Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 793
Barryville. Irish town that is the birthplace and early home of the braggart and bully Redmond Barry—later to become Barry Lyndon. The novel opens with Barry Lyndon, at age forty, looking back over his life in an attempt to give it shape. He begins his memoir with a description of the tiny house in Barryville where he was born and expresses his bitter regret over the loss of his family’s vast ancestral lands to a British aristocrat named Lyndon.
In Barryville, Barry falls from grace. After watching British soldiers parading in the Irish fields, he fights a duel with a British officer named Quin over a woman. This familial model parallels the history of Ireland’s subjugation by the British and, in a manner, justifies Barry’s frustration with his life and his subsequent career as a scoundrel and rogue. It may be argued that Barry is merely attempting to recover what he believes to be his birthright, his family lands, and, though perhaps inadvertently, his family honor. In the middle nineteenth century, Ireland was an exploited and deeply impoverished land that many people were anxious to leave.
Deluded into believing that he has killed the British officer in the duel, Barry predictably leaves for Dublin. Along the way he is robbed, finds he has nowhere to turn and so he enlists in the British army to fight in the Seven Years’ War. The only two people Barry ever finds any modicum of comfort with, and love for, are his uncle and fellow con man, Cornelius Barry (Chevalier de Baliban) with whom he travels as a professional gambler, and his devoted mother—both from his home in Ireland.
*The Continent. European continent on which a large part of the novel develops, as Barry travels almost constantly from country to country. In this regard, Thackeray details the European courts’ dissipated lifestyle, rife with gambling and illicit romantic interludes. As a soldier in the battlefields of France, Barry sees that the British soldiers are simply mowed down as they march straight into enemy fire, so he deserts in the hope of reaching neutral Belgium. When his chance comes, he returns to a life of traveling, this time in the disguise of a British officer, after which the devious soldier of fortune is forced to enlist in the Prussian army. This army, he finds, is even worse than the British army, and he winds up in Germany. Given his Irish ancestry, it is not difficult to understand Barry’s lack of patriotic feeling of any kind for the British crown. He has no more love for the Prussian army than he did the British and, indeed, looks upon them as the dregs of Europe.
Disheartened, Barry feels he will never achieve his dreams of glory. However, his sojourn with the Prussians soon ends when an officer engages him to spy on a French gambler. When Barry discovers that the gambler is his own uncle, he instead joins up with him. Both rascals travel through Europe as swaggering gentleman cardsharps at the continental courts every night, scheming, gaming, and womanizing. Rubbing shoulders with the rich helps make Barry wealthy, but only by cheating.
In the decadent European court environment Barry meets the married Lady Lyndon, an arrogant and wealthy woman and mother of Lord Bullingdon. Barry indirectly causes Lady Lyndon’s apoplectic husband—who is of the same Lyndon family responsible for the demise of Barry’s noble ancestral Irish family—to suffer a fatal stroke. Thus, continental Europe, in contrast to the more sober Britain, represents a covert, profligate lifestyle, rife with all sorts of vices: gambling, drunkenness and violence.
*London. Capital of Britain, in which Barry settles after marrying Lady Lyndon and usurping her dead husband’s title by taking his name. As an uncouth Irishman, Barry is doomed in England, like his father before him who died in London in a duel shortly after renouncing his Catholic faith in an attempt to recover his family fortunes. Although Barry has the wit to gain a fortune, he is incapable of keeping it. In due course, London sober society becomes his undoing, and he soon begins to fall from social respectability.
Under constant pressure to behave himself under the social constraints of his wife’s position, Barry cannot abide the drawing-room manners of the English ruling classes. He brutalizes his wife and imprisons her. His marriage becomes miserable, and his stepson despises him. His only saving grace is the loving way he treats his devoted old mother and his young son. However, he eventually loses everything and is forced to live abroad on a pension. He dies penniless, drunk, and mad in Fleet prison, cared for by his aging mother.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 247
Altinal, A. Savkar. Thackeray and the Problem of Realism. New York: Peter Lang, 1986. Includes a chapter in which Barry Lyndon is discussed in the light of Thackeray’s beginnings as a novelist. Discussion focuses mainly on the hero’s character. Also discusses the novel’s artistic achievements and its place in Thackeray’s development.
Colby, Robert. “Barry Lyndon and the Irish Hero.” Nineteenth Century Fiction 21 (September, 1966): 109-130. Locates the novel in the Thackeray canon and identifies sources for the story. Also discusses Thackeray’s narrative method, as well as relevant contextual matters. The main emphasis is on the ways in which the novel reveals Thackeray’s creative rereading of contemporary Irish fiction.
Hardy, Barbara. Forms of Feeling in Victorian Fiction. London: Peter Owen, 1985. Contains a chapter on Thackeray that makes a number of pertinent observations about Barry Lyndon. Analyzes the novel’s comic character and the hero’s emotional nature. Also notes the relation between these features and the novel’s structure.
Miller, Mark Crispin. “Barry Lyndon Reconsidered.” Georgia Review 30 (Winter, 1976): 827-853. Analyzes Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of the novel, focusing on the director’s vision. Evaluates the manner in which he deals with such themes as heritage and role-playing and assesses the differences between novel and film.
Parker, David. “Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon.” Ariel 6 (October, 1975): 68-80. Relates the novel to eighteenth century literature of roguery. Examines Thackeray’s tonal and formal adaptations of that literary model, as well as his moralistic approach to his material.
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