Tony Webster, the protagonist and narrator, begins his story by listing certain images he remembers: they include steam rising from a sink with a hot frying pan within it; sperm circling a basin before being flushed down the length of a house; a river rushing upstream; and cold bathwater behind a locked door. He admits that he didn’t see the last one, but remembering and witnessing, he thinks, are two separate things.
Over the course of the rest of the novel, the context and significance of these images will become clearer. The final (and most sinister) image, however, sets the stage for the book’s exploration of the weaknesses and possible manipulations of memory. The novel will also go on to question the objectivity of testimony.
Tony muses on his difficulty in understanding how malleable time is, how easily it can be slowed down, speed up, or go missing as a result of pleasure or pain.
Time, in Tony’s account, is experienced subjectively. In this way it’s similar to memory.
Tony decides he must return to his school days as the place “it all began,” even if he’s not too interested in that time. Though he can’t be sure of what actually happened, he can be sure of the impressions left on him after many years.
Adrian Finn, tall and shy, arrived at school long after friend groups were decided and formed, though he would become the fourth member of Tony’s group of friends. Tony recalls his presence in the first day’s history class taught by Old Joe Hunt, who always looked cordial and formal in a three-piece suit.
Adrian is immediately alluring to Tony and his group of friends in part because he seems a bit different from them: they’ll incorporate him into their group, but he’ll remain slightly aloof all the same.
Old Joe Hunt asked if anyone could characterize the age of Henry the Eighth: Tony, Colin, and Alex all hoped they wouldn’t be called on. He chose a cautious dud named Marshall, to their relief, who replied vaguely that there was unrest. Old Joe Hunt turned to Adrian, who replied that according to one line of historical thought, all one can say about any event, no matter how extreme, is that “something happened.” Old Joe Hunt said that if that were so, he’d be out of a job.
From Adrian’s first comment in class (at least insofar as Tony can remember it), it’s clear that he is familiar with and interested in the philosophical dimensions of history. His response to Old Joe Hunt might seem flippant, but in fact it signals his sincere concern with how to make meaning out of history.
At the break, Tony introduced himself and said he was impressed by his line; Adrian said he was disappointed the teacher didn’t explore his idea in depth. Tony thought that this wasn’t how he was supposed to reply. The elder Tony remembers how the three friends used to wear their watches with their face on the inside of their wrists, making time personal or secret: Adrian never follows suit.
Tony and his friends are accustomed to performing a jokey, flippant manner. Even while they do care about abstract ideas (the way they wear watches suggests a view of time as intimate and subjective, for instance), they, unlike Adrian, are insecure about exhibiting too much sincerity.
That day, or perhaps another day, the boys all attended English class taught by a young Cambridge grad, Phil Dixon, whom they adored. He used contemporary texts, addressed the students as “Gentlemen,” and once in discussing Ted Hughes, asked wryly what would happen when the poet “runs out of animals.”
Ted Hughes was a poet particularly known for his poems about animals. Phil Dixon’s remark about him is just the kind of glib but clever statement, implying intellectual mastery worn lightly, to which Tony and his friends aspire.
Phil Dixon handed out a poem with no identifying information and asked Adrian what the poem was about. He immediately replied, “Eros and Thanatos,” clarifying, “Sex and Death,” or what ensues from the conflict between the erotic and the death principle. Dixon turned to Tony, who said he just thought the poem was about a barn owl. Tony reflects now that while he and his friends spent most of their time “taking the piss” or joking around, with brief bouts of seriousness, Adrian was almost always serious.
Phil Dixon introduces an exercise typical for mid-century English boarding schools, popularized by a literary critic named I.A. Richards: the implication is that a poem’s meaning has nothing to do with its context. The anecdote also highlights aspects of Adrian’s character while introducing a philosophical theme to which Tony will return.
Adrian was slowly absorbed into Tony’s group, but without adopting their attitudes. He joined the responses in morning prayer while Alex and Tony mimed the words; he joined fencing and track, while they considered sports a “crypto-fascist” means of repressing their sex drive; he played clarinet, while they took pride in being tone-deaf. He seemed to believe in things, while they remained resolutely skeptical.
All these details serve to underline how Adrian’s relationship to ideas and beliefs is different from Tony, Colin, and Alex’s performative, distanced, and ironic relationship to them. Adrian’s earnestness is nonetheless fascinating and appealing to the friends.
Tony reflects now that things were simpler in their central London school, without electronic devices or girlfriends: they only had to study, pass exams, find a job, and start a life reasonably more successful than that of their parents, who would approve while also considering their own simpler times superior.
At several points in the narrative, the current-day (60-something) Tony steps back from his memories and reflects on the distance between the past and present, both individually and for society at large.
Tony now recalls Colin complaining about his parents being “bastards”: Adrian ironically asked if they were like Henry the Eighth. The cause of Colin’s anger was that his parents made him spend the weekend gardening. Adrian was the only person they knew to come from what was known, Tony now recalls, as a “broken home,” but he rarely joined in the griping about parents. Separately, the three others developed a “theory” that the key to a happy family is not to have one.
