Barry Lyndon: Narrative and Discourse in Kubrick’s Modern Tragedy – Essay by Michael Klein

In this essay, Michael Klein elucidates the unique nature of Kubrick's modernist perspective, as evinced in Barry Lyndon

In this essay, Michael Klein elucidates the unique nature of Kubrick’s modernist perspective, as evinced in Barry Lyndon

by Michael Klein

Even inept films sometimes carry with them a certain mesmerizing authority. Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, a flawed work based upon a rather uninspiring novel, can be enjoyed, for instance, for its visual effects: sheer photography. And the background music is superb.1

The music offputtingly classical under the titles . . . might as well be embalming fluid. . . . Even the action sequences in Barry Lyndon aren’t meant to be exciting; they’re meant only to be visually exciting.2

The quotations are typical of a good deal that has been written about Kubrick’s film, Barry Lyndon. Joyce Carol Oates, writing in TV Guide, liked the “visual effects” and found the music “superb”. Pauline Kael, in The New Yorker, more antagonistically found the classical background music “embalming” and “offputting,” the images merely “visually exciting” and hence meaningless. Both critics responded to the music and the images as ends in themselves, as either too beautiful or as too tendentious, but anyway as too decorative to be functional. Hence they dismissed the film as a rather overblown historical pageant.

There seems to be an expectation, virtually prescriptive, that the core of the film should reside in the narrative, in the sequence of events and point of view of the main characters. However Kubrick’s modernist perspective is somewhat different. While the events do shape the characters lives, they are relatively neutral, incomplete signs. The characters are devoid of self-consciousness. The total configuration of visual and aural signs (including the music and the voice-over), that is the discourse, defines and determines our response to and comprehension of the events.3 The discourse is ironic and analytic (places the characters and events in a larger perspective); it also engages our sympathy (defines value and meaning).

It is generally understood that Kubrick s science-fiction films are parables about life in present society, works that gain intensity when they are situated in relation to our contemporary experience. Barry Lyndon is not so much an historical epic as a parable about the modern condition. Redmond Barry is doubly alienated, from his class and from his nation. The rise and fall of Barry Lyndon (his name changes with his identity) is an emblematic tale of class mobility and lost roots. Redmond Barry (Ryan O Neal), Irish and of relatively modest origins, becomes a rootless cosmopolitan, an expatriate wandering across Europe during the Seven Years War, finally settling in England (the colonial power that governs Ireland), where he marries into wealth and attempts to achieve a further rise in class by securing a peerage. It is a tragedy of class mobility: Barry is finally left maimed and destitute. Ironically, Barry fails because at several key junctions in the plot he acts in accordance with the best values of the class to which he aspires, cultural values that the dominant class itself, in its decadence, regards as merely convenient mystifications. However the actions that are the cause of his undoing redeem him in our eyes. We are guided to a sense of pathos, a kind of affirmation.

To create an adaptation that conveys the director’s vision, Thackeray’s original text has been both compressed and expanded. Kubrick has altered the narrative of the novel in at least four significant respects:

He has made a large number of deletions. Often historical details and personages have been excised from the original, journalistic details and documentary incidents that would have overly particularized the story, fixed it immoveably in the eighteenth century. The result is a more universal parable.

Significant scenes have been added to the film. For example: Barry s son Bryan’s birthday party and procession and later, set in parallel, Bryan’s funeral procession; the climactic duel between Barry and his stepson Lord Bullingdon (the peripety of the film); the concluding scenes in which Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson) hesitates, then seals Barry’s fate, while Lord Bullingdon looks on, with mingled guilt and apprehension.

Equally important, a number of scenes have been focused by condensation. For example: Barry’s courtship of Lady Lyndon is compressed and heightened in intensity (four chapters of word-play and intrigue are rendered in an intense scene only several minutes in duration); the scene in which Barry thrashes Lord Bullingdon for his impudence is, in the film, directly linked to Barry s loss of the peerage for which he has striven. (Kubrick fuses two incidents from the novel, the events and a letter that Lord Bullingdon subsequently writes before departing to America, and instead has Lord Hallam and Lord Neville Wendover, Barry’s primary patrons, witness the brawl.)

These changes also alter the proportion of the narrative, shifting our attention to scenes in which Barry is a victim and hence more sympathetic. Although less than a tenth of Thackeray’s novel is devoted to Barry’s downfall, Kubrick devotes more than a quarter of the film to his “misfortune and distress.” In Thackeray’s text Barry encounters Lady Lyndon three quarters of the way through the narrative; however half the film is devoted to the consequences of Barry’s marriage of convenience and rise in class.

