“The Sense of an Ending” by Julian Barnes, Explained. [SPOILER ALERT]

Heads up: Do not read this if you are planning to read the novel.

So Doppelganger 1 and I spent several nights going through all the various theories– Adrian Jr.’s parentage, Adrian’s possible murder by Tony, Sarah as Adrian’s mother– and it drove us crazy. Thanks to doing all that at 3 a.m. each night, we scared ourselves shitless, too. This is the theory, we think (seconded by Doppelganger 3 who got spared the sleepless nights), that’s appeared to cover all bases. Credit goes out to the great insights already written by fellow readers, most of you trawling the forums on reddit and goodreads, who’d been equally hell-bent on untangling this masterpiece—uncovering the symbolism of the names, the message behind the 500 pounds, Sarah’s opportunity alone with Tony—that have helped in building our final analysis.)

TL;DR — Adrian Jr. is Sarah and Tony’s son. Adrian killed himself believing that he was the father.

To be as clear as possible, I’ve laid out the story’s analysis in chronological order:

Tony Webster meets Adrian Finn. The young Tony has a messy, reckless flippancy, a stark contrast with his older self – older Tony likes to keep things neat and orderly, hates mess and ambiguity, and marries (though divorces) “clear-edged”, un-mysterious Margaret. As a narrator, he never explains this change in character, but it is clear that such a drastic alteration stems from trauma—from an event or action he has completely repressed to cope with his guilt. Whatever mess Tony’s recklessness got him into, it’s resulted in his futile but understandable compulsion to ‘make up’ for the past by sticking to neatness and caution.

Tony visits Veronica’s family at Chistlehurst, where he is instantly taken by Sarah Ford’s outlying bohemian/artist charm—she is an odd piece in a respectable but squarish middle-class family; her daughter is prudish, her son is a Cambridge man, her husband a dull civil servant. (In her later years, Sarah—true to her nature—moves up to London, does art, and takes in lodgers.) Sarah creates an opportunity to have Tony in the house for herself, ushering the family out while Tony is asleep, possibly with the excuse of having a maternal talk with her daughter’s boyfriend. Her manner of cooking mirrors Tony’s own casual recklessness; it is little wonder that both are attracted to the other.

Both also bear similar weaknesses in restraint. Sarah’s horizontal hand gesture as Tony leaves Chistlehurst—a ‘hush’ that seals the both of them in an unspoken secret—starts the implication of blurred boundaries between two impulsive risk-takers. Both characters, additionally, see rivalry in what should be their closest relationships: Sarah to Veronica, Tony to Adrian.

Beneath her prudish demeanour, Veronica is at heart a kind and sensitive soul—a trait consistent across the decades, from her treatment of young Tony to her devotion to Adrian Jr., of whom she is chained to care for out of both sisterly love and maternal instinct. Veronica’s prudishness is understandable in light of a predatory, competitive mother— for Veronica to allow her partner to sleep with her, her love for him must override her issues with trust and insecurity. Offering sex to Tony is testament of her desperation to salvage the relationship, a gesture that Tony, in his denseness and destructive inferiority complex, grossly misinterprets.

Yet despite Tony’s douchebaggery, it is his ego that Veronica attempts to tread lightly on, agreeing to Adrian’s letter on their new relationship. It is probable at this point that Veronica still has feelings for Tony, but more importantly she doesn’t stew in bitterness over Tony’s exploitation of her vulnerability at that failed make-up session. This quickness to make amends and offer a jerk an olive branch contrasts with the Veronica of today, single and raging and bitter.

Veronica’s acrimony towards Tony is a red flag to the reliability of Tony’s narration. If Adrian were really the father, Tony’s role goes no further than to catalyse Adrian’s relationship with Sarah (which would have started anyway)—a role that that does little to warrant Veronica’s present anger and hostility.

