The Sense of an Ending begins with a set of disjointed images—all memories of Tony Webster, the narrator and protagonist—beginning with a “shiny inner wrist” and ending with cold bathwater behind a locked door. Tony reflects that he still doesn’t understand time very well, even though it’s formed and molded him. But he notes that he should begin his story with his schooldays, since that’s where it all began.
Tony describes the arrival of Adrian Finn to his all-boys London high school, where he forms a close-knit group of friends with Colin and Alex: Adrian will become the fourth, though he’ll remain at a slight distance from the others. Adrian makes an impression on Tony when he makes a clever comment in history class with Old Joe Hunt: Tony compliments Adrian, but is surprised when Adrian seems to take the comment seriously rather than deflecting it ironically. Adrian is generally more serious than the others, earnestly participating in school events and seriously considering their teachers’ questions, rather than seeking to be as clever as possible, as Tony, Alex, and Colin do. Adrian can be clever as well: in literature class with Phil Dixon, he says that the meaning of a poem is “Eros and Thanatos,” sex and love—which he will refer back to after the students learn that Robson, another student in the school, has killed himself. The rumor is that he did so once his girlfriend became pregnant. After discussing his possible reasons, the boys conclude that his action was unphilosophical and weak.
The boys feel like they’re in a “holding pen,” like their lives are waiting to start. Adrian is the only one of them who seems to have a slightly more novelistic life—his parents are divorced, which is rare in their environment—but Adrian keeps much about his personal life to himself. What Tony remembers most about him is his stunning intellect. In the last history class of the term, in response to Old Joe Hunt’s question about how to define history, Adrian calls history the certainty that results from inadequate documentation meeting imperfect memory—and uses Robson’s suicide as his example.
The group of friends disperses after they graduate: Adrian has a scholarship to Cambridge, while Tony begins studying history at Bristol. He meets his first girlfriend, Veronica Mary Elizabeth Ford, whom he describes as “nice,” but he also finds her intimidating, with her love of poetry, her sophisticated taste in records, and her bemused attitude with respect to his bumbling attempts to be clever. Tony is eager to have “full sex” with Veronica, who doesn’t let him go that far. One weekend she invites him to meet her family in Kent, at Chislehurst. Tony is highly uncomfortable all weekend, especially with Veronica’s father and her brother Jack, both of whom are pleasant and jocular but seem to Tony to be treating him with barely disguised contempt—especially since he feels intimidated by their privileged social and economic status. Veronica seems to be distancing herself from him as well, though he’s not sure if he’s being paranoid about this. On Saturday morning he has a rather strange conversation with Veronica’s mother, Sarah Ford, who seems to him artistic, casual, and carefree, and warns him not to let Veronica get away with too much. As Tony leaves on Sunday, she waves at him with a strange, enigmatic gesture, and he wishes he’d spent more time with her. Soon afterward, Tony has Veronica meet his high school friends: he learns that Jack, like Adrian, is at Cambridge, and feels another pang of inferiority.
Veronica and Tony continue dating during their second year, and she lets him take more sexual liberties with her. She also asks where he thinks the relationship is going, a question that makes him uncomfortable: he says he prefers to live in the present, and is “peaceable”—which she calls cowardly. Reflecting from the present day, Tony remarks that although work and Veronica took up most of his time at Bristol, he also has a few memories—particularly one night in which he and his friends stayed up late to witness the Severn Bore, marveling at how time seemed to reverse itself as the river changed direction for a few moments and a wave charged upstream.
Tony’s next memory is of Veronica—after the two of them broke up—sleeping with him, an event that he describes as happening essentially without him deciding or willing it. As he throws the condom out, he decides he actually doesn’t want a relationship with Veronica: when he tells her this, she gets enormously upset. Tony tries to put her out of his life. He has a one-night stand with another girl, and focuses on his studies in his final year. One day, he gets a letter from Adrian, saying that he’s begun to date Veronica, and says he feels he needs to check in with Tony—if Tony really isn’t fine with it, Adrian will have to reevaluate things. Tony slips a jokey, casual postcard in the mail immediately, saying all’s fine with him, but he’s seething; after a few days, he sends a real letter, in which he writes (according to what present-day Tony can remember) that he doesn’t think much of their moral scruples, and that Veronica is manipulative and probably damaged—though Tony still isn’t exactly sure what he meant by that. He writes that Adrian should consult with Veronica’s mother on that count.
