The Sense of an Ending


Julian Barnes

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Themes and Colors
Memory, Manipulation, and Self-Deception Theme Icon
History, Narrative, and Truth Theme Icon
Responsibility, Agency, and Guilt Theme Icon
Sex, Class, and Power Theme Icon
Philosophy vs. Reality Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Sense of an Ending, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.

Memory, Manipulation, and Self-Deception

When The Sense of an Ending begins, Tony Webster, a sixty-something retired Englishman, has received a legacy of 500 pounds from Sarah Ford, the mother of an old girlfriend, Veronica Ford. He also inherits the diary of an old school friend, Adrian Finn (another of Veronica’s exes), who killed himself. For reasons that remain unclear for most of the novel, Veronica’s mother has kept Adrian’s diary since then. Although Veronica refuses to…

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History, Narrative, and Truth

Just as The Sense of an Ending presents memory as subject to the corrupting force of self-deception, the novel also represents history as fallible, since it’s subject to rewriting, interpretation, and misinterpretation. The novel suggests that the past is only accessible via the narratives people construct about it: while history might seem far more stable and more objective than human memory, in this novel it’s presented instead as unstable, uncertain, and just as subjective as…

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Responsibility, Agency, and Guilt

In the halls of their London school, Tony and his peers grapple with cause and effect, asking themselves whether historical change is caused by individual actors, vast social forces, or some combination of the two. This is also a question about responsibility: about whether it is possible to trace the cause of a certain event to a specific time, place, and person. In Tony’s case, he wonders whether it is possible to trace Adrian’s…

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Sex, Class, and Power

Tony heads to university in the 1960s, a decade now synonymous with movements of political protest as well as cultural change—including sexual liberation, civil rights, and women’s and gay rights movements. The Sense of an Ending is more generally interested in examining the effects of shifting sexual mores on the lives of its characters, whether in the context of romantic relationships or among friends. Tony views his younger self as a sexual amateur—one whose early…

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Philosophy vs. Reality

In attempting to understand the chain of events leading to Sarah Ford’s inclusion of Tony in her will, Tony returns again and again to his school days, in particular to his history, philosophy, and literature classes. In the classroom, Tony and his friends tried to outsmart and intellectually one-up each other, eager to be as clever as possible while also maintaining an attitude of cool detachment. But literary and philosophical ideas do have concrete…

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