The Sense of an Ending requires our attention to our individual senses and feelings. Although the book must end, the title implies that the ending is a feeling and is not concrete or final. The book’s plot and language are not the only things to pay attention to. We are to be aware of our personal interpretations of the book. By placing the ending in the title, Julian Barnes makes the reader conscious of how the novel will end and how Barnes will build up to the ending. Because not only is it about the ending, but the sense, the feeling, the leading up to the ending. You are cognizant of the ending throughout the work. The novel begins in the present reflecting to the past which quickly leads up to the present and the ending.
This book is obsessed with time, how it passes, how it feels as it passes, what is personal versus universal time. The book seems to mirror the passage of time. Descriptions are longer and passages more detailed when he is younger. As he gets older, the scenes are shorter with less details. So time appears to pass as it does with life. When you are younger, time is slow and you cannot wait to grow older. When you are older, time moves forward so quickly that you forget what day it is. Childhood memories seem vivid even though they are from so long ago. Why? Because we have had time to play them over and over in our head, examining them from all angles, and different ages. Incomplete memories are a bother, and we fill them out with deduction and imagination.
Barnes intricately explores what time does to memory. He lays out the plot through his narrator’s memories. His narrator, Tony Webster, has a few images of memories, mental photographs that he calls up when he thinks of his high school. When prompted, he delves more deeply and chronicles conversations he both heard and participated in. But Tony admits that his memory may be faulty and inaccurate, “Was this their exact exchange? Almost certainly not. Still, it is my best memory of their exchange” (Barnes, 20). Again, he is giving us the feeling of that memory, what he remembers happens, but he cannot be sure that it is exactly what happened. He is the narrator that Barnes has given us, and we can try to read between the narrative but it is hard to guess as Tony does not give us much to work with. And at a very late point in the book, we realize that we have stumbled upon the most glorious type of narrator-the unreliable narrator. And that is when our senses truly take over. Because his details seemed so precise when he was younger, we believed what he told us happened. But when we realize he is unreliable, we must go back and rethink what he has told us. We must reevaluate what happened as a result of his words and actions.
The Sense of an Ending plays with history, perception, and written documents. We have an unreliable narrator who tells us how he remembers things happened. He relates letters he wrote and his feelings as he wrote them. As the novel unfolds, more characters from his past emerge. And with them, a will, a letter, and a journal. So no longer must we rely only on Tony Webster. Now we can reinterpret his words with other people’s accounts. As we reevaluate Tony’s perceptions, we are also asked to consider what is reality and what is literature? What is friendship? What is love?
“This was another of our fears: that Life wouldn’t turn out like Literature. Look at our parents—were they the stuff of Literature? At best, they might aspire to the condition of onlookers and bystanders, part of a social backdrop against which real, true, important things could happen. Like what? The things Literature was all about: love, sex, morality, friendship, happiness, suffereing, betrayal, adultery, good and evil, heroes and villains, guilt and innocence, ambition, power, justice, revolution, war, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, the individual against society, success and failure, murder, suicide, death, God. And barn owls.” (Barnes, 16)
As a teenager, Tony had lofty ambitions for his future. He imagined that he would live a life worthy of literature, worthy of being written down, published, read, studied, annotated. Instead, he was married, had a child, and then divorced. His life is hardly the stuff of literature. But this novel, this retelling, this reinterpretation and reevaluation is the stuff of great literature.