After graduating, Tony spends a few months traveling around the United States. He dates a girl named Annie during his time there, reveling in how easy-going (and thus unlike Veronica) she is. When he returns, there’s a letter from Alex: it says that Adrian has killed himself. Tony and Alex meet to talk, and Tony learns that Adrian left a letter saying that everyone has a philosophical duty to examine life—a gift bestowed without anyone asking for it—and if one decides to renounce the gift, he has a duty to act upon the consequences of that choice. Alex and Tony agree that his suicide is a waste, even as they admire Adrian’s clear-thinking logic. A year after his death, they have a reunion with Colin in which they reminisce about Adrian, and vow to meet again every year, but time passes, and they lose touch.
Tony gets a job in arts administration, where he meets Margaret, marries her, and has a daughter, Susie, with her. Eventually Margaret meets a restaurant owner and leaves Tony for him, but the man ends up leaving Margaret in turn. The two of them become friends again. Once Margaret suggests they get back together, but Tony believes (or tells himself) that she doesn’t mean it. Now Tony is retired: he volunteers wheeling a library cart around at a hospital, and is a member of the local history society. He concludes that his life has been interesting to him, though perhaps not to many others: although he once told Old Joe Hunt that history was the lies of the victors, he recognizes now that it’s the memories of the survivors, neither victorious nor defeated.
The second part of the novel begins with Tony reflecting on how growing old changes the way one thinks about time. Some things have remained the same with him: he still enjoys some of the same music, for instance. He gets along fine with Susie, though sometimes he thinks she seems to be patronizing him.
Somewhat abruptly, Tony shares what has really prompted all the memories related in the book’s first half: he’s received a long white envelope from a lawyer, Eleanor Marriott, relating to the estate of Mrs. Sarah Ford. Tony goes through his vague memories from that weekend in Chislehurst, but can’t think of anything significant. Mrs. Ford has left him 500 pounds and two documents: one is a letter from her saying that she’s left him Adrian’s diary—she’s not sure of her own motives, but wants him to have it, and thinks that Adrian’s last months were happy. The diary, however, is missing: Eleanor Marriott says that Veronica Ford, who was taking care of her mother in the years up until her death, has it, and prefers not to hand it over. Tony gets in touch with his own lawyer, T.J. Gunnell, who advises him not to characterize Veronica’s actions as a “theft.” Tony also asks for Veronica and Jack Ford’s contact information, though only receives the latter. Jack isn’t too helpful—he writes a cheery email from Singapore (though Tony thinks he may be pulling his leg, and is in fact sitting near an English golf course, laughing at him after all these years), but does give Veronica his contact information.
Margaret advises Tony to drop the matter, but he’s too stubborn to do so. Increasingly, a number of memories begin to come back to him about his time with Veronica—memories that make him newly attracted to her. Tony remembers Veronica herself being stubborn and “difficult,” so he begins a dogged email campaign, persistently writing to her every few days with the goal of finally getting his hands on the diary. Finally, Eleanor Marriot sends him a single page photocopied from the diary. The page includes a formula that Adrian has written with a number of letters on them, asking how one might calculate the relationships between the people in his life, and whether it’s possible to identify a chain of responsibility. The page ends with a fragment: “So, for instance, if Tony…” Tony has no idea what the page means, but he’s shook by the final phrase: he wonders if it’s a referendum on his entire life, the way he’s settled for easy peaceableness, the way he’s always been overly concerned with other people’s approval.
