Revisiting the Classics: Barry Lyndon

Bruce Gans

As often as not, a Great Book masterpiece written prior to the twentieth century can be detected by this sign--it is largely unread and can only be acquired through Amazon in a free public domain digital Kindle edition, a print-on-demand softcover, or a decades old commercial paperback that was set in type too small to read in order to infinitesimally lower paper costs. Thus the 1844 novel Barry Lyndon by William Thackeray.

Barry Lyndon is original and stunning. Its innovative narrative and a conception of its genre is a century ahead of its time. It accomplishes this by posing as merely one more picaresque novel, a genre commercially profitable from centuries prior to Barry Lyndon through the present, the perfect definition for which is found on the back cover of another picaresque novel, Peregrine Pickle, published a century prior to Thackeray’s, which promises “’a romance of roguery [that] moves fast and humorously through the adventures of an arrogant, attractive scoundrel with little to his credit but wit and courage.”

The protagonist of Barry Lyndon is Redmond Barry of Bally Barry. Thackeray makes him an impoverished Irish Protestant who insists he is descended from Irish Kings from which he derives the touchiest sense of honor.  He threatens to kill anyone who challenges it.  This problem comes up often because people know that Redmond Barry’s father was a man who died after reducing his immediate family to penury through alcoholism, gambling, brawling, dueling, loafing and living as a spendthrift member of the gentry.

Redmond Barry’s mother is what in Chicago we call a D.O.C. (Department of Corrections) Mom, who gives unconditional approval to every criminal act her son commits and shares his insistence that she is of the blood royal and thus superior to most of mankind.

Barry Lyndon’s originality lies in its slow incremental departure from the picaresque novel and is told in the first person, a device which guarantees initial identification with the hero.

This sympathy is crucial early in the novel because Barry at fifteen has to flee his home over fears he has killed an adult solider in a duel Barry provokes because the solider had become engaged to Barry’s cousin Nora. She is in her early 20s and has repeatedly rejected Barry’s adolescent proposals. The reader sympathetically excuses a child of fifteen whose sexual jealousy leads him to insist upon sole possession of a woman he is too young to marry and whose solution is to murder her fiancé. Unbeknownst to Redmond, this “murder” is successfully staged to frighten Barry off.

Feeling no remorse Barry flees to Dublin and tries to support himself by gambling rather than getting a job. He is quickly defrauded by con artists and cardsharps; here again the reader easily suspends ethical disbelief since after all this is a novel not the factual account of our own runaway son.

Broke, and as far as he knows a wanted killer, Barry joins the German army. He deserts by stealing his Lieutenant’s uniform, money and identity papers and threatens to kill the victim if he calls for help. Since Barry from raw talent and recent battlefield experience has evolved into an Olympic class swordsman, this is no windy boast. But because the Lieutenant is an average and decent person, the reader is left with an unexpected second doubt over extending empathy to Barry for again deeply and unjustly injuring a second man, leaving him impoverished, without clothes, passport or military identification.

But this too is forgotten by the reader when Redmond soon meets his uncle disguised as a Frenchman Chevalier de Balibari—pride in the family name trumping even the advantages of an undetectable alias. Barry’s uncle is supporting himself by gambling and seducing women with money, and for Redmond, running into a family member with the same character and life’s goals is a godsend. The two form a partnership, a traveling casino, and begin to tour the haunts of the aristocracy offering entertainment in the form of games of chance, providing “the house” and themselves as opponents. They cheat unscrupulously but not to worry, Barry explains; everyone cheated and to play honestly was to insure bankruptcy.

The two win enough to dress expensively and spend in extravagant and frivolous imitation of the aristocracy to whose social class and society they aspire—albeit Redmond constantly proclaims—whether necessary or not—that he is the descendant of Irish kings and the superior of those upon whom he fawns and if anyone has a problem with that, Barry offers to stab the person to death for no charge.  

These events lead to the apogee of Barry’s fortunes and the innovative element of the novel.  He befriends the husband of one of the richest women in England, the Countess of Lyndon. The husband confides he married his wife for her money and he has paid for it by living out his life in a loveless, emotionally meaningless and burdensome existence and had he to do it again he would have married the young girl he had actually loved and foregone the wealth.

Barry laughs at this idiotic premise that a happy marriage can possibly be mentioned in the same breath as possessing one of the world’s great fortunes. But his new friend insists. Barry dismisses him again. The fellow then admonishes Barry for already plotting to marry the Countess for her money after he dies. Barry laughingly confesses to this while rejecting all censure from a man who has done exactly what he intends.

Here the reader first experiences revulsion at the character of Redmond Barry, his dying pal, and the ethical world through which they doggie paddle. The picaresque novel for the first time, is stripped of a layer of its enchantment and a real world of emotional and ethical squalor is suddenly perceptible.

Subsequently, Redmond Barry, the amoral professional fraud, approaches the Countess of Lyndon behind her husband’s back and insinuates himself by posing as the same kind of amateur philosophe obsessed by theological questions that she fancies herself.

Immediately upon her husband’s death, Redmond begins to stalk her. He follows her whenever she goes into the street. He shows up at her social engagements and at her home uninvited. He ignores her repeated insistence she be left alone and persists through even an episode where Redmond confronts a rival and chases him off by stabbing him nearly to death.  He presents all this aggression and bullying to the Countess as an obsessive passion for her, adoration beyond what any man has ever had for a woman before.

