The Luck of Barry Lyndon, by William Thackeray

William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863) was, during his time, one of the prominent novelists of Victorian England and the primary competition to Charles Dickens. These days he is known mostly for the satirical Vanity Fair, but it was the fictional memoir The Luck of Barry Lyndon (1844) that was adapted by Stanley Kubrick for his 1975 film. Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon may be too slow or unheroic for some viewers, but I was in the right mood for it when I watched it recently, and became interested in the source material. I read the book to see Kubrick’s choices in reinventing the titular character, rather than any preexisting interest in Thackeray. Actually, I was sold on the idea only when (like any true genre reader) I took a look at the unusual cover art.

thackeray oxford

Oxford University Press cover art: Miss Irons by Thomas Hudson (actually, Thomas Rennell).

The painting used for the Oxford edition has an interesting history, having been made as a result of a disagreement between a society portrait artist and his original subject. The courtly and privileged are also satirized in TLoBL, wherein their obsession over appearances and gullibility allow the ascent of an interloper.

That interloper was famously underplayed by Ryan O’Neal in Kubrick’s movie, which told the story through a more objective, third-person point of view. Thackeray’s novel is written as a memoir, in which Barry Lyndon fully vents his emotions as he — extremely unreliably, as far as the facts would be concerned — tells the story of his life. Throughout the pages, a fictional editor “G. S. Fitz-Doodle” points out some of Barry’s obvious boasts and misremembering, but there are many more left to be discovered by the reader. My library’s copy was the Oxford “World’s Classics” edition and supplied both a useful introduction about Thackeray and a healthy supply of footnotes. Like its film adaptation, TLoBL did not please its initial audience as much as Thackeray would have hoped, and the Oxford editor (Andrew Sanders) suggests that it would have been more popular had Barry not proved to be so untrustworthy.

Synopsis

TLoBL is the story of Barry Redmond, an impoverished gentry figure in Ireland. He and his mother are dependent on his uncle Brady for shelter, and reside somewhere close to the bottom of the social pyramid. He loses out to an English officer, Captain Quin, in a contest over his first love, Brady’s daughter Nora. After shooting Quin in a duel, Barry travels to Dublin to restart his life.

Barry-Lyndon_quin

Along the way, however, Barry falls victim to his immature ways and finds himself broke and possibly wanted by the authorities. He escapes by joining a regiment of the English army, and participates in The Seven Year’s War. After being peripherally involved in the Battle of Minden, he manages to get himself “wounded” and steal the identity papers of his commanding officer. He gets exposed as an imposter by a Prussian officer (England and Prussia being on the same side), and to save his hide he becomes a soldier in the Prussian army.

Barry performs well as a foot soldier, gaining the favor of his commanding officer Potzdorf and landing a new role as an intelligence agent. Assigned to spy on a professional gambler, he discovers the target to be his other uncle from Berryville, operating under the false name “Chevalier de Baribari.” Barry and the Chevalier work together as the “bank” in gambling games around the courts of Europe, accumulating winnings and collecting debts until being chased out of various principalities.

After several episodes of court intrigue, Barry sets his sights on the Lady Lyndon, the bored wife of the sickly George Lyndon, an incredibly wealthy English nobleman. Barry befriends George Lyndon while scheming to replace him, something recognized rather jovially by the old man but bitterly by the young son, Lord Bullingdon.

barry_lyndon_faro

Once George Lyndon dies and Barry secures marriage to Lady Lyndon, his memoirs describe a prolonged struggle to turn wealth into prestige. Despite his experience in mimicry, there are many whom Barry cannot keep fooled. In order to protect his privileged lifestyle, he makes an extremely costly attempt at securing a title (“peerage”) for himself.

Meanwhile, Barry and Lady Lyndon have a son, Bryan, who quickly becomes the focus of Barry’s hopes and ambitions. He lavishes attention on the child, attempting to be the father he always wished he could have had (and mythologized about in the initial pages of the memoir). One thing he fails to do, however, his put firm boundaries on Bryan’s behavior — an indulgence that eventually extracts its own price.

