A quick explanation of the ending of Julian Barnes’s novel The Sense of an Ending—followed by a long discussion in the comments for those who want to go deeper.
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!
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 Sense of an Ending as a whole, please see the original review. Also feel free to check out other opinions in the reviews on Amazon.
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.
There are 580 comments
Very good post Andrew. I couldn’t agree more. I guess it is natural for Tony to feel unhappy about the way the things have turned out for his friends, but it is indeed a stretch for him to feel responsible for the events.
Thanks Nivedita! I remember your original review of this book as well. I’m glad I’m not the only one who thought it was a bit of a stretch! I think that’s why there’s some confusion about the ending…
I appreciated your review and the comments I have read here.
I am interested in your view on the impact of the suicides (most importantly, Adrian’s) on Tony. His closest friend (and one from whom he had become estranged) takes his own life. Tony is not able reconnect with him and make amends – and we learn quickly that Tony has some challenges in forming deep attachments. I found it sad that in this man’s sixties, he has no male friends and I think that is telling.
Tony has excellent insight into life, history and meaning – but it’s one step back from being truly “engaged” in life. I don’t think he manipulates the reader – I think he is blunted. Life doesn’t fully register with him because he is (and was) too protective of himself to let it. He is filling in and changing what happened – as someone partially deaf will “fill in” words they don’t hear when they are being spoken to. Notably, it changes the meaning of the intended communication.
I like your analogy to the deaf completing unheard sentences. Thank you
I interpreted the story that both Adrian (a1) and Anthony (a2) both slept with Veronica’s (v) mother, Mary (m). I’m surprised this interpretation didn’t make it into your article. Otherwise this Booker Prize winner is, as you say, a stretch.
Whether Mary bore Adrian’s baby (the man was similar to Adrian in physical appearance, the first equation, and Anthony played an introductory role) or Anthony’s baby (“I thought of a woman frying eggs in a carefree, slapdash way, untroubled when one of them broke in the pan”) is difficult to say.
a2 + v + a1 x s = b
b = s –v +/x a1
So for instance if…..
Veronica’s mother’s name was Sarah. Not Mary.
Mary is veronicas first name.
I agree completely with this view of the book.
I agree with Luke. I thought it was clear in all if the real time and flash backs that Tony also had a relationship with the mother. The leaving scene and her casual goodbye wave and his comment that he liked her mother. I think there was a point that he believed he could have been the father..
Luke – I’m where you are … the furtive wave to Tony as he left seemed to me to imply a relationship (though brief) that might have happened over that weekend. And Tony’s stalkery interest in Adrian II seemed beyond curiosity but rather pretty personal.
I just can’t get there. I see no information in his visit to Veronica’s house that would lead a reader to believe he had a romantic encounter with the enigmatic mom. Given how Tony shares every tortured and stilted emotional experience he has with the reader, how can we take a leap that he slept with Veronica’s mom and never once refers to it? Further, he accounts for almost every moment of his brief visit to their house. I think that is just imagining something that is not supported by the text.
The broken egg appears to me be a foreshadow of the future impaired pregnancy. Although the foreshadow would have been more complete if she casually aborted the pregnancy — throwing away the “broken egg”, so to speak.
But why did she leave him 500 pounds?
I’d like to know that too. I found that confusing.
“Blood Money?” she felt responsible for his death and payed compensation to Tony because Adrian always talked fondly of him so she knew they were close and loosing him would be like loosing family and it was her fault
Yes, I found this site because I enjoyed the book so much at first thought, and then woke up with many questions and some skepticism. This post and the comments help a lot. But still… Why did the mother give Tony 500 pounds — all explanations seem like a stretch. And why did she give him Adrian’s diary? Why not his other friends? Because she had met him once? Did Adrian not have family? Did she not know of the terrible letter he had sent Adrian? Why give the diary to someone who was seen by then as an enemy? To thank him for sending Adrian her way? It’s all a bit of a stretch for the central action of a novel. And I believe in logic first, then comes all the rest.
And yet, as said here, I really enjoyed it.
Paid, losing, her fault.
i think Adrian gave her money for abortion she didn’t use. so sarah passed it on to Tony
Bravo! I think you have hit on something there…
Very good theory!
Love this! That is a very compelling explanation of something that was totally opaque to me.
But, why pass it on to Tony? Why are we supposed to believe that Tony had any agency in the love triangle between the mother, daughter and Andrian? Just because he once introduced them and then wrote a poison pen note? Tony seems to bear no responsibility whatsoever. Andria and the mother bear 100% of the responsibility for their actions.
I find it hard to believe that any of the three of them even paused for a second to curse Tony for ever introducing Adrian and Veronica/Mary.
Exactly. And it was described as “blood money”. What does that mean in context?
Andrew – thanks for the insights, they really helped
What bothered me most was why did Sara leave Tony $500 and Adrian’s diary? and
Why did Adrian kill himself?
After reading your conclusions and others commments, these are my thoughts:
Tony did have an affair (if you can call a one night stand that) with Sara thus producing Adrian 2. Veronica sleeps with Tony only after this to get back at her Mother. There is some question about Veronica’s own parenthood “Could such a giant oaf produce an elf like Veronica” but will leave that in the disfunctionality of Veronica’s family. Brother Jack seemed like an odd lot from the get go.While this helps solve the issue of the $500, then why is the child named Adrian and why does Adrian1 kill himself, is it not emtional but philosophical as Tony first suspects ans as documented by letter to coroner? Veronica’s attesting that “Tony doesn’t get it” seems to refer to her mother’s sexual exploits and the child.
Ok, so Adrian enters the scene, hooks up with Sara who is pregnaunt with Tony’s baby. Does he know? Does he kill himself because she is pregnaunt like Robson or because what he believes to be his child is malformed? Either seems out of character. Does Adrian figure out it is Tony’s baby thus leaving his diary to Sara, and Sara being guilt ridden names the baby after him? I believe Tony;’s statement “looks at the chain of responsibility and sees his initials there” is about realizing he is the father of Adrian2 and not about causing Adrian1’s suicide which seems far fetched.