Beaten down emotionally the Countess of Lyndon at last agrees to marry Redmond Barry who has not a particle of affection for her. At this point the reader now can no longer view the novel as picaresque because its protagonist is now self-evidently a thug. The final section of the novel sees Barry devolve into a character increasingly unpleasant and requiring an act of the will to follow.

Thackeray’s originality here consists in several innovations. The first is that the hero changes more than halfway through the novel from a reliable first person narrator to an unreliable one. His descriptions of why he acts as he does now cease to be persuasive. He tells us he domineers over his wife and hits her but his explanation that this is customary and necessary in any successful marriage rings false. So also does his account of the sadistic and prolonged beatings he regularly inflicts on his stepson which he justifies by saying the boy resented having him as a stepfather and was continuously disobedient.

 The next splendid innovation is Thackeray’s device of incrementally increasing the speed with which Barry’s personality and fortunes deteriorate. This is accompanied by an unexpected sequence of more and more characters in the novel reacting to and speaking of him hostilely. Parallel to this, Redmond begins to brood with  increasing resentment and uneasiness that under the Countess’s will and law of primogeniture, upon the Countess’s death the fortune will pass to the stepson, not to him.

We then learn his stepson has decided not to go to college not from contempt for learning but so he can protect his mother from Barry’s physical abuse.  At one point Barry starts to discipline the now grown stepson, who unexpectedly warns him that if Barry lays  a finger on him, the stepson will shoot him. The King of England rejects all of Barry’s lobbying to get made a peer, telling his minister that Redmond Barry deserves the be hanged, not ennobled. Meanwhile the peasants and townsmen on his estates become hostile.

Once his marriage to the Countess of Lyndon had been solemnized Redmond decides to live the rest of his life enjoying himself by blowing through his wife’s immense fortune through celebrity scale remodeling and construction projects of staggering extravagance, frivolousness and waste, cutting down forests in ruinous business deals, openly carousing with mistresses, using his wife’s fortune to attract and retain them with showers of luxury gifts and spending his evening in drinking and gambling debauches all paid for out of his wife’s pocket.

The reader’s alienation accelerates and intensifies

Having exhausted his own money, Barry runs through most of his wife’s estate and can no longer meet his debts. He manages to arrange a loan in the morning and loses the money gambling that night.  He threatens his creditors with violence.

When he senses his wife wants to leave him he locks her up as a prisoner in her own home because he knows the moment she divorces him he is a bankrupt and his condition will be identical to when he fled to Dublin. He moves his mother into their home to serve as the Countess’s jailer, spying on her all day and locking her in her bedroom every night.

By the time the Countess finally succeeds in escaping and Redmond Barry is jailed the reader is in a state of shock. Having picked up what one assumed was a typical picaresque novel one has amazingly read instead the autobiography of a dashing hero who matured into a  cruel, ruthless, homicidal, ethically empty, repulsive and disgusting human being, for whom any empathy is abhorrent. This takes the novel beyond the safe harbor of literature’s other collection of lovable anti heroes.

But the originality goes further.   Barry Lyndon blows up the picaresque novel genre by stripping it of its sentimentalized charm to reveal such behavior for the depressing, squalid abusive way of life it is in fact.  

The novel then offers a last reward, rare and precious for those who have long known that truth about the human condition is found in all profound books written anywhere in time. But perhaps more significantly so for those under the delusion that the human condition of their own generation is unique, up to date and superior to that of any past generation prior to the twentieth century.

To demonstrate this one first must inventory the values and choices by which Redmond Barry lives. His honor exists entirely in what other people think and say about him, not in what he feels about himself. He is uncontrollably driven by his impulses. For these reasons he assaults and is capable of killing anyone who he imagines insults him.  He engages without a qualm in criminal activity, his specialty being robbery and card sharping.

Women are not fellow human beings but the means for extracting sex and money. They are cheated on without a qualm, abandoned on a whim, especially if there is another available more beautiful or who has more money.  He lives off women when he can and spends their money entirely on himself and his amusements. He intimidates with death threats anyone interested in the same woman. His form of courtship includes stalking. He thinks nothing of locking up his wife and his policy of domestic management is wife beating and child abuse

His life’s ambition is to avoid work, amuse himself, and spend his nights drinking, whoring and gambling. He borrows money he knows he cannot pay back and on occasion threatens with death those attempting to collect on the debt.

He considers any interference unjust and unmerited. The consequences of his own self-destructive actions are not his responsibility but his rotten luck or that of the people who he victimized. He is an alcoholic, which in his time was the equivalent of a drug abuser.

In fact, Redmond Barry’s life in the mock picaresque novel Barry Lyndon is indistinguishable from the underclass life and mores that the contemporary British psychiatrist Anthony Daniels--a.k.a Theodore Dalrymple—has exhaustively chronicled, based on thirty years work at an inner city London hospital and prison his books as Life at the Bottom, Second Opinion, If Symptoms Persist, and Romancing Opiates.

 Just as spectacularly, contemporary economist and social thinker Thomas Sowell in Black Rednecks and White Liberals has traced the identical Redmond Barry pattern of behavior in the present day white and black underclasses. Of special significance in this case is that his research found this behavior pattern originated in an Appalachian and Southern part of the United States brought there by its early settlers who came from a particular section and time in Great Britain when Barry Lyndon is set.

Indeed, at this writing the country has been scandalized by a long series of incidents among NFL players of violence against women, child abuse, gun charges, drug offenses, and serial out of wedlock births by one unmarried father with many unmarried mothers. This pattern of life, chronicled so brilliantly by William Thackeray in Barry Lyndon in 1844, is alive and thriving, poisonous and perennial in each fresh day’s newspaper.    

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