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 suicide, as well as Sarah Ford’s bequest to Tony and the mystery swirling around it, to his own school days, to his visit to Veronica’s house, or to the letter he sent to her and Adrian. Furthermore, he wonders whether changing one of his past decisions or actions could really change everything that followed. Although the novel implies that these questions are ultimately impossible to answer, it also shows that denying personal responsibility for one’s actions is naïve and destructive to others. Assuming that webs of blame extend far and wide ultimately justifies people’s denial of their own responsibility for the pain and suffering they’ve caused others. Living with the burden of guilt, then, is the only mature way of dealing with one’s past actions and mistakes.
The novel sets up the question of responsibility through a problem that has plagued historians for a century: the cause of World War I. Encouraged by Old Joe Hunt, the characters propose different causes, arguing for “one hundred percent responsibility of historical forces,” the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, and finally, mere chaos. Typically, Adrian opts for a middle ground: attributing the war to a chain of individual actions, which balances blaming a single person with blaming everyone. Like the debates about the meaning of history itself, this school lesson sets the stage for various ways the characters reflect on their own agency in later life. Adrian, for instance, struggles with these issues before his own suicide. In the excerpt of Adrian’s diary that Tony reads, Adrian questions the very meaning of the “whole chain” of responsibility and wonders how far the chain extends. He formulates a set of mathematical equations to represent the relationship between different people in his life, using integers that represent Tony (a2), himself (a1), Veronica (v), and her mother Sarah (s)—and, Tony finally realizes, the baby born to her (b). By showing Adrian’s attempt to pin down responsibility through such quantitative, logical deductions to be hopeless, the novel seems to suggest that figuring out the ultimate cause of any significant event is doomed to failure.
However, The Sense of an Ending also implies that living according to that idea—that causes and effects are hopelessly convoluted—allows people to avoid taking responsibility for their own actions. Tony, for instance, tries to avoid personal responsibility by floating through life without ruffling anyone’s feathers—moving through a decent career in arts administration, marrying, then amicably divorcing and staying friends with his ex-wife, and trying not to alienate those around him. But one aspect of Tony’s embrace of mediocrity, the novel suggests, is his blindness to his own agency: cruel toward Veronica and overly dependent on his ex-wife, Tony does affect other people, and is responsible for their pain, despite his claims to the contrary.
Over the course of the novel, Tony does begin to accept some responsibility for his past actions: but this doesn’t, the novel implies, mean that he can rewrite the past. In one of his most vivid memories, he and a group of friends marvel at the Severn Bore—a large wave that, as a result of tidal surges, moves against the tide. The bore is so alluring because it seems to reverse the very course of history: it’s an exception to the general rule that the choices people make can’t be undone. Tony’s and Adrian’s actions have far-reaching consequences in the book, and they have to grapple both with knowing this—and knowing they can’t go back in time and change things—and with not knowing exactly how much blame really belongs with them.
The Sense of an Ending implicitly critiques the idea that a chain of responsibility extends too far to assign the blame to only one person. Even if Tony can’t isolate the reasons for his friend’s suicide or Sarah Ford’s pregnancy to a single cause, he is shown to bear some responsibility for both. Even so, merely accepting that fact doesn’t necessarily lead to any catharsis or redemption. Tony’s relationship to his past, remains, as the final page of the novel notes, “unsettled,” a subject of inevitable regret because history, unlike memory, moves in only one direction.
Responsibility, Agency, and Guilt ThemeTracker
Responsibility, Agency, and Guilt 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?”
“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.
But I think I have an instinct for survival, for self-preservation. Perhaps this is what Veronica called cowardice and I called being peaceable.
And for a moment, she almost looked enigmatic. But Margaret can’t do enigma, that first step to Woman of Mystery. If she’d wanted me to spend the money on a holiday for two, she’d have said so. Yes, I realise that’s exactly what she did say, but…
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.
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.
No, nothing to do with cleverness; and even less with moral courage. He didn’t grandly refuse an existential gift; he was afraid of the pram in the hall.
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…”