I think a look at the names and their literary place bears noting.
Anthony: hermit who founds Christian monothicism (Tony is a hermit of sorts)
Veronica: Sta who wipes Jesus face and finds his image upon it – is our Veronica permanently stained?
Mary: Either Virgin Mary and immaculate conception (Adrian -2’s birth we never know for sure who the father is) or Mary Magdelene (loose woman, secret lover of Jesus, Mother of his child.. to put the reader off the scent?)
Margaret: patron Saint of expectant Mothers (Mother of all Mothers in the story)
Sara – wife of Abraham sho gives birth to Isaac at 90 (late childbirth of Adrian 2)
Adrian comes from Hadrian who is best known for his Wall across Britian – does Adrian put up a Wall or take one down with his suicide?
Think I have asked more then I have answered but I enjoyed the book.
I also think that the names contain some important clues.
One thing that nobody has mentioned in any of the blogs is Annie the girl that Tony hooks up with while traveling the States.
According to Wikipedia, the name Anne derives from the Sanskrit word “the one without sin”. It also mentions that “it is said that Mary’s mother was Anne and the name Mary and Anne are commonly used together.”.
I see that as corroborating the theory that Tony had an affair with Sarah (Mary’s mother) which he repressed in his memory. Instead, he seems to remember a lengthy affair with an American girl which is a much more innocuous memory to have. Hence, this particular memory is one where he didn’t committ a sin of sleeping with his girl friend’s mother and possibly getting her pregnant.
Just a theory, though…
Andrew and Jenny Gordan: I have finished this book just before half an hour (at 03:35 am) and after reading your interpretation.. I m able to get some sleep 😀 thanks a lot for the post.
I think (as Tony did) that Veronica’s whole family was odd and that it was expected that Sara would make advances towards Tony – which they accommodated by conveniently going for a walk the morning he was there so he could “lie in”, which he didn’t do and therefore thwarted the expected action.. He was a pretty straightforward kind of guy, who would have bee appalled if he’d realized that this was Sara’s intention! That pleased Veronica, which is why she was nicer to him the second night of the visit. His only need for guilt at the end was that he wrote that letter – but the guilty party in this tale is Sara, who did manage to inveigle Adrian into bed – for which he and his son paid a terrible price!
This is an interesting interpretation Colette. Indeed, it may have been that Sara was predatory on all of Veronica’s boyfriends, and in this sense Veronica’s behaviour that weekend was a test of sorts, which Tony passed. But then what does “Sleep the sleep of the wicked” mean which Veronica whispered to Tony on the second night?
Accordingly, because Tony passed the test of being faithful to Veronica and not being pounced upon by Sara’s mum, Veronica verbalized “He’ll do, won’t he?”, and then steered him to the next step of the relationship. But by this time Tony was fed up, confused, feeling outclassed and adrift, and indicated no inclination to deepen the commitment, so Veronica left.
What I didn’t understand is what Veronica was upset about when she returned to sleep with Tony, and the conversation that ended with Tony saying, “I didn’t know before”. Was it a premature ejaculation when the condom was rolled on, and after which he decided he didn’t want to go further, leaving her unfulfilled and accusing him of a strange type of rape? Or what?
Veronica’s family is ” different” and “weird”in the extreme.. When Tony spends a weekend with them, they all (except for her mother) go for a walk the first morning as Veronica tells them that Tony likes to “lie-in”. It seems to me that the mother is expected to make advances toward him, maybe after she’s taken the cooked breakfast up to his room.. But this doesn’t happen because he doesn’t lie-in and, being the straightforward guy that he is, he would have been horrified at such an event.. Nevertheless, the conniving mother (Sara) uses the intimate breakfast-cooking time to cosy up to him and leave doubts in his mind about her daughter. Veronica is pleased that nothing happened in their absence and is nicer to Tony the second night he’s there, and even gets a nod from her brother. Adrian, however, falls into Sara’s trap, with dire consequences for both himself and the son born of this union. Clearly, Sara is person to blame for the tragic outcomes for all, with Tony marginally to blame for the letter her wrote, which was pretty normal for the circumstances at the time . That’s my take on this book, and I would welcome responses!
Excellent insight! Your comment makes perfect sense of the weekend Tony spent with Veronica’s family. If Tony had slept with Sara, then the thought that young Adrian was her son might have occurred to him.
This is the most plausible explanation. The way that you explained that weekend makes a lot of sense – albeit sick sense – to me. I had taken everything at face value, but your perspective sounds spot on.
What does Tony really want in “The sense of an ending?”
&What does his quest for understanding lead him?
The problem lies with “brother.” “Half brother” and it all falls in place.
Occurred to me that perhaps Barnes had something else in mind with his bewildering ending. Clearly, Tony bears no responsibility for Adrian’s suicide other than the letter he wrote which cannot be seriously considered a credible provocation. It was just an angry, spiteful rant from a young lover scorned. Veronica is damaged, but we never really know enough details to understand her pathology. Tony is remorseful at the end when he realizes the truth, but Veronica continues to tell him he “doesn’t get it.” So maybe we and Tony don’t get it either. Maybe Tony’s surmising that Adrian slept with Veronica’s mother and gave birth to Adrian (Jr.?) is another example of Tony’s faulty memory. Maybe Barnes wants us to question the truth of the ending just as he has been questioning the truth of Tony’s memory throughout the book. Could it be that Tony is the father of young Adrian? And that Tony has suppressed that memory? Sounds crazy? Maybe, but for me it’s the only thing I can think of that would save the book from its own ultimate banality. If what Tony believes is the truth, then the reader is left feeling that the entire narrative has been a shallow and superficial self-indulgence on the part of the narrator and the narrator’s creator–Barnes himself. I like Barnes, and I have trouble imagining that his ending, if taken at face value, is what all that philosophical struggle to understand the meaning of memory adds up to in the end.
completely agree that there is more going on here. Narratorial reliability is a key issue in the book, what with the persistent focus on memory, what constitutes history, veracity. Our experience of the ending is in fact exactly Adrian’s experience of Robson’s death earlier in the book.
