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 hand the diary over to Tony, the unexpected bequest unleashes memories of that time in Tony’s life, from high school to university—memories that he admits are approximate, but which “time has deformed into certainty.” Little by little, however, it becomes clear that Tony has misremembered or actively repressed certain details of his relationship with Veronica, including his deliberate cruelty to her and Adrian once they were together. The novel thus becomes a haunting examination of the ways time can deform memory, even as Tony strives to correct his view of the past. Whether consciously manipulated or unconsciously suppressed, selective memory in this novel as at once a source of pain and, frighteningly, an altogether ordinary aspect of human experience.
The fallibility of memory is something that Tony seems to acknowledge openly from the start. Simply living long enough, he muses, makes memory “a thing of shreds and patches.” He contrasts the ambiguity of memory in old age with the relatively certainty that, for Tony, characterizes a short life like Adrian’s—Tony imagines that Adrian did not live long enough to forget much of importance at all. Such acknowledgments signal that Tony is aware of the ways one’s own memory can be deceptive (though the novel does go on to question the assumptions Tony makes about certainty in Adrian’s life). One implication of this fallibility of important memories is that it undermines Tony’s various pronouncements about himself, since even he acknowledges that it’s impossible to fully know one’s own character. In this way, he unsettles his confident first-person narration, but in another sense his willing acknowledgment of this impossibility continues to suggest a narrator in confident control of his narrative, despite all its slippages and gaps.
The two-part structure of the novel loosely divides the story into “what happened” and “what it meant,” but these two categories mingle and intersect, as Tony is forced to revisit the past at multiple moments after new knowledge (and self-knowledge) arises from his conversations and emails with Veronica, Tony’s ex-wife Margaret, and Veronica’s brother Jack. As the novel returns again and again to events such as Adrian’s suicide, Tony’s visit to Veronica’s family at Chislehurst, and even lessons in his high school history classroom, Barnes suggests that certain significant events can look quite different to different people, and also can carry divergent meanings even for a single person over the arc of their life.
Indeed, as the novel continues, it becomes increasingly clear that Tony has been editing and redacting his memories beyond his own acknowledgment. There is a level of self-deception in Tony’s account of his past that far exceeds the flawed nature of an aging man’s failing memory. Most strikingly, Tony only briefly mentions a letter that he wrote once he learned that Adrian had started dating Veronica, but later in the novel, a 60-something Veronica hands him the letter, in which Tony is shown to have been a bitter, vulgar young man who actively tried to destroy Veronica and Adrian’s relationship by writing the cruelest remarks he could think of—a far cry from the person Tony presented himself to be in his memories.
In part, the letter reveals Tony’s self-deception, a product of his desire to see himself as better than he was. In this way, the narrative shows him (as an older man) coming to terms with the ways he has rewritten his own past. And yet this letter also invites the question of what other memories may have been redacted, edited, or deformed—whether by time or by self-deception. While Tony, for instance, has portrayed his relationship with Margaret as a fully easy, platonic one, allowing him to share details of his complicated feelings for Veronica with her, it slowly becomes evident that she might not see things that way; perhaps he has constructed his own narrative about their past and present together in order to avoid having to face her pain. By employing a first-person narrator, the novel both invites belief in the narration and makes it that much more difficult to determine the extent of Tony’s reliability or unreliability as a narrator.
Yet Tony’s status as an unreliable narrator is never presented as exceptional. Tony is, after all, perfectly ordinary: “average at university and work; average in friendship, loyalty love; average, no doubt, at sex.” In that way, the novel presents Tony’s distorted memory, too, as “average”—no more out of the ordinary than any other aspect of his character, or than any average person’s manipulation of memory. Memories, Barnes suggests, are simultaneously a powerful source of nostalgia and a means of solidifying one’s character, even as they are subject to the fallibility and forgetfulness of the human beings who bear them. The novel shows that the fallibility and even the manipulation of memory is something altogether ordinary, as is the damage and pain it can cause others.
Memory, Manipulation, and Self-Deception ThemeTracker
Memory, Manipulation, and Self-Deception 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.
“History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”
But I think I have an instinct for survival, for self-preservation. Perhaps this is what Veronica called cowardice and I called being peaceable.
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?
Why did I imagine Brother Jack had seen me coming and was having a bit of fun? Perhaps because in this country shadings of class resist time longer than differentials in age. The Fords had been posher than the Websters back then, and they were jolly well going to stay that way. Or was this mere paranoia on my part?
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.
But time…how time first grounds us and then confounds us. We thought we were being mature when we were only being safe. We imagined we were being responsible but were only being cowardly. What we called realism turned out to be a way of avoiding things rather than facing them. Time…give us enough time and our best-supported decisions will seem wobbly, our certainties whimsical.
I had wanted life not to bother me too much, and I had succeeded—and how pitiful that was.
“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.
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.
Remorse, etymologically, is the action of biting again: that’s what the feeling does to you. Imagine the strength of the bite when I reread my words. They seemed like some ancient curse I had forgotten even uttering. Of course I don’t—I didn’t—believe in curses. That’s to say, in words producing events. But the very action of naming something that subsequently happens—of wishing specific evil, and that evil coming to pass—this still has a shiver of the otherworldly about it.
I looked at the chain of responsibility. I saw my initial in there. I remembered that in my ugly letter I had urged Adrian to consult Veronica’s mother. I replayed the words that would forever haunt me. As would Adrian’s unfinished sentence, “So, for instance, if Tony…”