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ISSN: 0974-892X


January, 2022



Mapping the contours of Post- Modernism in Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending

Dr. Harbir Singh Randhawa, Associate Professor in English, DAV (PG) College, Dehradun
Dr. Shipra Joshi, Asstt. Professor in English, Graphic Era Hill University, Dehradun


Abstract : A movement beginning from the post World War era; Postmodernism, mainly depicts the transition of society and culture from its ‘modern’ environments to the highly complicated ‘post-modern’ period of transnationality, hyperreality, intertextuality, simulacrum and deconstruction. From a world where Nietzsche had already announced the death of God, Postmodernism announces the death of the subject and structured discourse. Such divergent  features of Postmodernism can therefore incite its description as a movement which has a unifying philosophy of individualism, dislocation of the psyche, discredited Marxism and they result into the reinterpretation of history, identity and epistemology. All complicated Postmodernist discourses of New Historicism, Oriental Studies and Cosmopolitanism in some way discuss the relationship between texts and reality and they have been explained with regard to Julian   Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending. The paper also connects literature with society and attempts to bring to light the contemporary social problems arising as a consequence of growing capitalism, consumerism and class divide under the impact of post-modernism.

Keywords: Existentialism, cosmopolitanism, consumerism, unreliability, self inflicted alienation, disillusionment, otherness.


Postmodernism and social theory has always maintained an unbreakable connection. As a matter of fact, Postmodernist literature itself is a consequence of the deeply imbibed socio-historical struggle of the modern intellectual to justify himself in a hypocritical society. Social activities like scientific advance, industrialism, capitalism, urbanism, and bureaucracy are closely linked and are the characteristics of the Modern intellectual trends of the society. Despite their early beginnings, these aspects are the contributing factors of contemporary production of literature which discusses a society filled with individualistic ideas and urban environments.

The importance and effects of cosmopolitanism and consumerism on individual development has been immense and growing over the years. Reputed scholars like Baudrillard and Ewen talk of how the modern youth is not an individual but a factory product of several consumerist images found in markets. Ewen’s concept of the ‘commodity self’ very correctly notifies of how we manufacture our identities on the basis of what we buy as a consumer and these mass media constructed images in turn have hugely influenced the way a society and its literature are constructed.

It is a notion of no surprise then, that like most things, Literature produced today is also a factory product of those consumerist images that rapidly flow in the information overloaded world of mass media and marketing. It is interesting to note that many international films, novels and other pieces of art today are centred on exotic images of the East or the less developed Postcolonial regions of the world. The phenomenon is more frequent because writers and books who repetitively speak of their charms and their marginalisation are the ones who gain public limelight and become bestselling products of consumption.

Themes of memory, history, philosophy and truth have often been the subject of Julian Barnes’ novels. With the presence of a serious tone, first person narrative technique, irony, blurring of boundaries between history, philosophy and truth and clash of thoughts and genres; The Sense of an Ending serves as the best example of Postmodern fiction.

Having an unsatisfactory end, a non linear plot and vagueness in narration; The Sense of an Ending appears to be truly Postmodern. The title of the book is borrowed from Frank Kermode’s book of the same name first published in 1967. Kermode wrote this book at the peak of Postmodernity with his text aiming at “making sense of the ways we try to make sense of our lives”. The title is applicable to the plot as well as characters found in The Sense of an Ending. Having a symbolic title, it also signifies the end of a vague network of relationships between Tony Webster and Veronica Ford. With half of the book containing the story of sixties when Postmodernist abstractions had reached their peak and the other half of the book narrating the tale of Tony as we find him in contemporary post-globalisation times; the text entirely suggests the presence of a postmodernist-cosmopolitan touch.

The narration of the story chiefly depends on memory hence making it a major theme of the novel. The unreliable narrator tries his best to create an innocent image of himself in front of the reader and the text is eventually left open for the readers to scrutinize the honesty of Tony hence giving itself a Postmodernist touch. The unreliability of Tony is most visible as he removes his personal experience with Sarah Ford, a major key to the relationship between him and Veronica.

Tony’s unreliability may also be noticed in the below quote and many more like it in which he himself admits his misleading nature. “[...] a few incidents that have grown into anecdotes, to some approximate memories which time has deformed into certainty. If I can’t be sure of the actual events any more, I can at least be true to the impressions those facts left. That’s the best I can manage.” (Barnes 04)

Besides his unreliability, the lines also suggest the Postmodernist absence of a universal truth applicable to society in contemporary times. They also indicate the vagueness of the system and consequent relationships that often prove to be temporary and filled with distrust.

