The Sense of an Ending, explained

First, some background: last year I wrote a review of The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. I had a lot of comments from people who didn’t understand the ending, and since then I’ve been inundated with people searching for things like “Sense of an Ending explained”. I felt bad, because my original review didn’t really answer that question. So this post directly addresses the ending of the book and attempts to clear up any confusion.

If you haven’t read the book and don’t want to know the end, look away now!

Cover of Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

So the big revelation is that Adrian had an affair with Veronica’s mother, and so the young Adrian is Veronica’s brother, not her son, as Tony had assumed. The reason Veronica kept saying throughout the book that Tony didn’t get it was because he never understood this link. The reason her mother had Adrian’s diary and said he had been happy in his last few months is because he had been with her.

Now, I think perhaps the reason why people are confused is because this doesn’t seem like much of a revelation. Perhaps you think you must have missed something, that a Booker-prize-winning novel must have something deeper to it than that. No, that’s it. At least, I’m pretty sure it is, unless I’m like Tony and just don’t get it at all 🙂

Tony feels guilty because his spiteful letter drove Adrian to Veronica’s mother, which led them to produce a son, which led to his suicide. The suggestion, then, is that Adrian’s suicide wasn’t an intellectual/philosophical decision after all, but a banal one on the same level as Robson’s suicide in their school days. As Tony says, “I looked at the chain of responsibility. I saw my initial in there.”

I have to say, I think it’s a bit of a stretch to see Tony as responsible for Adrian’s death. It’s true that if Tony hadn’t written the letter, perhaps Adrian would not have killed himself. But a man who accidentally runs over a child as he’s driving to work could just as easily say, “If only I’d left home a few minutes earlier, I never would have hit her.” Is he responsible, then, because he left home at that particular time?


He feels guilt, yes, because something terrible happened and he was involved, but is that the same as moral responsibility? Surely there has to be some cause and effect, some intent. Tony intended to hurt Adrian with his letter, but he couldn’t possibly have foreseen that when he said “Consult the mother”, Adrian would in fact sleep with the mother and then kill himself.

I also felt it was a revelation that Tony couldn’t possibly have guessed, any more than we could. So why was Veronica so angry at him all the time for not getting it? What was there for him to get? How could he possibly have got it?

To me, Veronica’s obstructive behaviour throughout the novel was not very credible. It seemed to function as a plot device: the author needed to ration information out, to dripfeed it to the reader to maintain suspense, so if Veronica had explained everything immediately, there would have been no book. But her reasons for withholding all this information are not clear.

I think this is also responsible for some of the confusion over the ending. People were looking for Veronica’s irrationality and hostility to be explained, and it wasn’t. Not really. She blamed Tony, apparently, but it seems too harsh. Doesn’t she bear responsibility too? Doesn’t her mother? Doesn’t Adrian himself? It seems to me that they bear more responsibility than Tony.

So there it is, anyway. The Sense of an Ending explained, at least as I understand it. Let me know in the comments if you agree or disagree with anything I’ve said, or if there’s anything that’s still unclear – I’ll do my best to clear up any other loose ends.

I’d also like to make it clear that, while I’ve been quite critical of the book in this post, I actually really liked it. The ending was my least favourite part, and this post focused on the ending. For my response to the book as a whole, please see the original review.

If you enjoyed this post, please have a look at my other book reviews, or check out the free stuff I’m offering to readers at the moment.

542 thoughts on “The Sense of an Ending, explained

  1. Hector Bunt
    A fascinating tale.However for readers who prefer a story to have a good beginning ,middle an end , this one may have proved to be irritating and unsatisfying. Maybe the answer to this puzzle is to understand what might have been the writer’s intention.A story with no absolutely conclusive ending is much more likely to remain in the memory of its readers than one with a complete narrative where all the ends are neatly tied up. I think this concept is known as ‘God’s Trick’. In The Magus, John Fowles uses this device to create a sense of mystery and intrigue. He makes the point that to maintain a never ending interest in you must never tell the story but must keep people guessing.
    I look forward to the forthcoming film which doubtless will provoke even more theories about what was going through Tony’s mind as he recapitulated his life. – or even more interesting what was in Julian Barnes’s mind when he put pen to paper.

