Definition & Examples of Memoir in Literature

Definition of Memoir

A memoir is a type of an autobiography that focuses on a specific event of the author’s life. While an autobiography narrates a person’s life experiences from their birth to the present, a memoir focuses on the specific events in a particular context.

It is a combination of factual narration and the author’s points of view. Memoir focuses at the components of reality and the truth. It gives the readers an idea of the author’s background, his or her mind and emotions that are evident from their works.

Importance of Memoir

Memoir holds a significant value in the literature and society for several reasons:

Preservation of Personal History: Memoirs are important personal diaries of one’s experience, and perhaps even history, which could otherwise not be told. They are repositories of the life of an individual and helps in preserving the stories for the coming generations.

Cultural and Historical Insight: Memoirs always bring specific view on cultural shifts and historical events. They are considered a form of literature that add humanity to historical events and enables the people to comprehend the effects the history has on individuals.

Emotional Connection: Memoirs create an emotional bond between the writer, reader and the listener due to the content of the book. When an author reveals details of his or her life and describes the feelings, readers get connected, thus, feeling less alone.

Therapeutic Value: Memoirs are also beneficial to writers. The writing of memoir helps them through some issues. It helps them think about their existence; understand their life, and search for purpose in the life. Such an introspective process can therefore take the person involved through a process of change and redemption.

Inspiration and Motivation: Memoirs encourage and motivate the masses by giving the reader an engrossing and fulfilling experience. Through telling their stories, the authors are able to show those who may possibly go through the same tests, victories, and trials of what it might mean.

Literary Value: Memoirs have to serve an aesthetic purpose in addition to the historical; they are preserved due to the historic significance of the events as well as the quality of writing of the memoir. They are considered a type of literature that contain the author’s story, which may be told in a history like manner, using literary devices, descriptions, and reflections.

Examples of Memoir in Literature


“The Glass Castle” by Jeannette Walls

“I was on fire. It’s my earliest memory. I was three years old, and we were living in a trailer park in a southern Arizona town whose name I never knew. I was standing on a chair in front of the stove, wearing a pink dress my grandmother had bought for me. I liked the dress because it matched my pink plastic sandals. There was a pot of hot dogs boiling on the burner, and I was reaching over the stove to stir it with a wooden spoon. I could hear Mom in the next room singing while she worked on one of her paintings. The flames leaped up, reaching my face, and my hair caught fire.”

Memoir is clearly apparent in this passage, because it narrates in detail one of the author’s formative childhood experiences.

The visualization of this short story such as the description of the details of surroundings, the pink dress worn by the main character or boiling hot dogs give a rather close and detailed view on the events described.

Thus, by narrating and describing her first memory, Walls opens a window into her past, people’s treatment, and her life.

The concern of the memoir to investigate the subject’s life narrative and the perspective on this experience is thoroughly represented by Wyman’s reaction and reflective narrative.

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“Becoming” by Michelle Obama

“I spent much of my childhood listening to the sound of striving. It came in the form of piano music, the persistent plinking of practice exercises rising up from the living room where my great-aunt Robbie, who taught piano lessons, carried out her work. There was the hum of my mother’s sewing machine, the crunch of my father’s wrench as he worked over the Buick in our garage. This was South Side, Chicago, in the 1970s, a place where you could hear hard work happening all around you.”

The application of memoir in this excerpt is best explained by Michelle’s detailed and personal recollection of childhood sounds that represent the concept of work.

Through narratives of piano lessons, sewing machine, and car repairs Obama gives listener sociological description about her childhood which she spend in South Side Chicago.

She has succeeded in this memoir work because she wakes the readers’ emotions by making them feel her sorrows, joy, and the social setting in which she was raised.


“Night” by Elie Wiesel

“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.”

In the passage, the genre of memoir has been illustrated best in his heart wrenching and accurate account of a concentration camp.

Through the usage of “Never shall I forget”, the writer stresses the traumatic imprint of the portrayed events in his life.

This highly subjective and impassioned narrated way gives the readers the feeling of understanding the extent of his pain and the loss of faith and hope.

These are painful stories, and through telling them Wiesel helps the readers to understand and feel the horrors of the holocaust which is a goal of memoirs.


“Angela’s Ashes” by Frank McCourt

“When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.”

Frank McCourt was an Irish-American teacher, novelist, and playwright best known for his memoir ‘Angela’s Ashes’; the novel starts with this preface.

Right from the onset the author paints a picture to the reader about his poor childhood live in Limerick, Ireland.

Through the utilization of ironic and plain revelation of the actual distress of one’s childhood, the writer effectively conditions the readers for hardships he is going to describe.

To continue with the basic facts in the Memoir, McCourt narrates his encounter with the outrageous misery, his father was an alcoholic, and three of his siblings died.

Despite the bleak setting, the writing style of the writer is filled with humor. It also indicates the child’s view of adult problems and make them both unique and incredible.

See also: Examples of Melodrama in Literature


“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou

“When I was three and Bailey four, we had arrived in the musty little town, wearing tags on our wrists which instructed—’To Whom It May Concern’—that we were Marguerite and Bailey Johnson Jr., from Long Beach, California, en route to Stamps, Arkansas, c/o Mrs. Annie Henderson. Our parents had decided to put an end to their calamitous marriage, and Father shipped us home to his mother. A porter had been charged with our welfare—he got off the train the next day in Arizona—and our tickets were pinned to my brother’s inside coat pocket.”

Maya Angelou, in her autobiography starts her story with these words to depict the journey the family took to Stamps, Arkansas. The first line itself sets up the theme of neglect and moving around which defined Angelou’s childhood.

This piece of work narrates the life of Angelou as a young black girl in the period that is considered the Jim Crow era of America. It can be discussed on the topics related to racism, trauma, identity and the role of writing and creative non-fiction.

Angelou’s poetic writing, coupled with her ability to reveal and explain painful incidents in her life, including the rape, contribute to make this book a classic of black American literature and an important social document.

May Angelou often looks back at her experiences that influenced the conceptions on race, gender, and self. Even the title of the book, which derives from the poem of Paul Laurence Dunbar, echoes the major concept of the memoir – the black people’s ability to endure oppression.

Overall, the book is evaluated highly both in terms of literature and in terms of its social relevance and is now known to the wide public.

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Literary Terms Related to Memoir

1- Voice

Voice in literature is defined as the tone of the author or the narrator in as much as he or she writes. It involves items such as tone, choice of words, and the pattern of writing.

Memoirs depend highly on the personality of the author and that is why the narrators’ voice is paramount. It is likewise pertinent to note that narrating in the first person is more preferable because a powerful voice adds life to the tale.

2- Reflection

The concept of reflection imparts the act of the author thinking about the processes of his/her experience and the meanings assessed therefrom. It is an important segment of the history telling in the genre of a memoir.

Memoirists can use reflection in order to examine the meaning of the events and inform the audience about it.

The background information about Michelle Obama’s childhood, career, and the time she spent in the White House adds to the level of understanding and meaning to the text, thus, classifying “Becoming” not only as a memoir but a memoir that sparks meaningful introspection.

Examples of Memoir in Literature

To conclude, memoirs are referred to a splendid genre of the written language and a wonderful interconnection of an individual narration and self-analysis. They keep individual histories, provide historical and cultural insights and create emotional connections with the reader.

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