Adrian falls in love with Veronica, their mutual attraction first detailed jealously by Tony at her introduction to his friends. Naturally, he gets together with her when she is newly single. It becomes clear that Adrian shares a lot more in common with Veronica than Tony does. Both characters are intellectual and literary, cautious and considerate—the antithesis of young Tony Webster. If Adrian started out as a rebound for Veronica, his status certainly changed course over time. We know this when Alex tells Tony that Adrian was “(l)ike himself, only more so”, and that he was “in love”, three months before his death—the day he was to head to Chistlehurst.

For Adrian’s Chistlehurst trip, we can assume that the relationship had taken enough importance for him to meet Veronica’s parents. Veronica is precious with trust (perhaps even more so after the breakup with Tony), and Adrian is always cautious in action– hence a meeting with Veronica’s family would likely mean an elevation of status in the relationship. This status presents itself forty years later, in the red glass ring on Veronica’s wedding finger, a jarring inconsistency to her spinster vibe (unkempt long, greying hair, whiskery face, practical attire). Glamorous in colour, cheap in make; Veronica’s ring was, almost definitely, purchased on a student’s budget. The trip to Chistlehurst that day was to announce their engagement—hence Adrian’s telling Alex of his happiness.

What happens next is what most readers agree with. Adrian is seduced by Sarah and starts an affair with her. In doing so, he creates a mirror situation of his childhood. He is the ‘younger lover’ to a woman who resembles his mother—intruding into the nuclear whole of mother, father, brother, sister. His troubled background catches up with him, overriding whatever moral boundaries he thought he’d secured in place, along with his license to escape it and start clean. Always cautious— waiting to “be absorbed” into the school gang, offering to “reconsider” relationships on account of friendship— he breaks his own code of conduct by giving in, seemingly uncharacteristically, to instinct and impulse. Yet this break in rationality isn’t so surprising considering the sketches we glean from Adrian’s background—dysfunctional, maternally absent; unspoken. The associations of Greek-ness with Adrian go deeper than his “first-class” suicide; they allude to the oedipal overtones pervading his relationship with Sarah.

Ironically, while two-timing Veronica, Adrian gets two-timed by Sarah. Tony, angry and feeling betrayed, did not simply send that toxic, vengeful letter. One of the most important points in the novel is made early on during the boys’ history lesson, where Master Joe Hunt, in an exchange with Adrian over Robson’s suicide, asserts:

“[M]ental states may be inferred from actions. The tyrant rarely sends a handwritten note requesting the elimination of an enemy.”

The letters and diary entries from both Tony and Adrian never reveal their accompanying actions, and instead attempt to obfuscate the writers’ full extent of sentiments/emotions (to limited success). If we look at Tony’s mental state from his letter, we see deep fury, hurt and jealousy allowed to unfurl and stew with time (contrast it to his benign postcard blessing). His latest ‘handwritten note’ certainly makes clear his vengefulness, and while he claims good riddance of his new enemies, vengefulness is not satiated by merely writing out curses. The action that accompanies it—and the “great unrest” that follows its lack of resolution—is what we finally infer by the novel’s end.

So what is the best course of action young, reckless Tony can make against a woman he still loves and thus hates? He starts an affair with her mother behind her back, convincing himself that Sarah was “right” about Veronica. Tony disguises it as a six-month sojourn in the USA, where he has a brief “hook-up” with a woman called Annie. Annie is “easy come, easy go”, no strings attached; Annie is Sarah. Tony cannot, till now, bring himself to refer directly to the affair; to do so would have him plumb the depths of his accountability for Adrian’s death, and this he cannot bear facing.

Additionally, the Biblical allusions surrounding Sarah and Veronica are hard to miss. Like Mrs Ford, the Biblical Sarah conceives a child unexpectedly, at an old age. Mrs Ford’s alias, Annie, harks back to Saint Anne, mother of Mary—mother of Veronica. Veronica, ‘Mary’ to Adrian Jr., becomes her brother’s surrogate parent (as Mary does for Christ)—whilst pledging loyalty to the late Adrian (the ‘Father’) by staying single for life.

