The Sense of an Ending

The Sense of an Ending Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Julian Barnes's The Sense of an Ending. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Julian Barnes

Julian Barnes studied modern languages at Oxford before going on to work for the Oxford English Dictionary supplement as a lexicographer (helping to compile its entries).  In 1977, he began reviewing books for the New Statesman and New Review magazines, and later became a television critic. He published his first novel, Moreland, in 1980, but his first major critical success was the 1984 novel Flaubert’s Parrot, in which he explored his protagonist’s obsession with certain features of the life of 19th-century French writer Gustave Flaubert. In 2000, Barnes would similarly meld history and fiction in his first bestselling work, Arthur and George, a work of fiction inspired by a true crime investigated by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (the creator of Sherlock Holmes). The Sense of an Ending, published in 2011, won the Man Booker Prize, among other literary awards. He has continued writing to the present; his most recent novel, The Only Story, was released in 2018.
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Historical Context of The Sense of an Ending

Tony’s adolescence and young adulthood takes place in the 1960s, a time of vast cultural change, including movements for sexual liberation, women’s rights, and civil rights—even if, as Tony notes, the sixties only happened in some parts of his own country, whereas others remained a decade or so behind. Between that period and the late 2000s, when the retired Tony is telling his story, much has changed as well, as he notes—including the rightwing reforms of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Tony particularly lingers on the changes in gender norms, thinking at one point about how the young girls he sees in short skirts would never have been allowed to wear such outfits in the 1960s, nor would they have been permitted to spend time near a boys’ school like his own.

Other Books Related to The Sense of an Ending

The Sense of an Ending takes its name from a 1967 book of literary criticism by Frank Kermode, which studies how fiction imposes cohesive structures and coherent narratives onto what might otherwise seem like chaos, especially in uncertain times of history. Barnes’s novel is similarly concerned with how all people, not just writers, construct certain selective narratives about themselves and their lives—as well as how it’s sometimes only an ending (like Adrian’s untimely death) that lends a sense of meaning to everything that came before. Barnes’s novel is also full of literary allusions, apt for a narrator who strove during his school days to be as brilliant and clever as his friend Adrian: Ted Hughes is explicitly invoked, but there are also a number of unspecified allusions to poet Philip Larkin (including the lines “wrangle for a ring” and “May you be ordinary”). Another contemporary writer to grapple with the questions of memory, identity, and history that so occupy Barnes is W.G. Sebald, author of works (including Austerlitz and The Rings of Saturn) that often allude to the events of World War II.
Key Facts about The Sense of an Ending
  • Full Title: The Sense of an Ending
  • When Written: 2011
  • Where Written: United Kingdom
  • When Published: 2011
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Novel
  • Climax: Tony realizes that Adrian’s son is the child of Sarah Ford rather than Veronica
  • Antagonist: Tony seems to think of Veronica as his nemesis for most of the novel, following their relationship—he takes solace in identifying her as manipulative and selfish, so as to excuse his own actions. But Tony comes to realize that he has been his own worst enemy: he struggles to overcome certain intractable character traits that he doesn’t like and yet cannot seem to shed.
  • Point of View: First person: the narrator, Tony, is telling the story of his life. The way he narrates it—what he includes and leaves out (consciously or otherwise)—suggests that he is not an altogether reliable narrator.

Extra Credit for The Sense of an Ending

Look it Up. During his time working at the Oxford English Dictionary, Julian Barnes once claimed to have been assigned to the “sports and dirty word department.”

I Spy?  In the 1980s, Julian Barnes indulged his grittier side by publishing a series of crime novels featuring a bisexual detective, Duffy, under the pseudonym “Dan Kavanagh.”