The End of “The Sense of an Ending”

(Non-spoiler review here.)

You can’t read this book without wanting to talk about the end. I was online looking at discussions and reviews in the middle of the night to make sure I’d worked it out just right.

Some may say that with his spare last few pages, Barnes does the reader no favors. After all, he never spells out in exact terms precisely what it all means. But it’s all there.

We have the revelation from the care worker that Adrian is Veronica’s brother. The knowledge that Sarah, Veronica’s mother, is also Adrian’s mother. We have his name, Adrian. The conclusion that young Adrian is the child of Sarah and older Adrian is unmistakable.

This was one of the times I wished I had a real copy of the book to flip through. But it didn’t take me long to locate a few important passages from the e-book.

Adrian’s strange formulas now suddenly make sense. b = s – vx + aor a2 + v + a1 x s = b. The first formula doesn’t involve Tony, and seems to imply little more than Sarah and Adrian together in Veronica’s absence. The second does bring Tony into the equation, which is certainly the more important of the two.

I’ve read people claim that Tony bears little to no responsibility for this outcome, but it’s clear that Adrian disagrees. Apparently the letter Tony sent that encourages Adrian to seek out Sarah must have struck some kind of chord.

It can also be difficult to reconcile Veronica’s behavior throughout the second half of the book. But I found her the character who suddenly made the most sense upon finishing. Veronica, who seems to Tony to be a manipulator, turns out to be if not victimized, then certainly betrayed by nearly everyone else.

Tony’s letter is horrific. I can’t imagine ever receiving such a thing from someone. No matter how you interpret Tony and Veronica’s breakup, the letter is beyond unjustified. It certainly hurt her.

Adrian’s eventual friendship with Sarah and the outcome of it are definitely betrayal of the highest order from a boyfriend. Surely sleeping with someone’s mother is even worse than sleeping with someone’s sister or friend.

Veronica’s strange relationship with her family that Tony notices remains something of a mystery. But she is betrayed terribly by her mother through Sarah’s relationship with Adrian.

And from all these betrayals comes the younger Adrian and older Adrian’s suicide. How does one move on from such a thing? Veronica is the most mistreated of all of them. It’s completely unknown how she and her mother interacted, but she’s clearly been involved in her brother’s life, which can’t be easy given the proximity to her mother. Her father dies soon after. She’s become alienated from her brother Jack. We don’t know what Veronica does for all the ensuing years, but I can’t imagine the hurt she feels. Especially if she has access to Adrian’s diary, which seems to implicate Tony for his role.

Just as Tony casts Veronica in a particular role, surely Veronica has cast Tony in light of all that happened. Their bad breakup, his venomous letter, Adrian’s death and the life she was left with. It would be quite easy to see Tony as a villain who carelessly set about this chain of events in a variety of ways. Clearly it’s a complicated view, which is probably why she insists Tony will never understand it.

I do wonder a little about what she means when she refers to “blood money.” There only interpretation I can see that makes sense is that Sarah pays Tony to compensate him for the loss of Adrian. (This definition of blood money is payment by the murderer to the victim’s kin.) There is so little to tell us about Sarah and Adrian’s relationship, but clearly there was more to it than sex. She says Adrian spoke highly of Tony. She says Adrian’s last months were happy (can this possibly be true or is this Sarah’s own version of events?). Perhaps she sees this payment as a way to wipe away her guilt and Tony as the only party remaining she can plausibly make it to. After all, how could she ever make it up to Veronica?

Mulling over all this, having to look back at Tony, Adrian, Veronica and Sarah and reevaluate them is Barnes’ whole point. Not just for Tony himself but for the reader. I found that my experience considering the novel after its abrupt ending was as fascinating as reading the book itself.

There are so many mysteries remaining. Why did Adrian kill himself? What was his relationship with Sarah? What has happened to Veronica for all these years that she seems so stuck in bitterness? How do the others view Tony? Going over them in light of our new, but still limited, evidence is fun. At least for me.

This book has been compared to On Chesil Beach and it’s a fair comparison. Similar themes. But note how Barnes is different. McEwan takes all the events, lays them out completely, shows you every angle, puts it right in your face. Barnes limits our perceptions, only gradually reveals information, and never fully explains anything. While both authors are interested in similar issues, they present it in such different ways. Still, they’d make a great pairing, wouldn’t they?


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  1. Julie says

    Very nicely done. I had the same questions and even went as far as asking myself (at one point) whether Tony’s selective memory extended to his having slept with Sarah that day she made the eggs for him, and to his having forgotten about that as well. Anyway, I’m mulling it over from all angles, asking the same questions the book asks about history, memory. And I’m going to go buy more Julian Barnes. Just wanted to compliment you on the fine summary here.

    • says

      Julie, I had the same question about Tony and Sarah! I haven’t read a lot of other Julian Barnes, but I did really enjoy Arthur & George.

      • Chris says

        And great review and awesome observations Jess…..thank you so much. Your reviews are truly the best I have read.

    • Chris says

      Yeah that’s what I thought about Tony and Sarah too. But then I started to mull over it and thought that why would the child be then called Adrian. And also, has Sarah also forgotten about it. It doesn’t even explain Adrian’s suicide. Moreover his suicide note says that life is a gift given even when you don’t ask for it. The child was given to them even when they did not want it. And then how would Sarah get Adrian’s diary. I think that the theory of everyone blaming Tony for Sarah and Adrian’s amour is the only plausible outcome.
      I loved the book but did not like the ending.

