Study Guide

Napoleon Symphony

by Anthony Burgess

Napoleon Symphony Summary

Summary (Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Napoleon Symphony is an intricate book that deals with the rise and fall of Napoleon Bonaparte, beginning with his marriage to Josephine and ending with his final days in exile on St. Helena. Much of what Anthony Burgess presents in the interim is witty, sardonic, intellectually demanding horseplay. The novel is structurally modeled after Ludwig van Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the Eroica, which Beethoven originally wrote to honor Napoleon but which finally, when he became outraged at Napoleon for declaring himself emperor, he dedicated instead to Prometheus.

The Eroica is written in four movements with an overture and a coda. Burgess wrote his novel within this symphonic structure, adhering closely to the demands that such a structure placed upon him. His overture presents Napoleon waiting for Josephine on their wedding day and ends with the word “Begin,” which leads into the first part of the book’s four major sections, parallel to the first movement of the Beethoven symphony, marked allegro con brio, a passage whose tempo is light and rapid.

The first part of the book begins with Napoleon’s campaign in Italy, carries through to his campaign in Egypt, and chronicles his election as First Consul General of France. After his election, Napoleon gathers together for a dinner such members of the Bonaparte family “as were willing to come.” Josephine manages to avoid attending the dinner, offering the excuse that she has a headache, and in this quite uproarious section, Napoleon shows that although he may be First Consul...

(The entire section is 645 words.)

Napoleon Symphony Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

When Beethoven began to work on his third symphony, the Eroica, he viewed the work as a tribute to Napoleon I. As he proceeded with the composition, however, he lost faith in Napoleon; Beethoven was so irked when Napoleon declared himself emperor of France that the composer ended up dedicating the Eroica not to Napoleon but to Prometheus. In Napoleon Symphony, Burgess merges his skill in writing with his highly developed knowledge of music to produce a tragicomical biography of the famed French general and emperor.

Like Beethoven’s symphony, Burgess’s novel is divided into movements, each of which focuses on a significant period in Napoleon’s life. The novel is at once complex but eminently accessible to general readers. Readers with strong backgrounds in history and music will find hidden gems of meaning that might easily be missed by more casual readers. Less sophisticated readers, however, will delight in the basic story Burgess is telling and in the humor with which he tells it.

The novel covers Napoleon’s life from the time he married Josephine to his death and some of the period following it. Just as Beethoven’s symphony has four movements, so does Burgess’s novel. In structuring it, Burgess played the Eroica over and over on his phonograph, timing each movement meticulously. He then worked out a way to make the sections of his novel proportionate to the movements of the symphony.

Following his death on the island of St. Helena, Burgess’s Napoleon assumes Promethean proportions. Despite his defeat at Waterloo, Napoleon had moved relentlessly toward his ideal objective of uniting Europe, for which Burgess celebrates him. The greatest strength of Napoleon Symphony is that in structuring it parallel to the Eroica, Burgess succeeds in making the French emperor a rounded character. Readers see him as a conquering hero, but they also are given access to him in his more personal moments.

In one section, Napoleon, who has no heir, is shown presiding over a family dinner. Most of the attendees at this dinner are fueled by greed. The salient question “What is in it for me?” underlies the motives of the people at this gathering. The irony of seeing a Napoleon who, although he could lead armies and shape empires, could not control his and Josephine’s grasping relatives is not lost on readers.