The Luck of Barry Lyndon

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The Luck of Barry Lyndon is a picaresque novel by William Makepeace Thackeray, first published in serial form 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..

Stanley Kubrick later adapted the novel into the movie Barry Lyndon (1975). Unlike the film, the novel is narrated by Barry himself, who functions as a quintessentially unreliable narrator, perpetually boasting and not realising the bad light in which he casts himself.

Plot summary

Redmond Barry of Bally Barry, 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 hot-tempered, passionate lad, and falls madly in love with his cousin, Nora. Sadly, as she is a spinster a few years older than Redmond, she is seeking a prospect with more ready cash to pay family debts.

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 assassinated the man, though his pistol was actually loaded with tow, a dummy load of heavy, knotted, fibres. Quin, struck with the harmless load, fainted 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 Royal 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, though, 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 decimates 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 (sic. Ballybary). 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 generally living it up.

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. Both uncle and nephew are forced to leave Germany—both unmarried.

While cooling their heels 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 the following year that the husband has died, he strikes.

Through a series of adventures, Redmond eventually bullies and seduces the Countess of Lyndon, almost forcing her to marry him. 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. His good fortunes, though, 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. Combined with Barry's own profligate spending practices, he is ruined on many levels.

As the "memoir" ends, (Redmond) Barry Lyndon is separated from his wife, and lodged in 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 last nineteen years of his life in prison, dying of alcoholism-related illness.

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