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 effects in the novel: they lead, one could argue, to Adrian’s suicide, and in less dramatic ways they help characters like Tony, Colin, and Alex decide what kind of people they want to be by deciding which philosophers they feel affiliations with. The Sense of an Ending explores the resonance and power of philosophy in everyday life—even in decisions about whether to live or die—but also indicates the limits of applying general, abstract theories to the messiness and complexity of individual, real-life relationships.
In school, Tony and his friends rebel against “all political and social systems,” preferring instead “hedonistic chaos”—part of their embrace of the culture of the 1960s. Adrian, however, remains preoccupied with finding a philosophical system that will not just explain the world, but also tell him how to live in it. He is drawn to abstractions as a way of giving meaning to his life. For instance, he refers to “Eros and Thanatos”—sex (or love) and death, or the erotic drive and the death drive, as psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud would have it—to explain the meaning of a poem assigned in class, but also, at another moment, to explain why the boys’ classmate Robson has killed himself. The group of friends all tend make such equivalences between literary analysis and analysis of real-life situations, but the novel cautions that Adrian’s reduction of life experiences to a single abstract, learned expression is a troubling, immature way of understanding other people.
If Tony is drawn to writers of dystopian fiction like George Orwell, Adrian embraces existentialists like Albert Camus, who considered suicide the “only true philosophical question.” Existentialism seems to equip him and his friends with theories and language to describe the excitement and despair that they feel. But when they use such language to interpret Robson’s suicide, analyzing it coldly and matter-of-factly as indulgent and irresponsible rather than based in true philosophical logic, their lack of grief or concern for Robson, his family, or his girlfriend shows a startling lack of sympathetic imagination. Their conversations underscore the limitations of applying theory to life—especially when philosophy is divorced from context or from the human beings that such theories seek to explain and describe.
If Tony and some of his friends come up short in their attempts to explain Robson’s suicide through philosophy, Adrian flips the logic, using philosophy to justify his own suicide. Adrian is shown to have grappled extensively with the idea that suicide might give meaning to a life that (as the existentialists would say) has no inherent meaning. He ultimately philosophizes his way to suicide, in an extreme example of the ways that philosophy can have very real power, even if abstract theories and ideas might seem far removed from everyday life. Despite this, the novel portrays Adrian’s suicide not as a sophisticated philosophical act, but as the desperate, tragic act of someone whose yearning for meaning—something he can only find outside reality, in the abstractions of philosophy—has led him to destroy his life.
Later in life, Tony’s various “theories” about Adrian’s character, his family, and his decision to kill himself are shown to be equally limited in their ability to do justice to the messy and complex realities of people’s lives and relationships. As Tony gets back in touch with Veronica and begins to learn more about the circumstances leading to Adrian’s suicide, he replaces one “theory” with another, deciding at one point, for instance, that Adrian must have gotten Veronica pregnant and killed himself as a result. Suddenly Adrian seems weak rather than brave, immature rather than sophisticated; but when Tony learns more and has to reevaluate his theories once again, the limitation of the very attempt to reduce Adrian (or other characters) to abstractions becomes more evident.
By lingering over the abstract philosophical discussions of Tony’s adolescence, the novel suggests that what one learns in the classroom can have unexpected and far-reaching consequences. While discussing vast questions like the meaning of life can seem strangely detached from the realities of everyday life, it’s impossible to predict what people will do with such ideas or how they’ll interpret the theories into action. The novel shows that abstractions can become concrete in powerful and chilling ways, and difficult philosophical questions can become a matter of life and death.
Philosophy vs. Reality ThemeTracker
Philosophy vs. Reality Quotes in The Sense of an Ending
“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.”
“I hate the way the English have of not being serious about being serious. I really hate 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.