Book to Film

While this article is chiefly about Thackeray’s book, I should note here that Kubrick’s film is both a visual masterpiece and highly recommended. It tells the story behind the deceptions of the novel, adds in thematic connections and eliminates some of the more tiresome parts to achieve its three-plus hour viewing time. Among the changes:

  • Kubrick changes the focus from Barry to the world around him, through many wide-focus scenes and use of the zoom lens. This puts more importance on the characters around Barry, who is extremely self-centered in the book.
  • Thackeray includes a lot of statements about the Irish character and how it lends itself to falsehoods and exaggerations. These were characteristics that the author found interesting and endearing (his previous book was called The Irish Sketch Book and expressed these views in detail). The stereotype also offers Barry excuses about his own deceptive behavior, as well as his frequent role as the victim of the roguish schemes of his countrymen. This part of the novel hasn’t aged as well as the rest — although it’s not nearly as awkward as when it was used in the John Boyd book — and Kubrick did not feature it in the film. Instead of getting swindled out of  his money on the way to Dublin, Barry simply gets robbed by the notorious highwayman Captain Feeney (and his son).
  • The “court intrigue” chapters of the novel are excised, as well as most of Barry’s efforts to win the hand of Lady Lyndon. These are replaced with a series of immaculately shot scenes (using the candles of the set and a NASA-engineered lens) depicting Barry’s trespassing in continental court society. Barry’s seduction of Lady Lyndon is entirely nonverbal in the film, but we get the impression that he’s mostly just riding his luck, as in the novel.
  • The film says very little about Barry’s father, except that he died in a duel at a young age. Barry turns to other characters as substitute father-figures, from his uncle Brady, to Captain Fagan, to Potzdorf, to the Chevalier de Balibari. Once he marries and becomes Barry Lyndon, he no longer has someone around to give him guidance and support (Barry never respects women enough for his wife to take this role).
  • While impersonating an English officer, Kubrick’s Barry meets a German woman while alone on a road. He then “plays house” for a few days with her, stepping into the role of her departed officer-husband. These scenes demonstrate how Barry will always be an imposter, even in family life. Thackeray’s Barry carries out his affair with the German woman while the officer he eventually impersonates is in the house, recuperating from battle wounds. This may be attributed to the falsehoods of the memoir, but it shows Barry’s cleverness under the pressure to survive; the sexual relations with the nurse is written about as a bonus.
  • Barry’s rebellious stepson, Lord Bullingdon, is a more prominent character in the film, contributing directly to Barry’s ultimate demise. Kubrick portrays him with an Oedipal attachment to his mother, something he clearly did not have in the novel (the Lady Lyndon is shown to have isolated herself with poor choices). This way, Barry’s story begins in a contest over a woman with another male of higher status (Nora and Captain Quin), and approaches the ending in a similar struggle (Lady Lyndon and Bullingdon).

Well, that is more than a few small tweaks. Kubrick turned the novel into a story in which early events are mirrored, visually or circumstantially (or both), with later events. He did the same thing with the two halves of Full Metal Jacket, and the three-act sequence of Eyes Wide Shut. This gives the abstract themes (the father-son relationship, fakery and emotional remoteness) more prominence as they form the connections between these repeated situations.

Also, through the remoteness of O’Neal’s performance, Kubrick portrays Barry as a more passive character than in the novel: someone who rides his luck by letting events come to him, more than taking actions on his own. This reduces the character from being the dominant focus to part of a larger, more sweeping saga of a past era. I see something similar happening to Keir Dullea’s protagonist in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and later with Tom Cruise and Nichole Kidman. Obviously, this kind of diminishment is impossible in Barry’s own memoir, in which he gives himself a central role in many events. We can think of the film as a portrayal of what “really” happened to Barry Redmond.

barry lyndon march

The Game of Life

Thackeray’s original title, The Luck of Barry Lyndon, is indicative of the theme of games and gambling that pervades the book. Faro, where players bet on certain cards not being revealed as the banker works his way through a deck, is of special prominence as the source of Barry and the Chevalier’s livelihood. There are also mentions of piquet, ombre and other card games, suggesting that Barry’s education is informal and his relationships with everyone in high society are really contests.

Some chapters have luck or fortune in their title: “More runs of luck,” “In which the luck goes against Barry,” and so on. Moreover, mentions of luck run through the entire set of memoirs, becoming a dominant force in Barry’s understanding of the world. Kubrick contributes to this with the battle scene, where Barry clearly avoids getting shot through simple chance, as he and his fellow soldiers march straight into firing range. Later, of course, much of the Lyndon fortune is spent on Barry’s gambling debts — whatever confidence he built during his loaded contests with the Chevalier worked against him when the cons were no longer available.

Barry relates his relationship with fortune to his pursuit of the Lady Lyndon:

That is my way of fascinating women. Let the man who has to make his fortune in life remember this maxim. Attacking is his only secret. Dare, and the world always yields; or, if it beat you sometimes, dare again, and it will succumb. In those days my spirit was so great that if I had my heart upon marrying a princess of the blood, I would have her!