This memory suggests that Tony, Colin, and Alex are naïve and immature: they complain about minor quibbles with their family while glamorizing Adrian’s “broken” family. The novel will go on to show how “theories” like this one can be intensely and even tragically detached from the real complexities of human experience.
Tony remembers feeling like he was in a holding pen, waiting to be released into life, at which point time itself would speed up. He couldn’t have known that his life had already begun, that some damage had already been inflicted, and that his release would only be into a larger holding pen.
The older Tony paints a rather somber portrait of life as an endless waiting room—even as he also suggests that what happened to him long ago was not preparation for his real life, but significant in its own right.
At school, Tony and his friends were “book-hungry” and “sex-hungry,” convinced that all systems were corrupt and that there was no better alternative than “hedonistic chaos.” But Adrian pushed them to consider how philosophy might be applied to life. They all had their preferred philosophers: for Tony, George Orwell and Aldous Huxley, for Colin, Baudelaire and Dostoevsky, and for Adrian, Camus and Nietzsche. They were pretentious and unbearable; their parents were anxious about their corrupting influence on each other.
Tony and his friends are drawn to certain theories and philosophies: Tony prefers dystopian fiction, while Colin likes 19th-century literature of angst and despair. Adrian’s embrace of existentialist philosophers—who sought to construct a meaning for life even while accepting that life has no inherent meaning—will prove important for his own life choices.
Tony returns to another memory: Old Joe Hunt asked the class to debate the origins of the First World War. Most preferred an all-or-nothing game: either the Serbian gunman who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand was fully responsible, or historical forces set Europe on an inevitable course. Colin declared everything up to chance, saying that a desire for meaning was quasi-religious and naïve.
Colin’s remark is typical of the clique’s desire to be intellectually impressive while never entirely serious. In the novel’s account, the various interpretations about historical causation that one might propose say as much about the people doing the interpreting as about the historical events themselves.
Old Joe Hunt asked Adrian what he thought. He said that assigning responsibility was always a cop-out: by blaming one person, or giving historical forces or chaos responsibility, we remove the blame from everyone else. He thought there might be a middle ground, a chain of individual responsibilities that could be identified. But he added that his desire to assign responsibility might be a reflection of his own state of mind: you have to know the “history of the historian” to understand the version of history being presented. After a silence, Old Joe Hunt said that he’d be happy to give Adrian his job upon retiring.
The first part of Adrian’s answer works as a reflection on the causes of something like the First World War, but the novel will also return to this question of responsibility again and again in its relevance for much more intimate, personal matters. Adrian’s reflection on history as biased and uncertain is intellectually sophisticated, but the novel will also go on to show how this can be a source of great personal anxiety.
One morning at assembly, the headmaster announced that Robson of the Science Sixth had died over the weekend. Adrian repeated, “Eros and Thanatos,” to the others, saying that Thanatos had won again. The boys were almost offended: Robson was unimaginative, uninterested in the arts, un-offensive, but now he’d made a name for himself.
The boys’ response to Robson’s suicide is depicted as notably self-absorbed, even callous: rather than trying to imagine or empathize with Robson, they use his suicide as fodder for their own abstract and even competitive theories.
A few days later, Brown of the Maths Sixth told the boys that Robson had gotten his girlfriend pregnant and hanged himself in the attic. They debated how he knew how to do it, and wondered what his girlfriend was like. Adrian then said that according to Camus, suicide was the only true, fundamental philosophical question. Ultimately, they decided that Robson had been unphilosophical, self-indulgent, and that his suicide note, rumored to have said merely “Sorry, Mum,” was a missed opportunity.
Adrian’s citation of Camus reflects the existentialist concern with whether it makes sense to keep living at all if life, in the absence of God, doesn’t have meaning outside the meanings people create. In Adrian and the other boys’ conclusion, suicide is thus a potentially powerful theoretical act, rather than—as they flippantly decide about Robson—an expression of pain and despair.
Tony wonders if it was the revelation that Robson was having sex, more than anything, that really bothered him and his friends. From their reading, they knew that Love sometimes involved Suffering, but they’d happily accept the latter if the former was on its way. They feared that life wouldn’t be like literature—their parents’ lives seemed to confirm this. Real literature, for them, was about guilt and innocence, love and sex, betrayal, good and evil—about emotional and social truth developed through characters’ experience over time (or at least that was what they gleaned from Phil Dixon).
Tony and his friends do care deeply about what they’re reading and learning, even if they (apart from Adrian) refuse to show it. The problem with their reading here is that they are impatient with what they take to be life’s banalities as opposed to the drama of literature. The note that Phil Dixon is the one to have taught them what literature “means” only underlines how the boys are eager to find meaning elsewhere, rather than develop their own sense of it through experience.
Tony remembers grilling Adrian about his parents’ divorce, the only remotely novelistic-seeming event in their lives. He deflected their questions, refusing to share details. In a novel, Tony thinks, Adrian wouldn’t have just accepted his new reality, as he seemed to be doing.
