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.