Finally Kubrick, in adapting Thackeray’s text, has made a significant alteration in point of view. Thackeray’s novel is presented to the reader in the first person. The point of view is consistently ironic. For example if Barry Lyndon tell us “I assure you it was a very short time before I was a pretty fellow of the first class,” we recognize that he doth insist too much. We read “I was always too much a man of honour and spirit to save a penny of Lady Lyndon’s income,” as a sign that he is, with scant honor, squandering the family fortune. Phrases like, “and I, as tipsy as a lord,” are especially damning. In case we miss the point Thackeray provides footnotes: editorial commentary, or a few revealing facts that italicize the parody.

Although Kubrick has got rid of the first person narration and the authorial footnotes (the rhetorical signposts of Thackeray’s text) neither the sequence of events nor the perspective of any one character is developed in the film as substitutes for Thackeray s indicators. The film is not a text but a performance, an experience. Kubrick guides our responses or establishes a discourse by other devices: the voice-over, which is not the same as commentary in the novel, because it coexists with an image and thus may modify it and/or be modified by it; the camera style (panoramic and ironic in the first half of the film, often scenic and affirmative in the latter half); the music (both ironic and affirmative). The totality of these visual and aural signs in their interrelation are at once both discourse and rhetoric: they subsume and define the narrative or any particular point of view within the narrative; they guide and define and generalize our responses to the action.

In the rest of this [eesay] I shall deal in turn with each of these elements in the film.

The voice-over is an integral part of the discourse of the film. An unidentified gentlemanly voice provides information to the audience on perhaps thirty occasions, providing the necessary information to bridge gaps between shifts of time or place and thus to ensure hypotactic continuity. At times the voice-over simply reinforces or clarifies the primary message of the image (for example, the criticism of the scenes of looting and pillage during the Seven Years War). Often it provides ironic perspective upon the action (the mocking future obituary read during Lord Lyndon’s heart attack). On two occasions the voice-over provides a kind of prolepsis, giving significant information about future events (Bryan’s death and Barry’s decline are foretold to heighten the tragedy), or providing advance information that guides our sympathy in relation to future dramatic conflicts (by letting us know early in the film that Lord Bullingdon is overly attached to his mother or that Barry is justified in perceiving malice in Bullingdon s attitude toward him, the voice-over prepares us to side with Barry in his conflict with Bullingdon later in the film).4

Although the speaker is often a reliable guide he is by no means definitive. Often within a general orientation our sympathies momentarily shift from one character to another. Also, at times, the ironic position of the voice-over is significantly negated by a dramatic situation (Barry’s brief wartime romance with the German woman), or by the intensity of the music and the camera style (Barry’s first view of Lady Lyndon in the Marienbad-like formal garden), or by the beauty of the image.

The voice-over is only one element in a discourse that is especially complex and heterogeneous, lifelike, but not without guidelines. In the first half of the film there is an abundance of beautiful images, images that are, however, incomplete signs. In this part of the film the camera continually distances us from the image, imposing perspective, increasing the detached tone of the voice-over. The camera distances us in a double sense: we are placed at a physical remove from the action and this occurs in a self-conscious way so that the style of distancing soon in itself becomes a rhetorical signal.

At times we are given a distanced or ironic perspective on images that appear to be replicas of eighteenth-century paintings—landscapes, family portraits, salon scenes, heroic military spectacles. The images often allude to paintings that would have been commissioned by wealthy patrons, and thus represent the dominant codes and ideals of the society: they portray people in the manner in which they would have wished to be seen. In the film they are demystified by the ironic discourse. In this way Kubrick situates a critique of his characters in a general critique of the culture in which they act out their roles.

Most often Kubrick distances us from the image, literally, by the repeated use of reverse zoom shots which begin in a close-up but then pull back gradually to include more and more of the natural or social landscape, the human figures now poignantly located within their setting and objective limitations. For example, early in the film, we see a line of British soldiers marching in drill formation across a landscape, proceeding in our direction. The camera gradually pulls back to include the crowd of Irish villagers gathered to watch the drill, then further back until we are perhaps a hundred yards behind the crowd who are watching the soldiers now further away in the distance. The telephoto lens renders the landscape behind the soldiers abstract and painterly. The military drill has become a static painterly image, the soldiers reduced to a minor element in the panorama. We observe a spectacle of puppets, some performers, other spectators, native Irish joined in a nonantagonistic dialectic with their British occupiers.