The boys’ impatience with Adrian and their naïve desire to construct a novelistic narrative makes them unable to accept Adrian’s real-life pain or desire for privacy. As with Robson, they again view another’s pain with theoretical detachment.
Tony remembers the year’s final history lesson: Old Joe Hunt invited the students to draw some conclusions over the centuries they’d covered. “What is History?” he asked Tony, who, a bit quickly, replied that it’s the lies of the victors: Hunt responded that it’s also the self-delusions of the defeated. Colin offered the notion that history is a raw onion sandwich: it just repeats, or “burps,” oscillating between tyranny and rebellion, war and peace.
Tony depicts his own younger self as precocious and a bit too eager to be clever. Colin, too, performs a mix of intellectual sophistication (a view of history as endless repetition) and adolescent immaturity in the metaphors he uses to describe it. Again, he and Tony are cavalier and jokey, unable to be as serious as they might actually want—but are too insecure—to be.
Adrian characteristically said that history is the certainty that results from imperfect memory, joined to inadequate documentation: he said he got that quotation from the French Patrick Lagrange. Asked to give an example, he said Robson’s suicide—and everyone was shocked, but Adrian tended to get away with more than anyone else. He continued that this was a historical event, with a single piece of (rumored) documentation: he asked how we could know if Robson had other motives, what his state of mind was, if the child was even his, and so on. So, he concludes, how could anyone write Robson’s history many years from now, if so much is uncertain now?
The novel will return again and again to Adrian’s view of what history is, as Tony reflects on the biases and imperfections of history and as the novel makes a case for the frightening uncertainty of both history and memory. The fact that Patrick Lagrange is a made-up historian—whether invented by Adrian or misremembered by Tony—is yet another way the novel interrogates objectivity and reliability in narrative on various levels. It is a subtly humorous irony that the definition of history—usually seen as a subject dealing with facts—comes from a fictional source.
Hunt, after a while, replied that Adrian might underestimate historians, who have always had to deal with lack of direct evidence. There might be a coroner’s report, a diary, or his parents’ responses to condolence letters. Adrian replied that nothing could make up for the lack of Robson’s testimony, but Hunt said that a participant’s own explanation always needs to be treated with a certain level of skepticism. Tony reflects that this exchange almost certainly went differently from the way he remembers it.
Hunt’s listing of the various pieces of evidence one might use to determine what really happened in the past is resonant for the later parts of the novel, when Tony will strive to use just such evidence to understand his own past. While Adrian emphasizes the importance of personal testimony, the novel itself will (like Hunt) question the reliability of that mode too.
Tony and his friends dispersed: Adrian won a scholarship to Cambridge, while Tony headed to Bristol to “read” (study) history. They swore to meet during breaks, but this sometimes didn’t happen. They wrote letters, though mostly Tony, Colin, and Alex wrote to Adrian, seeking his attention and approval.
Even while Adrian is different from the other boys, who have never been comfortable being as earnest as he is, they are drawn to his seriousness, seeing in it a model that they are nonetheless still too scared to follow.
Tony’s life did “speed up”: after struggling to win girls without a “technique,” he met Veronica Mary Elizabeth Ford, a student of Spanish who liked poetry, and whose father was a civil servant. Tony found her “nice,” even if only because she was willing to bear his advances.
These specific details are an implicit reminder of how random and selective memory can be. The description of Veronica as merely “nice” signals Tony’s unwillingness or inability to allow himself to feel something deeper or stronger, or even to see her as a complex human being.
Veronica owned a Black Box record player (Tony had a Dansette); she owned choral and lieder LPs and hated Tchaikovsky, whom Tony loved. Looking through his record albums once, he was embarrassed at his extensive pop collection: she asked neutrally if he liked such music, and when he responded that it was good to dance to, she said she didn’t dance.
These details imply certain class differences. Veronica’s record player is fancier than Tony’s more popular, mass-market edition, and her sophisticated musical tastes are also a sign of a more upper-class upbringing.
Tony explains that “going out” is different now: he’s recently heard about a daughter of a friend who had been sleeping with a boy at university who was simultaneously sleeping with other girls. She wasn’t upset at that as much as at the fact that he ultimately chose one of the others. Tony feels like a survivor from some ancient culture: in his day, he says, you would meet a girl, invite her to social events, then on her own, then, after a good-night kiss, you were “going out.” Only then did you learn what her “sexual policy” was.
Once again, the current-day Tony intrudes on his recollections in order to make a reflection about the differences in sexual expectations between the 1960s and the present (that is, the 2000s, or forty years later). While sex may seem private and intimate, the novel portrays it as always wrapped up in quite public social norms and expectations.
Like other girls, Veronica was fine with kissing and touching over the clothes; other girls would accept mutual masturbation, still others “full sex.” Tony notes that this wasn’t religious prudery, since women like Veronica were at ease with their bodies; besides, he liked what he might call “infra-sex,” even if Colin and Alex had girlfriends with more liberal policies (though Tony knew he might not be getting the full story). Tony himself lost his virginity between school and university: it was all the more frustrating, then, that it seemed more difficult to sleep with girls he actually liked.
