Department of English

Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University


The Sense of an Ending



Julian Barnes

(January 19, 1946 – )




Holbein: Hans Holbein, the Younger, German painter

10  Weltanschauung:


110  "I've Got You Under My Skin": A 1936 song composed by Cole Porter

  • Frank Sinatra, "I've Got You Under My Skin (ABC TV)," YouTube (2009; 2:04 min.)

135  biro: The ubiquitous Bic ballpoint pen

Bic biro
Bic Crystal ballpoint pen

  • Trademark; British  A kind of ballpoint pen (Lexico)
  • a plastic pen that uses a small metal ball at its point to move the ink inside the pen onto paper (Macmillan Dictionary)
  • "Birth of Bic Crystal," Bic (2019)
    Marcel Bich, believing in the potential for the ballpoint pen, adapts and improves the ballpoint invented by the Hungarian László Biró, and in December 1950, launches his own ballpoint pen in France under the BIC® brand, a shortened and more memorable version of his own name.
  • "Bic Biro," The Design Museum
    The biro is used by millions people every single day, but how much do you know about this overlooked piece of design?
    Released in 1950 by French company Bic, the Bic pen (officially named Bic Cristal) helped to change the pen market from fountain pens to ballpoint. By 2006, over 100 billion had been sold—and it's easy to see why, when they can be bought as cheap as 10p, and a single pen can write for a distance of up to 2 to 3 kilometres! The pens come in four different colours: black, blue, green and red—black is the most popular Bic colour in the UK.
  • "Everyday Icon #3 The Bic Biro," Phaidon (2011)
    In 1938 Hungarian László Bíró invented the very first ballpoint pen. Bíró, a journalist by trade, needed something that wrote quickly and effortlessly. [...] Seven years later a French Baron, Marcel Bich, purchased a factory on the outskirts of Paris to manufacture parts for fountain pens and draughtsman’s pencils. [...] he scraped enough money together to acquire the rights to Bíró's invention and introduced his own version in 1950. [...] Bich invested in Swiss technology capable of cutting and shaping the-by-now tungsten tip into a one-millimeter sphere that allowed the ink to flow more freely. [...] A tiny hole drilled in the barrel's body keeps the air pressure inside and outside the pen equal in order to ease flow.





Comprehension Check


  • What does "taking the piss" mean?
  • What does "Have you done a motion?" mean (69)?
  • What does "blood money" mean (81)?