  2. Nitin says

    I was searching for an explanation for ‘blood money’ and I think you are right.

    I quite liked the book overall. The ending was totally unexpected for me but I wont say it impressed me very much.

  3. says

    Great summary. It strikes me, having read quite a few reviews and commentary, than none have mentioned what I think is the basic clue and most haunting part of the novel, i.e. when Sarah makes her enigmatic wave to Tony at waist level as he leaves after that fateful weekend at the Fords.It’s even mentioned again further along in the novel. Part of Tony’s slective memory seems to imply that he forgets that Veronica, like Margaret, is really “clear-edged” and that Sarah is the enigmatic one all along. Oh, and don’t forget the image of the broken egg foreshadowing a broken offspring, Adrian the younger.

      • Samiksha says

        Hey. Thanks for the wonderful review. I still have a question though. The baby belonged to adrian or tony.
        since it s called adrian, isnt it apparant that it was adrians’ ?

  4. Eric says

    The only problem I have of your position on blood money is that she could have got little of the satisfaction of forgiveness from giving the money to Tony if she didn’t give it until after she died. And I was wondering if you know why you accidentally call Adrian Veronica’s sister? Your thoughts on Veronica’s pain are poignant.

    • says

      I agree that the timing of the will is odd. But since Sarah is by far the biggest mystery of the book, I’m hesitant to try to make much sense of her actions.
      And whoops! Total typo on the sister. Thanks for pointing that out.

  5. jim says

    it sure seems to me like Sarah probably had sex with Tony as well when he was on the visit. is this one of the final things that comes back to him after his Proustian butter cookie? it also explains why Veronica finally had sex with him, to reclaim something else her mother had stolen after she found out somehow.

    • Roy says

      It’s tempting to suggest that and would make sense in terms of explaining the story but it also feels like something of stretch.

      Tony did not have much of a sexual history. Surely he would have remembered having sex with a girlfriend’s mother.

  6. lauren says

    re: the sarah mystery and ‘blood money’ : could it not be that because of tony’s horrible letter – adrian went to chiselhurst – seeking the ‘past damage’ – and was seduced by sarah? he would have been confused and upset by his friend tony’s disturbing letter – and perhaps vulnerable. maybe this sort of behaviour had happened in the past with sarah and veronica’s boyfriends? maybe the ‘blood money’ from sarah was guilt? sarah trying to assuage the guilt that she thought tony would be feeling when he one day read the diary and learned how devastating the letter had been? (the letter being the catalyst for adrian’s visit/seduction?

    i gotta say – i find the idea that tony slept with sarah whilst the others were out for a walk is a bit unbelievable. not something that tony would have forgotten to mention – especially in his sex starved state!

    • rosanna says

      yes but in vengeance, it would explain why tony encourages adrian to go and seek sarah out and get a piece of her too whilst he’s at it… like he’s scorning their family ways and inviting adrian to mix himself up on it

  7. Felix Patrikeeff says

    It’s a plausible interpretation, and really well laid out. However, one niggling detail holds back my support for your interpretation of this supremely compelling novel. You leave Tony on the sidelines, as he does, focussing instead on Adrian and Veronica (as Tony would, in fact, want). His hands are clean, and his conscience scrubbed of all responsibility until very late in the book, and then a remarkable snippet of augmented information comes forth regarding the dark night at Minsterworth and the Severn Bore. There is a damp blanket and the two of them (Tony and Veronica) are holding hands on it while the others have ‘whooped off after it [the wave from the Bore]’. Tony and Veronica have not been as still or focussed about themselves as a couple than here. On the last pages of the novel Barnes writes: ‘And I thought of a cresting wave of water, lit by a moon, rushing past and vanishing upstream, pursued by a band of yelping students whose torchbeams criss-crossed in the dark.’ But it is a scene without Tony and Veronica in it. Why do we not know of what happened to Veronica in the intervening years? Why did Veronica choose to bring Tony to see the young Adrian? Why was Tony so drawn to the group going on their supervised visits to the shops and pub after that first introduction?

    We know that Tony changes reality for the reader (and himself), and when he says that Adrian is of similar height and frame to ‘Adrian the Elder’, can we fully trust him to be doing anything more than what he has done in the past? It may well an act of wiping out his presence from the devastation that was Veronica’s own fate after that visit to the Bore: ‘There is responsibility. And beyond these, there is unrest. There is great unrest.’ Surely in these lines is Tony somewhat cryptically reflecting on Tony?

  8. Chris L says

    Psychologically, it seems clear what has motivated much of the action. Adrian, himself deprived of parents in childhood, is an easy mark for Sarah. Sarah, perhaps unloved by her alcoholic husband and jealous of that husband’s relationship with his entitled daughter, exacts an impetuous revenge by sleeping with Adrian. Adrian, overwhelmed by both the long-gestating depression resulting from his own broken childhood and the prospect of launching another unloved child (broken egg) out into the world, takes his own life. THat all makes sense. What doesn’t is Tony’s enormous guilt in this. Yes, he writes a scabrous, hurtful letter. But to imagine that this letter brought about all of these events — and led to everyone’s lives turning out the way they did 40 years later — is to give this “average” man a lot more power than he deserves. Unless that’s his happy ending — feeling truly consequential, at last…

    • says

      I think that’s right on. And I think it’s really a part of human nature to insert ourselves into any tragedy or success that we’re remotely related to. One wonders how this story would look if it wasn’t narrated by Tony. Or what I’d really love is to see it narrated by Veronica.