Tony is ambivalent, sometimes even contradictory, about his attitude toward Veronica’s “sexual policy.” It’s a source of frustration, but also leaves room for different kinds of sexual experiences. His recollections also serve as a reflection about the ways sex is both intimate and social, an experience that many share, but something that is often difficult or improper to talk about frankly and honestly.
Tony remembers heated moments, a woman’s hand restraining his wrist and saying “It doesn’t feel right.” This was the sixties, he admits, but only for certain people, in certain places.
Another instance of the power of images in memory. It also suggests, though, that Tony might have been more aggressive and unpleasant in sex than he recalls.
Tony recalls that his bookshelves were more successful than his records: he had more blue Pelicans (nonfiction) than orange Penguins (fiction), a sign of seriousness. Veronica had more poetry: Eliot, Auden, Thom Gunn, Ted Hughes, as well as Left Book Club editions of Orwell, expensive nineteenth-century novels, and so on. They seemed to all be of a piece with her personality, while Tony’s book collection was his attempt to describe the character he wanted to become. He once fell back on Phil Dixon’s line about everyone wondering what Ted Hughes will do when he runs out of animals, but the line sounded silly, not witty, in his mouth. Veronica responded archly, and when he admitted this was just something his old English master said, she replied that he should think for himself now: but she seemed to be bantering more than dismissing him.
The Sense of an Ending is interested in how literature and art are sources of real meaning and pleasure for people, but also wrapped up in socioeconomic status, signaling different kinds of cultural capital. Tony, for instance, wants to perform his intellectual aspirations (even as he thinks Veronica is exempt from such jockeying for position—which the novel implicitly calls into question). He is impressed with her in some of the same ways and for some of the same reasons he was drawn to Adrian—their desire to think for themselves, their embrace of the “serious,” and so on.
Veronica asked why Tony wore his watch inside out: since he couldn’t justify it, he stopped doing so. He settled into a routine of working, being with Veronica, and then masturbating alone back in his room to fantasies of her. He started to feel privileged to have access to feminine details like makeup and periods. At the same time, he remembers thinking that he never needed to broach where the relationship was going. She wouldn’t let them have sex: therefore she must have implicitly agreed that he didn’t have to discuss their future. Tony realizes now that he was wrong about this and most things. He wonders why, for instance, he assumed she was a virgin, only because she wouldn’t sleep with him.
Although Tony’s tendency to wear his watch inside out was meant as a sign of his own intellectual freethinking, as well as performing a devil-may-care attitude to time and obligations, the fact that he quickly sheds this habit shows that he’s eager to live up to Veronica’s own, different ideas of what to do and how to be. The current-day Tony also acknowledges his younger self’s callousness, his self-justifying attitude in assuming Veronica had made a kind of bargain with him.
Tony recalls being invited to spend a weekend with Veronica’s family in Chislehurst, Kent. He brought a huge bag and Veronica’s father, a large, red-faced man smelling of beer, made fun of him for it. On the drive, her father pointed out St. Michael’s, the Café Royal, and other sights, and Tony wasn’t sure if he was meant to respond. At the house he noticed the heavy shine on the furniture and an extravagant potted plant. Veronica’s father led him to an attic room and told him he could pee in the small basin (connected to the plumbing) in the night; Tony couldn’t tell if he was being jocular and male, or treating him like lower-class “scum.”
As Tony arrives at Veronica’s home in Kent, he notices particular details that have to do with the Ford family’s privileged background. Tony is self-conscious and uncomfortable, acutely sensitive to any implication that the family thinks less of him. It’s difficult to tell, given the first-person narration, to what extent such feelings are based in reality or are instead over-sensitive worries by a young college student who is anxious and insecure.
Veronica’s brother Jack was healthy, prone to laughter, and teasing with Veronica: to him Tony was the object of mild curiosity. Veronica’s mother was quieter and calmer, often disappearing into the kitchen. She seemed fully middle-aged to Tony (though he reflects that she must have been in her early forties), and he remembers her having a vaguely artistic air.
Veronica’s mother will, it turns out, be central to this story. It’s all the more significant, given the novel’s focus on the selectivity of memory, that Tony cannot recall much about her—except, tellingly, how old she seemed and a sense that she might be something of a free thinker.
Tony’s most vivid memory of the weekend is being so uneasy that he was constipated the whole time. He vaguely recalls Veronica withdrawing, at first, into her family and judging him along with the others; he remembers awkwardly discussing current affairs in front of the TV news after dinner. In a novel, he thought, Veronica might have snuck up to his floor at night, but she didn’t.
The college-aged Tony is still occupied with the gap between life and literature—disappointed when life seems to be more banal or ordinary than the books he’s read. This disappointment is coupled with Tony’s continued insecurity about his background compared to the Fords’.
On Saturday, Tony descended for breakfast to find that everyone but Mrs. Ford had gone for a walk. Ill at ease, Tony eventually asked if they’d lived here long. As she cooked eggs in a frying pan, unconcerned when one broke, she told him not to let Veronica get away with too much. He wasn’t sure what to respond: finally she smiled and said they’d lived here for ten years. She slipped eggs onto Tony’s plate and threw the hot frying pan into the wet sink, laughing at the fizzing water and steam.