My own opinion is that Tony is always very deliberately manipulating how we see events. Clearly he is telling from his perspective, but I think it runs deeper. He very self consciously examines how some memories come back to him and yet his memory of the letter mysteriously augments every time he comes to it.
He also clearly doesn’t understand Adrian’s equations (which is probably for me the weakest part of the text, simply because of a lack of mathematical syntax): I think Adrian’s suicide probably is for some moral purpose: he is trying to find the equation that leads to the best result for ‘b’ – surely the conclusion he reaches is that he cannot be part of the equation.
I also think that the affair with Sarah that Andrew points to cannot be so simple – Veronica wears a red glass ring on her marriage finger. The interpretation of this is left completely open, but it is not too much to assume it is in memory of Adrian.
Last point: Andrew – why is Veronica known as Mary to Adrian 2?
Thanks for the comment, and for some good points. I’d forgotten the red glass ring. And I do believe you’re right that Tony is a manipulative narrator, not just an unreliable one.
We’ve had some discussion of the use of the name Mary further down in the comments. It’s Veronica’s middle name, and one commenter suggested that she uses it to distance herself from Adrian 2, who she feels obliged to help but feels no connection to. My feeling was that it’s also a subtle red herring, because Mary has Biblical connotations of motherhood, and it leads us to suspect that Veronica is Adrian 2’s mother, setting us up for the ultimate revelation that she’s his sister.
It seems to me that Tony’s perception of Veronica colored his entire life after they parted. He chose the safety of marriage to a woman who was Veronica’s opposite and seemed to remain distant and dispassionate in his own life ever after.
Veronica’s life took a somewhat different turn with similar results. I believe her immersion in the “you just don’t get it” mantra became so central to her life that she chose it over living. It seems to me that her early fears of rejection were solidified when Adrian chose her mother over her. Rather than realize that Adrian and her mother were flawed, she chose to punish herself instead. Her unrelenting anger at Tony kept her bound in a relationship with him.
The ending was a revelation of sorts – Tony and Veronica each based their existence on faulty beliefs. It makes one wonder about the influence of perception and the shifts that occur throughout one’s life as a result of these perceptions.
Veronica’s refrain “You don’t get it.” seems to come from a place of serious anger.
Imagine having a mother, Sara, who purposefully seduced her love interests. In retrospect, it seems she was working on Tony during his only visit – the egg imagery, her flirtatious behavior – she simply didn’t have time or opportunity to bed him. I think the hints of her intentions were for the reader, not Tony. As Veronica said, he “didn’t get it.” I believe what resonated for him from that visit was her ironic comment not “to let Veronica get away with too much,” ironic since the mother was the one who got away with too much.
Tony helped deliver Adrian to Sara by telling him to “consult the mother.” Again, Tony “didn’t get it.” He thought Sara’s role would be to help Adrian understand how to handle Veronica.
I think Veronica knew what Sara was capable of. She understood how dangerous her mother was, and she was furious with Tony because he didn’t “get” that. He encouraged Adrian right into her web.
Yes I agree with Bonnie.
It is Sarah who is the dangerous one, she was trying to seduce Tony but he did not pick up on that.
She may have tried to seduce all Veronica’s boyfriends.
She succeeded with Adrian.
The damaged egg was symbolic of the damaged foetus.
Adrian killed himself for the same reasons Robson did, which made him finally, as pathetic.
Loved the book, not concerned all the ends were not tied up so neatly, after all it is fiction and meant to provoke thought.
Very late to the party here; just finished for the first time last night. Very puzzling ending. Too many loose ends for there not to be a hidden subtext.
Is it possible that Adrien 1 doesn’t exist at all, but is rather Tony’s alter ego? Tony is Adrien 2’s father, but he became somewhat unhinged and an unreliable narrator because of or around the time of the pregnancy.
Some possible support for this:
1. Could explain Adrien 2’s visceral reaction to Tony who he otherwise only saw once and fleetingly. Why would Adrien 2 bury his face in tissue and become upset when he sees Tony, unless maybe he has previously seen a photo of his father?
2. Could explain the depth of Veronica’s hostility, especially when driving to see Adrien 2
3. Could explain the “secret horizontal wave” of Sarah to Tony which comes up again at the every end. Definitely seems plausible that Tony is Adrien’s father, regardless of alter ego theory.
4. Could explain why Sarah left the diary to Tony who really doesn’t seem so close to Adrien 1 that 40 years later Sarah would leave it to Tony.
5. Speaking of the diary, could that be Adrien 2’s diary? Or maybe Tony’s own diary from before- maybe he left it with Sarah?
6. In Adrien’s equation in the diary, the variable “a” is used twice, but “a” equals “a” regardless of its exponent (ie “a” exponent 1 or 2 is still “a”).
7. Explains the caregiver telling Tony at the end that his explanation of his relationship “makes no sense.” Tony dismisses the comment by reference to Mary, but there’s no indication that satisfies the caregiver.
8. Makes parallel to Robson seem less contrived. Is suicide the official punishment for unintentional impregnation or did Tony just project that fate upon his alter ego?
9. Sarah is actually going to give Adrien 2 the same name as his father? That would be a bit awkward around the breakfast table! More subtle to just use the initial.
Just a few thoughts. Please tell me I’m crazy!
I also came to the conclusion that Adrian had had an affair with Sarah, until I read your comments which made me think again.
