Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1206
Deprived of wealth and estates by relatives, Widow Barry devotes herself to the careful rearing of her son Redmond. Uncle Brady takes a liking to the lad and asks the widow for permission to take the child to his ancestral home, Brady Castle. While there, Barry is treated kindly by his uncle. One of his cousins, Mick, persecutes him, however, and Mrs. Brady hates him. Aggressive by nature, Barry invites animosity; his landless pride in his ancestral heritage leads him into repeated neighborhood brawls until he fights every lad in the area and acquires the reputation of a bully. At age fifteen, he falls in love with twenty-four-year-old Nora Brady, who is in love with Captain John Quinn, an Englishman. Deeply in debt, Uncle Brady hopes that Nora will marry the captain, who promises to pay some of the old man’s debts. Thoroughly unscrupulous and lacking in appreciation for his uncle’s kindness, Barry insults Quinn in a fit of jealousy and wounds him in a duel.
Believing the captain dead, Barry hurriedly sets out on the road to Dublin. On the way, he befriends Mrs. Fitzsimons, the victim of a highway robbery. She takes him to her castle where Barry spends some of his own money in a lavish attempt to create a good impression. When he loses all his money through high living and gambling, Mrs. Fitzsimons and her husband are glad to see him leave.
Barry next takes King George’s shilling and enlists for a military expedition in Europe. Boarding the crowded and filthy ship, he learns that Quinn did not die after all but married Nora Brady; the pistols were loaded only with tow. Detesting service in the British army, Barry deserts to the Prussians. At the end of the Seven Years’ War, he is garrisoned in Berlin. By that time, he is known as a thorough scoundrel and a quarrelsome bully. Sent by Frederick the Great to spy on the Chevalier Balibari, suspected of being an Austrian agent, Barry learns that the officer is his own father’s brother, Barry of Ballybarry. This elderly gentleman actually made his way by gambling, rising and falling in wealth as his luck ran. When the gambler decides to leave Berlin, Barry, eager to escape from Prussian service, disguises himself and flees to Dresden. There he joins his uncle, who is high in favor at the Saxon court.
Barry, living like a highborn gentleman, supports himself by operating a gambling table. At the court of the duke of X—, he pursues Countess Ida, one of the wealthiest heiresses in the duchy. Disliking the countess personally but greatly admiring her fortune, he ruthlessly sets about to win her from her fiancé, the Chevalier De Magny. Gambling with the hapless man, Barry wins from him all he possesses. At last, De Magny agrees to play for the hand of Countess Ida and loses. Barry’s scheme might have succeeded if had he not become involved in a court intrigue. He is forced to leave the duchy.
Roaming through all the famous cities of Europe, Barry acquires a wide reputation as a skillful gambler. At Spa, he meets Lord Charles and Lady Honoria Lyndon, who hold the former Barry lands, and he decides to marry Lady Lyndon following the death of her sick husband. A year later, hearing that Lord Charles died at Castle Lyndon in Ireland, he sets out to woo Lady Lyndon. Employing numerous underhanded devices, including blackmail, bribery, dueling, and intimidation, Barry forces himself upon Lady Lyndon, who at first resists his suit. Barry, however, pursues the lady relentlessly, bribing her servants, spying on her every move, paying her homage, and stealing her correspondence. When she flees to London to escape his persistent attentions, he follows her. At last, he overcomes her aversion and objections, and she agrees to become his wife. Adding her name to his own, he becomes Barry Lyndon, Esq.
Although she is haughty and overbearing by nature, Lady Lyndon soon yields to the harsh dominance of her husband, who treats her brutally and thwarts her attempts to control her own fortune. After a few days of marriage, the Lyndons go to Ireland, where he immediately assumes management of the Lyndon estates. Living in high fashion, he spends money freely in order to establish himself as a gentleman in the community. When Lady Lyndon attempts to protest, he complains of her ill temper; if she pleads for affection, he calls her a nag. The abuse he showers upon her is reflected in the way he uses her son, Lord Bullingdon, who, unlike his mother, does not submit meekly to Barry’s malice.
The birth of Bryan Lyndon adds to Barry’s problems. Since the estate is entailed upon Lord Bullingdon, young Bryan will have no rights of inheritance to Lady Lyndon’s property. To provide for his son, Barry sells some of the timber on the estates over the protests of Lord Bullingdon’s guardian. Barry gives the money obtained to his mother, who uses it to repurchase the old Barry lands, which Barry intends to bequeath to his son. Barry is actively despised in the community, but through foul means and cajolery, he wins a seat in Parliament and uses his victory to triumph over his enemies.
Barry makes no attempt to disguise his contempt and his disgust for his wife, who under his profligacy becomes petulant. When she rebels against his conduct, he threatens to remove Bryan from her; she is subdued many times in this manner. Little Bryan is completely spoiled by his father’s indulgence. Barry also contrives to rid himself of his stepson, who finally obliges by running off to America to fight against the rebels. Barry’s enemies use Lord Bullingdon’s flight to slander the Irish upstart, and the young man’s legal guardians continue their efforts to curb the wasteful dissipation of Lady Lyndon’s wealth, which is dwindling under Barry’s administration. In the end, Barry’s unpopularity causes him to lose his seat in Parliament.
Heavily in debt, he retires to Castle Lyndon. When Lord Bullingdon is reported killed in America, young Bryan becomes heir to the estates. Soon afterward, the boy dies when thrown from his horse. His death causes Lady Lyndon such anguish that a report spreads that she is mad. Barry and his mother, now the mistress of Castle Lyndon, treat Lady Lyndon shabbily. Keeping her virtually a prisoner, spying on her every move, and denying her intercourse with her friends, they almost drive her mad. Under the necessity of signing some papers, she tricks Barry into taking her to London. There her indignant relatives and Lord George Poynings, Lady Lyndon’s former suitor, gather to free the unhappy woman from his custody; Barry is trapped.
Offered the alternative of going to jail as a swindler or of leaving the country with an annuity of three hundred pounds, he chooses the latter. Later, he returns secretly to England and nearly succeeds in winning back his weak-willed wife. His attempt is foiled, however, by Lord Bullingdon, who reappears suddenly after he was reported dead. Barry is thrown into the Fleet Prison, where he dies suffering from delirium tremens.