This memory should be a reminder of one image with which the book began—a sizzling frying pan in a wet sink—thus implying both that Tony’s conversation with Mrs. Ford will prove significant later on, and that what will remain in his memory are evocative images far more than a straightforward, trustworthy narrative about what happened during this weekend.
When the others returned, the air of interrogation seemed to dissipate, though Tony was paranoid that they’d just become tired of him. Still, Veronica became more affectionate with him, and even kissed him goodnight that evening. They ate roast lamb for Sunday lunch, and Tony remembered to say how delicious it was, though Jack winked at his father as if privately dismissing Tony’s attempt at manners.
Even as the weekend improves somewhat for Tony, he continues to feel awkward and out of place, particularly with the Ford men—imagining that they are making fun of him or simply tolerating him, that he isn’t good enough for their daughter or isn’t from the right background.
Jack didn’t show up to say goodbye when Tony left. He remembers Mrs. Ford leaning against the porch, waving not with a raised palm but a horizontal, waist-level gesture. He wished he’d spoken more to her.
It’s extremely ambiguous what Mrs. Ford’s gesture is, but the general enigma of her character will only become more significant as the novel goes on.
A week later, Tony recalls, Veronica came to London so she could meet his friends. They wandered around the tourist neighborhoods and then met the boys. She asked Alex what his father did, and his answer (marine insurance) surprised Tony. She asked if Adrian knew anyone she did at Cambridge, and her talk of dons and colleges made Tony feel left out: only then did he learn that Jack attended Cambridge, studying moral sciences like Adrian.
Tony’s surprise is evidence of the fact that, though he considers Alex a close friend, there’s much he doesn’t know about him—including things that he might easily learn, were he to show the kind of interest in others that Veronica does. In general the narrative gives the impression that the young Tony is extremely self-absorbed and somewhat oblivious, and the older Tony doesn’t seem to recognize this either. Jack’s Cambridge connection is further fodder for Tony’s feelings of insecurity.
Veronica asked for a picture to be taken with Tony’s friends in Trafalgar Square. Forty years on, Tony examines this photo again to look for answers. He wonders why Veronica never wore heels, and if it was a way of commanding attention in the opposite way one might think: yet he always thought of her actions as instinctive, not manipulative, when they were dating. He’s not sure that it would help him now to know or decide that she’d always been calculating.
Returning to the picture, and to his memory of this evening, Tony is grappling with the fact that there’s much about it he cannot grasp or remember—and, in addition, that he may never have understood Veronica in the first place. At this point in the narrative, it’s still unclear why Veronica might be seen as “calculating,” or why that might be important.
After Veronica left, Tony asked his friends what they thought. Adrian said he’d heard of Jack and knew of the people he went around with. When Tony asked what he thought of them, Adrian said with feeling that he hated how the English had a way of not being serious about being serious. Tony should have felt offended, perhaps, but instead felt vindicated.
Veronica and Tony dated through their second year. Little by little she allowed him more sexual privileges, though not “full sex,” and he began to feel slightly resentful. One day, out of the blue, she asked if he ever thought about where their relationship was heading. He wondered immediately if this was why she was letting him go further with her. He asked if the relationship had to “go” somewhere, and she replied that she didn’t want to stagnate. He asked if they could just enjoy their time together. She responded that he was cowardly, and he replied that it was more that he was peaceable.
Tony does not appear very flattering in this depiction: he’s eager to have sex with Veronica, but unwilling to think seriously about their relationship—perhaps another sign of the difficulty he has being “serious” about anything. Were Tony to dive into this relationship, he might have to be more earnest, and he also might get hurt: his avoidance of both is what he seems to mean by calling himself “peaceable.”
Today, Tony considers this the beginning of the end of their relationship, but wonders if he remembers it that way in order to apportion blame and responsibility a certain way. He’d never thought of himself as either peaceable or the opposite until that conversation.
Even the scene just described only reaches the readers through the imperfect memory and biased point of view of Tony today, only complicating any interpretation even more.
Tony reflects that he has few other memories from Bristol other than work and Veronica. One that does stand out is the night he saw the Severn Bore, staying up until after midnight with some friends at Minsterworth. Suddenly, after flowing slowly for hours, the river seemed to “change its mind” and a wave headed the opposite direction, moving towards the group, then surging into the distance. Tony remembers feeling dumbstruck: it wasn’t violent or earth-shattering, but felt quietly wrong, as if nature and time were both for an instant reversed.
A bore is a tidal surge in which the tide suddenly comes in in a single wave, going against the previous tide or current. In the novel, the Severn Bore will become a powerful symbol for the characters’ yearning for history to be reversed and time to go backward—for things not to be as irrevocable as they usually are. Only in memories (like in this one, for Tony) do events return out of order, such that history does seem able to be reshuffled.