Couple of things : the author uses the narrator to deliberately hint at what memories are relevant, and the very first paragraph of the novel contains the line about sperm sluicing down a tall house (the attic room on that weekend), which is then never referred to again in the novel. But since the other memories in that short list are elucidated in the novel, we are to assume that this is a significant memory which he has suppressed? We know what the shiny inner wrist refers to, as well as the frying pan steam, and the Severn bore. Not sure about the cold bath water. Why does he also look back at Sarah when he leaves, then notice the funny wave?
So what IS the significance of this memory?
After the young male carer tells him about Adrian, he says ‘I understood it. I got it’. Is the author being ironic – the narrator still doesn’t get it, that Adrian is his son? Tony doesn’t get a lot of stuff until much later, esp. the effect of his stinging letter to Adrian.
And might this not fully explain the undoubted fury of Veronica, as revealed by the bizarre driving episode around the block without saying a word?
But then, if Adrian did not father the boy, why did he committ suicide?
Just pointing out – the sperm line was referred to again much later in the book, when Tony remembers more about Veronica taking upstairs and saying goodnight…
…and the cold bath water refers to Adrian’s suicide…
Speaking of narratorial reliability, is it also possible that Tony tries to mislead the audience about the symbols in Adrian’s equations?
Perhaps, he swaps a1’s actual symbolic value with that of a2
Mary is veronica’s first name.
I totally agree with everything you said in your post.
I’d enjoyed the first part of the book; it was told from the perspective of Anthony as a young boy (then, a young man) who thinks he knows everything, but is lacking in life experience. The pretentiousness between he and his three friends reminded me (admittedly) of myself, at that age.
I also enjoyed the second part of the book. We now see Anthony as an older man and learn what happened to him throughout the years. Like you, I couldn’t “get” Veronica–what the bleep was wrong with that chick? I thought, “Let it GO, already!” What had Anthony done that had so offended her? I mean…they’d been kids!
I didn’t like not understanding the ending of the book.A reader shouldn’t be left with the feeling of not being sure. It’s not satisfying; it’s a failure on the part of the writer, no matter how talented h/she is.
I wondered if Adrian (Jr) was, truly, the child of Adrian and Veronica—yet, for some unexplained reason, Veronica had changed her name. On the one hand, had Adrian (school friend) been her…gulp…brother…and the two of them had produced a child? Yick.
Or, as is most likely, Adrian had slept with V’s mom, who’d gotten pregnant, which is why the reader is told that Veronica is the sister of the “goofy guy” (I think that’s how Anthony describes him). Neither ending was worth it. A good book was turned into a lousy movie, if you know what I mean.
OR, did Tony, who remembers he really didn’t love Veronica really that much he was to young, have a one night stand with Mrs. Ford and got her pregnant by mistake way back then? That might explain why Veronica slept with him after they broke up, she was getting back at her mother? I guess this seems far fetched why would Adrian want to hook up with a pregnant woman? Or had she already given birth to the baby and he didn’t know that? Mrs. Ford seduced another friend of Veronica’s? Would explain why Veronica was so mad at Tony her whole life. Tony choose to see Adrian’s face in the Adrian Jr. but it was really his face he saw? We don’t really know what Tony choose to see his whole life, just his side of the story.
The book left us discussing which is what a good book does.
Adrian’s mother left him as a child and he was raised by his father. Tony says that Adrian never talked about his home life. I think that sets up that Veronica and Adrian became involved without knowing that they were siblings and produced a child, who possibly due to incest ended out with developmental disabilities. It doesn’t really explain why Veronica is so angry though. I agree that I would rather have been able to be sure of the ending, but it is kind of fun not knowing too!
I believe the title of the book “The Sense of an Ending” explains the ending. Tony is suppressing what happened to him. He has a sense of what happened but not the whole story. So the ending of the book is only his sense of what happened — not what actually happened.
Interesting possiblility, that Adrian (old school friend) and Veronica might have been brother and sister. After all, the book says that Adrian’s mother left him and his father, and Tony says he Adrian never spoke about family or home life.
I just read the last page of The sense of an ending´ and the words that are lingering in my head are the last words of the novel ” And beyond these there is unrest. There is a great unrest”
My conclusion is same as Richards, that Tony is the father of Adrian 2. The red line of the entire novel is that memory is not to be trusted, that it is selective, that we choose how to interpret the memories so that they support the image we have of ourselves. That all that had happened after he received 500 £ unlocked memory after memory so that in the end he remembers that he slept with Veronica’s mother. That would also explain her odd way she waved good-by to him (which was re-iterated in the last page of the novel)
Independent of what the ending actually is, I enjoyed the book. If Andrian slept with Veronica’s mother, then the entire novel feels a little like Tony’s life – if not banal than in any case ordinary. If Tony in the end assembles that last memory and the insight that came with it, the novel is more like Adrian, sharp and purposeful…
The novel ends with: “I thought of a woman frying eggs in a carefree, slapdash way, untroubled when one of them broke in the pan; then the same woman, later, making a secret, horizonal gesture beneath a sunlit wisteria. And I thought of a cresting wave of water, lit by the moon, rushing past and vanishing upstream, pursued by a band of yelping students whose torch beams crisscrossed in the dark.” Its pretty easy to see this as sex that produces a deformed child. This does not explain Adrian’s suiside.
Julian Barnes tells us repeatedly that memory and history is fragmented and flawed. Over time both are open to interpretation and modification. Not only does the author tell us explicitly about memory but he structures the book itself to represent those characteristics. So it should come as no surprise that the story is fragmented and open to interpretation. When we arrive at the last page of the book we do not get an Ending but a sense of an ending. We also do not get an Understanding but a sense of an understanding.
Throughout the book, Julian Barnes gives lots of remarkable insights into the patterns of life, aging and memory. I was halfway through the book before I realized I needed to be underlining those passages so they could be found more easily. Any one of them could be just the right explanation for situations that have arisen in my past as well as those coming in the future. Those insights are like the fragments of memories that surface and are woven into the narrative. They exist almost independently of the storyline and then they disappear.