Study Questions

  • Memory; impressions
    • Consider the characters' memory and its relationship with worldview or perspective. How does the text convey this?
      • "How were we to know that our lives had in any case begun, that some advantage had already been gained, some damage already inflicted? Also, that our release would only be into a larger holding pen, whose boundaries would be at first undiscernible."
      • "Back then, we were most of us absolutists," the narrator describes. What are they now?
      • "I thought she was nice. Well, I probably would have found any girl who didn’t shy away from me nice."
    • What values are attached to memory in the novel? How is memory portrayed? What demands are expected or required of memory in different situations? Is this justified?
      • "But she only said, 'I wonder why you remembered that.' And with this moment of corroboration, I began to feel a return of confidence." (116)
      • "If asked in a court of law what happened and what was said" (119)
    • What is the difference between memory and impressions? When does memory fail or when is an impression wrong, and why is it significant? In what ways is memory unreliable? Consider the following:
      • "'Oh, I never thought it was difficult'" (115)
      • "Severn Bore. Veronica had been alongside me." (119)
  • Time
    • Consider the characters' relationship with time throughout their lives. How does the novel convey its ideas about time?
      • "We live in time—it holds us and moulds us"
      • "I mean ordinary, everyday time, which clocks and watches assure us passes regularly"
      • "it takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time’s malleability. Some emotions can speed it up, others slow it down; occasionally, it seems to go missing"
      • "Another detail I remember: the three of us, as a symbol of our bond, used to wear our watches with the face on the inside of the wrist. It was an affectation, of course, but perhaps something more. It made time feel like a personal, even a secret, thing."
      • "And then life took over, and time speeded up. In other words, I found a girlfriend."
      • "I’d better explain what the concept of 'going out' with someone meant back then, because time has changed it."
      • "You may say, But wasn’t this the sixties? Yes, but only for some people, only in certain parts of the country."
      • "She was five months older than me and sometimes made it feel like five years."
      • "I asked if I might be told the date of the will"
      • "time was telling not against them, it was telling against me" (98)
      • "it isn’t necessarily too late" (120)
      • "Of course, I was far too early" (122)
      • "this was what my time was now for" (134)
      • "Time’s revenge on the innocent foetus" (139)
      • "Now, for the first time, I wondered what had happened to Robson’s girl, and to their child" (141)
      • "I knew I couldn’t change, or mend, anything now" (149)
    • Influences on time
      • How does time and memory affect each other?
      • What is the relationship between history and time?
      • What kinds of things are changed by time in the novel and what are similar or remain the same?
    • How does the novel use time to convey guilt? To what effect?
      • "Why had I reacted by going nuclear?" (99)
      • "Remorse, etymologically, is the action of biting again: that’s what the feeling does to you. Imagine the strength of the bite when I reread my words." (138)
      • "There is accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond these, there is unrest. There is great unrest." (149)
  • History
    • "In our final history lesson of the year, Old Joe Hunt" asks his students: "We could start, perhaps, with the seemingly simple question, What is History?" Why is this a question to ask at the end of term? How is this different from asking the question at the beginning?
    • What functions of history does the novel present?
    • What shortcomings of history does the novel show?
    • What does the novel propose might compensate for the shortcomings of history?
  • Philosophy
    • What does the novel suggest are the uses or futility of philosophy?
  • Echoes and Parallels
    • How does Robson's suicide set up Adrian's?
    • How does Adrian's explanation of Robson's suicide as a historical event and his questions about it prepare for the problems and questions that arise in connection to Adrian's own suicide?
    • How might Hunt's response to Adrian's explanation clarify or question the evidence in Adrian's later suicide case and Tony Webster's "Quest to Discover the Truth"?
      • Do events in Part Two prove or disprove Hunt's suggestion not to "underestimate history. And for that matter historians"?
      • Does Hunt's warning that "It is often the statement made with an eye to the future that is the most suspect" find later application?
      • What of his point that "mental states may often be inferred from actions"? What mental states of which characters can be inferred from their actions?
  • The Knowability and Unknowability of People and Things
    • How earnestly does the novel take Adrian's explanation to Old Joe Hunt, "in one sense, I can't know what it is that I don't know" (11)?
    • How might people's internal, personal and abstract character, personalities and ideas be inferred from external or physical evidence? What do the following reveal?
      • Philosophers they read or like
      • Their record collection
      • Their bookshelves
      • Their diaries
      • Their will
      • "you may find that you have attended to the wrong kind of record-keeping"
    • What makes an individual that individual?
      • "if Tony hadn’t been Tony" (89)
      • "'One of these days I’ll surprise you,' I said.
        'You do still. You have today.'" (101)
      • "What sort of Adrian did I have instead? [...] But now I had to recalibrate Adrian, change him from a Camus-quoting repudiator for whom suicide was the only true philosophical question, into…what?" (140)
    • What questions are asked about a person or event? When are they answered? By whom or what? Do the questions turn out to be the right questions to have been asked?
    • What can the legal system or legal means discover about a person?
    • What can historical methods uncover?
    • What can psychology or psychologists find or see (87)?
    • What can common sense or logic decipher?
      • Adrian Finn is described as a "philosopher" who "pushed us to believe in the application of thought to life, in the notion that principles should guide actions" (9). How does this idea of the "true philosophical question [...] The fundamental one on which all others depend" (13–14) and the process of logical reasoning prove useful in explaining things throughout the course of the novel? How "philosophically self-evident" are things?
      • On the other hand, there is Tony Webster's refrain about logic: "where's the logic in that?" (26), "Logic: yes, where is logic?" (40). He makes the observation: "Adrian was much cleverer than me—he used logic where I use common sense—but we came, I think, to more or less the same conclusion" (104). Are logic and common sense at odds? Are they the same thing? What difference do they make in knowing about things?
    • What can intimacy, attention and perceptiveness?
      • Consider, for example, how well Tony's ex-wife Margaret knows him. What kinds of things does she know about him? To what extent? How does she come by that knowledge?
      • "'There were some women who aren’t at all mysterious, but are only made so by men’s inability to understand them.'" Where might this be true in the story?
      • "'What’s wrong with you? [...] You just don’t get it, do you? You never did, and you never will'" (126)
    • When is Adrian being serious and when is he "taking the piss"?
    • How does one's view or understanding of a person or event change if one treats it as a historical figure or object?
      • What does it mean that Tony "didn’t feel as if [he] was examining some historical document" when he is reading the photocopied page of Adrian's diary (86)? "No, I felt as if Adrian was present in the room again, beside me, breathing, thinking."
    • When Margaret says "'Tony, you're on your own now,'" (106) what does she already know that he does not seem yet to know about him or about the situation?
    • How reliable are words as indicators of truth? How do words convey the sense of something, of understanding?
      • "'Veronica’s brother, Jack, was easier to read: one of those healthy, sporting young men who laughed at most things and teased his younger sister. He behaved towards me as if I were an object of mild curiosity, and by no means the first to be exhibited for his appreciation." (27)
      • "'Bye, Mary!'" (127)
      • "I hadn’t even meant it at the time—I was just flailing around, trying to find a way to hurt. [...] So it was as false as it was hurtful." (138)
      • "'Out!'" (142)
      • "'So what you call 'hand-cut chips' are actually cut elsewhere, and quite probably by a machine?'" (145)
    • The title of the novel announces The Sense of an Ending. How much does it give away of its story even before it has begun? What impact does this outright knowledge of an ending have on the telling of the story? What resonances of "the sense of an ending" do you find in the book?
  • Literature
    • How effective is the literary or novel form as a vehicle for clarity, precision, nuance, development, and layers?
    • What aspects of the novel The Sense of an Ending or what expressions within it show ideas about its own form and function? Consider, for instance,
      • "a few incidents that have grown into anecdotes"
      • "'Poets don’t run out of material the way novelists do,' she instructed me. 'Because they don’t depend on material in the same way'"
      • "Who said there were no surprises left in life?" (118)
      • "words producing events" (138)
      • "If I’d had an address for her, I would have sent a proper letter. I headed my email 'Apology,' then changed it to 'APOLOGY,' but that looked too screamy, so changed it back again. I could only be straightforward"
  • How many senses does Barnes use the word sense in the novel?
    • "this was the first thing a man sensed" (66)
    • "Does that make sense?" (87)
    • "tactical nous" (87)
    • "I don’t mean that in a bitchy sense" (101)



