The Luck of Barry Lyndon

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The Luck of Barry Lyndon
AuthorWilliam Makepeace Thackeray
CountryUnited Kingdom
GenrePicaresque novel
Media typePrint

The Luck of Barry Lyndon is a picaresque novel by William Makepeace Thackeray, first published as a serial in Fraser's Magazine in 1844, about a member of the Irish gentry trying to become a member of the English aristocracy. Thackeray, who based the novel on the life and exploits of the Anglo-Irish rake and fortune-hunter Andrew Robinson Stoney, later reissued it under the title The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, Esq. The novel is narrated by Lyndon himself, who functions as a quintessentially unreliable narrator.

The novel was adapted by Stanley Kubrick into his 1975 film Barry Lyndon.[1]

The name[edit]

Barry is a surname and a masculine given name, the English form of the Irish name Bareth (itself an abbreviation of Fionnbharrth), Barra, Barrath, Barenth, Barold, Bearrach or Finbarr. The word, from the Irish Celtic bearach, means "spear" in English. Thackeray was fond of this name during his travels in Ireland, although at the time he had not yet made a final decision on it (see The Idea, Andrew Robinson Stoney-Bowes). As for Redmond, it is a common given name that emphasizes the redness of the hair. Barryogue, which Redmond sometimes uses in a grandiose manner, suggests his rogue-like qualities.

As for Lyndon (or Lindon), the name derives from the Flemish Linden, meaning "place where lime trees grow," from which the tree itself and its flower are extended. It also exists in German with the same meaning; see Unter den Linden, the famous avenue in Berlin.

Plot summary[edit]

Redmond Barry of Ballybarry, born to a genteel but ruined Irish family, fancies himself a gentleman. At the prompting of his mother, he learns what he can of courtly manners and swordplay, but fails at more scholarly subjects like Latin. He is a passionate, hot-tempered young man who develops a deep love for Nora, his cousin. She is looking for a possibility with more available money because she is a spinster and a few years older than Redmond.

The lad tries to engage in a duel with Nora's suitor, an English officer named John Quin. He is made to think that he has killed the man, though his pistol was actually loaded with tow, a dummy load of heavy, knotted fibres. Quin, struck with the harmless load, faints in fright.

Redmond flees to Dublin, where he quickly falls in with bad company in the way of con artists, and soon loses all his money. Pursued by creditors, he enlists as a common private in a British Army infantry regiment headed for service in Germany during the Seven Years' War.

Once in Germany, despite a promotion to corporal, he hates the army and seeks to desert. When his lieutenant is wounded, Redmond helps take him to a German village for treatment. The Irishman pretends to suffer from insanity, and after several days absconds with the lieutenant's uniform, papers, and money. As part of his ruse, he convinces the locals that he is the real Lieutenant Fakenham, and the wounded man is the mad Corporal Barry. Redmond Barry rides off toward a neutral German territory, hoping for better fortune.

His bad luck continues, however, as he is joined on the road by a Prussian officer. The German soon realises that Redmond is a deserter, but rather than turn him over to the British to be hanged, impresses him into the Prussian army (for a bounty). Redmond hates Prussian service as much or more than he hated British service, but the men are carefully watched to prevent desertion. Redmond marches with Frederick's army into the Battle of Kunersdorf, barely surviving the disastrous cavalry charge that devastates the Prussian army. He becomes the servant of Captain Potzdorff, and is involved in the intrigues of that gentleman.

After several months have passed, a stranger travelling under Austrian protection arrives in Berlin. Redmond is asked to spy on the stranger, an older man called Chevalier de Balibari (sc. Ballybarry). He immediately realises that this is his uncle, the adventurer who disappeared many years ago. The uncle arranges to smuggle his nephew out of Prussia, and this is soon done. The two Irishmen and an accomplice wander around Europe, gambling and spending as they go.

Eventually, the Barrys end up in a Rhineland Duchy, where they win considerable sums of money, and Redmond cleverly sets up a plan to marry a young countess of some means. Again, fortune turns against him, and a series of circumstances undermines his complex plan. (The story of the unhappy Princess Olivia was based on a scandalous account of Duchess Augusta of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel by Étienne-Léon de Lamothe-Langon.) Uncle and nephew are forced to leave Germany—both unmarried.

