Three types of allusion in Julian Barnes’ novel, ‘The Sense of an Ending’: Part 2 – Larkin and accumulation

Philip Larkin

In the first part of this three-part series, I wrote about the use of what I call ‘simple’ allusion in Julian Barnes’ novel, The Sense of an Ending. In this second part, I turn to a ‘complex’ allusion, where the novelist discusses ideas of accumulation, growth and loss by referring – indirectly – to the poetry of Philip Larkin.

Unlike our ‘simple’ example of allusion, where the author’s name – Stefan Zweig in this case – is referred to directly, the reference to Larkin is not direct and he is not alluded to by name. Despite this, I think we can learn a great deal about the themes of loss, accumulation and growth by thinking about Larkin’s work when reading The Sense of an Ending.

A key theme of the novel is that addition – of a lover, a job, a car and house, etc – needn’t mean a positive improvement. This is also a central preoccupation of some Larkin’s poetry, who I claim is indirectly referred to as ‘the poet’ in the novel, as we find in this extract (my emphasis):

‘He took his own life’ is the phrase; but Adrian also took charge of his own life, he took command of it… How few of us – we that remain – can say that we have done the same? We muddle along, we let life happen to us, we gradually build up a store of memories. There is the question of accumulation, but not in the sense that Adrian meant, just the simple adding up and adding on of life. As the poet pointed out, there is a difference between addition and increase.

Here, I take ‘the poet’ to refer to Larkin and the poem in which he ‘pointed out’ this idea to be ‘Dockery and Son’. Here is the key section from the poem (the poem needs to be read in full to make complete sense):

[…] Dockery, now:
Only nineteen, he must have taken stock
Of what he wanted, and been capable
Of […] how

Convinced he was he should be added to!
Why did he think adding meant increase?
To me it was dilution.

The narrator of the poem, like Antony in the novel, compares himself to a peer and what he finds is that addition, rather than ‘increase’, means dilution. It is a compelling, counter-intuitive idea that is captured in Larkin’s brief lines and which is explored more fully in Barnes’ novel. Barnes, like Larkin, not only challenges the very things that we ‘accumulate’ – people, things, memories –but like Larkin, disputes the very idea of accumulation as a profitable gain.

The path that Antony follows is one that many of us take: we approach life without guidance from a series of carefully-considered plans, and go on to make decisions as the opportunity arises; rather than seek out new horizons, we continue on our path of least resistance. This is why Adrian is significant a character in the novel and for Antony – he takes ‘his own life’, which literally means suicide but also suggests he takes control, makes conscious decisions rather than fulfil our obligation in the status quo. Larkin again, from ‘Dockery and Son’:

Where do these
Innate assumptions come from? Not from what
We think truest, or most want to do:
Those warp tight-shut, like doors. They’re more a style
Our lives bring with them: habit for a while,
Suddenly they harden into all we’ve got.

The notion of ‘hardening’, that almost physiological image, reminds us that accumulation may as equally lead to a stopping heaviness as well as a comfortable ballast. Larkin used a similar image in ‘Afternoons’, a poem that laments the loss of innocence and energy of whose lives have become unravelled by time:

Their beauty has thickened.
Something is pushing them
To the side of their own lives.

The imagery of a person ‘thickening’ brings with it a sense of solidity; it is a comfortable state but a stagnant one and the weight of accumulations ties us to that very lethargy that removes from us the ability to shake off the weight of our encumbrances and start afresh. We’re tethered by our accumulations, like a balloon; they clip our wings.

I call these examples ‘complex’ because they do not directly refer to a specific poet or poem in name but they do share a more than coincidental connection to some of the themes. That is – it is complex because it is a significant theme, or motif, that runs throughout the novel. Referring to another treatment of this theme – by, in this case, the ‘poet’ – helps develop the meaning and effect of the allusion. It is true that the reference is short and does not reappear in quite this manner again. But it is a theme that lingers throughout the novel grows in complexity as we read on.

In the final part, I will discuss the ‘resonant’ allusive relationship between The Sense of an Ending and the work of literary criticism which shares its name.

Coda – accumulation and responsibility, from Sex Lies and Videotape

The notion that addition meaning dilution is not uncommon. In Steven Soderbergh’s film Sex Lies and Videotape (a deeply ‘intertextual’ film, in that it depends upon other films for effect), James Spader’s character Graham Dalton explains why he is reluctant to look for an apartment in this clip. Dalton finds the addition of keys – symbols of responsibility and security – an undesirable dilution to his freedom.



2 thoughts on “Three types of allusion in Julian Barnes’ novel, ‘The Sense of an Ending’: Part 2 – Larkin and accumulation

  1. Your claim is safe I think; “The Poet” is certainly Larkin. I don’t have the book to hand but at some point Barnes definitely quotes “wrangle for a ring” from Annus Mirabilis.

    Perhaps there’s also something to be said about the water imagery (severn bore/ sperm/ steam in the sink) and Larkin’s Water, but I’m not sure. Also I seem to recall a line that was similar to Days, “Days are where we live”, but it wasn’t a direct quote. Adrian certainly solved the question of “Where can we live but days?”

    (Not sure if you’ve mentioned this already somewhere else, apologies if you have.)

    • Thanks for the comment Joe. I hadn’t noticed the reference to ‘Annus Mirabilis‘. As soon as I read that, I think of his ‘Wild Oats‘ – the ‘ten guinea ring’ (a phrase which doesn’t appear to my knowledge in the novel) and so on. I think there’s likely more to the links between Larkin and The Sense of an Ending, as your focus on the ‘water’ motif points to.

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