The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes



The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

Julian Barnes

A critical paper by
Leon Gabinet

         In The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes begins his somewhat improbable story with a glimpse into the lives of four middle class, adolescent English schoolboys – sixth formers, aged about sixteen.  It is a time when the hormones and other vital juices are running rampant, and, as we are told by Tony Webster, who is destined to be the narrator and the central figure in the story, he and his fellow 6th formers were “book-hungry, sex-hungry, meritocratic, and anarchic.” (perhaps not necessarily in that order).  Webster and his two friends, Alex and Colin, have formed a close-knit threesome; but then a new boy, appears on the scene.  He is Adrian Finn, a quiet, but brainy and erudite boy.  Adrian impresses both his peers and his history teacher when he opines that “history is that certain point at which imperfect memory meets with the inadequacies of documentation.”  He cleverly ascribes this observation to Patrick Lagrange, a nonexistent French historian.  Since there is no Patrick Lagrange, we must conclude that this is Barnes’ own observation on the uncertain nature of historical facts as gleaned from undocumented or inadequately documented memory.  This is a concept often repeated throughout Webster’s story, just in case we don’t “get it.”  In any event, Adrian’s intellect so impresses Tony and his two friends that he is accepted into the group and soon becomes its de facto leader.
We now fast forward about forty years.  Tony Webster, by his own admission is now bald, divorced and retired.  He also admits that his has been an average life, or as the author puts it, “he had wanted  life not to bother him too much.”  Margaret, his ex-wife, is woman with hard edges, i.e., no mystery.  We get the impression that the marriage was not the result of love, passion or any other ardent emotion. Hence, the divorce was apparently not a great loss. There is a daughter born of the marriage, Susan, with whom Tony has a tolerably good relationship.  Susan is safely married and Tony thus feels free of the concerns that most of us have for a child’s welfare, even after he or she is safely married.  Tony’s is a safe, solid and unremarkable life. What has happened to that book-hungry, sex-hungry, meritocratic and anarchic Tony Webster of 40 or 50 years ago ?  
The concept of the imperfection of memory, Barnes’ central idea, is brought into play when Tony receives a letter from a solicitor informing him that the mother of Veronica Ford, Tony’s university girl friend, has left him a legacy of £500, and also Adrian’s Finn’s diary, the latter being in Veronica’s possession.  We also learn that Adrian Finn has committed suicide.
The strange legacy sets off Tony’s flow of memory. Tony recalls his love affair with Veronica, a difficult, prickly young woman, with whom he engages in “infra-sex” - or what was called heavy petting in my day and perhaps also in the days of several other more senior members of The Novel Club.  The “infra-sex” with Veronica was generally followed by furious masturbatory activity, from which I conclude that our young British cousins do not differ markedly from their young American counterparts.  Tony recalls a very uncomfortable, unpleasant week-end spent with Veronica’s family, where he encounters her indifferent brother, Jack, a heavy handed, rather boorish father and a very strange mother, who cautions Tony not to take too much nonsense from her daughter.  A strange admonition, although given Veronica’s unpredictable and prickly behavior, any reader might have given Tony Webster the same advice.   The recall of these events is peppered with numerous observations about how time blurs memory, so that what we think we have witnessed or experienced now becomes suspect. We then learn that, in due course, the Veronica affair came to an end, after which Tony and his friends hear directly from Adrian Finn that he has taken up with the difficult Veronica.  Tony recalls that he sent Adrian a note assuring him that he no longer cares and wishing him well.  Later, however, in a meeting with Veronica, he is confronted with a copy of a vile, ill natured and bilious letter that he sent to her wishing her and Adrian every conceivable unhappiness.  He has somehow managed to repress the memory of the letter.
The strange dynamic of this curious threesome, Tony, Veronica and Adrian, now becomes the basis of the rest of the story.  Adrian’s suicide leads Tony to ponder his role in the tragedy of Adrian’s death.  He wonders whether Adrian’s suicide was the result of his philosophical speculation that life has no meaning and is not worth living, or whether it has a more mundane explanation, much like the suicide of Robson, a younger schoolboy whose suicide is ascribed to his having impregnated his girl friend. The reader may find it difficult to accept the notion that an adolescent’s philosophical reflections on life and death can actually lead him into suicide, but it is not inconceivable.
