Staring at the Sun Essay - Staring at the Sun

Julian Barnes

Staring at the Sun

The novel begins on a day in June, 1941, when the sun seems to rise twice -- to sergeant-pilot Thomas Prosser flying over northern France. After being grounded, Prosser is billeted in the house in which adolescent Jean Serjeant lives. Prosser, like her eccentric Uncle Leslie, is the source of minor marvel to Jean.

Jean’s ninety-nine years pass without much remarkable incident. Her twenty-year marriage begins and ends without passion. When she finally decides to leave her husband, she is seven months pregnant with Gregory, whom she determines to rear on her own. When Gregory is grown, Jean decides to do some traveling, in particular to visit the Seven Wonders of the World. She develops a friendship with, while resisting the sexual advances of, a younger woman named Rachel who had been her son’s lover.

Most of STARING AT THE SUN is rich in startling perceptions of the quotidian, where golf tees masquerade as hyacinths. The first two of the novel’s three parts, however, provides a sense of later wisdom earned; in the concluding, and most rewarding, section, the year is 2010, Jean is ninety-nine, and Gregory is also an old man at age sixty. Mother and son confront the essential questions of human life in general and of their own in particular. They do so both with and without the aid of the General Purposes Computer, a storehouse of all knowledge by all people.

The comprehensive computer of the near future tells Gregory that “it was impossible to look at either the sun or death without blinking.” In her ninety-nine years, Jean Serjeant has learned to do both, and, in the wondrous conclusion to STARING AT THE SUN, she demonstrates how.


Duchene, Anne. “Chekhov’s Carrot and Other Questions,” in The Times Literary Supplement. September 19, 1986, p. 1029.

King, Francis. “A Fine Novelist, an Even Finer Writer,” in The Spectator. CCLVII (October 11, 1986), pp. 36-37.

Sunday Times (London). Review. September 28, 1986, p. 53.