So Barry has an understanding of several games, and maintains a lifelong relationship with luck. But is he missing a greater lesson? The psychologist Jean Piaget developed a framework for understanding the developmental role of games between children — the essential goal of playing games is not to win, but to be able to keep playing more games. That is, building friendships and productive social roles is the true objective. Barry’s games result in debts, bills due, and occasionally sword duels; never lasting friendships. His life as a rogue and a gambler leaves him without lasting friends.

War and Waste

The Seven Year’s War features prominently in the first half of TLoBL, showing how the elites of the English-Prussian alliance used commoners from their dispersed empires to fight each other. Heroism and blame get assigned to individuals in a roughly arbitrary manner, given the lack of information coming from the battlefield and the advantage people could take by bending the reports. Barry plays the game of misinformation to escape the front lines and indulge himself, but given the way his commanders treat their men as fodder, it’s hard to blame him for some of his actions.

Life in the Prussian military is even worse, as minor offenses are brutally punished with “the gauntlet” and the pay is meager. The rank and file are comprised of mostly “stolen” men who were often driven with the cane. Barry has also encased his view of continental powers in cynicism:

The punishment was incessant. Every officer had the liberty to inflict it, and in peace it was more cruel than in war. For when peace came the king turned adrift such of his officers and as were not noble, whatever their service might have been. He would call a captain and say, “He is not noble, let him go.” We were afraid of him somehow and were cowed before him like wild beasts before their keeper.

However, a more experienced Barry survives his time here by building a relationship with Potzdorf and helping the officers maintain order in the regiment. Without acknowledging it, Barry gives himself a temporary reprieve from luck and assumes control over his fate. Of course, this only lasts until he finds the Chevalier and the gambling tables.

barry lyndon gauntlet

TLoBL also mentions the War of the American Revolution towards the end, drawing parallels between the rebellion of the colonists and Barry’s own fractured relationship with Bullingdon. His impulsive violence and corporal discipline, learned in his army days, fail to cow his step-son. Thackeray leaves it to the reader to draw similar conclusions about the treatment of the Americans.


Thackeray’s novel tells a more character-driven, plot-heavy and detailed version of the story than what was portrayed in Kubrick’s film, but that shouldn’t dissuade interested readers from checking out TLoBL. The history and deeper characterization outweigh the overly complicated chapters of court intrigue. It is interesting literature in its own right, and an insightful look into the high society that preceded the Victorian age. 7/10.

 

Advertisement

About pete

former academic scientist and presently a software engineer. Also, a science fiction and crime fiction book-blogger.
This entry was posted in books, literary fiction and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Luck of Barry Lyndon, by William Thackeray

  1. fredfitch says:

    I have many times read a work of fiction–often an obscure one–simply to see how it dffers from a better-known film made from it. I usually end up preferring prose to celluloid, but not always.

    I never read Thackerey, and this is one of those Kubrick films I couldn’t stay interested in (Ryan O’Neal’s Irish brogue didn’t help–I suppose technically Thackerey is depicting a stage Irishman, so there is that to be said for it).

    However, I could engage you in lively discussion regarding the Mad Magazine parody of the Kubrick film. 😐

    Like

    • pete says:

      Yes, Barry Lyndon is – to put it mildly – a gradual film. I was finally in the mood to watch it only recently. As I’ve found with every other Kubrick movie, the story is uncomplicated but there’s a lot to see in every scene.

      Like

      • fredfitch says:

        It makes sense for Thackerey to have his adventurer be an Irishman–a Scotsman would also have worked for his purposes. Members of the minor gentry in both nations were seen as arrivistes when they muscled their way into English society, or politics (or both). The reaction to them was not unlike that to Jewish men, or even black men, making their way into ‘respectable’ circles later on. They were seen as sexually aggressive, and lacking the natural propriety of Englishmen, to which I could say something rude, but that would just be confirming the stereotype.

        Trollope took a different tack with his novels featuring Phineas Finn, son of an Irish doctor, who lucks his way into a parliamentary seat, which gives him newfound prestige, but no money (it was not a salaried position then, the assumption being that someone without substantial funds, or at least patronage from higher up, should have anything to do with politics, and that hasn’t changed as much as one might like).

        Finn is an adventurer, but with a social conscience–he wants to make a positive difference with his career, and he’s got the talent to make that happen, but various connivances of fate keep intervening, to move him up, then throw him back down again. He’s also very attractive to women, an advantage he makes use of, but not the same way Lyndon does.

        Trollope was very sympathetic to the Irish, having spent some years in a civil service position there, and married an Irish girl. Thackerey wrote a well-received book on his travels in Ireland, seems to have been particularly taken by the charms of Irishwomen, but to him it was a more exotic land, and he found the people strange, which I suppose they are, and what’s the harm? 😉

        Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s