Thus far, then, we have a sixty-something ,bald, divorced and unremarkable Tony Webster reflecting with the vagueness and imperfection of memory on a love triangle and a suicide.  What is  strange about all this is that, on the one hand, we have the explicit and oft repeated reminder that memory is unreliable, yet Tony’s memories are presented with an almost photographic accuracy in a lucid, precise and deliberate manner.  In the second half of the book, when Veronica bitterly confronts Tony with the forgotten bilious, nasty letter that he sent her, wishing her and Adrian every possible ill, and when he contemplates the love triangle and the suicide, it seems that Tony’s personal narrative truly is unreliable.  And yet, his memory of the events is clear and convincing.  If all memory sequences are inherently suspect, and if there is no corroboration of what we have experienced (we are not given Adrian’s diary – except for one page), does this necessarily mean that objective personal narrative is impossible, or at least, not to be trusted ?
The ending part of The Sense of an Ending is, I believe, the weakest and least appealing part of the book; or to put it differently, the ending, as I read it,  doesn’t make a lot of sense.  Tony finally manages to meet with Veronica again in his attempt to retrieve Adrian’s diary.  It was, after all, in Mrs. Ford’s possession and it was hers to bequeath.  But the latter day Veronica is not much different from her earlier self.  Difficult, unpredictable, easily moved to anger and obstructive,  she refuses to turn over the diary.   Tony could, of course petition the probate court to require Veronica, as the executrix of Mrs. Ford’s estate, to give up possession of the diary to the rightful legatee, but Tony declines this obvious solution.  Tony discovers that Veronica is caring for what appears to be a mentally deficient man whom he first mistakenly believes to be the offspring of Adrian and Veronica.  But Veronica says, in her lovable way, “you just don’t get it, do you ?”  At last, Tony does seem to “get it.”  It appears that the mentally deficient man is really the product of an affair between Adrian and Mrs. Ford - Veronica’s mother ! Now we all get it. Or do we?  What would drive Adrian, the quiet man of intellect, into the arms of his girlfriend’s mother and thus become the father of a mentally disabled child ?  Is it conceivable that the strange Mrs. Ford, a forty-something married woman, was unaware of the dangers of a forty-something pregnancy?  Were both Mrs. Ford and Adrian ignorant of easily available contraceptive devices ?  After all, the Tony Webster of forty years ago tells us that he used a condom when he and Veronica finally had “full sex” after they had broken up (when the act was no longer driven by love and passion). All this suggests that perhaps Tony  had no role in Adrian’s suicide; that the suicide was not the likely result of Adrian’s philosophical speculation on the futility and meaninglessness of the human condition.  Instead, it suggests a replay of Robson’s more mundane suicide.  Adrian got his girl friend’s mother pregnant and he couldn’t face the consequences.  Notwithstanding the obvious Robson parallel, Tony continues to feel guilty about the suicide. He says he “looked at the chain of responsibility and saw my initial there.”  Is Tony justified in his feeling of moral responsibility ?  If it takes two to tango, doesn’t Mrs. Ford bear some onus of responsibility ? And what role did the angry, obstinate, nasty Veronica play in this affair ?  What of Adrian himself ?  Is he not a responsible actor ?  The author’s suggestion of Tony’s moral responsibility  is I think, considerably overblown.
Finally, there is Veronica.  Her anger and irrational behavior doesn’t seem credible. She constantly tells Tony that he doesn’t “get it”.  What is it that he is meant to get ?  How can he divine that the mentally deficient man is actually Veronica’s brother, fathered by Adrian ?  Should he have immediately guessed at the link between Adrian and Mrs. Ford ?  One is tempted to inquire what in heaven’s name Veronica is going on about?  And it is fair to ask why the revelation is made forty years after the event and why the information is not sooner made available. 
True, the foregoing questions are not answered and the author’s reluctance to tell us what we are to get leaves us guessing as to what, if anything, he had in mind in the last part of the story.  Nevertheless, the writing is seamlessly smooth, often lyrical and it carries us skillfully to the unsatisfactory end.

Questions for Discussion

1.     The author seems to disapprove of Tony Webster for having led a an average, safe life, and because “ he did not want life to bother him too much.”  Do you agree with Barnes’ dim view of Tony Webster?  How many of us carry the ardor of our youth into our adult lives, and how many of us refuse make life’s necessary compromises?  Is Tony any worse than the rest of us?  If so, why?

2.     Who is responsible for the failure of Tony’s love affair with Veronica?  Which of the two bears the onus of guilt for the failure ?  Why ??

3.     Do you agree that, without corroboration, memory cannot be trusted, as suggested by Adrian, or do we have no alternative but to act as though our memories are objectively correct and thus form a narrative of our youth that we carry into adulthood?

4.     What do you make of Mrs. Ford, Veronica’s mother ?  Do you find the legacy both plausible and meaningful, or is it simply a device to set off Tony’s flow of memory ?  

5.     Can you make any sense of the ending of the ending of the book ?  What is it all about ??        



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The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes


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The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes