clem when it comes to certain things?

    Chew on This

    If Joel weren't so afraid, he never would have had the Lacuna procedure done. Fear makes him an escapist.

    Joel's fears of intimacy are only seen post-procedure and are actually a product of the emotional trauma he experienced from losing Clem. Even though he can't remember it, the emotional core of the memory still exists.