Tony shifts topics suddenly: after Veronica and he broke up, he shares, she slept with him. He didn’t see it coming at all, even after Veronica and he bumped into each other at the pub (which she didn’t like), or when they kissed after she asked him to walk her home. All the while he still thought she was a virgin, even as she clearly knew what she was doing. As he threw out the condom afterwards, he concluded that this wasn’t what he wanted.
The abrupt juxtaposition of the Severn Bore memory and this memory underlines the stark contrast between the desire for things to have been different, and the reality that Tony did make certain choices, that certain irrevocable events did happen—even if he portrays himself as almost entirely lacking agency in this scene.
The next time they met, Veronica called Tony a “selfish bastard.” First, she said his flippant decision practically made the sex rape, then asked why he didn’t tell her beforehand that it was definitively over: he said he didn’t know then, but he’d finally thought about their relationship, like she’d wanted him to.
While Tony has depicted sleeping with Veronica as an accident, one without blame on either side, she obviously feels hurt and betrayed: Tony responds unfeelingly, continuing to avoid responsibility and merely be “peaceable.”
Veronica responded sarcastically, until Tony asked if she slept with him to get him back. When she didn’t answer, he asked why she wouldn’t sleep with him while they were dating. Perhaps she didn’t want to, she said; he asked if she didn’t want to because she didn’t need to.
In this scene, Tony paints a chilling, even misogynistic portrait of Veronica as manipulative and deceptive, as dangling the possibility of sex before him in order to lure him into a relationship.
Bristol was large enough that they didn’t run into each other too much: each time, Tony became apprehensive that Veronica would make him feel guilty, but she never spoke to him. He told himself he didn’t need to feel guilty: they were both responsible for their own actions, and no one had gotten pregnant, no one had died.
Tony implicitly suggests that he did feel guilty—or could have felt guilty, if he hadn’t done as much as he could to avoid thinking about Veronica. Instead he assigns responsibility equally to both parties.
During summer vacation, a letter arrived from Chislehurst. It was Veronica’s mother, who said she was sorry to hear they’d broken up and hoped Tony would find someone more suitable. The letter didn’t imply that Tony was a jerk: indeed, there was a suggestion that he might be better off. Now Tony wishes he’d kept the letter as proof or corroboration: instead he only has the memory of a dashing, carefree woman who told him not to let Veronica get the better of him.
This is one of the first of many times that Tony uses the term “corroboration,” often without specifying exactly what he means. Veronica’s mother has seemed to be on Tony’s side rather than on Veronica’s the entire time. Now he seems to want her to confirm the narrative that Veronica was conniving, and that he was innocent.
Back at Bristol for his final year, Tony focused on his schoolwork, determined to get a 2:1, if not a first. He recalls a one-night stand with a girl from the pub, something he thinks about more often now than he used to. Most people, he notes, didn’t experience the sixties until the seventies: where he was, bits of the sixties were coexisting with bits of the fifties.
The “2:1” and “first” refer to the grading system for degrees in the UK. Tony returns to the idea that sexual changes happened not just gradually but unevenly, at different times and in different places. Here, he uses such explanation to try to justify his own frustration and confusion regarding sex in his relationship with Veronica.
Tony asks himself what his logic should be, how his story should continue. Six months later, he received a letter from Adrian—rare, since Adrian was working hard for finals. Tony assumed he’d do postgraduate work, then academia or the civil service: he didn’t think Adrian was the kind of person to get his name in the newspapers. Tony admits now that he’s putting off telling the reader the next part: he goes on to say that Adrian was writing to ask permission to date Veronica. Or, as far as Tony remembers, he actually wrote to say that they were already going out, and that he hoped Tony could accept it; if he couldn’t, Adrian owed it to their friendship to reconsider his actions. It had been partly at Veronica’s suggestion, in fact, that he’d written.
At various points in the narration, Tony will pause, take a step back, and comment on the very process of telling a story—reminding readers that the novel is unfolding as a story told by a narrator who is also the protagonist, and who also has some interest in protecting and justifying his own character. Here, the meta-commentary on the storytelling process is also a delay tactic. Thus it’s also one that signals the importance of the information that follows, both for Tony’s response and for the events that this information unleashes.
Tony felt angry and bitter at this ethical posturing, the idea that Adrian would stop having sex with Veronica if Tony objected (unless, he thought, she was “stringing him along” too), as well as at Veronica’s hypocrisy: she really just wanted to tell him that she had “traded up” to a Cambridge student like Jack. Tony stresses that this is how he interprets what happened, or rather how he now remembers having interpreted, at the time, what was happening.
In a string of angry thoughts, Tony—or, the reader is reminded, the younger Tony invoked by memory—immediately assumes bad faith on the part of Adrian and Veronica. He also feels even more insecure about Jack’s Cambridge education now that he shares it with Veronica’s new boyfriend.
Tony notes that he has an instinct for survival and self-preservation, perhaps what Veronica had meant by calling him cowardly. He chose a postcard at random and wrote, in the jokey way he and Colin and Alex maintained in school, that everything was fine by him. He convinced himself that he didn’t mind, that he’d study hard and get his degree (he did get a 2:1). He did spend some time imagining how Veronica would complain about him to Adrian.