      • Leesa says

        After seeing and remembering the letter he had really written, rather than the gentler one he had earlier recounted, I started to reconsider Tony’s overall reliability as a narrator. If he could send that vile filled letter to Veronica and Adrian, which other parts of his story had he reconstructed to better fit his current view of who he is? In particular, I began to wonder if Veronica had the more accurate memory of their one sexual encounter. She felt she had been raped. Given Tony’s initial recounting of the events, that seemed improbable, but later I wondered if that’s what really happened. If so, Tony may be feeling guilty about all he did to Veronica – raping her and ruining her chance at a happy relationship with Adrian – even if he wasn’t directly responsible for the younger Adrian or the suicide.

  9. says

    Great post. The discussion of the end is excellent. I like ChrisL’s observation (expanded slightly by Jess) that Tony’s guilt may be a result of forcing him into someone else’s tragedy. He does, after all, say: “But if nostalgia means the powerful recollection of strong emotions—and a regret that such feelings are no longer present in our lives—then I plead guilty.”

    In order to have those strong emotions he misses, he choose to hold himself responsible for the awful tragedies of Adrian(1), Adrian(2), and Veronica. His life seems, otherwise, pretty devoid of that sort of emotion. (And, there seems at least a hint that his letter may have fanned the flames a bit, if even he doesn’t actually bear responsibility for the fire.)

    All in all, I was convinced that Tony felt terribly about events even if, from a dispassionate standpoint, we wouldn’t hold him morally culpable. He called down a curse and it came to fruition (and, as to Veronica, at least, quite unjustly). Neither he nor we believe such curses work, but doesn’t his having wished it true say something about his character, if not his direct culpability?

  10. Monish says

    sorry if i forget can u remind whats the “b” in the equation… and what if the second “a” i.e. a2 is adrian’s son????

    • Polly says

      I think ‘b’ means baby. It’s therefore likely that ‘a2′ means Anthony (as was suggested in the book). But then again, why would so much emphasis really be based on Tony? Yes, his letter was disgusting and hurtful. However, I can still not see why he enters the ‘equation’ to such a degree. The letter hurt Adrian and Veronica, but surely both were intelligent enough to realise that he, Tony, was alos hurt and lashing out in an unsavoury way? Adrian was far intelligent enough not to take Tony’s word (to speak to Sarah’s mother and find out about the ‘damage’) when the letter was so obviously drunken, emotional and deliberately spiteful.
      However… if A2 does not mean ‘Anthony’ and does indeed mean ‘Adrian 2′ then why would Adrian need to use both ‘b’ and ‘a2′ for one part of the equation?

  11. Bruce says

    I’m fascinated by the notion that Tony is Adrian’s father, and that his guilt is fueled by his own doubt about the accuracy of his memories of his encounter with Sarah. Yet in his first equation Adrian clearly takes responsibility for fathering the child. It seems more likely to me that, whether Tony slept with Sarah or not, he understood from her comment undercutting Veronica and her generally seductive behavior that she was making an offer. I think he turned her down by asking Sarah what she meant, and I think his guilt comes from remembering upon re-reading his horrific letter that he had deliberately crafted it to drive Adrian into Sarah’s open arms.

  12. says

    I have a growing belief that Tony is young Adrian’s father, Veronica is his mother, she was called “mary” to indicate she was the mother and Adrian committed suicide rather than marry her carrying Tony’s child. That explains her comment of Blood Money better, I think. A1 and A2 in the equation are Adrian and Anthony, which is what Adrian called Tony. I can’t recall if there’s a comment early on that Adrian and Tony look enough alike for young Adrian to be mistaken by Tony as looking like Adrian. That also explains why Veronica wanted Tony to see Adrian, and why she again was frustrated by his not getting it.

    • devon says

      if the baby is indeed anthony’s then why the revelation at the end as to how much the young adrian resembled adrian, the elder in the eyes, in his a pallor and bone structure and height. memory is indeed fickle, but seeing is believing, as the saying goes. also it’s easy to place blame on anthony – he being the one to start the chain of events that led everyone down the path of destruction. but what of their choices? they were all cognizant of their actions at the moment they were made. anthony seems to me more of the clueless, unaware, sniveling co-star of this tale…hardly the architect of everyone’s undoing. at any rate, the questions and the mysteries that this book raises, is why i liked it. and what about the philosophical justifications of suicide that this story brings up? that was not lost on me and while i always thought that suicide was a selfish act, is it a right?

      • Felix Patrikeeff says

        …. except that Tony is the narrator, and we can’t quite, or indeed at all, trust what he says, or observes. At a number of points in the novel, he re-arranges the reality of what he has described earlier on and, conveniently, either blames it on his memory (and we have accepted this because we have been led to believe — but by him — that he may be clueless and unaware), or he expands slightly on what he remembers (the night at the Severn Bore, for example).

  13. arturo says

    “The conclusion that young Adrian is the child of Sarah and older Adrian is unmistakable.”

    Sorry, but I totally disagree.

