My sense of the ending

"History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation."

Julian Barnes' novel The Sense of an Ending (which won the 2011 Man Booker Prize) is short but fascinating; I recommend it. It also leaves a lot of questions unanswered or ambiguous; here's my take on what happened.

Warning: many, many spoilers ahead.


  • Adrian committed suicide because he'd gotten Sarah pregnant and she had decided to keep the child. The child, also called Adrian, had developmental issues because of Sarah's age, and eventually ended up in adult care.
  • At the end of the novel, Tony feels responsible for Adrian's suicide because he remembers that he'd deliberately tried to set Adrian up with Sarah in order to sabotage Adrian's relationship with Veronica. He had done so by suggesting, in his letter to Adrian, that Adrian meet secretly with Sarah.
  • Tony knew that Sarah would make a pass at Adrian because she'd made a pass at Tony during his weekend visit, while the others went out for a walk (or perhaps the night before). However, it's not clear whether he actually had sex with her.
    • Reasons to think that Tony slept with Sarah:
      • Her smile, "almost as if we had a secret"; and her "secret, horizontal" farewell gesture.
      • There's another example of Tony eliding over a love affair: "I did a slightly odd thing when I first met Margaret. I wrote Veronica out of my life story... I know most men exaggerate the amount of girls and sex they've had; I did the opposite."
      • It would explain why Sarah wrote Tony a letter after he broke up with Veronica, wishing him well.
      • It would explain why Sarah left Tony the bequest.
    • Reasons to think that Tony didn't actually sleep with Sarah:
      • After Tony and Sarah were alone together, Veronica "became more openly affectionate", as if he'd passed a test.
      • Tony was always very timid; it would be appropriate if Adrian had been bolder than him in this regard too.
      • "She eased another egg onto my plate, despite my not asking for it or wanting it." While the recurring image of Sarah cooking eggs is suggestive, the second half of the sentence points towards Tony being more passive.
      • Sleeping with your girlfriend's mother would have been a huge thing to totally forget; whereas Tony forgetting about her making a move on him seems much more realistic.
  • Although the details of what happened can't be resolved, I think that Tony having deliberate intent to set up Adrian and Sarah is necessary for the ending of the novel to be satisfactory. Without that, he played only an accidental role in the events leading up to Adrian's suicide, and the theme of unreliable memory is left hanging (if the harshness of his letter to Adrian was the only important thing he forgot about).
What else is obscured by Tony's unreliable narration? I think the key thing is Veronica's personality, which is sidelined by Tony's unrelenting self-absorption and his inability to empathise with her.
  • Veronica was a "damaged" girl, with a manipulative mother and (perhaps) an abusive father. It took a while for her to trust Tony enough to dance with him; meanwhile he was still thinking primarily about sex and music and "what does she want me to say?" What she actually wanted was for Tony to be honest with and committed to her, in a way that he never was. Even after she had sex with Tony to try and salvage their relationship, he didn't understand her motivations or vulnerability. He was preoccupied with his own insecurities, and his "fear of an overwhelming closeness I couldn't handle".
    • For example, during his visit to Veronica's family, he's paranoid about what they think of him. Presumably Veronica is also nervous about him meeting her family (hence her being a little withdrawn at first), but he merely interprets her behaviour as more fuel for his insecurity.
  • This characterisation helps explain the older Veronica's behaviour: she hopes that Tony will have grown enough that they can be frank with each other and build a better relationship. That's why she keeps replying to his emails, and keeps agreeing to meet. He never manages to live up to that, partly because he's repressed many of the relevant memories. But it's also because he's simply not mature enough - see how, when they meet for lunch, Tony spends a whole hour talking about himself self-aggrandisingly without asking anything about her life, prompting her to leave.
    • In fact, he's also pretty immature in his relationship with Margaret, to the point where she gets fed up and tells him that he's "on his own".
  • On the other hand, I don't think this is a fully satisfactory explanation for why the older Veronica was so cryptic, parcelling out information in dribs and drabs (except for that being a convenient plot device). Nor does it explain why she thinks that Tony should be able to "get it" from the limited information available to him, and why she's so frustrated when he doesn't. And there are other unresolved questions about her, such as why Adrian Jr called Veronica "Mary" (her middle name).

Comments

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