A summary of  Frank Kermode's

The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction

 (Oxford University Press, 1967)
Summary by Leonor Navales Beltrán

The Sense of an Ending is a book which seeks to establish a connection between fictions, time and apocalyptic modes of thought. Kermode sees in apocalyptic certain features which, he suggests, provide a useful analogy with the process of reading and writing fiction.

The book is divided into six talks. We are going to summarize each one of these paying attention to the most relevant aspects.

The first talk is “The End”. Frank Kermode explains that there is still a need to speak humanly of a life’s importance in relation to time -a need in the moment of existence to be related to a beginning and to an end. He begins by discussing fictions of the End –about ways in which, under varying existential pressures, we have imagined the ends of the world. This will provide clues to the ways in which fictions, whose ends are consonant with origins, and in concord, however unexpected, with their precedents, satisfy our needs. So he begins with Apocalypse, which ends, transforms, and is concordant. He says that apocalyptic thought belongs to rectilinear rather than cyclical views of the world. The events derive their significance from a unitary system, not from their correspondence with events in other cycles. He offers us the example of the journey of Aeneas where the episodes are related internally; they all exist under the shadow of the end. But he asserts that, although for us the End has perhaps lost its naïve imminence, its shadow still lies on the crises of our fictions; we may speak of it as immanent.

Kermode explains that men rush “into the middest”, in medias 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. The End they imagine will reflect their irreducibly intermediary preoccupations. They fear it as the End is a figure for their own deaths.

He later offers the example of the Bible. It begins at the beginning and ends with a vision of the end; the first book is Genesis, the last Apocalypse. Ideally, it is a wholly concordant structure; the end is in harmony with the beginning, the middle with beginning and end. The end, Apocalypse, is traditionally held to resume the whole structure, which it can only do by figures predictive of that part of it which has not been historically revealed. The great majority of interpretations of Apocalypse assume that the End is pretty near. Consequently the historical allegory always has to be revised; time discredits it. And this is important. Apocalypse can be disconfirmed without being discredited. Kermode explains that you can of course arrange for the End to occur at pretty well any desired date, but the most famous of all predicted Ends is A.D. 1000. It is now thought that earlier historians exaggerated the “Terrors” of that year, but it need not be doubted that it produced a characteristic apocalypse-crisis. The Terrors and Decadence are two of the recurring elements in the apocalyptic pattern. Another permanent feature of the pattern was also illustrated in the crisis of the year 1000, and this Kermode calls clerkly scepticism. When the year 1000 came, there were some portents, even though it lapsed without universal catastrophe. Naturally there were those who simply thought the calculations were wrong. And this is something that occurs regularly in the literature. More sophisticated calculations could produce other dates as near one’s own moment as desirable.

This has relevance to literary plots; and for him there is the same co-existence of naïve acceptance and scepticism there as there is in apocalyptic. The story that proceeded very simply to its obviously predestined end would be nearer myth than novel or drama. Peripeteia, which has been called the equivalent, in narrative, of irony in rhetoric, is present in every story of the least structural sophistication. Now peripeteia depends on our confidence of the end; the interest of having our expectations falsified is obviously related to our wish to reach the discovery or recognition by an unexpected and instructive route. So that in assimilating the peripeteia we are enacting that readjustment of expectations in regard to an end which is so notable a feature of naïve apocalyptic. But the more daring the peripeteia, the more we may feel that the work respects our sense of reality; and the more certainly we shall feel that the fiction under consideration is one of those which, by upsetting the ordinary balance of our naïve expectations, is finding something out for us, something real. Kermode adds that all these are novels which most of us would agree to be at least very good. They represent in varying degrees that falsification of simple expectations as to the structure of a future which constitutes peripeteia. We cannot, of course, be denied an end; it is one of the great charms of books that they have to end. But unless we are extremely naïve, we do not ask that they progress towards that end precisely as we have been given to believe. In fact we should expect only the most trivial work to conform to pre-existent types.