    I think the book is about the lies Tony tells to himself and why he tells them. It seems clear to me from scores of ‘clues’ that Tony is the father of young Adrian. Adrian realizes that when he sees Tony which is why he hides his face and is upset when Tony is around. Tony knows it too on a subconscious level which is why he keeps going back to try to see Adrian. Tony sees a physical similarity between the young Adrian and his dead friend Adrian in the same way he mischaracterizes, to himself and to the reader, so many of the other events of the past: because he can’t face the truth. He can’t be ‘open’ around other people, as one of the early clues indicates.

    Why is everyone always saying Tony doesn’t get ‘it’? What is ‘it’? It can’t be only about the child and Sarah because Veronique starts with that line of observation before the baby is born and his wife’s contributions would suggest she also knows what ‘it’ is but doesn’t want to tell Tony (“You’re on your own now”). It would seem there is an ‘it’ known to all the main characters in this story (except Tony) which isn’t explicitly revealed to the reader.

    The first page, and the last, are the keys to what really happened. For instance, why the continued focus by Tony on such a minor point as a broken egg when cooking? Why all the water imagery?

    The clues have to be ferreted out by going back and reading and rereading many sections of the book after one finishes it–in its way it’s like the movie ‘Memento’. This is not a book to read on Kindle—the reviewer is correct there, in my opinion.

    When Tony says something to the effect “had we been in a novel there might have been some sneaking between floors” and “making an excuse about extra towels”, you know that’s exactly what happened the night Sarah came to his attic room after the others had gone to bed and seduced him in her ‘slapdash’ way the night she became pregnant with his child.

    Tony was given blood money because, contrary to first impression, it is he who was the wronged party by all of them—by Veronique, by Adrian, by Sarah (unintentionally), and by his wife.

    The reviewer writes “Tony’s letter is horrific. I can’t imagine ever receiving such a thing from someone.”

    My goodness. The things people do in fits of sexual jealousy go way beyond writing a letter like that.
    And why is the reviewer sympathetic to Veronique, who he says must have been hurt by the letter? Doesn’t he think a greater wrong was done to Tony, whose closest, adored friend started sleeping with Tony’s first and only girlfriend?

    As for Adrian, why conclude he ever slept with Sarah and that was why he killed himself? It seems to me he had a very good other reason for not being able to face himself any more.

    In Tony’s first telling of when he went to see the Severn Bore, he was alone with his male friends. In the recounting, Veronique was there. Was Adrian?

    Truth and illusion. I think that is what this book is about—not aging and the deficits of memory but repression and the way it can play tricks on a person’s mind and smother a person’s vitality in life and lead to…..great unrest.

  14. Rob R says

    I don’t understand Veronicas attitude to Tony. Their relationship had mutually failed and a vague hint in a poisonous letter to Adrian about her mother does not make him culpable – this is Adrians decision.
    I can’t accept that Tony slept with Sarah; no matter how memory plays tricks you wouldn’t forget this. A troubling ambiguous undercurrent about Tony (he’ll do won’t he) and everyone leaving Tony alone with Sarah that morning is suggestive of a family conspiracy to let them have sex/get pregnant. If there’s anything in this then it makes Veronicas attitude to Tony even more illogical.
    What about the timing – did Adrian kill himself after the baby was born? Perhaps he couldn’t reconcile the idea of his clever logical world with a damaged child?
    I don’t understand the significance of the strange hand waving gesture.

    • Marie says

      Not sure where I stand on the paternity of young Adrian, but if Tony is the father, I don’t think he “forgot” that he slept with Sarah. I think he is leaving it out. “That’s one of the central problems of history, isn’t it? …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 (pg 13).” As the teller of the story, he leaves out, or glosses over, things that portray him in a bad light.

    • MH says

      My take has been same as Rob R’s: a weird conspiracy of sorts – perhaps just Sarah and Veronica – to leave Tony and Sarah alone so he could have sex with her and, it seems, impregnate her. Veronica lies about his liking to sleep in – one of the few things he is sure about is that he has never liked to sleep in – and gets dad and Jack out of house. Why? Also, the recurring image of Sarah wanting to make him a better/unbroken egg seems of a piece with that. I don’t think he would forget sex with her either. He remembers masturbating after all and that is hardly usually a rare experience for young men – and women.

  15. Wondering says

    I think that the ‘Veronica’ which appears in the second half of the book, is not Veronica at all, but rather the daughter of Tony and Veronica….her actual name is Mary and she is the half brother of Adrian junior (read the passage in which Veronica chides Tony for not holding the condom on properly when they have sex). This is why even after several personal meetings with Tony, she tells him ‘you still don’t get it’. He does not see his only child, thinking only of everyone in the egoistic context of himself. What they say is unimportant, it is what Tony fails to see. Veronica and Adrian dedcided not to tell Tony about his child as he wrote them a terrible hate letter. Adrian junior is indeed the child of Sara and Adrian senior.

  16. Miss J Foy says

    Excellent essay. Our book club is still discussing the novel. It seems to me the key to what happened are the few facts we have. 1. Adrian and Tony were friends 2. Adrian met Veronica through Tony 3. Adrian felt compelled to tell Tony he had started a relationship with Veronica. 4. Tony writes a mean letter. 5. Adrian kills himself. 6. Sarah has Adrian’s diary and leaves it to Tony, with $500. 7. There is a mentally challenged man named Adrian, whose caregivers believe is the son of Sarah and brother of Veronica.

    Those seem the simplest facts. The main one is Sarah having Adrian’s diary. There is no story without that fact. So what does it signify? That Adrian and Sarah had a relationship of enough duration to warrant her having his diary. To me, whatever Veronica found in that diary (after discovering it unexpectedly in her mother’s things!?) forms the basis of her rage at the end of the book– and Tony’s involvement in a bit of history that really doesn’t belong to him, other than he introduced Adrian to Veronica.