  2. I read the book in anticipation of the movie coming out soon. I kept thinking sporadically throughout the book, ‘I think I may have read this!’, which is quite ironic seeing a theme of the novel is memory! I’d just like to question: how does Tony’s relationship with his wife and daughter fill us in on his flaws? He’s not the best friend, dad, grandfather or lover someone could have. His persistent, annoying behaviour in trying to get the diary or persuade Veronica to meet, give us a glimpse of his selfish streak. To me Veronica’s sustained anger and the payment of the 500 pounds are really frustrating aspects of the story, and make you question your understanding. Was I paying enough attention to the subtext? Really liked the book and perhaps will need to go for a third reading!

  3. Someone reacted that Tony had an affair with Sarah based on that situation in the kitchen (eggs on the bin). I say no, because if that is the case , why would Tony wank on the attic? Therefore I agree that A Jr,is Adrian’s. About V’s attitude, it is for these reasons: disappointment for Adrian, shame to the family and hatred to Tony. I am solved with the explanation above thank you so much, I nearly don’t get it too 🙂 , but how about the husband of Sarah? His reactions and effect to the pregnancy and birth of A Jr? That is intriguing.

  4. I recently saw the movie. Have not read the book. Could Jack have been the father of his brother? I say this because of two things he says in the movie. 1) Tells Anthony that he notices him finding his mother attractive. 2) Says regarding the lamb for dinner that he likes a bit of rare beef.

  5. Hi Andrew,

    I read Barne’s novel last month and it’s my favourite read of the year so far. Initially, I took Tony’s insight to be true, but after reading through forum discussions I too agreed that Veronica’s behaviour is too hostile to be reasonable, if Tony’s version were really the case. I’ve written a detailed analysis of the story, supporting the theory that Tony is in fact Adrian Jr.’s father– not Adrian. A fundamental point in the book is that Tony is an unreliable narrator who misses obvious signs or otherwise misinterprets them, to tragic consequences. Hopefully it adds to the discussion, whether or not you guys agree with it! Cheers.

    https://rakebeforewriting.wordpress.com/2017/03/22/the-sense-of-an-ending-by-julian-barnes-explained-spoiler-alert/

  6. It may be that the commenters are too young to know how things were handled in the 50s and 60s. It was common for young unwed pregnant women to hide pregnancies – go away to “the country” or simply stay home and not go to school or out and about at all until the baby is born. Sometimes mothers of these unwed pregnant women agree to pretend the baby is theirs so that there is no legitimacy issue for the child and no stigma for the birth mother. I see this as another possibility for the story – that Veronica is indeed Adrian2’s mother.

  7. Just to talk about the plot. No one seems to put a lot of credibility into throwing away the broken egg. What is we put forth the idea that victoria is frigid or that Victoria knows not to get pregnant ( so pulls away from actual intercourse) because the family secret is genetic defect, probably carried by the mother. As best we know, Jack does not marry either, does he? And he goes far away, after being the monitor of the family secrets for years. This seems a bit better than the slight hint that Victoria and the Father have an incestuous relationship, as suggested by Tony from the back seat of the car on the ride home from the train station.

    In a freakishly dysfunctional family Victoria goes out to pimp for her mother and the :secret” of the women is watched over by the men, father and brother, both of whom have that superior smile as though they protect and know what is going on with their women.

    If we buy that Victoria is frigid, then she doesn’t sleep with Adrian either. But Adrian, who is not the self-absorbed coward that is Tony, deals with his sexual needs with the mother instead of wacking in the wash basin. The 500 pounds is either Tony’s prize for being able to resist her charms, or it is his consolation prize from a very warped woman.

    While thinking about all of that: What’s the meaning of the Google Earth search for a house that is not there? Is all of the visit just Tony’s fantasy?

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