The Luck of Barry Lyndon

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The Luck of Barry Lyndon
Author William Makepeace Thackeray
Country United Kingdom
Genre Picaresque novel
Published 1844
Media typePrint, e-book

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 picaresque novel is a genre of prose fiction that depicts the adventures of a roguish, but "appealing hero", of low social class, who lives by his wits in a corrupt society. Picaresque novels typically adopt a realistic style, with elements of comedy and satire. This style of novel originated in Spain in 1554 and flourished throughout Europe for more than 200 years, though the term "picaresque novel" was only coined in 1810. It continues to influence modern literature. The term is also sometimes used to describe works, like Cervantes' Don Quixote and Charles Dickens' Pickwick Papers, which only contain some of the genre's elements.

William Makepeace Thackeray novelist

William Makepeace Thackeray was a British novelist, author and illustrator. He is known for his satirical works, particularly Vanity Fair, a panoramic portrait of English society.

Serial (literature) publishing format by which a single literary work is presented in contiguous installments

In literature, a serial is a printing format by which a single larger work, often a work of narrative fiction, is published in smaller, sequential installments. The installments are also known as numbers, parts or fascicles, and may be released either as separate publications or within sequential issues of a periodical publication, such as a magazine or newspaper.


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.

Tow (fibre) coarse, broken fibers, removed during processing of bast fibers, used as padding, ropemaking, or to make short-staple yarns

In the textile industry, a tow is a coarse, broken fibre, removed during processing flax, hemp, or jute. Flax tows are often used as upholstery stuffing, and tows in general are frequently cut up to produce staple fibre. The very light color of flax tow is the source of the word "towhead", meaning a person with naturally tousled light blonde hair.

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.

Dublin Capital of, and largest city in, Ireland

Dublin is the capital and largest city of Ireland. Situated on a bay on the east coast, at the mouth of the River Liffey, it lies within the province of Leinster. It is bordered on the south by the Dublin Mountains, a part of the Wicklow Mountains range. It has an urban area population of 1,173,179, while the population of the Dublin Region, as of 2016, was 1,347,359, and the population of the Greater Dublin Area was 1,904,806.

Seven Years War Global conflict between 1756 and 1763

The Seven Years' War was a global conflict fought between 1756 and 1763. It involved every European great power of the time and spanned five continents, affecting Europe, the Americas, West Africa, South Asia, and the Philippines. The conflict split Europe into two coalitions: one was led by the Kingdom of Great Britain and included the Kingdom of Prussia, the Kingdom of Portugal, the Electorate of Brunswick-Lüneburg, and other small German states; while the other was led by the Kingdom of France and included the Austrian-led Holy Roman Empire, the Russian Empire, the Kingdom of Spain, and the Swedish Empire. Meanwhile, in India, some regional polities within the increasingly fragmented Mughal Empire, with the support of the French, tried to crush a British attempt to conquer Bengal.

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.

Kingdom of Prussia Former German state (1701–1918)

The Kingdom of Prussia was a German kingdom that constituted the state of Prussia between 1701 and 1918. It was the driving force behind the unification of Germany in 1871 and was the leading state of the German Empire until its dissolution in 1918. Although it took its name from the region called Prussia, it was based in the Margraviate of Brandenburg, where its capital was Berlin.

Frederick the Great king of Prussia

Frederick II ruled the Kingdom of Prussia from 1740 until 1786, the longest reign of any Hohenzollern king, at 46 years. His most significant accomplishments during his reign included his military victories, his reorganization of Prussian armies, his patronage of the arts and the Enlightenment and his final success against great odds in the Seven Years' War. Frederick was the last Hohenzollern monarch titled King in Prussia and declared himself King of Prussia after achieving sovereignty over most historically Prussian lands in 1772. Prussia had greatly increased its territories and became a leading military power in Europe under his rule. He became known as Frederick the Great and was nicknamed Der Alte Fritz by the Prussian people and eventually the rest of Germany.

Battle of Kunersdorf battle

The decisive Battle of Kunersdorf occurred on 12 August 1759 near Kunersdorf (Kunowice), immediately east of Frankfurt an der Oder. Part of the Third Silesian War and the wider Seven Years' War, the battle involved over 100,000 men. An Allied army commanded by Pyotr Saltykov and Ernst Gideon von Laudon that included 41,000 Russians and 18,500 Austrians defeated Frederick the Great's army of 50,900 Prussians.

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.

Rhineland historic region of Germany

The Rhineland is the name used for a loosely defined area of Western Germany along the Rhine, chiefly its middle section.

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, 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. 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.


Stanley Kubrick adapted the novel into the film Barry Lyndon , released in 1975. Unlike the film, the novel is narrated by Barry himself, who functions as a quintessentially unreliable narrator.

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