When Sarah realises her pregnancy, it is probable that she doesn’t know which one of her young lovers is the father. The least damaging decision would be to decide on Adrian as the father; a further confession of her liaison with Tony would only spell further repercussions for everyone involved (a betrayal against Adrian, their affair not of emotional fulfillment but of her fetish for younger men; a double betrayal against Veronica that was never meant to surface, meant only as reckless, competitive daring).

What goes awry is Adrian’s realisation of the dysfunction he’d duplicated from his upbringing—his attraction to his future mother-in-law and their resulting love child lands him in the same role that spirited his mother from him. He’d broken the bro-code with his best friend, only to destroy his future. The weight of an impending child—a double entendre on life, “the gift that no one asked for”—proves too much to distil into solvable algebraic equations. Logic, always a solid refuge for Adrian, fails him this time. In his diary, Adrian makes known the weight of what is at stake through the first equation:

b = s – v ×+ a1

“You bet on a relationship, it fails; you go on to the next relationship, it fails too; and maybe what you lose is not two simple minus sums but the multiple of what you staked.”

v ×+  a1 , the rarity of an “entirely successful” relationship, represents the envisioned future that Adrian so desires with Veronica, and that, until Sarah, seemed set to materialise; bearing both sums and multiples, Adrian and Veronica’s union is a high-stakes entity where neither of its subjects can be extricated cleanly and without consequence. A single action, allowing the baby’s life (b), sees Sarah’s negation () of this vision and the relationship that rests on it, obliterating not just A and V’s union, but the existence of A and V as they should be. (Eg. Consequently, the attractive and intriguing Veronica becomes the archetypal spinster; contrast her present-day misery with the charming, elfin dancer in Tony’s room.)

The second equation sees Adrian attempting to link everyone in a chain of accountability:

a2 + v + a1 x s = b

Accumulation is also noted here, where Adrian acknowledges the consequentiality of his involvement with Sarah with an ‘x’ (rather than a simple ‘+’). Tony (a2) is placed at the head of the chain, a mere starter to the sum of breadcrumbs leading to Sarah, his full accountability—and the multiple of his action, never realised by Adrian. This second equation is thus flawed in its linearity, and Tony hangs on to it as testament of what he hopes (and convinces himself) to be his full reach of involvement in Adrian’s suicide.

True enough, the veracity of this equation gets shaken. Veronica’s sarcasm to Tony’s email, to his apology and request to meet again– “Is this about closing the circle?”—sounds unreasonable if we were to take the diary’s deductions as a single truth. Tony is not just a participant to an accumulative chain of events, contrary to Adrian’s mistaken equation. Tony’s accidental fatherhood ties him back irrevocably to the Fords, and his participation thus ‘closes’ the circle as the missing piece to an on-going tragedy.  More than a douchey boyfriend of Veronica’s past, Tony is the walking, breathing omen of her present and future—scot-free in his ignorance of Adrian Jr., and burdening his ex with the lifelong responsibility of his disabled spawn.

Adrian kills himself out of a deep and un-vocalised shame; this he attempts to mask with philosophical deductions, ultimately simplifying his cop-out as an impossibility of fitting himself into an equation with the baby. His suicide letter spouts academic babble, but ultimately says nothing about his true reasons for death. In Master Hunt’s words: “It is often the statement made with an eye to the future that is the most suspect.” And so, Adrian dies believing in—and rejecting—his fatherhood. In his memory, Sarah names the baby Adrian Jr. It may be that the funeral is ‘family-only’ because of the scandalous circumstances surrounding Adrian’s death; additionally, the persistent opacity of Adrian’s background fuels questions to the degree of his family’s dysfunction. Still waters run deep, and Adrian, always tight-lipped about personal matters, proves much darker and more vulnerable than Tony paints (and grudgingly idolises) him to be.

It may also be said that Sarah, then purported to be carrying his child, attends the funeral as ‘family’. One of his possessions she obtains would hence be his diary.