Kermode finishes this talk giving us a kind of summary. For him, the main object is the critical business of making sense of some of the radical ways of making sense of the world. Apocalypse and the related themes are strikingly long-lived; and that is the first thing to say about them, although the second is that they change. The apocalyptic types –empire, decadence and renovation, progress and catastrophe- are fed by history and underlie our ways of making sense of the world from where we stand, in the “middest”.

The second talk is “Fictions”. Kermode starts saying that he suggested that there have been great changes, especially in recent times when our attitudes to fiction in general have grown so sophisticated; although it seems, at the same time, that in “making sense” of the world we still feel a need, harder than ever to satisfy because of an accumulated scepticism, to experience that concordance of beginning, middle, and end which is the essence of our explanatory fictions, and especially when they belong to cultural traditions which treat historical time as primarily rectilinear rather than cyclic.

Then, he tells us that it is pretty surprising, given the range of modern literary theory, that nobody has ever tried to relate the theory of literary fictions to the theory of fictions in general. For him there is a simple relation between literary and other fictions which seems more obvious than has appeared.

He asserts that we have to distinguish between myths and fictions. Fictions can degenerate into myths whenever they are not consciously held to be fictive. Myth operates within the diagrams of ritual, which presupposes total and adequate explanations of things as they are and were; it is a sequence of radically unchangeable gestures. Fictions are for finding things out, and they change as the needs of sense-making change. Myths are the agents of stability, fictions the agents of change. Myths call for absolute, fictions for conditional assent. Myths make sense in terms of a lost order of time; fictions, if successful, make sense of the here and now.

He goes on saying that literary fictions belong to Vaihinger’s category of “the consciously false”. They are not subject, like hypotheses, to proof or disconfirmation, only, if they come to lose their operational effectiveness, to neglect.

Normally we associate “reality” with chronos (“passing time” or “waiting time”), and a fiction which entirely ignored this association we might think unserious or silly or mad. Yet in every plot there is an escape from chronicity, and so, in some measure, a deviation from this norm of “reality”. But he affirms that any novel, however “realistic”, involves some degree of alienation from “reality”.

He mentions, then, the work of Georges Poulet who argues that medieval men did not distinguish as we do between existence and duration; one can only say that they were less in need than we are of fictions relation to time. For Kermode, it is our insatiable interest in the future that makes it necessary for us to relate to the past, and to the moment in the middle by plots: by which he means not only concordant imaginary incidents, but all the other, perhaps subtler, concords that can be arranged in a narrative. Such concords can be called “time-redeeming”.

The third talk is “World without End or Beginning”. He starts saying that there is a correlation between subtlety and variety in our fictions and remoteness and doubtfulness about ends and origins. There is a necessary relation between the fictions by which we order our world and the increasing complexity of what we take to be the “real” history of that world. And he proposes to ask some questions about an early and very interesting example of this relation. There was a long-established opinion that the beginning was as described in Genesis, and that the end is to be as obscurely predicted in Revelation. But he asked what if this came to be doubtful. He answers by speaking of what happened in the thirteenth century when Christian philosophers grappled with the view of the Aristotelians that nothing can come of nothing so that the world must be thought to be eternal. In the Bible the world is made out of nothing. For the Aristotelians, however, it is eternal, without beginning or end. To examine the Aristotelian arguments impartially one would need to behave as if the Bible might be wrong. The thirteenth-century rediscovery of Aristotle led to the invention of double-truth.

St. Augustine came up with a formless matter, intermediate between nothing and something, out of which the world was made. This, of course, was created out of nothing. Formless, it had the potentiality of form, its privations is its capacity to receive form. He identifies this capacity with mutability; creation, for him, is a concept inseparable from that of mutability, of which time is the mode. Thus we have a creation of which the law relating to forms is a law of change and succession, and a Creator whose realms and forms are changeless and non-successive.