Review Sheet


Anthony Webster, Tony 5; "I had read George Orwell and Aldous Huxley" (10)

Adrian Finn – "His name was Adrian Finn, a tall, shy boy who initially kept his eyes down and his mind to himself" (4); "'Eros and Thanatos'" 6); "Adrian joined the fencing club and did the high jump [...] he came to school with a clarinet" (7); "His mother had walked out years before, leaving his dad to cope with Adrian and his sister" (8); "he said he loved his mother and respected his father" (9); "Adrian had read Camus and Nietzsche" (9–10)
Veronica Mary Elizabeth Ford – "My [Tony's] girlfriend was called Veronica Mary Elizabeth Ford" (20)
Margaret – the narrator's ex-wife
Colin Simpson, Col – "Colin had read Baudelaire and Dostoevsky" (10); "'History is a raw onion sandwich, sir'" (16)
Alexander, Alex – "Alex had read Russell and Wittgenstein" (9)
Sarah Ford – "She didn’t look much like Veronica: a broader face, hair tied off her high forehead with a ribbon, a bit more than average height." (27)
John Ford, Jack, Brother Jack – "one of those healthy, sporting young men who laughed at most things and teased his younger sister" (27)
Old Joe Hunt – "we had a history class with Old Joe Hunt, wryly affable in his three-piece suit, a teacher whose system of control depended on maintaining sufficient but not excessive boredom" (4)
Phil Dixon – "we had a double English period with Phil Dixon, a young master just down from Cambridge [...] He once compared a Shakespearean hero to Kirk Douglas in Spartacus [...] Naturally, we adored him" (6)
     school – "The school was in central London, and each day we travelled up to it from our separate boroughs" (7)

Kent – "They [the Fords] lived in Kent, out on the Orpington line, in one of those suburbs which had stopped concreting over nature at the very last minute, and ever since smugly claimed rural status" (26)
    The Ford's home – "They lived in a detached, red-brick, tile-hung house with a strip of gravel in front of it" (26–27)

"Back then, things were plainer: less money, no electronic devices, little fashion tyranny, no girlfriends" (7–8)
1960s – "You may say, But wasn’t this the sixties? Yes, but only for some people, only in certain parts of the country." (23); "If you’ll excuse a brief history lesson: most people didn’t experience “the sixties” until the seventies. Which meant, logically, that most people in the sixties were still experiencing the fifties—or, in my case, bits of both decades side by side." ()


origins; causes
character; characterization
the past
knowability and unknowability of facts, events
guilt; remorse
the novel form




Sample Student Responses to Julian Barnes's The Sense of an Ending

Response 1









  • .

  • Miquel Berga, "Conversations at La Pedrera: Julian Barnes," Fundació Catalunya La Pedrera (2012; 18:49 min.)

  • The Sense of an Ending, directed by Ritesh Batra, screenplay by Nick Payne, StudioCanal (2017; film trailer, 2:15 min.)



Julian Barnes



Barnes, Julian. The Sense of an Ending. Jonathan Cape, 2011.

Further Reading

Barnes, Julian. A History of the World in 10½ Chapters. Vintage, 2009.

Barnes, Julian. Arthur and George. Jonathan Cape, 2005.

Barnes, Julian. Flaubert's Parrot. McGraw-Hill, 1984.

Barnes, Julian. Keeping an Eye Open: Essays on Art. Alfred A. Knopf, 2015.

Barnes, Julian. Lemon Table. Jonathan Cape, 2004.

Barnes, Julian. Levels of Life. Jonathan Cape, 2013.

Barnes, Julian. Pulse. Jonathan Cape, 2011.

Conversations with Julian Barnes. Edited by Vanessa Guignery and Ryan Roberts, UP of Mississippi, 2009.

Reed, Rex. "The Sense of an Ending Is a Powerful, Moving Portrait of Memories Past." Observer, 14 Mar. 2017,


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Last updated March 31, 2021