    (What if Veronica learned of Adrian2’s existence OR that he was the son of Adrian from the diary? Wouldn’t you drive a bit erratically?)

    What Sarah does, by leaving the diary to Tony, is tell The Secret. Veronica may call it “blood money,” but that’s her opinion, and we’ll never know why Sarah remembers Tony in her will. Desperate to tell someone the truth, hoping to pay for his silence? We can’t know. So discuss all you want.

    The larger issues, as you, Jess, write, are the meaning of memory, fact, history, and our involvement with one another. I agree with the commenter above who scoffs at the power of the letter Tony wrote to change history. It’s nothing, really. Haven’t we all done something so stupid when drunk? That letter never drove Adrian to do anything.

    Let’s look at Adrian. From a broken home. An intellectual who dazzles people with his thought process. A man who has sex with his girlfriend’s mother who is old enough to be his mother and impregnates her. Who still tries to figure out human nature with mathematical equations. Who partially betrays his best friend by taking up with his ex-girlfriend without permission. That’s not necessarily a formula for suicide, but it’s also not a recipe for happiness. What would YOU do? Tell your girlfriend the truth? And risk destroying her family? Break up with your girlfriend and pretend it never happened?

    Lastly, Sarah does not seduce Adrian. She preys on him. As a 40+ yr old woman having sex, in repressed 1960s England, with a 20 yr old male– that’s tantamount to sexual abuse, imo. When Sarah gives Tony the waist-high wave, it’s an almost obscene and secretive gesture, indicating that she knows no boundaries between her desires and her daughter’s well-being. Sarah is a narcissistic predator, and Veronica grew up with that.

    In a few moments of Tony’s memory, on the beach, dancing in his room, Veronica and Tony dare to find intimacy and love. Neither was brave enough to pursue it, pursue real love and trust. And in the face of such fear of intimacy, ugliness and secrets win.

    • anne says

      Actually that had been my first conclusion. A snr has a mysterious missing mother.

      He is introduced to V by Tony and A snr and V are instantly attracted. Start a relationship, fall deeply in love. A snr gets V pregnant as predicted by letter.

      A snr visits Vs mother and they both recognise one another and realise A snr is in love with own sister with baby on way. A snr commits suicide in the usual greek fashion and guilt ridden Sarah brings up child as own as was fairly common solution to unwed teen pregnancy. They may or may not tell V that A snr was her brother.

      Sarah is the ultimately guilty party sort of. It ‘s a tragedy with Tony as the completely oblivious instigator (through introduction of A and V) and narrator.

      Or not of course ;-)

      Many ways to read, very enjoyable.

    • Mel says

      This might be a stretch, but I think the 2 names for this character may illustrate her roles in the lives of young Adrian and Tony. Mary may be her middle name. Symbolically it could work as she is now in the role of the mothering figure in young Adrian’s life, though she did not actually give birth to him. No, she’s not actually a virgin, but she is perhaps the “innocent” in the story of young Adrian’s conception. The name Veronica can be linked to truth (St. Veronica supposedly wiped Jesus’s face with the cloth that then showed his image). I think that’s a fitting name for her role in Tony’s life.

  17. Elizabeth says

    I finished reading this book a few days ago and have been looking for answers to some of the questions posed at the end of the book. The comments on here have muddied that waters in some respect and made them clearer in others.

    I think that there are no right or wrong interpretations to this novel – as the book says, to understand the history, you have to understand the historian. We as the readers become the historian, picking up and evaluating the clues and evidence to present in a way that makes sense to us, filling in the blanks as we go. Whether or not this is the truth is up to us to decide. We make our own conclusions based on what we choose to accept and ignore.

    My interpretation is that the Adrian WAS the son of Veronica and Adrian. I picked up that Tony repeated that it was the Sixties and from my understanding of the period, it was considered shameful for a woman to be pregnant and unmarried, particularly in places where Veronica grew up. It seems feasible to me that Sarah raised the baby as her son rather than Veronica. Both Veronica and Jack were away at University so she was left with her alcoholic husband. Even when the family are at home, Sarah was left to cook by herself whilst Veronica, Jack and her husband went for a walk. She seemed like a lonely character, adhering to the stereotype of wife and mother. Again, this is Tony’s interpretation of events and may be further from the truth than we know.

    This perhaps would explain Veronica’s response to Tony – the first thing she did was give him a copy of the letter in which he wished that they have a child that destroys the, her way of telling him. Rather than being clear, she acts as a “mysterious woman”.

    The use of Robson’s suicide offers us one possible interpretation to Adrian’s death – he had done it as he couldn’t handle being a father. His letter to the coroner gives us another. The only thing that could give a definite answer is the diary and that had been destroyed other than ambiguous equations which can be interpreted in many ways.

    Essentially, this novel is about remembering and the truth. There is no definitive answer as the truth changes dependent on the listener and the context. Tony believes that Adrian is Veronica’s son until he is told differently. When your read the letter, the part which tells Adrian to look to Veronica’s mother offers an explanation as to why Adrian is Sarah’s son. If you read the part which says he hopes Veronica and Adrian have a child that destroys them, it explains why Adrian committed suicide. It’s up to you which one you believe.