Tony keeps emailing Veronica, and she finally agrees to meet him at what’s known as the Wobbly Bridge in London. When they meet, Tony thinks she looks somewhat ragged. She says she won’t hand over the diary, but does hand Tony an envelope with a letter inside. When he opens it, it’s his own long-ago letter that he sent to Veronica and Adrian. It’s vulgar, bitter, and cruel: in it he calls Veronica a “cockteaser” and wishes, among other things, that she can get pregnant before Adrian discovers she’s a “bore.” Reading it, Tony is shocked and appalled at his younger self. He recognizes that it hadn’t been cruel of the two of them to tell him they were dating; he realizes that he was all too quick to make Veronica out to be manipulative and deceptive. He feels remorse, not only for the letter, but also for his whole life—drab and ordinary as contrasted to Adrian’s brilliance, which stands out all the more since Adrian’s own life was so short. He continues to reflect on whether character changes over time, on why his marriage with Margaret ended, and on how uncertainty about the past only increases with age. One night, he writes an email to Veronica asking if she thinks he was in love with her back then, and quickly presses send: she responds that if he had to ask, the answer was no. When Tony relates this to Margaret, she grows quiet and says that he’s on his own now.
Tony decides he needs to make Veronica reevaluate her opinion of him, and realize that he’s not as awful as he comes across in that letter. He writes to Veronica again, apologizing and asking for details about her life. She seems almost happy to be asked, and shares details about her parents: her father ended up drinking too much, and eventually got cancer; her mother moved to London and seemed to be doing well until her memory started failing a few years before she died. Tony looks for manipulation in the email but sees only an ordinary, sad story. He emails again to ask if they can meet—not for the diary but just to catch up. On the way to their lunch date he has an intense memory of her dancing, and reflects that although he sometimes felt sexually frustrated with her, there was also much about their relationship that he loved. When they do meet, he spends the entire time sharing details about his life, while she says nothing; she leaves before he can stop her, having barely spoken at all.
Tony emails yet again to apologize for having done so much of the talking: he wants to hear more about her life and her family. She responds telling him to meet her at an unfamiliar Tube station in north London. When he does, she asks him to get into her car and drives up a street until they see a group of five men, whom Tony assumes are mentally ill, together with a care worker. Veronica gets out and they seem happy to see her. Back in the car, Tony is mystified, and asks about her connection with the “goofy man” and the others, including why they called her “Mary.” Veronica is clearly upset, and orders him out. Tony is upset himself, feeling especially humiliated that he allowed himself to imagine that he might be able to remake some kind of relationship with Veronica this late in life. He feels like a fool, and given that Margaret is also upset with him, lonelier than ever. Still, he emails Jack to ask him if he might be able to shed any light on the subject, but Jack doesn’t respond.
Alone, Tony returns to north London, and revisits the pub and shop where he and Veronica had seen the group of men entering. Without any obligations on his time, he decides to become a regular at the pub. One day, the group of men does enter, with another care worker. At one point Tony encounters one of the men at the bar: the man looks Tony straight in the face, and Tony quietly says he’s a friend of Mary’s. The man grows upset as a result, and Tony leaves. He’s realized that the man is unmistakably Adrian’s son, and realizes that it must be his son with Veronica. Tony feels shock and compassion, but also is forced to reevaluate the way he’s always thought of Adrian—now, he thinks, he’s recognized that Adrian’s suicide wasn’t grand and heroic, but was cowardly and weak in its own way.
Tony sends Veronica an email referring to what he’s learned, but she only responds saying that he still doesn’t get it, and never will. One day, he drives over to the pub again, when the group of men, including Adrian’s son, walk in once more. At one point, a care worker, Terry, comes over to ask who Tony is, saying that he seems to be agitating Adrian’s son (also named Adrian). Tony apologizes and says he’ll leave: he tells Terry that he’s a friend of Adrian, or rather was a friend of his father and of his mother, Mary. Terry, however, says he must be mistaken: Adrian is Mary’s sister, not her son; his mother died a few months ago.
Finally, Tony “gets it”: Sarah Ford had slept with Adrian and had gotten pregnant with his son. He understands the formula in Adrian’s diary fragment, which was trying to understand the connections between himself, Tony, Veronica, and Sarah Ford. Tony had told Adrian to consult Veronica’s mother in order to understand how “damaged” she was. Tony ends the novel knowing that he can’t possibly know or understand much more about this story, and also can’t understand the extent to which he really must feel responsible. He feels only great unrest.