But St. Thomas thought reason could prove neither creation ex nihilo nor an eternal world, saying that we must believe that former not because of any rational proof but simply because of revelation. In this way Aquinas saved the Christian origins but substituted an Aristotelian for an Augustinian account of prime matter. He also needed a new rationale for angels. The angles could not be pure being, since then they would be indistinguishable form God; so they must either be allowed to possess materiality, or to be of a third order, neither matter, with its potentiality, nor pure act, but immaterial with potentiality. St. Thomas decided that the latter was the right choice. They are therefore neither eternal nor of time. So out of this argument, which is ultimately an argument about origins, there develops a third duration, between that of time and eternity. Needing to give it a name, he called this third order aevum. This concord-fiction soon proved that it had uses outside its immediate context, angelology. Because it served as a means of talking about certain aspects of human experience, it was humanized. The concept of aevum provides a way of talking about this unusual variety of duration –neither temporal nor eternal, but, as Aquinas said, participating in both the temporal and the eternal. It does not abolish time; it co-exists with it, and is a mode in which things can be perpetual without being eternal.

The concept of aevum, for Kermode, had human uses. It contains beings (angels) with freedom of choice and immutable substance, in a creation which is in other respects determined. Although these beings are out of time, their acts have a before and an after. Aevum, he might say, is the time-order of novels. Characters in novels are independent of time and succession, but may and usually do seem to operate in time and succession; the aevum co-exists with temporal events at the moment of occurrence. If the world was not eternal there was nevertheless quite recognizably a sort of immortality, perpetuity, in certain aspects of human life.

For him, this kind of fiction is likely to be reflected in literature. It facilitates a different, more flexible attitude to life as it seems to be when you look at the whole picture from your place in the “middest”.

The fourth talk is “The Modern Apocalypse”. He takes up the patterns of apocalypse, and considers their relevance to our own times. Up to this point he has spoken of certain arbitrarily chosen aspects of apocalyptic thinking and feeling: of the Terrors, of Decadence and Renovation, of Transition, and of Clerkly Scepticism. He argues that there must be a link between the forms of literature and other ways in which, and he quotes Erich Auerbach, “we try to give some kind of order and design to the past, the present and the future”. One of these ways is crisis. He begins by saying something about the modern sense of crisis. Crisis is inescapably a central element in our endeavours towards making sense of our world. For him, we think of our own crisis as pre-eminent, more worrying, and more interesting than other crises. It seems doubtful that our crisis, our relation to the future and to the past, is one of the important differences between us and our predecessors. And we can best talk about the differentiae of modern crisis in terms of the literature it produces; it is by our imagery of past and present and future, rather than from our confidence in the uniqueness of our crisis, that the character of our apocalypse must be known. He adds that the moments we call crises are ends and beginnings.

He says that, when we live in the mood of end-dominated crisis, certain now-familiar patterns of assumption become evident. He offers the example or Yeats to illustrate them. He saw his time as a time of transition, the last moment before a new annunciation, a new gyre. Kermode affirms that we can fin in him all the elements of the apocalyptic paradigm that concern us. There are the terror; the clerkly scepticism proper to a learned aristocrat confronted by these images of horror; a deep conviction of decadence and a prophetic confidence of renovation; and all this involved in the belief that his moment was the moment of supreme crisis, when one age change into another by means of a movement he called a “gradual coming and increase”. Kermode realizes that the belief that one’s own age is transitional between two major periods turns into a belief that the transition itself becomes an age, a “saeculum”. The fiction of transition is our way of registering the conviction that the end is immanent rather than imminent; it reflects our lack of confidence in ends, our mistrust of the apportioning of history to epochs of this and that. Our own epoch is the epoch of nothing positive, only of transition. Since we move from transition to transition, we may suppose that we exist in no intelligible relation to the past, and no predictable relation to the future.

He finishes by comparing two phases of modernism, our own and that of fifty or so years ago, which he calls the traditionalist modernism. For him, what distinguishes the new from the older modernism in this context is not that one is more apocalyptic than the other but that they have such different attitudes to the past. To the older it is a source of order; to the newer it is that which ought to be ignored. Each reacts to a “painful transitional situation”, but one in terms of continuity and the other in terms of schism. The common topics are transition and eschatological anxiety; but one reconstructs, the other abolishes the indispensable and relevant past. These distinctions made, it remains to affirm also the continuity of apocalyptic postures.