While staying in France, Redmond comes into the acquaintance of the Countess of Lyndon, an extraordinarily wealthy noblewoman married to a much older man in poor health. He has some success in seducing the lady, but her husband clings to life. Eventually, she goes back to England. Redmond is upset, but bides his time; upon hearing that the husband has died the following year, he moves.

Through a series of adventures, Redmond eventually bullies and seduces the Countess of Lyndon, who marries him under duress. After the wedding, he moves into Hackton Castle, which he has completely remodelled at great expense. Redmond admits several times in the course of his narrative that he has no control over a budget, and spends his new bride's birthright money freely. He looks after a few childhood benefactors in Ireland, his cousin Ulick (who had often stood up for him as a boy), and makes himself over into the most fashionable man in the district.

As the American War of Independence breaks out, Barry Lyndon (as he now calls himself) raises a company of soldiers to be sent to America. He also defeats his wife's cousins to win a seat in Parliament. However, his good fortunes ebb again: his stepson, Lord Bullingdon, goes off to the American war, and Barry is accused of trying to get the lad killed in battle. Then his own child—Bryan—dies in a tragic horse-riding accident; this, combined with Barry's profligate spending practices, leads to his ruin.

As the "memoir" ends, (Redmond) Barry Lyndon is separated from his wife and placed in the Fleet Prison; a small stipend allows him to live in moderate luxury, and his elderly mother lodges close by to tend to him. He spends the rest of his life in prison, until he dies of alcoholism-related illness.

Writing and Publication[edit]

A difficult writing process[edit]

Thackeray began writing The Luck of Barry Lyndon: A Romance of the Last Century. By Fitz-Boodle in Paris[2] in October 1843, and Fraser's began publishing installments starting in January of the following year. Throughout the monthly releases, Thackeray managed to keep an advance of one or two chapters, but in October 1844, the promised manuscript was not ready on time, and the editor-in-chief Nickisson published another text in its place. The author complains about the difficulty of the task, which requires much more reading than he thought and deals with a subject that is not very sympathetic. He wrote on 14 August 1844 that it had become a nightmare and with relief, on 3 November 1844, he put the final period, noting: Finished Barry after much agony last night. The final part was written during a trip to Egypt, and the ultimate chapter in Malta in October 1844 on the way back, while the ship was in quarantine in the port of Valletta.[3]

The original title of the 1844 publication contains the word luck, which in this context does not mean "chance" but "worldly success".[4] The choice of this word indicates that this success results from the wealth and social importance that come from marrying the richest widow in the kingdom. According to a terminology peculiar to Barry, the alternation between luck and ill-luck marks the fluctuations of his fortune.

The first edition of 1844 includes two very asymmetrical parts: sixteen chapters are devoted to Barry's social ascent, and only three (published in September, November, and December 1844) to his decline and fall. This disparity is not explained by the needs of the narrative, but more likely by the author's weariness. Thackeray knows that his novel is not well-liked by the readers of Fraser's Magazine, who complain about the immorality of the story, so after the fact, Thackeray is obliged to add paragraphs, digressions, and explanations to justify his ironic attitude and make his point clearer.

The second publication in England[edit]

Almost all of these additions were abandoned in 1856 when Barry Lyndon was republished,[N 1] along with several other stories, in a book titled Miscellanies;[5] the novel became The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, Esq., By Himself, the publisher's initiative followed by a plethora of pompous mentions emphasizing the grandiose destiny of the scoundrel.[6] This version contains some modifications: the first two chapters were merged into one; in the second part, the beginning of chapter XVII was deleted; and a long passage from the conclusion dealing with immanent justice was also deleted. This justice, indeed, Thackeray writes, but this comment is deleted in 1856, is absent from this world, with villains remaining rich while honest people are just as poor, and further insisting a little later "Justice, great God! Does human life show justice in this way? Do the good always ride in a gilded carriage and the wicked go to the hospice? Is the charlatan never preferred to the capable? Does the world always reward merit, never fall for verbiage, never rush to hear some ass bray from his pulpit?". In short, according to Dodds interpreting Thackeray's thought, this is an illusion of the novelist in the way the world turns. In addition, some of the digressions written in the third person, actually intrusions by the author, are reinserted, but in the first person, that is, placed this time in Barry's mouth. Finally, the pseudonym Fitz-Boodle is abandoned, and Miscellanies in its entirety is signed by William Makepeace Thackeray. In 1856, twelve years after the first version was published, Thackeray had become famous and no longer needed masks.

