William Makepeace Thackeray - Barry Lyndon

Thackeray is today remembered for his great classic Vanity Fair, but he wrote many other works which are well worth discovering. Barry Lyndon is an Irish adventurer trying to make a success of life in aristocratic London. He’s a rogue, swindler, liar and seducer of women – the Me Too movement was much needed for the likes of Barry Lyndon. Get to know Thackeray’s intriguing picaresque novel in November.

In many ways a very contemporary novel

The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon is a fascinating book. It might be set in the 1700s, but it is in many ways a very contemporary novel, describing ruthlessness, selfishness, contracting of debts and grasping for money, marriage abuse, and the deterioration of a character who could have been a fine man. Its plot and characters have great immediacy, and Thackeray’s keen understanding of human nature is there on every page.

The novel is a notable contribution to ‘rogue literature’. Thackeray’s much-admired Henry Fielding had written The Life and Death of Jonathan Wild, the Great, a satirical story of an underworld rogue who prospers. Like Fielding, Thackeray wanted to expose a society where such immoral men could prosper.

George Eliot said that she thought of Thackeray “… as I suppose the majority of people with any intellect do, as on the whole the most powerful of living novelists.” (1857)

A liar, confidence man, abuser of women, and a braggart

Thackeray is best known for his masterpiece Vanity Fair though even that great novel is rarely read in schools or universities and is familiar to many today only through film versions. He seems to have gone rather out of fashion as an author, which is a pity, as he is a wonderfully satirical sharp-eyed observer of human nature, and his books are well worth reading. Barry Lyndon is also better known to most people now as a Stanley Kubrick movie, but the book is fast-paced and an intriguing story of a rogue, and the novel is surprisingly modern and relevant to the 21st century.

Vanity Fair is famously “a novel without a hero”, and although Barry is the narrator of the story and the tale is all about his life and exploits, he is no ‘hero’ in the conventional sense of the word. He’s a liar, confidence man, abuser of women, a braggart and he is totally self-deluded. For me, the book raises the interesting question of how important it is to like the hero or heroine of the novel you are reading? Do you need to feel sympathy for a hero, do you need to admire him? If he behaves atrociously, does that put you off the novel? Think about that, as you watch Barry Lyndon destroy his life and alienate those who care about him.

Barry Lyndon also raises interesting questions about nature versus nurture. Barry is born with many gifts, yet he squanders them. Is it because he is fatherless, or because his mother places too strong an emphasis on his noble name and heritage? Or is it the fault of a society which over-values ‘blue blood’ and ‘old money’? This is a book which raises many questions and makes you think. Barry’s adventures are extraordinary – I hope you join him for the ride.

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Featured image credit- William Makepeace Thackeray, Barry Lyndon. Ryan O’Neal in Barry Lyndon (1975), https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0072684/

Comments (2)

  1. Glynda

    I have to say, I’ve never been able to get into the book – disappointingly, as I adore Vanity Fair. However, Kubrick’s movie is in every way utterly beautiful and one of my all-time favourites.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      It’s nowhere near as great a book as Vanity Fair. Barry is such a horrid character. I agree that the film is fabulous!

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