Next talk is “Literary Fiction and Reality”. In this one, Kermode talks about clerical scepticism as a factor in the changing condition of literary fiction. For him, in our phase of civility, the novel is the central form of literary art. Its history is an attempt to evade the laws of what Scott called “the land of fictions” –the stereotypes which ignore reality, and whose remoteness from it we identify as absurd. The revolt against the customs or laws of fiction creates its new laws, in their turn to be broken. For Kermode, nowhere else are we so conscious of the dissidence between inherited forms and our own reality.

Then he talks about Sartre’s La Nausée. He wants to show that this book represents a kind of crisis in the relation between fiction and reality, the tension or dissonance between paradigmatic form and contingent reality. Sartre’s philosophy is a philosophy of crisis, but his world has no beginning and no end. For Kermode, the book is only another way of talking about the relation between fictions as we use them in our existential crises, and fictions as we construct them in books. The world a novel makes is unlike the world of our common experience because it is created and because it has the potency of a humanly imaginative creation. No novel can avoid being in some sense what Aristotle calls “a completed action”. This being so, all novels imitate a world of potentiality, even if this implies a philosophy disclaimed by their authors. They have a fixation on the imagery of beginning, middle, and end, potency and cause. Novels, then, have beginnings, ends, and potentiality, even if the world has not. Kermode adds that, in the same way, it can be said that whereas there may be, in the world, no such thing as character, since a man is what he does and chooses freely what he does, in the novel there can be no just representation of this, for if the man were entirely free he might simply walk out of the story, and if he had no character we should not recognize him. He ends up by saying that the novel, then, provides a reduction of the world different from that of the treatise. It has to lie. Truth would be found only in a silent poem or a silent novel. As soon as it speaks, begins to be a novel, it imposes causality and concordance, development, character, a past which matters and a future within certain broad limits determined by the project of the author rather than that of the characters. They have their choices, but the novel has its end.

And the last talk is “Solitary Confinement”. Kermode starts saying that none of our fictions is a supreme fiction. Our knowing this creates in us, to a most painful degree, the condition Sartre calls “need” and Stevens “poverty”. To be alone and poor is, in a sense, everybody’s fate; but some people have been alone and poor in a very literal sense, as most of us have not; and in solitary confinement some of them have tested the gaiety of language as a means of projecting their humanity on a hostile environment.
He analyses the work of Christopher Burney, the author of Solitary confinement, who was a British agent in occupied France. The book begins after his capture, though at a time when he still found solitude and confinement mere notions with no real force. What follows is a study of those notions as they become real. It is a book about the world a man invents in real poverty and solitude, and with as little help as possible from prefabricated formulas. What makes Burney’s book as it was post-tragic is his need to understand his plight alone. In this true poverty everything had to be re-invented –even the clock. Burney needed a clock not because the conventional divisions of time were of pressing importance, but for reasons closer to those of the minks who first made them. They needed clock for the more devout observance of the offices, Burney because he needed to apprehend the increasing pressure of an approaching end. As long as his captivity was story-like in that its moments were to be given significance by an end, he needed to sense its imminence. If time cannot be felt as successive, this end ceases to have effect; without the sense of passing time one is virtually ceasing to live, one loses “contact with reality”.

Kermode says that all types of fiction, inherited or invented, naïve or sophisticated, run together in the mind that seeks freedom in poverty. They are all part of the world of words, of the cheat which gives life to the world.

He has used Burney because we can think of his book as a model of a more general solitary confinement, of the fictions and interpretations of human beings “doing time”, imagining ends and concords. “Men die because they cannot join the beginning to the end”, but living is trying to do it. We give ourselves meaning by inventing critical time.

Kermode ends the book affirming that the problem of beginnings and ends in a form which, paradigmatically, imitates the form of the world, is created. So the best beginnings are the best faked. Ends are ends only when they are not negative but frankly transfigure the events in which they were immanent. We have our vital interest in the structure of time, in the concords books arrange between beginning, middle, and end.

Paper written for a course on English and American Literary Criticism
Universidad de Zaragoza, Departamento de Filología Inglesa y Alemana, 2008

José Ángel García Landa: "Kermode: The Sense of an Ending"