Academic journal article Papers on Language & Literature

Divided Narratives, Unreliable Narrators, and the Sense of an Ending: Julian Barnes, Frank Kermode, and Ford Madox Ford

Academic journal article Papers on Language & Literature

Divided Narratives, Unreliable Narrators, and the Sense of an Ending: Julian Barnes, Frank Kermode, and Ford Madox Ford

Article excerpt

More than one reviewer of Julian Barnes's Booker Prize-winning novel, The Sense of an Ending, noticed that its title is identical to that of a celebrated work of narrative theory published by the late Frank Kermode in 1967 (Boylan 3; Dyer 3). Like those reviewers, I assume that Barnes deliberately appropriated the title, but, unlike Geoff Dyer, I believe that he had a higher aim in mind than just to flatter those of his readers who are well informed enough to make the connection. The two texts "speak" to one another in the sense that both Kermode and Barnes explore the extent to which the concord-producing and time-resisting stories we create can withstand the "dialogue between credulity and scepticism," the tension between our need to be consoled by narrative paradigms and our suspicion that they falsify a less comforting and more chaotic reality (Kermode, Ending 18). The shattering peripeteia that occurs in the life plot of Barnes's protagonist and narrator, Tony Webster, accompanies his recognition that significant events in his life do not have the meanings he has self-servingly ascribed to them. Tony's discovery is driven by his acquisition of new information, but also playing a role is memory, in the sense that Kermode describes it: "the registration of impressions we fail to 'take in,' but can recover a little later by introspection" (53). In the case of Barnes's novel, the recovery through memory of subversive impressions comes much, not a little, later in Tony's life. "I began remembering forgotten things," he says, referring to events that had happened forty years previously (120). The result of Tony's recollections is a plot exactly of the sort Kermode describes, one "based on an initial deviation of attention which causes a temporal gap between the original apprehension of what the situation signifies and the final understanding that its significance was other" (53).

That misapprehension renders Tony unreliable as a narrator, a fact that aligns Barnes's text with an earlier novel that both he and Kermode have written about admiringly, Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier, which has a highly fallible narrator and other interesting similarities to The Sense of an Ending. As Colm Toibin states, the surname that Barnes chose for Tony's first girlfriend, Veronica Ford, "may be a sly homage to the author of The Good Soldier, which, like The Sense of an Ending is a sad story told years later by a man who missed the point of certain things as they occurred" (9). It is as if Barnes is prompting us to read his novel in the light of Ford's, just as his choice of a title explicitly invokes the intellectual context of Kermode's theoretical work. This essay will treat Barnes's allusions to Kermode and Ford as an invitation to explore the intertextual links in some detail, investigating how far some of Kermode's ideas about fiction apply to Barnes's novel and then using The Good Soldier as a kind of lens through which to view The Sense of an Ending.

What is most immediately relevant to Barnes's novel is Kermode's central claim that we human beings need to make sense of our lives in relation to time; we have, Kermode says, an ongoing "need in the moment of existence to belong, to be related to a beginning and an end" (4). The main tool we use to achieve this belonging is narrative. Kermode begins by discussing how apocalyptic fictions in the Christian tradition of the West have served the profound need "to humanize the common death" by producing the idea that our lives are meaningful and coherent (7). "Men," he says, "like poets, rush 'into the middest,' in media res, when they are born; they also die in mediis rebus, and to make sense of their span they need fictive concords with origins and ends, such as give meaning to lives and to poems" (7). The analogy he makes here to the work of poets prepares the groundwork for the link he establishes in his book between sacred eschatological fictions and secular literary ones (17), which have a similarly consolatory function. …

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