Academic journal article Canadian Social Science

On the Motif of Death in Julian Barnes' the Sense of an Ending

Academic journal article Canadian Social Science

On the Motif of Death in Julian Barnes' the Sense of an Ending

Article excerpt


This paper sets out to elaborate the theme of death in Julian Barnes' Man Booker Prize awarded novel The Sense of an Ending. The author is convinced that the two suicides respectively of Robson and Adrian, as well as the death of Mrs. Ford, manage to lay bare the profound impacts of the drastic social changes on people of various social classes. The decline of religion and the rise of various schools of thought, the dismantling of the traditional family and the rising self-confidence of the woman, and the serious class clashes all complicate interpersonal communications and result in various tragic endings.

Key words: Death; Suicide; Camus; Class; Damage


In his non-fictional work Nothing to Be Frightened of Julian Barnes makes "death" his central concern. "Death", the ultimate insoluble question and inevitable end for the human, is at the core of our existence; it is destructive in that it annihilates life, but it is also constructive in that it urges serious contemplations on the meaning and ways of living. Life cannot be lived if thoughts on "death" are suspended. With retrospections on deaths of his family and friends, as well as presentations of their views on this gloomy topic, plus death-related stories and reflections of some eminent cultural figures, Barnes puts this taboo topic on the "lemon" table, frankly laying bare all his cares and concerns about this unavoidable certainty among all the uncertainties that are called life.

Barnes highlights "religion" as a referential framework in the discussion of "death." The opening sentence -"/ don't believe in God, but I miss Flim" (Barnes, 2008, p. 1) -illustrates his religious dilemma. For the "don't believe" part, he, as claimed by himself, was "a happy atheist" (Barnes, 2008, p.17) as a young man and is an agonist when into much more advanced age (Barnes, 2008, p.22); he traces his family's irreligiousness back to his maternal grandmother who lost her faith as a young woman and later was inexplicably converted to socialism and even communism (Barnes, 2008, p.2), his Grandpa who "had reduced his religious observance to watching Songs of Praise on television (Barnes, 2008, p.3)," his mother who, "as for religion", "... told me firmly that she didn't want 'any of that mumbo-jumbo' at her funeral" (Barnes, 2008, p.5) and who was certain that "people only believe in religion because they 're afraid of death" (Barnes, 2008, p.8). As for himself, he "...was happy not to believe in God", but, "if I was happy to be free of Old Nobodaddy, I wasn't blithe about the consequences," because then "... death, however distant, was on the agenda in quite a different way." (Barnes, 2008, p.18) What vexes him as an atheist is that without Heaven and afterlife promised by God or the belief in God, "... the alternative is fucking terrifying." (Barnes, 2008, p.175) This vexation or fear leads to the "miss" part.

The "don't believe" part does not result in his bigotry as to the atheist's priority over the believer.

As twenty-first-century neo-Darwinian materialists, convinced that the meaning and mechanism of life have only been fully clear since the year of 1859, we hold ourselves categorically wiser than those credulous knee-benders who, a speck of time away, believed in divine purpose, and ordered world, resurrection and a Last Judgment. But although we are more informed, we are no more evolved, and certainly no more intelligent than them. (Barnes, 2008, p.22)

For atheists, or serious agnostics (Barnes, 2008, p.24) for that matter, the gift of "spiritual freedom" is compromised by "the religion of despair" and "gazing down into the black pit at one's feet." (Barnes, 2008, p.24) Barnes' "intermittent nocturnal attacks" (Barnes, 2008, p.23) from death-fear, his friend G's thanatophobes' gold medal (Barnes, 2008, p.24), and Rachmaninov's case of consuming nuts against the threat of death (Barnes, 2008, p.25) all illustrate the menace of abyssality (not in Spivak's sense) in the absence of a system ensuring afterlife. …

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