    The book prompts debate and there is evidence to suggest any interpretation – Sarah and Adrian having an affair, Tony being Adrian’s father, Veronica’s comments “that you just done get it.”

    Perhaps that is what this novel is about, something that we just aren’t meant to get.

  18. Bob says

    I’d like to echo an earlier question: if Veronica at the end of the book is the same person as the earlier Veronica, why does young Adrian call her Mary??? That could be another name for her, but why make that a part of the story? All I can think of is to add ambiguity.

    Any theories?

  19. busloadoffaith says

    Yes, Mary is Tony’s daughter. That’s why she’s so angry with him. That’s why she doesn’t speak to him. She wants him to notice her, that’s why she behaves so bizarrely, and just as he complains that his children don’t really notice him, he’s completely blind to the fact to the fact that Mary’s his daughter. She’s shouting out to him to notice her. Her silence is saying: ‘I am your daughter’. That’s why he ‘doesn’t get it’ and that’s part of his character that hasn’t changed since his youth (a theme throughout the book). That’s also why he feels this unexplained love for her.

    Also, I don’t think there’s any question that Adrian is Adrian’s son. I like the ambiguity about whether Tony slept with Veronica’s mother, but that’s exactly what it is; ambiguity.

  20. Bermuda says

    I too am troubled by the fact that Veronica is now known to all as Mary. And while it is tempting to speculate that Veronica and Mary are two different persons, and that perhaps Mary is Tony’s daughter, it just seems a bridge too far. Recall that Tony confidently asserted to the care worker that Mary was the mother of Adrian, a 40 year old man, something he would not have done, even in a disturbed state, if the woman was his own daughter. Not to mention that the care worker knows Mary to be Adrian’s sister. That said, I agree there is no obvious alternative explanation for the “it” that Mary so wants Tony to get (why would she expect him to divine Adrian’s parentage, for example), or for Mary’s unwillingness to part with any information about her life.

  21. says

    No-one has mentioned the other thing Tony brought up at the end of the book – that Sarah “made a horizontal sign underneath the wisteria”. What was that about? This book really really annoyed me. I realise I am not the cleverest person in the world but neither am I the stupidest, and judging by the comments above, you are all pretty smart people – however, none of can really be sure we have this worked out, and to me that is bad writing and lazy writing on the author’s part. Yes he is a technically good writer, but the plot being “revealed” in the last couple of pages seems rather clumsy, especially as it is not explained. Some people might like this sort of ambiguous writing but I am not one of those people, I’m afraid. What I find hard to believe is that this book won the Booker Prize.

  22. Asterisk says

    After reading the book and all your posts I think the book is sheer genius. I am still thinking about it after a month. I think the point of the book is about history and memory, about the relative nature of things, that we perceive what we perceive, but what really happened will never be accessible, because it does not exist, I mean it did really happen, but it might as well not exist because we can never know for certain what ‘really happened’, or what really happened is only knowable from different perspectives or in the mind, it doesn’t have a meaning outside of our mind, it just is, all that exists are different and relative understandings of reality. The author, I am now thinking, sought precisely to leave the book open to multiple interpretations to unsettle the normal narrative structure, to upset our need for closure and certainty. Beginnings, middles and endings, resolution, are not real life, they are things all the uncertainty of real life make us want, maybe? I don’t know, but we seem to like to so. The book gave me a different feeling, I mean different than when you put a book down and you unravel the clues and you ‘get it’. Not getting it is a nice state to be in, I’m now thinking, because I don’t have to get it, and I thank the author for giving me this lovely feeling of no closure. I’m now thinking I’ve had much more enjoyment than a novel that ‘makes sense’ because not only have I had a chance to ponder it myself, I’ve heard all these different explanations, most of which are pretty plausible, to me anyway, and I like feeling that no one interpretation is more real than another,also it’s nice to think about something from different angels and to watch how your emotions and your sense of who is a victim and who is innocent can shift so radically with just a new interpretation. And then it leaves you pondering something quite philosophical, and challenging you to learn to love openness … I don’t know maybe I didn’t really get it?

    • says

      I completely agree. This was one of my great joys when I read the book and continues to be as people keep reading and commenting. (I wrote this post in October and it’s still going strong!) I love the ambiguity and I love how much different people see when they read it. I imagine that was Barnes’ point, but that’s just the way I see it.

  23. Mike says

    Great discussion! I’m not sure if I missed this in the other comments, but I was struck by the biblical names. Sarah (Abraham’s wife)was allegedly barren, yet gave birth to Isaac in her old age. Mary – Mother of God. And Veronica, the pious woman who wiped Jesus’s face during his march with the cross. I’m not smart enough to take the observation very much further, but am certain these character names were not accidents.

  24. Mark R says

    I’ve just finished the book and am mulling it over. Loved everyone’s comments/interpretations – made me consider so many other possibilities. There’s another clue – the title – ‘The Sense Of An Ending’. Again, it’s ambiguous – 2 possible meanings – 1 The perception of a conclusion but no real closure 2 what’s the sense of an ending – as in why should there be a neat tying up of events?

    • Andrew says

      Mark – your suggestion is much appreciated; In the Lake of the Woods is actually on my shelf un-read. I’ll probably read it, after I re-read this one.

