The Sense of an Ending

By Julian Barnes
Genre: Literary Fiction
Buy Now This book is on reading list for April 2012

Why We Like This Book

An accessible and fairly short book, there is much to recommend The Sense of an Ending. The novel teases out an interesting theme: Is it better to live a meaningless life or to commit a meaningful suicide? Early in the story, a young classmate named Robson commits suicide ostensibly because his girlfriend is pregnant. His suicide note reads, “Sorry, Mum.” This gives rise to a compelling conversation led mostly by Adrian who quotes Camus: “Suicide was the only true philosophical question.”

In his own suicide note, Adrian writes, “Life is a gift bestowed without anyone asking for it; that the thinking person has the philosophical duty to examine both the nature of life and the conditions it comes with; and that if this person decides to renounce the gift no one asks for, it is a moral and human duty to act on the consequences of that decision.” Clearly, this is heavy stuff, not to mention the novel’s other themes of history, time, and memory.

The characters are finely drawn and the story line is solid, but in addition to the issues with the ending there are problems with the reliability of the narrator, Tony Webster. He asks, “Who was it who said that memory is what we thought we’d forgotten? And it ought to be obvious to us that time doesn’t act as a fixative, rather as a solvent. But it’s not convenient–it’s not useful–to believe this; it doesn’t help us get on with our lives; so we ignore it.” If the narrator is continually filling in the blanks without any certainty, where does that leave the poor reader?

While the novel is flawed, we would still recommend it as a good selection for reading groups. There is much to discuss, and the writing (as reflected by some of the passages above) is quite good. And, Julian Barnes did win the Man Booker Prize in 2011 for this work.

Discussion Questions

1. Consider the opening images of the novel. How do these fragments reflect the reconstruction of memory? When answering this question, bear in mind the narrator’s statement, “This last thing isn’t something I actually saw, but what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.”

2. How would you explain the significance of the title The Sense of an Ending?

3. Suicide plays a prominent role as well as the phrase “Eros and Thanatos,” (sex and death). What is the author saying about the connections the characters make and their subsequent behaviors?

4. At school, Adrian says, “we need to know the history of the historian in order to understand the version that is being put in front of us” (p. 13). How does this apply to Tony’s narration? Does this affect his reliability as a narrator?

5. Veronica accuses Tony of being cowardly, while Tony considers himself peaceable. Whose assessment is more accurate? Can we use Tony’s letter as evidence to answer this question?

6. In addition to Adrian’s earlier statement about history, Barnes offers other theories: Adrian also says, “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation” (p. 18), and Tony says, “History isn’t the lies of the victors . . .It’s more the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated” (p. 61). Which of these competing notions do you think is most accurate? Which did Tony come to believe?

7. Discuss the closing lines of the novel: “There is accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond these, there is unrest. There is great unrest” (p. 163).

(Some of these questions were based on those posted on

2 Comments for“The Sense of an Ending”

  1. Reply Davia Mazur says:

    We are discussing this book Thursday 3/22 at 7:30 pm at the JCC Book Club in Davie. Loved the writing. As to what you refer to as a disappointing ending, I think the ending reinforces the point of the book — that memories of people and events are rarely what they seem. We trust our memories too much and fail to realize how extensively they are influenced by our internal prejudices and life experiences.
    Love your website! Next month our book club is reading “The Marriage Plot.”

    • Reply Lisa says:

      When we met on Saturday the group agreed with your position–that the ending was exactly right for the theme of the novel. Thank you for weighing in on this novel about memory and history. Let us know how your discussion of The Marriage Plot goes….we really enjoyed it.

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