Published three years before Vanity Fair (1847-1848, serial; 1848, book), William Makepeace Thackeray’s The Luck of Barry Lyndon: A Romance of the Last Century, as it was titled in serial presentation, is a minor masterpiece of classic comedy, and it embodies many of the same concerns with sham, materialistic values, and egoism found in the later novel. Both novels feature the kind of antihero more familiar, perhaps, to later readers than to Thackeray’s contemporaries. In fact, there are distinct resemblances between Vanity Fair’s picara, Becky Sharpe, whose sharp practices, manipulation, and emotional blackmail arouse ambivalent delight in readers, and Barry, the appealing rogue who, reprehensible as his values may be, is yet true to his own code. His autobiography, cast in the form of an adult’s remembrance of about forty years of his life, shows Thackeray’s skillful handling of time and his imaginative creation of picaresque episodes, in the course of which Barry ingenuously, naïvely, yet arrogantly reveals his vices and ambiguous virtues.
Thackeray is much more than a social historian in Barry Lyndon. The three-part arrangement of the novel shows Barry as an adolescent in Ireland, where he falls in love for the first time; then abroad in English and Prussian military service, gambling in Europe; and finally, upon his return to England, having become militarily and financially successful, making a marital conquest as well. In the tradition of Daniel Defoe, Tobias Smollett, and Henry Fielding, Thackeray presents a picaro who reveals the tawdriness of empire and gaming as well as reflects the kinds of truths by which all people deceive themselves.
The tone of Barry Lyndon, with its combination of the conversational and the confessional, may not seem all that close to the tone of the author’s mature fiction. However suited to the character the unselfconscious admissions of the narrative are, there is an air of levity and inconsequence about them that is missing from Thackeray’s later works. However, the reader will not have read very much of Barry Lyndon before realizing that the hero’s unaffected air of candor and completeness is being used to highly ironic purposes by the author. The result is that the novel may be thought to consist of two narratives: that of the hero and that of the author. The latter undermines the former, and the causes of this disruption are the result of nothing more than the hero’s excesses. This complicated narrative interplay has a number of noteworthy consequences.
On one hand, it suggests that the...
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