The duel between Barry and Captain Quinn in the early part of the film is photographed in a similar manner. We begin with a close-up of two duelling pistols being prepared for use. The camera then zooms back several hundred feet distancing the duel and the participants until they are minor figures in a panoramic landscape. The distancing camera (the reverse zooms, the panoramic long shots) objectifies the scene, reducing a passionate duel to an ironic and theatrical ritual. We soon learn that the duel was faked (Quinn only pretended to be shot so that Barry would flee to Dublin, leaving Nora to him). So much for honor, romance, and the gentlemanly code of duellists.

Kubrick s vision has been presented in a film language that borders on the absurd:

the . . . long shot, which, when it attempts to present something dramatically, hopelessly looks like a florid awkward phrase … a “theatrical” mise-en-scene . . . which . . . dooms itself. . . .5

I am cribbing the quote by Eisenstein on the long shot from an article I wrote in 1966 on absurdist space in Godard’s Pierrot le Fou. In Barry Lyndon, as in Pierrot le Fou, a romantic narrative situated in a lush and romantic landscape is distanced and set in ironic perspective by the camera.6

There are many aspects of the camera style of Barry Lyndon, rhetorical signs that are part of the discourse: for example the direction of lateral movement within the frame. In the spatial conventions of reading, movement from left to right indicates progress, from right to left retrogression, reversion, going backward in time. Kubrick establishes analogous visual patterns in his film.

Barry’s rise in the world is often signified by a line of motion from the left to the right side of the frame: Barry fires from left to right in his duel with Captain Quinn; he makes his first approach to Lady Lyndon in a similar manner (he enters the frame from the outside left and walks very slowly across the screen to her) and, the next morning, walks with her from the left across an aristocratic garden, the camera moving with them toward the horizon, open space, infinite prospect; on the day of his son’s birthday celebration, Barry leads the lambs of Bryan’s birthday cart in a procession, walking from the left across the frame.

The major scenes of Barry’s decline are often structured parallel to the scenes of his rise, with the important distinction that now’ the line of motion is from the right to the left side of the screen. Where formerly he led Bryan’s triumphant birthday procession Barry now follows behind Bryan’s funeral cortege, walking slowly behind the hearse from the right to the left of the frame; where Barry fired triumphantly from left to right at Captain Quinn in his first duel, in his last he declines to fire, from right to left, at his stepson Lord Bullingdon, and is seriously wounded in return. In his final scene in the film Barry exits across a courtyard, from right to left, estranged from Lady Lyndon, maimed and exiled.

The music is also an extremely important aspect of the discourse of the film. For the most part during the first half of the film it is a subordinate aspect of a complex and shifting ironic discourse, often the most ambiguous and therefore shifting aspect of the irony.

The ironic discourse ranges from affectionate undercutting to outright parody. There are certain moments when the music flows into the critical discourse without any ambiguity. For example Frederic the Great’s Hohenfriedberger March, which is played over images of the Prussian army looting and pillaging. The music sounds gay and heroic but, given the extreme contrast between the sound and our sense of the scene, we reject the heroic implications of the music without reservation. Both the music and the image are perceived as negative. The critical vision is explicit and unqualified.

There are scenes similar in kind but different in degree in which the music fuses with a satiric trope, but the criticism is somewhat more complex, more detached, and implicit. For example Paisiello’s Cavatina from his version of Il Barbiere Di Siviglia, which is juxtaposed to Barry’s rise in class: Barry is a member of a “firm of gamblers who operate in the decadent aristocratic resorts of Europe. Paisiello adapted his opera (in 1782) from Beaumarchais’ play, which satirized the aristocracy of the ancien regime and heralded the rise of the innovative new classes. In Barry Lyndon, while at one level the music simply underscores the satire of the decadent aristocracy, at another level it serves as an ironic comment on Barry’s aspirations, his class mobility, and thus by extension places Beaumarchais’ democratic dream (in Barry Lyndon more a Gatsby quest for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” than “liberty, equality, and fraternity”) in ironic perspective.

At other times in the film the discourse, although critical, is also somewhat ambiguous. Often in the early part of the film the music appears to be positive, although it is, in the final sense, subordinate to the general critical perspective. Yet even then it is not entirely lacking in appeal, in part because the surfaces of the images have a similar ambiguity. As a result there are moments in the film that in their mixed quality are an extraordinary imitation of life.