Veronica warned us that Tony just doesn’t get it when he concludes that Adrian fathered the child. In a passage on the last page the author gives the reader a big break when he tells us Tony fathered the damaged child. This passage is brilliantly crafted. The earlier memories have been modified and ordered. Not a single word is out of place. The imagery of the sexual encounter, alone, is worth the price of the book.
“I thought of a woman frying eggs in a carefree, slapdash way, untroubled when one of them broke in the pan; then the same woman, later, making a secret, horizontal gesture beneath a sunlit wisteria. And I thought of a cresting wave of water, lit by the moon, rushing past and vanishing upstream, pursued by a band of yelping students whose torch beams crisscrossed in the dark”.
So at the end, we are given the key to understanding the storyline. My own flawed memory requires a reread in order to fit all the pieces together, particularly in understanding the timeline and the suicide of Adrian. But another part of me says: Trust the Author. He has made clear the parts he wanted to be clear and the rest is uncertain, just like memory and truth. I enjoyed the insights and the writing but the storyline was not compelling enough to justify a reread. I am content to settle for a sense of greatness.
Nicely put. That puts it all into perspective. When V told T he still didn’t get it, I began to see Tony as the father. My expectations of confirmation were dashed. But now I see how they were actually fulfilled. The book is not so much about Tony as it is about truth and memory. BTW, I thought the bit about remorse was also worth the price of the book.
Yes. You’ve got it. Thank you. And unrest is on page 5 of the first edition. “Of any historical event… Something happened.” It has been a great pleasure to read this again. Barnes gave an interview in which he said holding back details, leaving gaoss in words or music, makes art great art.
My first response to the ending was that Veronica and her brother Jack/John were lovers. Andrian 2 is the product of incestuous relationship between Jack and his sister Veronica. Veronica’s mother was aware of this situation and was Andrian 1’s lover. Andrian 1 was attracted to – loved, or had compassion for Veronica and or her mother or both – and helped her raise Adrian 2 and camoflage the incest. The letter Tony sent at the inception of the relationship between Adrian 1 and Veronica was not the only cause of Adrian 1’s suicide but both Veronica and A.1 knew that whatTony didnt get was that Veronica and her brother’s incest gave issue to Adrian 2 . The young handicapped Adrian was named after Adrian 1 because of the important part he played as lover to both Veronica and her mother.
That night Tony masterbates into the basin and in the morning the mother discards an egg into the bin. I can’t help but think that there is something hidden within this, but I find it a stretch to believe Tony didn’t remember getting in on with his girlfriend’s mother!
Yes.The weekend visit is full of clues that Tony was also a partner for Veronica Mother.
I do agree that Tony is most likely the father of Adrian jnr. But it is intentionally vague. In support of this I think there are several clues. There are several references to what occurred between Tony and Sarah, the steam rising from the pan, which sits among several highly significant lines summarising the book right at the start. There is the horizontal wave in the book and most significantlyq mentioned again right at the end, the discussion of the broken egg too I.e. The old faulty egg leading to the production of a faulty child. However most telling to me is the analysis of Robson’s suicide by Adrian. He is clearly discussing his own suicide still come to pass. He says in the analysis we know he’s dead, that he had a girlfriend, she was pregnant, the piece of documentation (ref his diary), what other motives? Can we be sure the child was his? I think Barnes wants us to question what really happened and to leave the events open to interpretation, the reader then becomes like the narrator in that they are imposing their own reality on what occurred. We all have a sense of the ending. What really happened? I don’t think we are meant to know, and like in life do we ever really know as there are so many differing viewpoints and realities.
Best comment yet!
Nivedita – I agree with you….Andrews’ explanation/analysis agreed with the way I thought about the book after the ending. Certainly Tony, like all of us, has some regrets for his action (letter to Adrien) but clearly Veronica, her mother and Adrien carried the real responsibility for their lives (and death regarding Adrien).
Spot on Andrew but it must follow that in fact this is an ordinary though very readable book and certainly not worthy of its prize. By the way, what is your explanation for the mother leaving Tony GBP500 as ‘blood money’, (according to Veronica). Is that just to compensate him for having been mistreated by her daughter or something else? The obvious explanation lacks credibility when the money would more likely have gone to her handicapped son. This seems to be an unsatisfactory loose end and any thoughts to resolve it would be appreciated.
I think it’s a study of a man entirely devoid of emotional intelligence and fiercely committed to avoiding “damage”.
The History lessons at the beginning of the novel establish the way in which Tony and his friends approach all problems including those of the heart, detached, analytical, emotionless, self-consciously clever. Typical 6th Form clever-dicks. The trouble is that Tony uses this method when he encounters emotional issues. It also helps to keep intimacy at a distance and so head off “damage”. Veronica: So, do you ever think about where our relationship is heading? Tony: Do you? Mrs Ford: Don’t let Veronica get away with too much. Tony: What do you mean Mrs Ford? Mrs Ford looked at me, smiled in an unpatronising way and shook her head slightly. (Tony has just failed the test). At the end of the novel the final words are, “There is great unrest.” On page 5 we read of Marshall’s attempt to hide his ignorance about the reign of Henry VIII with the same words. Tony’s scornful dismissal of Marshall as a “cautious know-nothing” is an excellent description of his own emotional ignorance.
Tony never understands that he is the problem.
I think he does get it at the end. “There is unrest” is ironic understatement, referring to how badly that term failed to capture the full extent of the matter was when it was used in the past to describe a time of much turmoil (by someone as ignorant about what was going on as he feels now). He sees it all flash before him and mentions accumulation, responsibility, what else have I done wrong, etc…he isn’t trying to hide that he feels great regret, and when he moans “I knew I couldn’t change, or mend, anything now”, it shows he knows the way he is was responsible.
