Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1078

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 author’s intent is not to indulge his hero’s narrative or to let it stand on its own account. Barry’s amoral, improvised, opportunistic existence is not merely a colorful yarn or an episodic tissue of adventures. Its excesses produce their own moral counterpoint. This anticipates the situation in Vanity Fair, where Becky’s unprincipled behavior calls forth the author’s most stringent moral irony. In that novel, Thackeray contrasts a world of dazzling extravagance and exploitation with the virtues of domesticity and conjugal love. Thackeray’s moral vision is not yet as comprehensively laid out in Barry Lyndon, but its origins are clearly visible, lacking only a medium other than the author’s implicit critique of his hero to articulate them.

The issue of tone and of its implications is not confined to aesthetic considerations alone but pertains also to the question of genre. It is known from the publication of Thackeray’s own nonfictional writings that he had a strong interest in English eighteenth century fiction and that one of his main interests was the manner in which he maintained lines of continuity with earlier novelistic practices.

It is a common critical practice to relate Barry Lyndon to Henry Fielding’s The History of the Life of the Late Mr. Jonathan Wild the Great (1743). Fielding’s novel, however, was a satirical adaptation of a popular genre literature of roguery. Works in this category depicted the brazen, criminal, and generally subversive careers of adventurers, men and women without attachment, commitment, or consistency, whose behavior represented a form of freedom as dangerous for the settled citizenry who came their way as for the protagonists themselves. This category owes much to picaresque fiction, one of the formative imaginative influences on the development of the novel. In Barry Lyndon, Thackeray reveals the intersection of an eighteenth century form with a nineteenth century sensibility, allowing on the one hand the protagonist’s extemporaneous existence but ensuring on the other hand that such an existence is being depicted to exemplify a code of values that is the antithesis of those with which the protagonist identifies. Thackeray was by no means the only author of his day to adapt the literature of roguery to contemporary purposes—evidence of similar interests may be found in the work of Charles Dickens, and another contemporary of theirs, Harrison Ainsworth, made a successful career from the same practice.

Although Thackeray fully engages his moralizing imagination in Barry Lyndon, he appears also to distance himself from his own effects by permitting Barry to tell his own story—so that his own words will condemn him—and by conceiving his narrative in terms of an already existing genre. A further, and equally revealing, distancing tactic is the work’s Irish dimension. If Thackeray were interested merely in drawing a moral lesson by depicting the counterproductive career of a picaresque hero, there would be no need to invoke an Irish element. The fact that one exists may be attributed to the commercial success achieved by Irish novelists in the early Victorian literary marketplace with their own picaresque works. Many of these works placed their protagonists in the setting of the Napoleonic wars, in which the improvisations and quirks of fortune endemic to the picaresque hero’s career became identified with a positive, and even virtuous, historical outcome. In Barry Lyndon, Thackeray undoes such possibilities, for Barry’s military service is not with the forces of the Crown. By this means, as well as by depicting Barry’s empty social pretension and his generally amoral behavior, Thackeray presents him as retaining a stereotypical Irishness. Thackeray uses this ethnic label as a synonym for Barry’s failure to integrate himself with the morality, decorum, laws of property, and codes of gentlemanliness that a responsible member of British society must observe. Thackeray ultimately presents the reader with an ideological and a political judgment as well as a moral one.

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