Nearly all characters undergo feelings of existentialism and often remain disconnected through the course of their lives. The long discussions of the four members of Tony’s group often reflect Nietzsche and other existential debates that eventually frame their personality during the later part of their lives. Moreover, the character of Adrian is entirely based on the philosophy of existentialism and its ensuing crises that kindles his suicide. “Adrian, however, pushed us to believe in the application of thought to life, in the notion that principles should guide actions. Previously Alex had been regarded as the philosopher among us. He read stuff... . If Alex had read Russell and Wittgenstein, Adrian had read Camus and Nietzsche.” (Barnes 18)

Postmodernist tendencies in terms of Linda Hutcheon are vividly present in The Sense of an Ending in which Barnes has created two different discourses of history and fiction together. The text appears to, “Refuse the view that only history has a truth claim, both by questioning the ground of that claim in historiography and by asserting that both history and fiction are discourses, human constructs, signifying systems, and both derive their major claim to truth from that identity.” (Hutcheon 93)

Using the tool of unreliability, Barnes successfully creates two different aspects for the reader to chose. One being the narration of Tony Webster while the other being his denial of all the possibilities of concealed truth. Postmodern leanings of the narrator and his environment may be interpreted with respect to existentialism. According to Rossi, “Tony seems to be a post-modern descendent of French existentialism, closely related to Roquentin” (179) of Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel Nausea. On the other hand, Adrian, despite being dead long ago becomes the most vivid memory of Tony because he is the prototype of the ideal, philosophical tragic-hero in Webster’s life.  It is also relevant to note the cosmopolitan influence of disillusionment and self inflicted alienation is found in Tony’s character. It is not difficult to prove that Tony was a man who lived in the past and never thought about the present. Having lived the major part of his life, Tony comes off as a rather boring, ordinary urban citizen who admires Adrian only because of his consistent eccentricity. The first fifty five pages of the novel describe the details about Tony’s life in his youth and his experiences with Veronica and her family. On the other hand, at the end of these fifty five pages we learn about the next forty years of Tony’s life in only one page. This shows how even Tony finds his life to be a tiresome, boring journey.

Frank Kermode in his book states that attaching meaning to an aspect in life happens simply through fictionalising it. Alongside, all meaning becomes apocalyptic in nature. This suggests the existence of all meaningful social and literary discourses to be temporary. The same may be related with the text of The Sense of an Ending, wherein Tony leads a life of confusion and chaos in his youth as well as middle age. Everything in Tony’s life is temporary. His relationship with Veronica and Margaret explains his unavailability and inconstancy. The only thing Tony seems committed to is his career as a historian which also meets its end as Tony retires. The title therefore may be appropriate as we see how Tony witnesses an ‘ending’ of all things temporary in his life.    

The symbols used in The Sense of an Ending also have a touch of vagueness in their descriptions. They often have non-conventional, distorted references that find correspondence with Postmodernist distortions and breaking of boundaries. The Severn Bore for instance is a river that flows upstream which symbolically refers to the upside down life of Veronica Ford; the flexibility of time in the novel and how Tony’s life is also a surprising consequence as he revisits the last forty years of his life once again. Another vague symbol would be Adrian’s formula that Tony is able to discover and continues to remain confused throughout the major part of the novel. The formula is symbolic of the vagueness found in the story; the disjointed lives of all the characters that encounter each other and never have a successful relationship. The formula also represents the masked presence of truth in front of Tony’s eyes which he foolishly tends to ignore throughout the book. It shows how truth is a constraint that happens to remain unidentified because of the presence of disillusionment in the Postmodernist identities of the book.  

The writer has also used characters as symbols of the major characters in the novel. For instance, Robson, a minor character who impregnates a girl in high school and eventually commits suicide echoes the future of Adrian in the story. Indeed, the character of Adrian himself can be taken as a foil or an alter ego of Tony Webster. Being philosophically sound and resolute in his actions Adrian perhaps does what Tony could have after his relationship with Veronica suffers extremity. Tony’s life represents the possibility of a misbalanced and a frustrated life that Adrian could have possibly lived in a much worse manner if he had not committed suicide by choice.

Urban locations in the text include many sights of the city of London that often project the emotions experienced by the narrator. The aspect can be paralleled to some extent with T.S. Eliot’s concept of the Objective Correlative where the writer attempts to produce a cathartic effect of emotional purgation through the medium of symbols often denoted by physical objects. For instance, in the mention of Veronica’s first email as a reply to Tony’s queries regarding the will and the death of her mother; Tony reminiscences about his flippant comments about alcoholics to Veronica on the “Wobbly Bridge”. The incident makes the Wobbly Bridge a symbol of their unstable relationship made frail by the insensible comments of Tony. Several other symbols of various locations in the text project multiple interpretations of the incidences hence connecting the urban location with the disjointed lifestyle and disillusionment found in characters. The Severn Bore, a location not far from the urban Bristol; is also used as a symbol by the writer. The uniqueness of the Severn Bore is that the river tends to change its direction and move upstream. The mention of the Severn Bore has a direct allusion to the relationship of Tony and Veronica which is unexpectedly rekindled after forty years. The first visit of Tony to this place happens with the presence of Veronica. “That night a group of us went to Minsterworth in quest of the Severn Bore. Veronica had been alongside me... I knew it for a fact.  She was there with me. We sat on a damp blanket on a damp riverside holding hands...Moonlight caught the breaking wave as it approached.” (Barnes 112)

This also emphasises the presence and importance of memory in text which is narrated by an unreliable narrator. The lines symbolise the possibility of the impossible in Tony’s life wherein we see him reconnecting with Veronica and becoming a possible reason behind her shattered life. The upstream direction of the river also relates the idea of Tony’s regret when he often hopes to change his past but is challenged by time which waits for none. It also represents the presence of memory and how many moments are reversed and re-lived by Tony during the process of his narration. To evince this belief of the narrator the following quote might be useful.