Finally Tony followed up with an actual letter and, as far as he can now remember, said what he thought of their “moral scruples.” He advised Adrian to be prudent, since Veronica seemed to him to have suffered “damage” a long time ago. He burned Adrian’s letter and decided the two of them were forever out of his life.
Although Tony’s second letter does sound more serious than the jokey postcard he’d initially sent, in this letter he still doesn’t share his feelings openly or honestly, instead preferring to insult the two of them and hurt them as much as he’d been hurt.
Wondering what he had meant by “damaged,” Tony now thinks back on his weekend in Chislehurst: he knew there’d been more at stake than a young man uneasy among a posh family. In addition to that, he had sensed a complicity between Veronica and Veronica’s father, who was so casually disdainful of Tony, and between her and Jack—though a certain distance between Veronica and her mother Sarah, who obviously saw Veronica for what she really was. Veronica had gone on a walk with her father and brother that first morning after telling everyone that Tony would sleep late, a blatant lie—he never slept late, as she knew.
Here and later in the novel, Tony reflects on the brief period of time he’d spent with Veronica’s brother and parents—so brief that it would seem impossible for the weekend to hold any clues to how Tony might interpret his or Veronica’s own past actions. In returning to the memory, though, he does resuscitate another detail, the fact that Veronica had lied in order to escape with her father and brother for an hour.
A lifetime later, though, Tony still isn’t positive what he meant by “damaged.” He recalls that his mother-in-law once observed, in response to another case of child abuse in the papers, that everyone has in some way been abused. He wonders if there was “inappropriate behavior” with Veronica’s father or her brother Jack, some “primal” moment of loss. He remembers Old Joe Hunt saying that mental states can be inferred from actions, and thinks that in private life, it’s more that you can infer past actions from current mental states. Tony does think we all suffer damage, though much depends on how we respond to such damage.
Tony now seems to speculate wildly in wondering what he meant by “damaged” then, and if he still thinks Veronica was damaged now. In either case, he’s presuming that Veronica’s actions, including her decision to date Adrian, are so absurd as to need that kind of explanation. It’s not clear that he’s right about that, even if the novel will go on to explore other kinds of real psychological and emotional damage.
Tony admits that this is self-justifying prattle, that he was probably just a typical callow man, that the Fords were a normal family subject to his “theories” about damage, and that Mrs. Ford was strangely jealous of her daughter rather than concerned on Tony’s behalf. His reader might even ask that Tony apply his “theory” of damage to himself, he admits, and ask how that might affect his reliability. Tony isn’t sure he could adequately respond.
By admitting that his entire interpretation is potentially biased, Tony one-ups his potentially skeptical reader by suggesting that he’s well aware of the problems entailed in telling a highly personal story from his own perspective—even if he offers no solutions to that problem.
Tony never heard back from Adrian, and began to lose touch with Colin and Alex too. After graduating, he left for the United States for six months, where he did odd jobs and traveled around. Unlike today, there was no way for his parents to reach him instantly.
In this transitional part of the narrative, Tony’s life does move on, and the people who were the most central to his life in high school and college begin to recede from importance.
In the U.S., Tony met an American girl named Annie, who wore plaid shirts and was friendly. They were lovers for three months: drinking, smoking, and traveling together, before separating easily (“easy come, easy go,” Annie said—though now Tony wonders if there was a question in that response).
Tony treasures his memories of his time with Annie, who is depicted as far more easy-going than Annie. Even so, there’s a brief suggestion that Tony may have merely assumed that she never wanted something serious—once again he sees his girlfriends in terms of what they offer or deny him, rather than as complex individuals on their own terms.
When Tony got home, his mother cooked him dinner, then gave him his mail. At the top of the pile was a letter from Alex, saying that Adrian had killed himself. Alex had called Tony’s mother, who’d said she didn’t know where he was. Tony’s father said “Sorry, lad,” which seemed utterly wrong to Tony; after a pause, his mother asked if it was because Adrian was too clever. Unwilling to respond, Tony opened Alex’s second letter, which said that Adrian had done it efficiently and had left a record of his reasons. Alex asked if they could meet and talk.
After the brief interlude of Tony’s time in the United States, there’s an abrupt return to reality of the most sobering kind. Tony’s parents, who are never fully fleshed out in the narrative, seem especially out of touch to him now, unable to help him grasp how Adrian could have killed himself. One immediate effect of his suicide is to bring Alex back into Tony’s life, however.
Tony returned in his mind to the innocent discussions after Robson’s suicide, when it was evident to the friends that suicide was a free right, a logical act when faced with terminal illness, heroic in the face of torture or glamorous as a response to disappointed love. None of these criteria applied either to Robson or to Adrian. Adrian’s letter to the coroner said that life was a gift given without anyone asking for it; everyone had a philosophical duty to examine the nature of life, and even to give it back depending on his or her conclusions. He had asked the coroner to make his argument public, which the official had.
Tony returns to the conversations around Robson’s death that he had as an adolescent—but not in order to realize how offensive or thoughtless they were, and how unconcerned with Robson as a person. Instead, he thinks back to them in the same callous mindset as before, but now to determine whether Adrian had philosophically rigorous-enough reasons to kill himself. Adrian’s letter seems to suggest that he, at least, thought he did.
