The Sense of an Ending: Meditations on Memory and Self-Deception

Review of The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

The Sense of an Ending is a novella by Julian Barnes that explores the limits of memory and how memory affects defines us. Published in 2011, it won the Man Booker Prize in October of that year. Often, The Sense of an Ending reads more like a compilation of philosophical one-liners or paragraphs that make you sit there and ponder about abstractions, rather than a story. But Barnes’s craftsmanship lies in his ability to keep readers turning the page with a curious expectation.

The Sense of an Ending is split into two parts, the first part being much shorter than the second. In the first section, Barnes recounts the school years of Tony Webster and his three friends, of which the most important is Adrian Finn. Adrian is different than the rest. Tony and the other two circle around Adrian despite his aloofness and an intellect that towers over the rest of the student body. Near graduation time, a student commits suicide after impregnating his girlfriend, leading to much philosophical discourse on history and how this unfortunate individual would be remembered.

The four friends go off to university and Tony ends up in a sexually-frustrating relationship with Veronica. After some time the relationship is ended, but not after Tony has met her family and she has met Tony’s three friends. Later, Tony receives a letter from Adrian explaining how he’s begun dating Veronica, to which Tony shoots a nasty response calling a curse upon their relationship and potential future offspring. Before part one ends, Adrian commits suicide with a philosophical note claiming the right to renounce life after having done a thorough examination of it.

Skip several decades ahead. In part two, Tony was married and then divorced and has a daughter. He’s living a somewhat boring existence. Then one day a letter comes informing Tony that Veronica’s mother has bequeathed him 500 pounds and Adrian’s diary. Why? That’s the rest of the novella. Tony gets back in touch with Veronica and tries to piece back his memory.

Some books endue readers with awe for the writer’s vast experience, whether it be travelogue or creative pieces. We get the sense that the author has gone out into the world, tasted the food, can speak of intricate details of faraway places (or places that don’t even exist); and we are inundated with names, nuances, and the nitty-gritty borne of precise observations of life in the world.

The Sense of an Ending is not this kind of book. In many ways, it’s an internal novel that sits in the recesses of the mind. The narrator is soliloquizing for a significant portion of the book, grappling with his ignorance of the past–not the past in the sense of history textbooks, but his personal past.  He feels that he should have the authoritative say on the metaphorical transcript of his own life. Ironically, he finds that his personal history lacks an objective ruling.

The Sense of an Ending is littered with meditation-worthy nuggets, such as:

[Block quote]History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfection of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.[/block quote]

And,

[Block quote]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 or defeated.[/block quote]

But to understand The Sense of an Ending, we need to grasp Julian Barnes’s goal in giving us an unreliable narrator. We doubt our narrator’s ability to tell us what actually happened with Adrian and Veronica. As Tony unravels these hidden truths, Veronica is constantly reminding him of his ignorance when she repeats the refrain, “You still don’t get it. You never did.” And that is what Barnes is making us consider.

Our pasts shape our identity, but it is not a one-way street. We shape our understanding of our history by forgetting the ugly things and remembering the attractive memories. So, in a sense, with our tunnel vision, we create who we are by altering our memories. And who can question such a re-creation if there are no witnesses to our internal thoughts and our secret deeds, or rather our perception of our thoughts and deeds.

There are two things here for the Christian to ponder. First, we should consider our self-deception and how Scripture reads us when we read Scripture. The Word is a mirror that shows us an ugly vision of ourselves. Tony is right to doubt what he thinks he knows about the past—or about himself.  We all should.

Second, we should be careful about applying that skepticism too broadly.  It can be dangerously tempting to give up on the search for certainty and give in to the postmodernist’s flippant nihilism.  In class, a teenage Adrian Finn says,

[Block quote]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.[/block quote]

And so on, in infinite regress.  Without an ultimate foundation, there is no grounds for knowledge or, ultimately, life.  Thus the importance, as Christians, of holding on to the authoritative account of history as recorded in Scripture.  The ultimate Historian’s character is one of absolute trustworthiness—his past deeds and words demonstrate this—and therefore we can know ourselves, our past, and our God.


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