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 memory.
In the scenes of Tony’s high-school history class taught by Old Joe Hunt, various characters propose different ways of thinking about history. Colin suggests that history simply consists of endless repetition; Tony eagerly describes history as the “lies of the victors”; finally, Adrian calls history the certainty that results from imperfect memory meeting inadequate documentation (he cites a made-up historian named Patrick Lagrange—though perhaps even this is another instance of mis-remembering on Tony’s part). These competing definitions of history suggest that, even as Tony and his friends have learned to master facts about the past, it may be impossible for people to agree what they mean by “history,” as well as what historical events mean.
Tony returns at various points in the story to Adrian’s definition in particular, as he has to face the question of whether it’s really possible to ever know with confidence what happened in the past. In the high-school scene, Adrian uses the recent suicide of their classmate Robson to explain what he means: already, uncertainties about Robson’s death abound, and the passage of time will only create more uncertainty—making it impossible for future generations to be certain what happened. In making this argument, Adrian assumes that eyewitnesses should always be trusted more than secondary sources, while Old Joe Hunt cautions that one can sometimes reach a more accurate account of the past by studying other pieces of evidence, rather than by asking those who were involved.
Throughout the novel, Tony’s own searches for what he calls “corroboration,” for evidence that would confirm or deny his own memory of the past, underline the novel’s interest in exploring various means of writing and imagining history. The fact, for instance, that Veronica burns Adrian’s diary (which Tony has been attempting unsuccessfully to read)—or at least tells Tony that she does—means that Tony can no longer know the “truth” about what really happened all those years ago by relying on Adrian’s own words. But the novel calls into question whether reading Adrian’s testimony would really give Tony the certainty he craves, because his testimony would only be one partial, subjective version of the past.
The novel thus calls into question the very possibility of ever finding out what “really” happened in the past. This is clearest in Tony’s struggle to figure out why the older Veronica so wants him to understand why she’s acquainting him with a mentally challenged man in a care community in North London. At first he’s mystified, and then thinks it’s Veronica and Adrian’s son: he constructs an entire narrative around Adrian’s suicide that now stems from his inability to accept a girlfriend’s pregnancy. Then he realizes that, in fact, the man is the child of Adrian and Veronica’s mother (Sarah Ford). The narratives that Tony constructs say more about Tony’s own past, biases, and desires—the “history of the historian,” as adolescent Adrian says—than about what really happened. Yet even Tony’s final revelation is never explicitly confirmed. By refusing to tie up loose ends, the novel implies that people cannot help but make history into a story—one with meaning, a climax, and the “sense of an ending”—even in the absence of clear answers. Part of growing up, the novel thus suggests, is learning to live instead with the ambiguities of historical narrative—to accept that what we call history is really our interpretation of it, even as that interpretation affects historical change into the future.
History, Narrative, and Truth ThemeTracker
History, Narrative, and Truth Quotes in The Sense of an Ending
But school is where it all began, so I need to return briefly to a few incidents that have grown into anecdotes, to some approximate memories which time has deformed into certainty.
“That’s one of the central problems of history, isn’t it, sir? The question of subjective versus objective interpretation, the fact that we need to know the history of the historian in order to understand the version that is being put in front of us?”
This was another of our fears: that Life wouldn’t turn out to be like Literature.
“History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”
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 did, eventually, find myself thinking straight. That’s to say, understanding Adrian’s reasons, respecting them, and admiring him. He had a better mind and a more rigorous temperament than me; he thought logically, and then acted on the conclusion of logical thought. Whereas most of us, I suspect, do the opposite: we make an instinctive decision, then build up an infrastructure of reason to justify it. And call the result common sense.
History isn’t the lies of the victors, as I once glibly assured Old Joe Hunt; I know that now. It’s more the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated.
We live in time, it bounds us and defines us, and time is supposed to measure history, isn’t it? But if we can’t understand time, can’t grasp its mysteries of pace and progress, what chance do we have with history—even our own small, personal, largely undocumented piece of it?
It strikes me that this may be one of the differences between youth and age: when we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others.
“The question of accumulation,” Adrian had written. […] Life isn’t just addition and subtraction. There’s also the accumulation, the multiplication, of loss, of failure.
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.