Although the book was harshly judged during its serialization, the tone changed considerably upon its publication in volumes. By 1856, Thackeray was recognized as one of the masters of the English novel, and his works were appreciated with greater consideration. The influential Saturday Review, founded by A.J.B. Beresford Hope in 1855, considered Barry Lyndon to be the most characteristic and successful of Thackeray's works. Several of the author's colleagues emphasized the tour de force represented by this novel, particularly Trollope, who proclaimed that "if Dickens revealed the best of his creative power early in life, Thackeray showed himself to have a superior intellect. Never has the strength of his mind been raised higher than in Barry Lyndon, and I know of no storyteller whose intellectual faculties can surpass this prodigious enterprise." American writer William Dean Howells, who read the novel as early as 1852, wrote that it was "the most perfect creation [...] a fabulous feat of pure irony." Finally, Anne Thackeray Ritchie, the novelist's daughter, after recounting the anecdote in which her father advised her against reading the book, wrote: "Certainly, it is a difficult book to love, but one admires it for its consummate power and art."

The idea[edit]

Andrew Robinson Stoney-Bowes[edit]

Thackeray got the idea for this novel during a visit with the art collector John Bowes (whom he knew from school)[7] to Streatlam Castle in June and July 1841. In Fraser's Magazine, he wrote:

During my travels in the provinces, I have found material (a character, rather) for a story; I am certain that there is material for amusement in this… for my story about BARRY-LYNN (or whatever name one might give him) [...]

.[8] In fact, these documents come from the Strathmore family, of which John Bowes is the illegitimate descendant, and are collected in a pamphlet by Jesse Foot, entitled Lives of Andrew Robinson Stoney-Bowes and the Countess of Strathmore, published in London in 1812.[2] Bowes owns an annotated copy that Thackeray probably knew about, and the character of Andrew Robinson Bowes immediately fascinates him[9] · .[10]

The Irish Robin Hood[edit]

According to other sources, an inspiration for his character was Captain James Freney, the "Irish Robin Hood," whose adventures he read about in an inn in Galway in 1841,[11] whom he places in his novel on Barry's path in Ireland shortly after his hero's departure for the great world, and who is briefly mentioned in chapter IV where Barry learns about his exploits from Mrs Fitzsimmons.[12] However, while Freney, in Thackeray's words,

declines great deeds with all modesty

, Barry brandishes

little deeds high and loud

.[13] According to another hypothesis, the model encompasses the Irish in general, whom he sketched in his Irish Sketch Book of 1843,

this brilliant, audacious, belligerent, exuberant, whiskey-drinking people


An Irish Snobbery[edit]

In fact, "Barry Lyndon" contains several episodes already used in this "Irish Sketch Book," for example, Barry's arrival in Dublin where he is greeted with much fervor and adulation. In his travel journal, Thackeray notes:

There is candor in the way these brave people regard their ecclesiastics and respect all titles, whether real or spurious [...] Do the Irish have so many reasons to respect their aristocrats that they must chronicle all their movements and not only admire their genuine nobles, but make up others to admire in turn?


A Cosmopolitan Novel[edit]

Finally, as Thackeray wrote, he traveled constantly, hence, according to some critics, the cosmopolitan aspect of the novel, with significant episodes set in France or Germany, and also some details echoing the author's Middle Eastern tour, such as Barry's stay in Ludwigslust where he is accompanied by a "negro" named Zamor, dresses in Turkish clothing, and stays in a

palace arranged in an Oriental and quite sumptuous manner



A question of genealogy[edit]

From the first paragraphs of his narrative, with the help of heraldists, the Englishman Gwillim and the Frenchman Louis Pierre d'Hozier (p. 13, then 139, according to the 1975 edition used as a reference), Barry takes stock of his lineage: "I am of the opinion that there is no gentleman in all of Europe who has not heard of the Barry family of Barryogue, in the kingdom of Ireland [...]" Throughout the novel, he frequently returns to this subject, especially in chapter IV where his uncle, the Chevalier de Bali-Bari, asserts that this is "the only knowledge becoming of a gentleman." In fact, Thackeray himself shared this concern for genealogy, particularly while writing the novel; Fraser's Magazine had just featured Drummond (a list of noble families with mention of their genealogy) as a theme before The Luck of Barry Lyndon.

