'I have always found that if a man does not give himself a good word, his friends will not do it for him.' Barry Lyndon is not shy of praising himself in the book that bears his name. The subject of Thackeray's The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, Esq. is self-explanatory. Redmond Barry is brought up by his mother, who fills his head with heroic tales of his ancestry. He is a belligerent boy, proud and naive, and grows into a wild teenager, who, in one of my favourite episodes of the book, becomes involved in a duel for the love of a local Irish girl.
Following the duel, Barry joins the British army and spends his late teenage years and early twenties involved in the Seven Years' War. After successfully extricating himself from military service, he calls himself Redmond de Balibari and joins his uncle in making a fortune and reputation through gambling. Up to this point, I found the character to be something of a cheeky rogue, but this changed once Redmond decides to obtain his money through marriage to a rich heiress.
Women, Barry Lyndon would have us believe, are his downfall. The 'only women who never deceive a man, and whose affection remains constant through all trials' are mothers. He tells us, 'Since the days of Adam, there has been hardly a mischief done in this world but a woman has been at the bottom of it', and blames everyone but himself for his misfortunes. But his wife is the worst of all. Lady Lyndon, was a blue-stocking and Redmond initially had no interest in her. However, when he hears she has said that he smells 'too much of the stable to be admitted to ladies' society', his pride is wounded. He felt 'equal in blood and breeding to any Lyndon in Christendom, and determined to bend this haughty lady.' His actions from this point can only be described as those of a stalker and a psychopath.
I didn't get a sense of Thackeray trying to put across a moral theme in the actions of his characters. Indeed he has said that 'the true end of fiction lay not in pointing morals but in the art of representing a subject, whether sordid or pleasing.' My own reading of the story did bring up the question of why certain activities are fine if you happen to be upper-class, but are seen as degenerate if you are poor. Redmond de Balibari sees society's hypocrisy in considering the profession of the law as honourable, 'where a man will lie for any bidder', and yet 'the gallant man who sits him down before the baize [-] is proscribed by your modern moral world'.
I had enjoyed the Kubrick film, which follows the story fairly closely. The book is Thackeray's first substantial work of fiction and as such I thought it lacked the skill with which his later book, Vanity Fair, was written. The use of the protagonists own voice to narrate the story was very satisfying. It's clear from the start that Barry Lyndon is unreliable in remembering and telling his story, which makes it impossible to be sure how much was truthful. Some of the inaccuracies are revealed through footnotes written by Thackeray's fictitious commissioner of the work, FitzBoodle, but the other characters are never given a voice except through the protagonist. Readers must decide for themselves on the veracity of Barry Lyndon's tale.