I don’t think you can understand the novel and its ending without having some hunch or hypothesis about what the “damage” in the Roberts household has been. What is the relationship of Mrs. Roberts (Sarah=S) to the other members of her family? Do they pimp for her? Is Mr. Roberts the father of Veronica (how could such a giant oaf produce an “elf” like Veronica, Tony wonders.) What does “will he do?” said by Veronica to Jack mean? I don’t think it is textually possible to determine all of this, so “you’re on your own.” Dale
I do think that Veronica pimps for Sara and the rest of the ‘family’ does too or they just know about it to the extent of complicity. It’s the only way I can tie together Jack winking at tony after V asks if he’ll do and the otherwise inexplicable morning walk that the rest of the family went on (which Sara says V suggested so that tony could get a lie in. However come to think of it I think Sara was lying and she was the one who suggested the walk herself to get tony alone
Yes, I agree and I think that part of what made the novel so devastating was the ways that Barnes implied (yet never explicitly stated) that Veronica was very much in love with Tony but he was never able to acknowledge it, or treat her as if it were so.
I interpreted the story that both Adrian (a1) and Anthony (a2) both slept with Veronica’s (v) mother, Mary (m). I’m surprised this interpretation didn’t make it into your article. Otherwise this Booker Prize winner is, as you say, a stretch.
Whether Mary bore Adrian’s baby (the man was similar to Adrian in physical appearance, the first equation, and Anthony played an introductory role) or Anthony’s baby (“I thought of a woman frying eggs in a carefree, slapdash way, untroubled when one of them broke in the pan”) is difficult to say.
a2 + v + a1 x s = b
b = s –v +/x a1
So for instance if…..
Veronica’s mother is not Mary – it is Sarah. Veronica is Mary.
I do not see any indication anywhere in the book that Anthony slept with Veronica’s mother. Even the equations do not indicate any connection between Anthony and Sarah. It’s a1 x s, not a2 x s. And it’s baby = sarah minus veronica times or plus Adrian.
So you’re all grabbing at straws.
a1 may be Tony. He was first on the seen after all.
i like that you explain the actual literal happenings at the end. i must be dumb like tony. tony is a very unreliable narrator. the reader must do some work and i don’t mean understanding the plot. who is this person telling the story. well, he is very good at excusing his flaws. we empathize with his awkwardness and he thus pulls us in. as a woman reading this story, bells went off immediately that the mother could be competing with the daughter, but tony does not analyze this, he is a man, not a daughter. he is only vaguely interest in Sara.
i hate to say this in this day and age, but this is a psychological novel. the biggest shock i got in the book was the revealed viciousness of tony’s letter. it was not only cruel about Veronica, but toward Adrian also. remember, adrian had picked tony out of the little group to most communicate with him. tony is pleased by this and puzzled. adrian is attracted to someone as a friend who is very different from himself. it must have been quite a shock to get such a letter. one’s sense of oneself is undermined when someone we really care about turns out to be extremely mean.
i think guilt is a secondary emotion. it disguises deeper emotions when rejected. tony can look away from just how emotional he felt. early in the book he lists different kinds of people and he says the worst are those who have been hurt and decide not to ever be hurt again. he says beware. again i took note. everyone has been hurt, but everyone does not decide to never feel again. was tony describing himself? i think Barnes gives us lots of clues to who he is. has tony admitted he loved anyone in this book. i don’t think so. he is distant from everything and especially people. he turns away from the disgusting ugliness of his letter to dramatic guilt. it seem appropriate of me for this narrator. thanks for writing and then reading this.
I cannot find a post in which the key critical comment about the book has been noted (but I haven’t read all the posts). It is profoundly flawed in this respect: the central trope is a first person narrative. This means the narrator sets down his tale specifically after the revelation that Veronica is Adrian2’s sister but more generally with a complete knowledge of all the events, hidden or otherwise, that constitute the narrative. This makes the whole enterprise bogus. The narrative given by the young Tony is in compete bad faith, because there is no young Tony any more. He is the old Tony, the one who wrote the narrative in mid to old age.. The trope doesn’t work. Unless of course this is some advanced pomo exercise in terms of which the identity of the narrator is conflated with the identity of the creator of the narrator, eg. Barnes. But what purpose pomo tricks of this sort serve eludes me. Apart from this fundamental objection, I just don’t have the time in my life for characters who are endless victims of their own indifferent personalities. Tony’s endless musings about life, memory, etc. are (to me) banal, I think that Veronica is bloodless and slight, her university relationship with Tony doesn’t add up to a can of beans, and the rest of the cast – not excluding Adrian – is entirely forgettable. None of the interpretations offered by these many blogs – ingenious as they are – redeem the novel. It can be whatever it wants to be, but it doesn’t intrigue, edify or entertain me. Sorry.
Colin, I totally agree. The fact that the ‘old’ Tony is sharing the story after all the facts are known, pretending to be gradually educated about the events via memories that randomly occur, is a weak premise. I found the first section of the book interesting, but the second section to be self-indulgent and a waste of time.
This book is for my bookclub tonight. I read your review, thank you so much. Please read the review or summary on Goodreads, it brings other issues not mentioned about the child Adrian and Tony’s memory. Very intriguing.
You said that Mary is Adrian’s sister. Ok. But, I still don’t understand who her parents are. You imply that Sarah is his mother; but who is her father? And why does (young) Adrian call Veronica Mary when he sees her (page 139) ? Can you explain?
Agh – I do want to read this, but I want to read Barnes’ novel first. I’ll be back!
I want to read it, so I’m saving this post for later.
There’s an excellent review here: http://pechorinsjournal.wordpress.com/2012/04/25/the-sense-of-an-ending-by-julian-barnes/
Hi Emma, Thanks for linking to Max’s review – I hadn’t seen that one yet. I liked his point that ultimately it doesn’t really matter what happened, because the memories are all unreliable anyway!
