One night during university, Tony and a few of his friends gather to see the famous Severn Bore at Minsterworth, not far from Bristol. A bore is a large wave resulting from changes in tidal surges: for a few moments, the course of the River Severn seems to change direction as the wave barrels upstream. Although subtler than a natural phenomenon like a tsunami or earthquake, the Severn Bore seems to Tony to be just as stunning and earth-shattering. For a few moments, time itself seems to reverse course—the laws of history, which is supposed to move in only one direction, seem no longer to apply. As The Sense of an Ending implies, however, the Bore is so alluring precisely because it is an exception to such laws. Time does only move in one direction: as much as Tony would like to go back and change the past, deciding not to send the cruel letter he mailed to Veronica and Adrian, or deciding not to end things with Veronica so callously, or even in a more general sense choosing to live life with less fear and caution, he cannot, like the Bore, move against the tide.
In addition, though, the Severn Bore represents another problem introduced by the novel at the start: the difference between remembering and witnessing. At one point Tony recalls the conversation he had with Veronica while watching the Bore pass: they talked about how it’s possible to see things one would never believe if one hadn’t witnessed them directly. The Bore is one of those you-had-to-see-it-to-believe-it moments, of course. Yet strikingly, when this memory returns to the 60-something Tony later in the novel, for the first time he recalls that Veronica had been with him that night—when he mentioned the night earlier in the novel, she wasn’t present in the memory. The Severn Bore is powerful in part because it’s a remarkable, surprising event that he has witnessed, and thus can believe—but even witnessing it directly doesn’t mean he can entirely seize his memory of what happened that night (nor other moments during his time with Veronica). The Severn Bore thus proves a somber reminder of the deceptions and self-deceptions of memory, and of the limitations of claiming to witness something first-hand.
Severn Bore Quotes in The Sense of an Ending
It was more unsettling because it looked and felt quietly wrong, as if some small lever of the universe had been pressed, and here, just for these minutes, nature was reversed, and time with it.
I know this much: that there is objective time, but also subjective time, the kind you wear on the inside of your wrist, next to where the pulse lies. And this personal time, which is the true time, is measured in your relationship to memory. So when this strange thing happened—when these new memories suddenly came upon me—it was as if, for that moment, time had been placed in reverse. As if, for that moment, the river ran upstream.
What had begun as a determination to obtain property bequeathed to me had morphed into something much larger, something which bore on the whole of my life, on time and memory. And desire. I thought—at some level of my being, I actually thought—that I could go back to the beginning and change things. That I could make the blood flow backwards.