The clearest examples of this are the early scenes set in a lush Irish pastoral landscape, and accompanied by lyrical folk tunes: Barry’s youthful romance with Nora Brady (who, however, is untrue); Barry’s duel with Captain Quinn (formal, heroic, set in a beautiful landscape, but finally revealed to be a ruse). The tunes— Women of Ireland, The Sea Maiden—are parodied by the action and certainly are in the final sense ironic. Yet the beauty of the music and the images tugs against our objective assessment. Thus the Irish section of the film is at once critical and poignant.

In the latter half of the film there is significant change in the discourse. The music (especially Schubert’s Piano Trio in E and Handel’s Sarabande) engages our sympathy with minimal qualification; and at the same time the camera style shifts from distancing to engaging our sympathy. When these two elements fuse there is a shift from irony to pathos and tragedy. Let me briefly illustrate this with respect to several scenes in the latter part of the film.

When Barry first sees Lady Lyndon, the basic stylistic pattern of the film is inverted. We are not distanced from the scene by a reverse zoom or a long shot. Instead, for the first time, the camera zooms in a considerable distance without interruption, bringing us close to the beautiful object of Barry’s attention. The scene is orchestrated by Schubert s romantic music. First a forceful and insistent piano trill—which heightens our awareness. Then the main theme, as the camera slowly moves toward Lady Lyndon. The music dramatically shifts into a major key when she comes into focus.

During the funeral of Barry’s beloved child Bryan, both the music, the augmented chords of Handel’s Sarabande, and the camera, engage our sympathy. The camera is placed close to the funeral procession. Bryan’s white casket, drawn on a plumed carriage by harnessed lambs, the mourners, Barry and Lady Lyndon in deep black, move toward the camera eye until they fill the frame. Everything in the image is foregrounded in intense whites and blacks. Handel’s music, familiar from being heard at repeated intervals throughout the film, is now’ transformed, punctuated by funeral drums, into a motif of fate. It evokes pathos and empathy. And as the scene draws to a close the sound of the funeral Sarabande merges with the words of the burial service (“We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out ), words that place Barry’s life in a larger perspective, a perspective that Kubrick later echoes in secular form in the text of the epilogue with which the film concludes.7

Another example of the sympathetic (as opposed to distanced) mode in the film is the scene which occurs at the climax of Barry’s attempt to secure a peerage. We are underdistanced by the discourse during this pivotal scene: Barry’s public thrashing of Lord Bulling-don and consequent loss of the peerage he has sought in order to secure the tenure of his position. Lord Hallam and Lord Wendover, Barry’s patrons, are present at a concert at Castle Hackton when Lord Bullingdon launches a verbal attack on his stepfather. The music (Bach’s Concerto for Two Harpsichords and Orchestra) provides a gracious setting for Lord Bullingdon s oedipal trantrum: “Madam … it is not only the lowness of his birth and the general brutality of his manners which disgust me, but the shameful nature of his conduct towards your Ladyship. Lady Lyndon rebukes Lord Bullingdon and flees the room in distress. Barry, enraged, thrashes his stepson, venting all the contradictions of his situation in a cathartic, violent outburst. In an attempt to preserve decorum (an ideal of the society to which he aspires), Barry violates the code of that society, reveals his common origins, and thereafter is shunned and ruined.

The scene is photographed close-up by a hand-held camera that draws us into Barry’s violence, draws us into the chaos of his situation while compressing the space so that there are no vistas of escape. A brief close-up of Lord Hallam’s shocked expression signifies Barry s future ruin. Then Kubrick cuts to Barry standing alone on a stone terrace of the castle. The camera pulls back until he all but vanishes in the aristocratic tableau. His isolation is underscored by the melancholic chords of Vivaldi’s Cello Concerto in E-Minor.

The camera and music further engage our sympathy in the final scenes of the film. Barry’s duel with Lord Bullingdon (again the images are colored by the Sarabande) is rendered in a style antithetical to the distanced presentation of his duel with Captain Quinn in the opening of the film. In both scenes the establishing shot is identical: a close-up of the pistols. However in this final duel we are not distanced by a long zoom away from the guns. Instead, Kubrick renders the action by a hypotactic montage of close-ups, two-shots, and middle-distance shots that heighten the intensity. The setting, a ruined church, a closed and confining place in all respects unlike the open vistas of the Irish landscape that framed the first duel, is a sign of Barry’s limited options.

