Alfred Moorhead completes a report that he has fact-checked without needing to reference records or notes. Six weeks earlier, he attended his company's two-day Memory Clinic, in which he developed the skill of remembering names, facts, and numbers with ease. Despite the progress he has made, however, he still finds himself unable to declare his love for his secretary, Ellen, whom he has adored secretly for two years.
The clinic instructor taught him the technique of mnemonics, which improves a person's memory by having him relate facts to pictures and things that interest him. The instructor had used Alfred as an example, asking him to memorize a list of random words. When Alfred failed, the instructor then helped him construct a mental image that included all the words in the list. Alfred complied, but then failed again. The instructor then revealed that Alfred needed to construct his own image, rather than using one the instructor supplied. Alfred constructed his own mental image, and by the end of class was able to repeat all the words from the list. In general, Alfred's images involve beautiful women, usually movie stars.
Immediately, Alfred's boss, Ralph L. Thriller, noticed the change in Alfred's memory skills, and promoted him for it. Nevertheless, Alfred remains unhappy about Ellen, paralyzed with fear when it comes to speaking with her.
Back in the present, he uses his memory to deal with several invoices. At the end of one, he writes a note to Ellen - "I love you" - but then crosses it out (31). He considers that his new memory skills might be a curse, since his newfound efficiency leaves him more time to feel anxious about Ellen. Further, he is terrified to approach her since a rejection would end his daydreams about her.
Ellen announces he has received a call from Mr. Thriller, who wants to deliver a list of instructions. Thriller asks Alfred to write them down, since it is a long list, but Alfred's pen is out of ink, so he lies and plans to rely on his memory.
After fifteen minutes of instructions, Alfred has a huge, intense image in his mind involving female movie stars with all kinds of props. Because of the immensity, he is sweating, anxious about losing the image before writing all the instructions down.
As he writes down the instructions with a pencil, each section of the image dissolves in his mind. The last woman lingers there, holding a sheaf of papers, but Alfred cannot remember what is written on them. He reaches out and grabs her, asking, "Now, baby, what's on your mind?" (39).
Suddenly, he realizes he has actually grabbed Ellen, rather than metaphorically grabbing the image of a movie star. She responds with an interested sigh. He immediately releases her, apologizing, but Ellen responds, with clear affection, "Well, praise be, you finally remembered me" (39).
"Mnemonics" is the shortest of Vonnegut's short stories, spanning only the time frame of a single phone call and the minutes following it. It is in the style of O. Henry (actual name William Sydney Porter), the 19th-century author of short fiction whom Vonnegut admired as a young man. O. Henry's stories are marked by their brevity, pleasant humor, and witty endings that often involve a twist.
This story is a great example of Vonnegut's subtle humor, demonstrated in the ridiculous details of the images Alfred constructs in order to remember things. For example, in order to remember that the company will be getting a lot of subcontracts on defense jobs, to be designated by any code beginning with 16A, "Ava Gardner executed a smart manual of arms with a rifle. Emblazoned on her sweater was a large 16A" (38).
Alfred's situation is a satire of Vonnegut's own time spent working for General Electric. GE famously advertised that progress was its most important product. Here, the progress of honing one's memory overshadows the human impulse of expressing emotion. While this corporate-style psychology makes Alfred many times more efficient at completing simple tasks, it also surprisingly solves his love problems by allowing him to bring the boldness of his imagination to life.
"Mnemonics" has a surprise ending, like many of Vonnegut's short stories - in this case, it is the revelation that Ellen herself loves Alfred, and has been waiting for him to make an advance. Alfred is only able to interact with women in his daydreams, so only declares his feelings unwittingly, when he mistakes Ellen for a daydream. The ending is ironic in this way - though it ends well, Alfred is only an unlikely, accidental hero, one who stumbles into success.
The clinic instructor demonstrates the theme of individuality when he tells Alfred that the only way for the mnemonic device to work is for him to create his own imaginary scene. Alfred is characterized as timid throughout the story, nervously avoiding the clinic instructor's gaze as he fails to remember a short list of items and unable to approach his secretary to tell her how he feels. But it is in the rich, personalized daydreams Alfred crafts for himself that he is able to interact with even the most beautiful, famous movie stars. The ultimate point is that we must learn to embrace our illusions if we are to find success as individuals in life. Worrying only about our efficiency and work for others will always hold us back.