An Analysis of Barry Lyndon

Thackeray's novel, "Barry Lyndon" begins with young Redmond Barry in his mid-teens, in love with his cousin, but more importantly, filled with notions of his elevated name and blood. He has long been taught by his mother that he is a nobleman. It is his ambitious regard for this rigid belief that will propel him to the heights of European society, but also cause him to commit colossal acts of tragic folly.

Walter Jerrold, in his bibliographical notes that preface Barry Lyndon in a collection of Thackeray's works believes that Thackeray got the idea of writing the book from accounts of the adventures of Andrew Robinson Stoney (later Stoney-Bowes) who similarly married a countess for money (the Countess of Strathmore) and mistreated her. As incredible as are the incidents in the book, it is remarkable that many of them are taken from incidents in real life.

In spite of the air of adventure, humor, and satire that surrounds "Barry Lyndon" the book is very much grounded in reality. While Redmond Barry is deluded by his own pretensions to nobility and the life to which such a person should live, he faces the problem of how to live on a daily basis. However, his belief that as a gentleman he cannot stoop to menial labor or even one of the professions forces him to choose a way of life that is highly destructive. The irony is that his aspirations to be a nobleman end up degrading him and all of those around him.

Generally, readers find reason to sympathize with the protagonist of a novel, especially when written in the first person. In this case Barry Lyndon becomes a thoroughly despicable character. Throughout the first half of the book, the reader can forgive most of his atrocious behavior, largely because he is often in direct conflict with characters even more back-biting and under-cutting than he. When he gets back at a haughty lieutenant or skips town, escaping from an oppressive Prussian secret police, we can applaud his ingenuity. But as he enters the field of matrimony we come to have a dimmer view of Redmond Barry and his self-justifications. This is because many of his early adventures can be viewed almost as a game, a game at which he begins to excel. But later as he contemplates marriage we realize that he is totally unequipped to come to grips with the serious business of life, and ultimately, it is his wife who ends up suffering for his inadequacy, self-destruction, and self-delusion.

Throughout the work the whole idea of honor, especially as it is expressed in the code duello hovers in the background. Redmond Barry makes use of this almost legitimized threatening force in order to get his way. He acts as an enforcer collecting gambling debts owed to himself and his cheating uncle. He largely bullies whomever gets in his way because he is an expert swordsman and a wicked shot with the pistol. It is interesting that Redmond Barry never kills anyone in a duel. His object is not to so much get others out of the way, but to bend them to his will. For example: when he fights a nobleman who refuses to pay his debts, he does not want to kill him, he only wants his money. The man cannot pay his debt if he is dead.

The underlying message seems to be that this very talented man, Redmond Barry Lyndon, an innocent in his youth is formed by the age in which he lives and through this pernicious code of nobility becomes a monster. Indeed, it is one of the functions of a novel to chronical the change of an individual as he moves through a story. In most works we find the forces of society and nature bring maturity, redemption, or insight - some positive good. In the case of Barry Lyndon the character goes from innocent youth to a thoughtless, self-centered manipulator.

Thackeray had considerable trouble writing this book. In letters to friends he often complained of the difficulty in writing it. This is because it is difficult to write a novel without infusing in the characters some part of the author. This is especially true when a book is written in the first person. Thackeray no doubt dreaded and found distasteful such close contact with Barry Lyndon. This novel was one of Thackeray's earlier works. He never particularly liked it. When his daughter asked him about Barry Lyndon, he told her that she would not like the book.

Though Barry Lyndon has its lighter moments, it is truly a sad story. The hero's marriage to Honoria is a clear description of spousal abuse, and by the end of the story Honoria is obviously suffering from battered spouse syndrome. Even after her relations rescue her from his clutches, she continues to support her degrading husband. His falling from high estate perhaps qualifies the work as a tragedy.

It seems to the casual reader that the destruction of Barry Lyndon is largely of his own making. He makes one bad investment after another. He spends profligately. Through his boorish behavior, he alienates his friends and galvanizes his enemies. He has continuous opportunities to change his behavior towards his wife. Throughout the "memoirs" he never sees the true source of his troubles, always blaming the treachery of others. It should be noted that support for arguments of the effects of both nature and nurture can be found in the lines of Barry Lyndon.

The system of aristocratic regimes of the time no doubt did encourage bad behavior. Gambling, dueling, carousing, and profligate luxury were considered honorable, while hard work, labor, and moderation were viewed as the mark of a commoner. Yet, the argument can be made that many a nobleman and adventurer lived a productive life during this age. It is ironic that the book (and the movie) close at the time of the beginning of the French Revolution (1789), when old the Europe of the ancien regime would begin its long decline.

Barry Lyndon is a fascinating book. It has held up very well over the years. Though set in the 1700s its plot and characters have an immediacy that is lacking in much of the period's literature. In many ways it is a masterpiece. It is a great story that features one of the most memorable characters of English literature. Perhaps most of all it is an indictment of an elitist philosophy which encouraged idleness and folly. Thackeray had a keen understanding of human nature. In Barry Lyndon he lays bare a soul and the resulting spectacle is one which should be viewed by anyone presuming to an education in literature or psychology.

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