Julian Barnes’s wonderful book, The Sense of an Ending, is a relentless and complex meditation on the operations of memory: what it reveals, and what it conceals; how it is the foundation of our identities as human beings; how our memories can deceive, or be manipulated; how it can reveal the truth about ourselves, and how it can provoke us to maddening feats of self-deception. Ultimately, this book’s major accomplishment is to show how identity is completely in the service of memory, and that, as a result, identity is no stable thing, but a complex process of remembering and revising—we revise our very selves in light of our memories. The French philosopher Paul Ricoeur has written, “time becomes human to the extent that it is articulated through a narrative mode” (Time and Narrative, 52). If our identity is a process of placing ourselves in a continuing story about ourselves, then what happens when we find out that the events out of which we have been crafting that story are illusory, are deceptive? What happens when we have to re-write our life stories based on new memories?
Barnes’s novel is told from the perspective of Tony Webster, an aging middle-class man in England trying to come to terms with the life he has led and the relationships he has forged or abandoned. The novel shows us Tony’s process of telling his life story, remembering events and drawing them together into an overall understanding of his current life. Nearing the end of his life, he wants to look back, reflect on what he’s done, what he hasn’t done, and how he’s come to his current position in life.
The story begins in Tony’s high school years. He describes his young self and most of his friends as concerned with adolescent rebellion, books, and their emerging sex lives. His friend Adrian Finn, however, was different. Tony represents Adrian as more philosophically serious, as someone who merged thought with action in a more disciplined way than the others. In many ways, Adrian becomes the foil to Tony throughout this story: where Tony follows along with what has been determined for him, Adrian demands that life be shaped by philosophical and moral principles.
The narrative then shifts to an account of Tony’s relationship with his first girlfriend, Veronica Ford, who becomes the third major character in the novel. Tony sees Veronica as arrogant, manipulative, and prudish, but extremely attractive. From the outset, Tony views the depth of their relationship solely in terms of whether or not Veronica will sleep with him. As you can probably guess, this relationship does not last, though the two do sleep with each other: after they’ve broken up. Tony is very matter-of-fact about the break-up. He presents their sexual encounter as a moment of victory for himself, and with that, the relationship was over. Veronica does not leave Adrian’s story, however. After college, and after he had become casually estranged from his old friends, Tony receives a letter from Adrian, who asks permission to date Veronica.
Tony is not necessarily happy about this, and he seems to harbor ill feelings toward Veronica and toward Adrian for dating her. Nevertheless, he sends a postcard to Adrian, stating the following: “Being in receipt of your epistle of the 21st, the undersigned begs to present his compliments and wishes to record that everything is jolly fine by me, old bean” (45). Later, however, Tony sends a longer letter to Adrian. At this point in the narrative, he describes the letter as such:
As far as I remember, I told him pretty much what I thought of their joint moral scruples. I also advised him to be prudent, because in my opinion Veronica had suffered damage a long way back. Then I wished him good luck, burnt his letter in an empty grate (melodramatic, I agree, but I plead youth as a mitigating circumstance), and decided that the two of them were now out of my life forever. (46)
There is a note of finality to this, marking a moment for Tony when one narrative ends and another begins. One gets a sense of understated resentment, and perhaps regret, but also a sense that this is just one of those moments of frustration we all must deal with. However, the reader is also left to wonder what Tony could mean by his disturbing reference to “damage” here. He himself indicates, “When I wrote to Adrian, I wasn’t at all clear myself what I meant by ‘damage.’ And most of a lifetime later, I am only slightly clearer” (47).
At this point, events become increasingly strange and provocative. Immediately after the story of Adrian and Veronica, we learn that Adrian commits suicide. He cuts his wrists while sitting in a warm tub and leaves a message on the door to call the police. When Tony accounts for all this, he writes,
In the letter he left for the coroner he explained his reasoning: that life is a gift bestowed without anyone asking for it; that the thinking person has a philosophical duty to examine both the nature of life and the conditions it comes with; and that if this person decides to renounce the gift no one asks for, it is a moral and human duty to act on the consequences of that decision. There was practically a QED at the end. Adrian had asked the coroner to make his argument public, and the official had obliged. (53)
Tony views Adrian’s suicide as an extension of Adrian’s philosophical seriousness, though the philosophical principle at stake here is not at all clear. It seems that Adrian has come to reject the potential for meaning in life, that he sees life’s promise of meaning as illusory.
In Part Two of the book, Tony receives an unusual letter informing him that he has received a bequest from the estate of Mrs. Sarah Ford, Veronica’s mother. Mrs. Ford has left Tony five hundred pounds, and two documents: a note from herself and Adrian Finn’s diary. The note is included in the package he receives, but he discovers that Veronica is still in possession of the diary. In an attempt to recover Adrian’s diary, Tony contacts Veronica again after all these years. Though their email correspondence is chilly, and she refuses to surrender the diary, she does send him a tantalizing, ambiguous page of it, a page that contains attempts to consider human relationships in terms of formulae and logic. Adrian writes,
To what extent might human relationships be expressed in a mathematical or logical formula?… Or is it the wrong way to put the question and express the accumulation? Is the application of logic to the human condition in and of itself self-defeating? What becomes of a chain of argument when the links are made of different metals, each with a separate frangibility? 5.8 Or is ‘link’ a false metaphor? 5.9 But allowing that it is not, if a link breaks, wherein lies the responsibility for such breaking? On the links immediately on either side, or on the whole chain? But what do we mean by ‘the whole chain’? How far do the limits of responsibility extend? 6.0 Or we might try to draw the responsibility more narrowly and apportion it more exactly. And not use equations and integers but instead express matters in traditional narrative terminology. So, for instance, if Tony. (95)
Veronica sends no more, and, in fact, there may be no more. We learn later that she might have burned the diary. We know that Adrian is looking to trace a train of responsibility for something, and that he might not be able to do so in logical terms. And further, he claims at the end of the passage to be drawing responsibility in a more narrow and exact sense: and this means beginning with Tony.