I know this much: that there is objective time, but also subjective time, the kind you wear on the inside of your wrist, next to where the pulse lies. And this personal time, which is the true time, is measured in your relationship to memory. So when this strange thing happened—when these new memories suddenly came upon me—it was as if, for that moment, time had been placed in reverse. As if, for that moment, the river ran upstream. (Barnes 115)

Scenes from modern day London are more explicitly described in the latter half of the novel than in the scenes of Tony’s past. The descriptions assist to find the urban change in demography, pace as well as the contemporary lifestyle.

I looked out of the window instead. Convenience stores, cheap restaurants, a betting shop, people queuing at a cash machine, women with bits of flesh spurting from between the joins of their clothes, a slew of litter, a shouting lunatic, an obese mother with three obese children, faces from all races: an all purpose high street, normal London.(Barnes 116)

The existence of partial visibilities as found in cities according to Hanah-Wirth Nesher is also immensely visible in the narrator’s descriptions of London where he, like any other city dweller, engages himself in anticipation of selected exercises that limit his vision of the rest of his environment in the city. “... .As if for that moment, the river ran upstream. I got off the train one stop before and sat on a bench reading a free newspaper. Or at least, staring at it. Then I took a train to the next station, where an escalator delivered me to a ticket hall in a part of London unknown to me.”(Barnes 116)

Like any other author, Barnes also tends to divide his urban locations into various segments based on the circumstance arising in the story. The ‘built’ of London for instance is given many descriptions like the one mentioned above. The natural space of the city is often described in the form of the cosy home of Veronica’s family, the mortgaged house of Tony in the London suburbs or the descriptions of the Severn Bore in the text. Likewise, the psychological dependence of Tony on the city often relies on the space his city has provided him to positively feel alone and secure. For instance, Tony relies on the concealed spaces Bristol provides him to hide from Veronica after they end their relationship. He believes Bristol to be “a large enough city for us [Tony and Veronica] only occasionally to half-run into one another” (38) These lines of the narrator echo Nesher’s statement of how a city promises inaccessibility. They suggest how an urban location “is a landscape of partial visibilities and manifold possibilities that excludes in the very act of inviting.” (09)

The idea of bridges being repetitive symbolic motifs is significant to note in the text. The ‘Wobbly Bridge’ in London for instance is used twice by the author to mention two significant moments in Tony’s life. The first mention of the Bridge happens when Tony recollects being innocently nasty about alcoholics with Veronica on the bridge when the two were in a relationship. The incident reflects upon the beginning of the crumbling relationship between Tony and Veronica. It denotes how the relationship of Tony with her had been very unstable and therefore ‘wobbly’.

Thus through the medium of memory, Julian Barnes explores the underlying tension between characters, their sense of disillusionment and their unstable relationships in the text. With typical postmodernist characteristics the author laments about the nature of truth and morality in contemporary society. Besides traits of Postmodernism, the book also draws from the existentialist and absurdist manifestations of reality as depicted in the stories of Adrian and Tony who remain disillusioned about truth in their entire lives. The idea of truth therefore helps us understand contemporary Postmodernist philosophies of oblivious characters who try to seek the truth in a world which often subverts and transgresses usual conventions.



Works Cited and Consulted

Barnes, Julian. The Sense of an Ending. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011.

Baudrillard, Jean. The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures. London: Sage, 1998.

Dean, Dwight G.. “Alienation and Political Apathy”. Social Forces 38.3 (1960): 185–189.    Web.

Greaney, M. “The Oddness Of Julian Barnes And The Sense Of An Ending.” English, vol. 63, no. 242, 2014, pp. 225–240., doi:10.1093/english/efu016.

Hartwiger, Alexander. Cosmopolitan Pedagogy: Reading Postcolonial Literature in an Age of   Globalization. Diss. U of North Carolina, 2010. Greensboro: n.p., 2010.

Moran, Joe. Journal of American Studies 32.1 (1998): 188–18

Senekal, Burgert Adriaan. Alienation as a Fictional Construct in Four Contemporary British Novels. Thesis. University of the Free State, 2008.

Wirth-Nesher, Hana. City Codes: Reading the Modern Urban Novel. Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Yiu Wai, Chu. "Postcolonial Discourse In The Age Of Globalization". Social Analysis: The International Journal Of Social And Cultural Practice, vol 46, no. 2, 2002, pp. 148-156.