I think your point that the story “believes in”…that memories are all unreliable anyway…is the point! the fact (or fiction) of the veronica/adrian relationship and the one with her mother…is but part of the walkway to get us to that main theme. and the discussions, i would think, could take a really deeper look at memories (if honesty was on the agenda) and how we perceive ourselves and others…and history!!
and like a lot of deaths that are hard to understand, it can be said that because adrian had such good insights about history, there really is a lot to learn from those who chose to die an untmely death. in other words, our memories can include gems of wisdom that can come from really hard-to-understand sources.
anyway, i found your review refreshingly straight forward…unlike parts of the novel where the author tries to keep us guessing.
But then why read it? If all we are getting is an unreliable narrator and an unresolved story…has the writer not done his job?
A bit frustrating.
You raise very valid criticisms of the storyline, Andrew. However, we must consider that the story is narrated to us by Tony. He – or, rather, Julian Barnes – warns us to evaluate any historical narrative by giving full consideration to the psychological character of the narrator. In my view, Tony is a man who, in the autumn of his life, comes to realise that he has lived a very mundane, safe and unemotional existence. With the receipt of the lawyer’s letter, he is given an opportunity to evaluate his own life story, as well as to interact again with Veronica. His acceptance of some responsibility for Adrian’s relationship with Veronica’s mother and for his suicide is, from any objective viewpoint, plainly unnecessary. Similarly, his treatment by Veronica – as he describes it – appears to be quite unjustified. However, viewing and recounting his life in this particular way (to himself and thus to us) enables Tony finally to experience an overwhelmingly powerful emotion: that of remorse. Far better to feel a powerful negative emotion than to feel nothing at all, Tony’s subconscious tells him. This sacrificial perspective of his own life history rocks the very foundations of his hitherto dull life, and brings him some much-needed life-affirming vitality. He is a man who so desperately yearned to experience a powerful emotion at that point in his life. He achieved it by piercing his own heart with a dagger of concocted remorse.
Wow, that’s a wonderful insight! Thanks for sharing it. I’d never thought of it in that way before, but it makes perfect sense. Tony’s life is indeed mundane, and I can see why he would want to feel something, anything, even if it’s concocted. Better to feel remorse than to die without feeling anything. I like that interpretation!
I like your interpretation Andrew, and Bruno’s extension of it. I agree with Bruno re Tony’s life and the “value” of remorse to him – and in fact in my review said that Tony reminded me a little of TS Eliot’s Prufrock.
I’m not sure that Veronica’s “you don’t get it” is simply about the affair … I wondered if it was wider than that – because how could he get that – that he didn’t get capital L Life, or relationships. Like you I had no trouble understanding what had happened but the meaning of it all is open to some interpretation I think.
That’s a nice allusion! I hadn’t thought of Prufrock, but it’s very apt. There is a lot of anguish and remorse, and it does serve a purpose as Bruno points out.
It does seem a very broad accusation, doesn’t it? And the use of the word “still” suggests a connection with their past together. There are definitely plenty of interpretations, as these comments have shown, and I like that – it does feel true to life, and also true to the character of Tony, who, despite everything he learns, still finds it hard to piece everything together. If he doesn’t get it, it’s consistent that we’ll struggle to get it based on his narrative! Thanks for the comment!
Yes, it’s true that he also doesn’t ‘get’ other things, like relationships. What is clouded by the unreliable narrator is that he is quite self-involved in his relationship with Veronica. In their later meetings, he’s surprised that she responds to his questions about her life, and in their next meeting she finally reacts kindly to him. But he goes on to talk about himself for an hour before she leaves.
Interesting point, cammac! I had forgotten about that. Well spotted! Tony does indeed contradict himself quite often.
I appreciate everyone’s insight. What I find interesting is that Tony had a negative view of Veronica’s father, brother, and Veronica herself but didn’t get that they weren’t the bad guys. The mother was. Veronica loved Tony and Tony loved her, but he couldn’t acknowledge it until years later, until it was too late. He was so insecure. He pointed the finger at the wrong people. Tony couldn’t laugh at their innocuous jokes ( which I found funny)– like the Dad’s about the huge suitcase or about peeing in the basin: “I couldn’t tell if he was being all matily male, or treating me as lower class scum” (29). He had such an inferiority complex and kept thinking Veronica and Jack were looking down their nose at him. Towards the end, when Veronica takes him to see the “small group of people,” Tony asks, “What’s wrong with them?” Veronica is right in countering, “What’s wrong with you?” (147). Tony sees things all wrong and doesn’t get it right until almost the last page.
I’ve come to this debate very late, having only read ‘The Sense of an Ending’ earlier this week. Barnes has a simple narratve style which masks the underlying sinister events he creates.
Could it be that in his old age Tony’s clarity of memory is failing him and therefore is betraying the actualities of the past?
No problem about being late – glad to hear from you. I agree, it’s a simple narrative style but there’s a lot going on under the surface.
I think that Tony’s narrative is inherently unreliable, and part of that could indeed be due to failing memory. As I’m sure you remember, Barnes has some great lines in the book about the unstable nature of memory and the way we construct it. Old age is a factor, but so are self-deception and emotional fragility. Our memories are not really actualities, but stories we tell ourselves about the past.
First, Why do we assume that Adrian never met his son? I don’t recall anything in the book to suggest that. Do you remember the line that Adrian says about V’s brother Jack? “I hate the way the English have of not being serious about being serious. I really hate it.” I think Adrian took his gift of intelligence very seriously and when his son was born with intellectual limitations he commited suicide over the confined life he had imposed on his son and the pain and responsibilities he had imposed on Sarah. Possible?
Definitely possible. I don’t remember the book being clear one way or the other on whether he met his son. I like your suggestion – seems very plausible to me. Thanks for stopping by!