Responsibility for what though? Tony is, of course, stunned, and wants to know now more than ever what lies in Adrian’s diary. He finally pressures Veronica into meeting him, and they meet on London’s “Wobbly Bridge.” After she claims to have burned the diary, she gives him an envelope and walks off. Enclosed is an earth-shaking document: a copy of the letter he had sent to Adrian earlier. It is, to put it mildly, not as he remembers it.
Up to this point, the reader has reason to believe that Tony is not the most reliable narrator; he even tells us so in several places. Now, however, the narrative opens up and reveals depths that have gone unexplored. Nothing has prepared the reader for the depth of hatred and vehemence of this letter, and Tony is taken aback by it as well. He writes, “I could scarcely deny its authorship or its ugliness. All I could plead was that I had been its author then, but was not its author now. Indeed, I didn’t recognize that part of myself from which the letter came. But perhaps this was simply further self-deception.” Tony suddenly comes to think that the carefully crafted story of his past life has been merely a self-deception. Now his memories are shown to be illusory, and he begins to seek, if possible, a more accurate depiction of his life. What’s more, the emergence of this letter in fact drives a series of new memories that had been repressed or concealed and suggest that Tony’s responsibility for past events is more significant than either he or we were aware.
Tony’s resurrected memories, along with the interventions of Veronica, lead to some shocking revelations about Adrian and Tony. Given the unreliability of Tony’s first-person narration, and the series of revisions to his story that he makes, the reader is not sure by the end of the book whether Tony has finally reached a more accurate recollection of what happened all those years ago. Is his final understanding of his past the truth? Or is it merely another provisional understanding, until the next memory emerges to disrupt his sense of self? Barnes provides us with enough hints in the narrative to suggest that there is much more. “There is accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond these, there is unrest. There is great unrest” (163). The reader experiences this; the novel only gives us the “sense of an ending.” While Tony’s character still lives, and still remembers, and still revises, any ending will only provide the “sense” of an ending. And any resolution we as readers discern is likewise open-ended.
Tony Webster claims that, when he was younger, he and his friends imagined their lives to be like those found in novels. The disappointment he feels later in life comes from life’s inability to reflect the ideals of that literature. He writes,
I remember a period in late adolescence when my mind would make itself drunk with images of adventurousness. This is how it will be when I grow up. I shall go there, do this, discover that, love her, and then her and her and her. I shall live as people in novels live and have lived. Which ones I was not sure, only that passion and danger, ecstasy and despair (but then more ecstasy) would be in attendance. However… who said that thing about “the littleness of life that art exaggerates”? There was a moment in my late twenties when I admitted that my adventurousness had long since petered out. I would never do those things adolescence had dreamt about. Instead, I mowed my lawn, I took holidays, I had my life.
But time… how time first grounds us and then confounds us. We thought we were being mature when we were only being safe. We imagined we were being responsible but were only being cowardly. What we called realism turned out to be a way of avoiding things rather than facing them. Time … give us enough time and our best-supported decisions will seem wobbly, our certainties whimsical. (102)
This is a stunning passage; one that reveals the heart of this novel. The story that Tony would like to tell himself about himself is that he was living life through novels, like Cervantes’s Don Quixote willfully projecting adventure, romance, and ecstasy into his future. But then, the demands of maturity forced him into being realistic. He would like to think that his demands for an extraordinary life, a life heightened by images of adventure, or the high seriousness of ideas, was a phase of immaturity, giving way to the only way in which life can be lived.
However, now he sees that this story of maturity and realism is just another story and a more despairing one at that. The idea that one could move from being Don Quixote to being a sober realist is itself a story that we tell ourselves. And with this comes the fear that perhaps, in our march toward maturity, we have abandoned alternate identities that might have served us better, that might have been more true, that may have led to a more flourishing life. Tony Webster’s maturity is a story he tells himself in order to deceive himself. Indeed, much of his identity is a fiction more illusory than any novel could possibly be. And when new memories arise and new facts emerge, the story must be revised and re-told.
Although Tony Webster reaches a resolution of his story in the few pages of the book, the reader is not at all sure that this resolution is satisfactory. At the novel’s end, there is reason to believe that there is more that Tony will discover later. He will most likely have to revise again. Likewise the reader him or herself is also left with a series of revisions. Our understanding of the events of the book are constantly being revised as we go along. The author cannot fully interpret his life, and we cannot fully interpret the novel. Nor can we tell what Tony will go on to discover next about himself, after this novel is over.
And yet, Barnes seems to think that this process of telling stories about oneself is inescapable. You cannot not have a narrative identity. When we think of identity, we think of that overarching story we tell about ourselves. But Barnes would caution us to never think of that identity as stable. We continue to try to unify the fragments of memory, however we can. This sounds very dreary, but one could view Barnes’s novel as optimistic, in this sense: when we become locked in our own solipsism, our own stories, our own self-deceptions, we can also be jarred out of them, through the agency of others, through our own texts, and by the eruptions of our own memories. For as miserable as it is to discover the errors of our past, it is perhaps more miserable to continue to deceive ourselves about them. With such discovery lies at least the potential of transcendence.
Edward Upton is Lecturer in Humanities in Christ College, Valparaiso University.