Academic journal article Journal of Narrative Theory

'"At the Court of Bellona': Political and Libidinal Usurpation in Barry Lyndon"

Academic journal article Journal of Narrative Theory

'"At the Court of Bellona': Political and Libidinal Usurpation in Barry Lyndon"

Article excerpt

We are puppets, and unknown forces pull the strings.

-Georg Büchner, Danton's Death.


In his visit to Drogheda, William Makepeace Thackeray climbed up "Cromwell's Mount," a lieu de mémoire compelling the traveler to stop and recollect:

After being twice beaten back, by the divine assistance he was enabled to succeed in a third assault: he "knocked on the head" of all the officers of the garrison; he gave orders that none of the men should be spared. "I think," says he, "that night we put to the sword two thousand men; and one hundred of them having taken possession of St. Peter's steeple and a round tower next the gate, called St. Sunday's, I ordered the steeple of St. Peter's to be fired, when one in the flames was heard to say, "God confound me, I bum, I bum!" The Lord General's history of "this great mercy vouchsafed to us" concludes with appropriate religious reflections: and prays Mr. Speaker of the House of Commons to remember that "it is good that God alone have all the glory." Is not the recollection of this butchery almost enough to make an Irishman turn rebel? (507)

This passage is important for several reasons. It belongs to The Irish Sketch Book, published in 1843, one year before The Luck Barry Lyndon, a novel with an Irish hero. The description of the siege is, for all its brevity, more vividly explicit than any account of battle we may find in Barry Lyndon, admittedly a military novel that consistently refuses to portray the war.1 The historical evocation is magnetized by the military exploits of Oliver Cromwell, a rebel that succeeded in turning many people, let alone Irish people, into rebels, thus releasing endless usurpatory energy. In an 1840 lecture well known to Thackeray, Thomas Carlyle explained how the legal notion "usurpation" (267) set parliamentary obstacles to the Protector's ambition. Ever since John Locke defined it as "a kind of domestic conquest" (397) the word usurpation and its cognates found their place in the political vocabulary of modernity, referring first to the arch-usurper Cromwell and later-pace Locke-to the Prince of Orange.2 By the time Thackeray visited Ireland in 1843, its landscape had already become a terra damnata, a moral topography blistering with the stigmata of civil war. His Irish hero does not forget:

Had there been a resolute leader to meet the murderous ruffian, Oliver Cromwell, we should have shaken off the English for ever. But there was no Barry in the field against the usurper. ... In Oliver's time it was too late for a chief of the name of Barry to lift up his war-cry against that of the murderous brewer. (4, emphasis added)3

Nearing the novel's end, the impressive Hackton Castle, "besieged and battered by the Cromwellians in the Revolution" (237), offers Barry an enclosure of domestic bliss before his final years in prison. The irony by then has turned oppressive.4

In this article I aim to argue three related points: a) that Barry Lyndon is underwritten by the trope of revolutionary usurpation, a catachrestic device shaping both the public (political) and private (libidinal) behavior of the novel's protagonist; b) that the systemic pervasiveness of this trope in Thackeray's novel is historically motivated; and c) that Barry Lyndon's genetic connivance in compulsive historical violence accounts for its critical eviction from the canonical great tradition predicated on domesticity and settlement.


In a quasi-literal sense, Barry Lyndon is an Irishmen turned "rebel" by recollections of butchery. His life-course keeps to a post-revolutionary timetable. Bom in 1745, the year of the second Jacobite rebellion, he becomes aware of heroism (military and erotic) at the age of fifteen, in 1760, the year of the third Jacobite rebellion. His entrance into Parliament, his highest move in the public sphere, is furthered by his support in the campaigns against the American rebels in 1778. He writes his story in 1814, on the eve of Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo. …

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