  25. virginia says

    Hi there — well, call me contrary & naive, but I think some people are conflating mystery stories, which you expect to be full of surprises and puzzles, with a philosophical “literary” novel.
    I see this story not as a puzzle or mystery to be solved but as one man’s narrative of his awakening to reality. Tony is someone who wants life to be too much of a bother, but he idolizes Adrian as a noble, romantic figure and Adrian’s suicide as a noble, romantic, existential rejection of the essential meaninglessness of life. When, as a matter of fact, and just as Tony says, Adrian is unable to face the responsibility of having fathered an illegitimate and severely damaged child by a much older woman, the mother of his supposed girlfriend so he bugs out (or “buggers out” as they say in England) by killing himself.
    Utter disillusionment.
    And this comes after Tony has had to face his own extremely dark side with the revelation of the nasty, almost insane letter he wrote to Adrian & Veronica. I do agree with the people who say that Tony takes too much of the blame for Adrian’s affair with Sarah and his suicide because it makes him feel he’s done something big — although not noble — with his life, instead of it all being safe and passive.
    As for Sarah, her brief appearance cooking eggs and warning Tony about Veronica is so interesting — I felt at once just from those few pages that she was a compelling sexual and emotional woman who powerfully attracted Tony (but he never admitted it to himself, let alone acted on it) — and it seemed entirely plausible that Adrian would fall in love with her. I was only disappointed she wasn’t in more scenes.
    Sorry, Jess, I don’t feel a LOT of sympathy for Veronica. Once I was a young woman who believed I had to hang on to my virginity until I could trade it for a ring (luckily, I got over that) so I’m sympathetic to her basic dilemma, but I’m sympathetic to Tony, whose fear and confusion I could also identify with. I don’t know how old you are, but I was born in 1944, and that was just the way we grew up. Sex was a powerful drive that we had to do our best to suppress, control, and/or sidetrack until we met The One. Girls especially. Holding on to your virginity was your ticket to a good life. Awful to think about now.
    But I’m not awfully sympathetic with Veronica because I think she was also mean to Tony in other ways — like telling her family he wanted to “lie in” and going off with her dad and brother, and I think humiliating him in front of her dad and brother. If Tony found her mother, who was nice to him and treated him like a person with feelings, attractive, well no wonder. And then in the end of the book, why didn’t she just tell him the truth — why did she go through that whole thing with the bad driving instead of just saying to him, “You don’t get it! That goofy man, as you call him, is Adrian’s son! And my mother is his mother!”
    So what is this book about? Tony is a man who was out of touch with his emotions, and by the time he gets back in touch, it’s probably too late. And the notion that suicide is some noble existential act of heroism is a load of crap. And so — try to make the most of your gift of life no matter how difficult and frightening it is. Connect with your emotions and others’ or end up an empty shell.

  26. says

    The paternity of A2 seems to be the lingering question in everyone’s mind. Perhaps Tony’s final conclusion is the right one, but it seems to leave far more unresolved questions than the interpretation that Tony is the father. The title of the novel, in any event, indicates that Tony doesn’t get it and never will, as Veronica suggested. Tony has only arrived at the sense of an ending. The proper ending, an acceptance of a dark secret that he can’t even admit to himself, and the final assumption of his responsibility as a father (which Veronica briefly hopes for when she tells A2 “soon”) alludes Tony.

    To be honest, I find the novel’s mixed critical reception to be the more baffling question. It appears that even some very intelligent writers (from the Times, no less!) didn’t get it. I realize they have a lot of books to read, but it’s pretty short. Surely it deserves a few minutes of piecing together before dashing off a half-baked review. Curious…I wonder whether The Turn of the Screw also lay undeciphered for a while.

  27. Carolyn says

    In going over the book for the third time I had a thought somewhat similar to sara’s, but that Veronica left Anthony alone with her mother the first morning as a kind of “test”, her mother having some sort of competition going with her daughter. And that Anthony passed the test. (I don’t think Anthony slept with the mother, although it’s possible.) So then Veronica wanted to take the relationship further and he didn’t and she went to Adrian who didn’t pass the test, apparently.

    NB: carefully rereading the book for eye color (possible parentage) is not worthwhile.

  28. Jennifer says

    Love the discussion – I’ve been running the end round my mind for days now and I’ve enjoyed the above comments immensely! I just want to add one comment because a few people asked about it: The “horizontal gesture” of Sara. I think this was simply a “oh well”, wave from her (she did not get what she wanted- sex with Tony) mostly because Tony was oblivious to her flirtation at the time. Only in his later remembrance of the wave did he call it a horizontal gesture- indicating, I think, he finally understood she had been making a pass at him (horizontal- lying down!!)

  29. Martin Neill says

    My interpretation of blood money is as follows:
    1) Adrian never showed Tony’s vile letter to Veronica, but keeps it in his diary
    2) Veronica, on her mother’s death, comes into possession of the diary and the letter and works out that Adrian and her mother had an affair, resulting in young Adrian. She refers to Mary’s £500 bequest to Tony as ‘Blood Money’ as his letter had pushed Adrian into the arms of Mary
    3) I cannot work out Mary’s gesture on Tony’s departure from Veronica’s Chiselworth home. Two thoughts come to mind.
    a) it is a gesture of w@nking – Mary overheard Tony’s second night’s jerking off into the bedroom sink
    b) it is a gesture of a ‘wipe out’ or ‘wash out’. Mary had expected to seduce Adrian – something Veronica, the Father and Jack were used to – and had failed: hence the gesture of defeat.

    Indeed your analysis of Veronica’s blighted life if spot-on, and yet she is portrayed so unsympathetically.