Nobility of heart[edit]

This question of nobility of heart as opposed to that of birth is in the air: Dickens takes it up four years after Barry Lyndon in Great Expectations (1860), another first-person novel, where he has Herbert Pocket say exactly the same thing as he undertakes to instill some life principles in young Pip and quotes his father Matthew Pocket: "It is one of his principles that no man has ever behaved like a gentleman without first having been, since the world began, a gentleman at heart. He says, there is no veneer that can hide the grain of wood, and the more varnish you put on, the more the grain will express itself." In the same novel, Joe Gargery the blacksmith, who has always protected Pip from the wrath of his shrewish sister, goes to London to see his young brother-in-law. Not knowing quite what to do with his hat on arrival, he realizes that Pip is now ashamed of him; sorry for not having respected his rank, he returns disillusioned to his forge, while Pip, led astray by snobbery, says, "He made me lose my temper and exasperated me" (chapter XXVII, p. 631).

Events in Ireland[edit]

Another concern of Thackeray's is the events in Ireland: although the story of Barry Lyndon is supposed to take place in the 18th century, the book echoes the Anglo-Irish relations of the first half of the 19th century, especially the campaign for the abolition of the Act of Union, which, under the impetus of Daniel O'Connell, raged in the 1840s and culminated in 1843 with the revival of the so-called Irish Home Rule movement.

The tyrannical rakehell[edit]

The last part of the story, concerning Redmond Barry's tumultuous relationship with Lady Lyndon, is inspired by the life of Andrew Robinson Stoney-Bowes, a type of character that the English commonly call a "Rake" or "Rakehell", meaning a gambler, debaucher, reveller, and indebted person.[16] And according to Robert A. Colby, the plot involving the Princess of X is based on what Thackeray called "a silly little book", titled L'Empire, ou, Dix ans sous Napoléon (1836), by Baron Étienne-Léon de Lamothe-Langon (1786-1864),[17] which relates, among other things, the execution of Princess Caroline by the King of Wurttemberg for adultery[18] · .[N 2] The two stories seem to have merged in Thackeray's mind, as both involve tyrannical husbands, hysterical wives, and adultery against a backdrop of a corrupt society.[2]

The Irishman William Maginn[edit]

Barry's grim ending echoes that of the real-life Irish journalist and co-founder of Fraser's Magazine, William Maginn (1794-1842).

Maginn a superb subject for a little morality

, comments Thackeray upon reading an obituary tribute published in Fraser's.[19] However, unlike Barry, who is uneducated, Maginn is a scholarly and witty scholar, but shares with him an easy charm and an abyssal prodigality, and in 1842 his indebtedness landed him in the Fleet Prison, from which he only emerged, consumed by tuberculosis, to die that same year.

The dandy George Brummell[edit]

A parallel can also be drawn between the shameful end of Barry in prison and the miserable exile of the famous "Beau" Brummell (1778-1840) in France, who fled from his debts and whose career has been in the spotlight since William Jesse published his biography in 1844. Thackeray himself gave a review of this publication in the Morning Chronicle of 6 May 1844, reprinted in Thackeray's Contributions to the Morning Chronicle, Gordon N. Ray, Urbana, Illinois, 1995, p. 31-39.</ref> while Barry Lyndon was being written. Moreover, in Chapter XIII, p. 193, Thackeray places an allusion in the form of a wink under the pen of his narrator hero:

Think of the fashion of London being led by a Br-mm-l! [Footnote: This manuscript must have been written at the time when Mr. Brummel was the leader of the London fashion.] a nobody’s son: a low creature, who can no more dance a minuet than I can talk Cherokee; who cannot even crack a bottle like a gentleman; who never showed himself to be a man with his sword in his hand: as we used to approve ourselves in the good old times, before that vulgar Corsican upset the gentry of the world!