I have been enjoying the e-conversation and find much delicious provocation here. As a woman of the same age as our unreliable narrator, I am aghast that “old age” is offered as a possible excuse for Tony’s fallible memory.
I agree to a point Bruno. In the end Tony runs from responsibility and chooses banality again. He rejects his ex-wife’s suggestion they travel together. He insults her and alienates her by showing interest in another woman when his ex-wife so clearly still holds feelings for him. He abandons any attempt at pursuing any relationship with Adrian 2 or Veronica despite the fact Adrian 2 may well be his son. In the end he stays true to his own character and chooses to continue his emotionless existence rather than give of himself.
Why does Veronica behave so obstructively? Yes, it is a plot device for the surprise ending. She was odd and unpleasant from the beginning, but isn’t her later behavior somewhat understandable in that she knows that Tony has referred Adrian to her mother. Thus, she resents Tony for interfering in her affair with Adrian and sending him to her mother instead. Of course, she’d be furious that Tony was so dense he understood nothing of his role in all of tnis..
Not that Adrian and Sara weren’t more to blame than Tony, but they’re not around to blame.
How Veronica really behaved towards Tony is up for debate. Remember, we only have Tony’s account of her behaviour! In this novel – as in life – the portrait of a character which is given to us by a protagonist is often mis-represented for ulterior motives (just speak to my ex-wife! LOL).
I rather believe that the real Veronica is far more benevolent than Tony would have us believe. It may benefit Tony to describe her in the way he does, because it allows him to elicit our sympathy and admiration for him.
Exactly Bruno … a significant point to note IS that this is Tony’s perspective.
I also saw this as a strange sort of “coming of age” novel. Sure, Tony is middle-aged but there was a sense he had a lot of growing up to do nonetheless and the first part of the novel IS coming of age pretty much anyhow.
I think that’s a good way to look at it. We can all come of age at different ages! In the early parts of the book, the schoolfriends are precocious in terms of talking about ideas, but immature emotionally. So the middle-aged sections are perhaps more of the coming of age than the adolescent ones.
I agree, Tony was desperately seeking answers as the Adrian 2/Mary story unfolded. Impossible to believe he wouldn’t have recalled sleeping with Veronica’s mother…either back when he and Veronica were breaking up, or 40 years later after getting the money? I believe the baby was Sarah’s and Adrian’s.
Hi HPM, thanks for visiting! I do agree to a certain extent, but again I’d say that it’s only clear in retrospect that Tony “referred’ Adrian to her mother, with all the consequences. At the time it was just an angry letter from a bitter ex-boyfriend. Also I think that it’s likely Adrian would have met Veronica’s mother without Tony’s letter, and things may well have been the same in the end.
Bruno, you’re absolutely right that it’s dangerous to rely on the viewpoint of a single protagonist. Tony’s description of her does benefit him, and it would be different if Veronica were telling the story herself. But unless we are to believe that he entirely made up whole incidents, it does still seem that she is being deliberately obtuse. Tony’s viewpoint is all we have, but you’re right that it’s good to keep in mind how biased it is.
Though it’s true (if anything in this novel can be described as true) that Tony suggested Adrian should consult Veronica’s mother, as Veronica’s boyfriend it was highly likely Adrian would get to know Veronica’s mother anyway. There’s no evidence that Adrian acted on Tony’s advice in the poisonous letter and that it was entirely due to the letter that Adrian became involved with her.
EM Forster tackles “muddle” and false memory extremely well in “A Passage to India” – to try to make sense of memories and the past can be profitable or delusional. As Forster famously said in “Howard’s End”, “Only connect.” The end of Barnes’ book shows us Tony trying to make sense of Adrian’s end, but also his own life as it nears its unsatisfactory ending. As a title, it seems to have so many appropriate connotations – possibly, contentiously, that Adrian’s decision to end his life makes sense.
A fascinating, though, I agree, a rather cold-hearted novel, where “remorse” is one of the most significant words Barnes employs.
I couldn’t quite understand the ending until I read this post. thanks for the great review! I too think Veronica is being way too harsh on Tony. And how Tony would understand what’s really going on when Veronica just keeps saying “You just don’t get it”. I cannot understand her character at all. I know we only know Tony’s side of the story but still.
Hello HeeKyung! I’m glad to hear that – it was why I wrote the post. Yes, she does seem a very difficult character to understand, doesn’t she? Bruno is right that some of it is Tony’s telling of the story, but still I think the author could have done a better job of justifying Veronica’s behaviour in the readers’ minds.
From some experience, I think I can understand Veronica a little bit. She has a mother with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Her family revolves around the narcissistic parent, children learn this from birth. The son is her prize and is often spoiled while the daughter is a competitor so must be kept down. Very common. This happens from birth so the children inherit degrees of the disorder, and are often quite unbalanced themselves. In this case, the family knows about the mother’s tendencies in sex (quite common.) She competes for the daughter’s boyfriends (and the daughter is trained to allow this.) The family knows the drill so they all leave the mother alone that morning to do her thing with Tony (but I personally don’t think anything happened then. I truly think it was Aiden.) In any case, it is not uncommon for a daughter with a sexually active mother to messed up around sex herself. This is a constant theme with Veronica and is worth pointing out to understand her. She is damaged in many other ways as anyone would be with a mother who has absolutely no ability to love, to empathize, a mother who essentially hates her daughter (especially if she’s pretty and smart!) The mother leaves the money and the diary to Tony because she knows it will upset her daughter. Pretty basic sicko stuff. That line about the last months of Aiden’s life being very happy is particularly sick as there is probably no way this can be true if the guy commits suicide.. She’s the one stretching the truth there. She’s already shown she has no integrity or morals; why should she suddenly be truthful now? Life is a sadistic game to her.
Yours is the most compelling explanation I’ve read. It rings very true to me. Thanks for taking the time to write it.