    A masterful novel – ranking along side ‘Metroland and ‘Flaubert’s Parrot’ which I have reread, but TSOAE will be the one I reread most often

  30. Sidvee says

    I think the line (and a dazzling one no less) that sums up the whole novel is this one: “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.” That one line explains a lot, especially when it comes to Tony’s recollection of events and our exposure to only to one page of the diary. The bit about ‘So, for instance, if Tony’ is sheer cunning.

  31. Kevan says

    I think if you read the visit to Veronica’s parents house, it’s clear that Sarah is a promiscuous woman.

    When he meets Ver’s father he wonders ‘How could this man have fathered such an elfin daughter’. And he notes that Sarah doesn’t bare much resemblance to Veronica either. So where does she get her look from?

    Maybe the reason Veronica does take the men out is to test Anthony’s resolve against her mother – which is why she is so stand-offish the first night, then when it’s clear that he hasn’t jumped into bed with her after the early morning walk, Ver is more affectionate to Anthony. And asks the question ‘He’ll do won’t he?’

    But then he blows it all at then end by saying “I like your mum.’ and then there is a foreshadowing with the “‘Sounds like you’ve got rival, Vron,’ said Mr Ford.” …’Come to think of it sound like I have too. Pistols at dawn, young feller-me-lad?'”

  32. says

    I think the tragedy of the book and the motive for Adrian’s suicide is that Adrian was brilliant. Life was a gift he hadn’t asked for and his intellegence was a gift he hadn’t asked for, but he took it seriously (unlike brother Jack which infuriated Adrian). The fact that his son was born “damaged” unable to participate in the life of intellect was too tragic and nonsensical for Adrian to accept.
    Adrian lived a life of the mind, he didn’t want to play games with it. That’s why he was with Sarah, she was kind and down to earth not a game player. She said to Tony, “Don’t let Veronica get away with too much.” Meaning, mind games and manipulation.
    Sarah is not permiscuous, she is real and Adrian loved her. Remember when Tony talks with Alex, Alex says the last time he saw Adrian he was on his way to Chiselhurst (we assume to see Ver. but it’s really Sarah) Adrian seemed “Cheerful. Happy. Like himself only more so. As we said goodbye he told me he was in love.”

  33. Nancy says

    Sidvee on Sep 16 is right on. We try to figure history (the truth of what happened)with memories that are inaccurate and with a lack of proper documentation. In this case Adrian and Sara are dead and the diary, an accurate documentation, is burned–neither is available to Tony or us.

  34. says

    Mark brought up the title and I agree and add this thought, I think the book is about endings. The breakup with Veronica, Adrian’s suicide, losing contact with his school friends, his divorce and so forth. He is consumed by endings.

  35. John Gough says

    Veronica, despite all of that, is stubborn, supercilious, and uncommunicative. I have no sympathy for her whatsoever.

  36. Annemieke says

    Has anyone wondered why Tony remembers ‘bathwater long gone cold behind a locked door’? Was he there when (or after) Adrian killed himself?

  37. Andrey says

    Although I have not read read all the comments on this webpage, I am surprised nothing useful was mentioned about the “formulas”. Just to clarify, that the two formulas represented two different opinions or ways you could look at this situation/dilemma.

    However the second formula may be more of the one that Adrian would stick to, since he is the more “intelligent”, “logical” thinker (the second formula(a2 + v + a1 x s = b), unlike Tony, and “logically”, if not for Tony, nothing would’ve happened. Thus, Tony is included in the formula.

    All I’m saying is that the formulas are a mathematical representation of the point of view that each of the characters and the audience had about the story’s dilemma. If the formulas are analyses in greater depth, we can get answers to most of the question. Because Maths is factual, “logical”, rather than theoretical.

    P.S. I’ve tried solving the formulas and was able to find accumulation for several characters.

  38. Jatinder says

    Wow!! So it’s not just me- I thought I did not quite understand the ending because English is a second language to me.

  39. Samiksha says

    Referring to the “condom roll” extract, did tony actually had sex with veronica or was he recalling the one with her mother’s ?
    If the former, than , that shows veronica was not virgin.
    Also, the dance scene. was he recalling veronica dancing or her mother? since veronica never danced?

  40. Roy says

    I am as puzzled as everyone else.

    One thing in particular is how Veronica is often telling Tony something to the effect that he just doesn’t get it and I felt like she communicates that prior to all the issues of baby Adrian’s mother.

    What is that about? Is that a criticism of Tony in general and what is it that he doesn’t get?

  41. Kalpana says

    I was thoroughly confusedwith the ending of this book so your your insight into the book really helped me. one thing that puzzled me is, where is Margaret in your discussion? The ex wife of Tony. I found her to be the only sane person in the book and someone who spoke with common sense! I liked when she tells Tony, now you are on your own!

  42. says

    Thank you for all these insightful comments and for your blog.
    I have a question: Did it mean something that Veronica announced to her family that she was going to walk Tony up to his room when he came to stay that week end? And the way the father makes a point of him using the sink rather than going to another part of the house to find the bathroom. I can’t help but think that means something. I think Adrian was overwhelmed and consumed with helplessness at the knowledge of bringing a life into the world, witness his own childhood – adrift in a broken family and un-nurtured. Now I want to read more of Barnes novels so that I can get a sense of how to interpret these events more fully. Oh, yes and I love the thinking and reflection afterwards.

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