As the duel begins Bullingdon’s second asks, “Mr. Lyndon, do you know the rules?” Barry abides by the highest ideals of the code of the society he has aspired to enter. He declines to fire at Bullingdon after his stepson’s pistol accidentally discharges. Lord Bullingdon, a secure member of the dominant class, interprets the rules of the game from his own perspective, and declaring he has not “received satisfaction” refuses to waive his second shot and conclude the duel. He fires again and Barry is maimed and ousted.

The final moments of the film are underscored by the insistently sweet and forward-thrusting piano trio that accompanied Barry’s romance with Lady Lyndon and his rise in fortune. The irony here is a source of pathos. Barry exits, maimed, lonely, and baffled. Lady Lyndon hesitates for a second (her gesture is doubled by a bass tremolo) before blankly signing a document that seals Barry’s fate. The epilogue tells us that all are equal in the grave. The Sarabande tolls.

In the final sense, the film unlike the novel has been a performance, one in which our sympathy has been distanced then engaged. We have been guided by the discourse to evaluate the characters and events in the film, signs that are insufficient when abstracted from the larger social and cultural configuration. The camera and the music, far from being extrinsic, have been essential—the source of consciousness, empathy, and value.

For the most part, nineteenth-century novelists defined meaning or truth in their fictive worlds, and by extension in the world of the times, primarily through plot, character, or direct address to the reader, it normally being clear whether the implied author or a significant character should be viewed as authoritative or ironic. In transposing Thackeray’s novel into film, Kubrick shifted primacy away from these traditional literary elements, not to their dramatic counterparts in traditional film narrative but to other rhetorical and expressive cinematic equivalents.

The resulting discourse contains the action in a historical and cultural perspective and guides us to respond with irony or empathy. A double vision is established: Barry as a figure of modern alienation; Barry as an eighteenth-century character, a secondary aspect given the minimalist narrative. As a result the film adaptation precludes the danger of being perceived as a mere period piece or literal transposition of the original and speaks successfully to the modern audience. The discourse in placing the action in a larger perspective makes an esthetic and moral claim: esthetic because it appropriates the mantle of authority of the nineteenth-century author in twentieth-century cinematic terms; moral because like the work of the best nineteenth-century authors it affords insight into aspects of the human condition in bourgeois society.


1. Joyce Carol Oates, “A Private Dream Flashing onto an Enormous Screen,” TV Guide (October 7-13, 1978), p. 6.

2. Pauline Kael, “Kubrick s Gilded Age”, The New Yorker (December 29, 1975), p. 50.

3. “A discourse . . . includes all these items, aesthetic, semantic, ideological, social. … It is to be distinguished from point of view in that the latter is attached to a particular character or authorial position, while a discourse stretches across a text through a variety of different articulations of which character is only one; it need not be coherent but can be broken by a number of shorter or longer gaps or silences.” Christine Gedhill, in E. Ann Kaplan, ed., Women in Film Noir, (London: British Film Institute, 1978), p. 13. I have used the term in a similar sense here and in a related article “Strick’s Adaptation of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist: Discourse and Containing Discourse,” in Conger and Welsch, eds., Narrative Strategies (Macomb: Western Illinois University Press, 1981). A discourse is a configuration of Signs. Containing discourse is a discourse that overdetermines the narrative. The process of discourse is rhetoric as the process of narrative is diegesis.

4. The information defines Barry in a favorable light in contrast to the apparent justice of Bullingdon s claim. Yet at the moment we receive the information Bullingdon seems sympathetic, in part because he is a child without power or capacity to do harm. This changes as the film unfolds: then our moral and emotional sympathies converge.

5. Sergei Eisenstein, Film Form: Essays in Film Theory (New York: Meridian, 1957), p. 250.

6. Michael Klein, “The Style of Pierrot le Fou,” Film Quarterly (Spring, 1966), p. 48.

7. The burial service is spoken by Reverend Runt, a satirical character for the most part of the film. However the discourse subsumes the traits of any given character, appropriates the ethic of the religious text and transforms it into a secular judgment. It is restated in secular form in the epilogue: all the historical (eighteenth-century) characters, rich and poor alike, are now dead, whatever their aspirations.

The English Novel and the Moviesed. Michael Klein and Gillian Parker (New York: Ungar, 1981); pp. 95-107


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