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 relationship with Veronica is hampered by her family’s “posh,” privileged background. But his sense of victimization, the novel suggests, hides the ways sexually manipulates Veronica. In general, the novel shows its characters exercising power over each other in various ways, through sex as well as money or status. But sex in the novel is more powerful than class: it is a source of deception and manipulation (in some ways it’s therefore similar to the way memory works in the novel) whose effects can be far longer-lasting than the sexual encounters themselves.
In some ways, the novel shows sexual behavior to be wrapped up in changes taking place during the period in which it’s set, 1960s Britain. Tony notes that what is now thought of as “the sixties” didn’t happen everywhere at once: in provincial Britain, people remained a decade or so “behind” the times, which proves confusing as he tries to navigate his first real relationship with Veronica. His striving for “full sex” (meaning penetrative sex, as distinct from various other kinds of sexual experience) with her ends unpleasantly and ambiguously, as they sleep together only after breaking up and subsequently part ways for good—though even Tony admits this may not have been exactly what occurred. His prose is oblique and hedging, undermining his claim of innocence in their breakup—his argument being that the ‘60s were a confusing time for young men who were simply trying to understand what women wanted and what they would “allow” sexually.
Tony is able to think of himself as innocent with respect to Veronica in part because of his own wealth-based feelings of insecurity. The contrast between Tony’s middle-class family and the better-off Fords in their Chislehurst estate is, for him, reflective of the power that Veronica had over him throughout their relationship. Veronica seems to turn her nose up at the records by popular bands like the Beatles and the Stones that Tony keeps on shelf; although Veronica and Tony both attend Bristol, she seems to prefer the mystique of Cambridge (where her brother Jack attends, along with Adrian). Tony comes to associate the differences between him and Veronica’s family—differences in levels of education, class, and wealth—with his own inability to achieve sexual satisfaction with Veronica.
But in the novel, sex is more dangerous and fraught than the subtleties of class difference. Tony and his friends spend much of their adolescence “sex-hungry” as well as “book-hungry,” considering sex as a goal to be reached, like a book to be devoured—regardless of the feelings of the women involved. But sex becomes far more serious than that: Tony’s older classmate Robson kills himself after his girlfriend gets pregnant, and Adrian kills himself after, presumably, Sarah Ford becomes pregnant with his child. At stake in both suicides is the question of freedom—both men seem to see a future in which they have to settle down with a partner and child as literally worse than death. Men in the novel have the power and the possibility to leave such situations (even, the novel suggests, by killing themselves). Meanwhile, Veronica’s mother, Veronica herself, and Robson’s unnamed girlfriend all have to live with the consequences of pregnancy. In the absence of Adrian (whose suicide might be considered a form of abandonment), Veronica has to both grapple with forming a relationship with his mentally challenged son—her half-brother—and come to terms with the relationship between Adrian and her own mother. Tony, meanwhile, remains for most of the novel blissfully unaware of that life, able and willing to think of Veronica as having manipulated him. The novel portrays such ignorance as a form of power itself, one that the women in the novel lack.
In The Sense of an Ending, sex is portrayed as private and intimate but also tied up with social expectations, cultural changes, and class status. While Tony and his school friends imagine sex as exciting and uncomplicated, the two suicides, as well as the webs of relationships between Adrian, Tony, Sarah, and Veronica, tell a much messier story. And while Veronica and Sarah do wield a certain power over Tony because of their privileged background, he also manages to extricate himself from the relationship and go on to live a relatively boring, uncomplicated life, while Veronica never fully recovers. Tony’s “instinct for survival” may have allowed him to avoid the fate of Robson and Adrian, but at the cost of accepting how he has actually caused damage to people around him. While the novel explores the extremes of sexual danger, it also ultimately suggests that refusing to admit that sex and power are intertwined is blind in its own way too.
Sex, Class, and Power ThemeTracker
Sex, Class, and Power Quotes in The Sense of an Ending
“I hate the way the English have of not being serious about being serious. I really hate 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.
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?
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…