, an exclamation intended for the Victorian public.[19]

The seducer Giacomo Casanova[edit]

Finally, it is not excluded, according to Anisman, cited by Colby, that Thackeray may have thought, or even borrowed from the Mémoires de Casanova to which Barry refers in Chapter IX, the Venetian adventurer Giacomo Girolamo Casanova de Seingalt (1725-1798) mentioned twice (p. 128, 141) and who, like Barry, writes that he

lived like a philosopher


The Moral Allegory[edit]

According to François de La Rochefoucauld, "hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue" (CCXVIII in the fifth edition of Maxims and Moral Reflections, 1678). Barry, like M. Jourdain with prose, is a master of hypocrisy without knowing it. However, Thackeray does not absolve him, especially since this shameless sincerity is delayed and resembles the most vulgar cynicism. As Henri Suhamy writes, "the Thackerayan spirit cannot endorse cynicism in any form" (Suhamy 3).

Therefore, this hero is never presented as a model; he is a moral-less buffoon, an anarchistic opportunist like Falstaff in the second part of Shakespeare's Henry IV, who ends up in the same prison as him. He delights in a world without scruples while contributing to its ugliness until that same world rejects him. Thackeray wanted him to be more than just a social climber: his career (war, gambling, and marriage) mimics that of real aristocrats in power, and his vices (brutality and coarseness, arrogance and ignorance, laziness and drunkenness) predispose him to the nobility he is temporarily gratified with.

Therefore, his behavior must be reevaluated in terms of ethics, which elevates Barry Lyndon to the status of a moral allegory. According to Henri Suhamy, this allegory is based on the dichotomy between "conscience" and "self-awareness." Redmond Barry has been initiated into the deceptions of the world without ever glimpsing his own mental twists and turns, and the more he learns about others, the less he knows about himself. So much so that this Simplicius Simplicissimus (the original was swept up in the Thirty Years' War) (1618-1648) appears fundamentally evil, predisposed to evil since childhood and following his natural tendencies towards crime. Certainly, Suhamy adds, "his aggressive perspicacity, his ambition never sated, and his moral opacity are characteristic of paranoia." Nevertheless, the novel, tinged with the melancholy and pessimism of its author, can be read in terms of regression: "Thackeray was cruel to his character, punishing him by turning his own weapons against himself."


Stanley Kubrick adapted the novel into the film Barry Lyndon, released in 1975. Unlike in the novel, the film is not narrated by the titular character.

Irish playwright Don McCamphill produced a similar two-hour radio dramatization for the BBC in 2003. McCamphill's follows the book more closely than Kubrick's, but is more condensed.


  1. ^ However, a pirated edition was published in the United States in 1852.
  2. ^ Due to a lack of historical documents, this event cannot be authenticated and appears to be fictional.


  1. ^ Canby, Vincent (19 December 1975). "Kubrick's 'Barry Lyndon' Is Brilliant in Its Images". The New York Times.
  2. ^ a b c d Colby 1966, p. 114.
  3. ^ Williams 1968, p. 124.
  4. ^ Anisman 1970, p. 11.
  5. ^ Stephen 1856, pp. ii, 26, 783–785.
  6. ^ Ray 1952, p. 131, note 60.
  7. ^ Colby 1966, p. 114, note 9.
  8. ^ Thackeray, William Makepeace. Letters, II. p. 29.
  9. ^ Thackeray, William Makepeace. Letters, I. p. 91.
  10. ^ Ray 1955, p. 344.
  11. ^ Colby 1966, p. 113.
  12. ^ William Makepeace Thackeray, Works, XXIII, p. 174.
  13. ^ Colby 1966, p. 120.
  14. ^ Thackeray, William Makepeace. Works, XXIII. pp. 171, 256–257.
  15. ^ Thackeray, William Makepeace. Letter of August 24, 1841, Letters and Private Papers of William Makepeace Thackeray. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Gordon N. Ray.
  16. ^ Linnane Fergus (2006). The Lives of the English Rakes. London: Portrait. pp. 113–166. ISBN 0-7499-5096-X..
  17. ^ Lamothe-Langon, Étienne Léon de (1836). L'Empire, ou, Dix ans sous Napoléon, vol. IV. Paris: Charles Allandin..
  18. ^ Thackeray, William Makepeace. Letters, vol. II. p. 139.
  19. ^ a b (Colby 1966, p. 115)

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