The Fords realise Adrian Jr. is not Adrian’s either after his birth or as he grows older. Brother Jack would likely have tried convincing Veronica to notify Tony of his fatherhood, in vain. (“Stopped trying to change her mind years ago” alludes not just to Veronica’s natural stubbornness, but also to the truth about Adrian Jr.) Veronica, angry at Tony’s second betrayal after their disastrous last meeting, wants him permanently out of her life. To this Sarah acquiesces, regretful for the consequentiality of her actions. Resultantly, the Fords keep Tony in the dark about his son for forty years. Sarah, in her letter of apology to Tony, acknowledges the deception: “I am sorry for the way my family treated you all those years ago.” She bequeaths him Adrian’s diary to tell him that he has fathered a child with her. (Kudos to fellow readers picking this point up: Like Veronica, Sarah never communicates anything directly, expecting – wrongly – that Tony would be able to ‘get’ her message.)

Besides the letter and the (missing) diary, Sarah bequeaths Tony five hundred pounds. The specificity of the amount is symbolic; the money is Sarah’s apology for not aborting Adrian Jr., acknowledging her power, and responsibility, in halting an irreversible chain of tragedy (Adrian’s needless suicide, Veronica’s singlehood and barrenness, Tony’s ‘great unrest’). When Veronica terms it “blood money”—money paid by a killer’s clan to compensate the murdered victim’s family— she fingers Tony’s accountability in Adrian’s wasted suicide, something that Tony, deep down, suspects but consciously suppresses.

Veronica drives Tony to observe the special-needs group crossing the road, expecting him to recognise Adrian Jr. and realise Sarah’s message. However, Tony fails to do so (“So? What’s wrong with them?”).  Her indignation—“What’s wrong with you?”—is key here, for its seeming incongruity in the scene compels a reassessment of how much Tony isn’t divulging about his past. Telling also is Veronica’s expectation that Tony recognise his son—pre-empting his later uncanny encounter with Adrian Jr.  In this later encounter, the clues of parentage lie in Adrian Jr.’s reaction and not in what Tony, virtually blind on many occasions, claims to see. When Adrian Jr. notices Tony for the first time, he takes out his glasses and stares at Tony “full in the face”. Certainly Adrian Jr. sees his likeness in Tony, because he smiles— before registering that Tony is supposed to be a stranger, after which he panics.

Tony, on the other hand, sees Adrian in the disabled man. He is confronted by extent of his accountability in Adrian’s death, much more than he’d conditioned himself to accept. Seeing Adrian in his son is akin to Macbeth seeing the ghost of Banquo—Adrian Jr. is the irreversible result of Tony’s youthful vengeance, and guilt is all that Tony can see and feel. So overwhelmed with the continued repercussions of his one-time action is Tony that he cannot accept the full magnitude of his role in Adrian’s death—managing instead a compromise of regretting his letter and keeping secret the vengeance accompanying his “handwritten note”.

Other clues to Tony’s fatherhood include the special-needs minder at the pub, who immediately takes as given Tony’s recognition of Adrian Jr. “It’s about Adrian,” he tells Tony, feeling no need to point Adrian Jr. out in the group, before advising him to keep his distance. And Brother Jack, caught between maintaining (literal) distance from all Ford affairs (see, hear, speak no ‘evil’) and sympathy for Tony, divulges Veronica’s email address; after all, as Adrian Jr.’s father, why should Tony be kept in the dark about his kid for life?

(On another note, Brother Jack—moral sciences Cambridge student, brother to one sister, son of a restless and unfaithful mother—is Adrian’s deceptively unserious foil. Assumedly in the Asia-Pacific, subsumed into a culture of metro-exotica and start-ups, Jack has carved out a life that leaves no trace of, or time for, his middle-class English roots. Assumedly, he is also single. Could Adrian, by marrying Veronica, truly have avoided recreating the maternal dysfunction that so defined his life, even without Tony’s pivotal intrusion? Is it possible to correct/escape the karmic patterns of one’s family, other than to stop its regeneration by enforcing barren singlehood for oneself?)

Chillingly, everything in Tony’s letter fulfills itself in one way or another. Veronica and Adrian are sent a damaged child that destroys their future together—a child not born of them, because, as Tony puts it, “[i]t would be unjust to inflict on some innocent foetus the prospect of discovering that it was the fruit of your loins”. Other fulfilled wishes include:

“I give you six months”. The relationship lasts six months, ending when Adrian kills himself.