Alex and Tony discussed how Adrian killed himself: he cut his wrists in the bath during a weekend when his flatmates were gone. The Cambridge Evening News wrote that the coroner’s verdict was that Adrian Finn had killed himself while “the balance of his mind was disturbed.” Tony found this unjust and untrue—but according to the law, you were by definition mad if you killed yourself, making it unlikely that anyone would listen to Adrian’s argument.
For Tony and his friends, mainstream society can’t possibly understand suicide as an open philosophical question, one that intense thinking might lead one to resolve. The novel, however, implies that Tony’s disgust may be more self-righteous and cold than noble.
Adrian had asked to be cremated and his ashes to be scattered: he considered it a philosophical choice for his body to be quickly destroyed. Alex said that he couldn’t decide whether the suicide was impressive or a terrible waste. Tony wondered if there was an implicit criticism of everyone else in it, including the two of them. He wondered, too, if Adrian’s philosophy tutors felt at all responsible for his act.
Tony and Alex are clearly shocked and upset, and yet they still find it easier to think about how they are affected—how the suicide might have been meant as a message to them, for instance—than to really consider or imagine Adrian’s own feelings and motives.
Alex said that the last time he saw Adrian, he’d said he was in love. Silently calling Veronica a bitch, Tony decided that Veronica was the one woman a man could fall in love with and still think life worth refusing.
Even after six months away, and in the midst of tragedy, Tony is still bitter enough about Veronica to think as insultingly about her as he can.
Back home, Tony conveyed some of the conversation to his mother. Tony’s mother said that Adrian was too clever—that someone like that could argue himself into anything, leaving common sense behind. Tony almost couldn’t respond, he was so angry. The next few days, he tried to imagine how Adrian could have loved Veronica and still killed himself. He wondered if something terrible had happened in the months he was gone, but decided Adrian would have been honest about it, as the philosopher he was.
Tony thinks that his mother can’t possibly understand the high stakes of suicide or grasp the complex philosophical debates in which he engaged with Adrian, Alex, and Colin. Briefly wondering if there was more to the story than he knew, Tony quickly throws out that possibility, and in doing so he remains self-centered, assuming that he can decide what Adrian meant and why he acted the way he did.
Finally, Tony came around to understanding and admiring Adrian’s reasons, his logical reasoning—so different than the knee-jerk way most people make decisions. He decided there was no implicit criticism of himself or his friends in the act. Still, he agreed with Alex that it was all a terrible waste.
One year later, Colin, Alex, and Tony met up for a reunion, going over old memories—turning past into anecdote already. They recalled, though, that they had never been to Adrian’s home, though he’d been to all of theirs. They swore to repeat the reunion annually. Yet their lives were moving in different directions: even Adrian retreated in importance over time.
Tony reflects on how easy and natural it feels to make the messy, painful past into a set of digestible and repeatable stories and anecdotes. At the same time, the group also recognizes that there was much about Adrian that they never knew.
Tony began work in arts administration; he met a coworker, Margaret, married her, and had a daughter, Susie. His first job turned into a long career. He liked his marriage, but was perhaps too peaceable—after twelve years Margaret had an affair with a restaurateur, and they rather amicably split up, sharing custody with Susie, who never seemed too damaged (though he now realizes he never applied his theory of damage to his own daughter).
While nearly half the book has been taken up with a few short years in Tony’s life, here he speeds up, skating over large swaths of his later life, including his career, marriage, and daughter. Tony had theorized earlier that everyone is somehow damaged—it’s just their responses to that damage that differ—but at the time he was thinking of Veronica, not of his own family.
Tony had a few subsequent affairs: it always felt right to tell Margaret about them, though now he wonders if that stemmed from jealousy or self-protection. Susie grew up and married a doctor named Ken: they have two children. Margaret’s second husband took up with a younger woman, and now Tony and Margaret remain on good terms, meeting sometimes for lunch. Once, after some wine, she suggested they might get back together, but Tony is now used to his solitude and routines, and perhaps, he reflects, just not odd enough to do something like that.
Tony describes his break-up with Margaret as almost inevitable, and certainly not as a cause for heartbreak. Here, however, his blasé tone and insistence that he and Margaret have an easy, jocular relationship seems to hide real pain: not just that Margaret left Tony, but that she perhaps has always loved him and has wanted to get him to feel more deeply and strongly about her.
Now Tony is retired. He has a few drinking friends, some platonic female friends; he volunteers running the library at the local hospital and is a member of the local history society. His life has been interesting to him, though he admits it probably wouldn’t seem so to others. He “survived to tell the tale,” as people say. He’s learned that history isn’t, as he once said, the lies of the victors, but rather the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated.
Tony seems to conclude the story of his life here, even though the book is barely halfway over. He also reflects back on a conversation he’d had with Old Joe Hunt about possible definitions of history. Here he modifies both his and the teacher’s suggestions, changing the protagonists from “victors” to “survivors.”