Veronica, single and looking “both twentyish and sixtyish at the same time”, remains locked in the trauma of her youth, ringing true Tony’s curse that she’d be “left with a lifetime of bitterness that will poison your subsequent relationships.”

“If I were you, I’d check things out with Mum […]. Of course, you’d have to do it behind Veronica’s back”. Both Adrian and Tony do exactly that.

Ultimately, while Tony never “gets” the message, he comes away, most significantly, with the sense of his full role in the tragedy. His recognition of this accountability allows him, forty years later, to properly mourn his best friend’s death, to grieve its waste, and to accept blame. Through the novel, Tony never attains much clarity of events—his memories shift and morph in an unreliable haze of defensiveness and, later on, vulnerability and guilt—but a sense of the past’s weight in the present is enough, and the decades of “great unrest” he suppresses and finally acknowledges are, perhaps, a greater burden to bear than the closure in truth he’d first set out to find. We end up grieving, too, for Tony himself, as Barnes’ beauty of a book strikes hard and sharp the futility of turning back time and rectifying the past.

 

 

 

 

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9 thoughts on ““The Sense of an Ending” by Julian Barnes, Explained. [SPOILER ALERT]

  1. I’ve just finished the book, and came here through a chain of other interpretations, all equally plausible if not argued at such length. Though I enjoyed reading the novel, I have to say that a book whose nuts and bolts of action and causation are so opaque that different readers can reach diametrically opposite conclusions (on Adrian Jr’s parentage, of which four possible parents in four possible combinations are advanced with equal plausibility) cannot be judged a success. These things ought, with thought, to be intelligible to an attentive reader without having to invent arbitrary reinterpretations of apparently factual statements (such as re-casting Tony’s six months in the US with Annie as six months in Chiselhurst with Sarah). The whole latter part of the book is about Tony “not getting” something that Veronica appears to think should be obvious, but the different interpretations advanced about Adrian Jr’s parentage show that we, the readers, don’t get it either (and can each reach different conclusions, *all* of which rely on inventing events the author doesn’t supply). It’s just *not* obvious. Why should it be to Tony either?

    In the end, that’s the sign of an author not quite doing his job.

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  2. I had enough difficulty understanding the ending as it is – I had to re-read it several times before I could piece it together.The revelation (i.e. Sarah as Adrian’s lover and the mother of Adrian Jr.) is very straight forward in one way, but I think I failed to initially process it as it is so unexpected. I just didn’t see it coming at all.My brain was discombobulated!

    Now reading your interpretation I am totally confused! If nothing else your reading is quite brilliant and adds a level of deep complexity to the plot that had completely eluded me. I’m not sure if your theory does all hang together – but right now I am so intrigued that I am going to have to go back and re-read the novel again.

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    • Please disregard my reply as I just saw that you posted at the goodreads discussion. Just my two cents: I didn’t read the book and saw just the end of the movie but if Tony sees a physical resemblance between Adrian and Adrian Jr (as I’ve read in several comments) Adrian has to be the father.

      Liked by 1 person

      • In the book, I don’t believe there is mention of a physical resemblance between the two.
        If there is, it might be because Tony sees what he wishes to see (not accepting himself as the father of andrian jr, rather prefering to believe Andrian is)
        Just thoughts.

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  3. I’m confused about the timeline. Veronica and Finn are only together six months. Then he goes to her parents’ house, and has an affair with Sarah. Then commits suicide three months later, at nine months, believing that he has had a disabled child. But if he only slept with Sarah six months into the relationship with Veroinca, Sarah doesn’t have time to have the baby. Could you tell me what the timeline actually is?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Alex,

      Apologies for the long delay in reply and thanks for your question. Adrian doesn’t live to see the birth of his son; he discovers Sarah’s pregnancy and kills himself in turmoil over the impending: his fatherhood and the destruction of his relationship with Veronica. The timeline therefore isn’t problematic.

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