One of the “ah-ha” moments of my undergraduate career was reading William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel Vanity Fair: a Novel without a Hero. I was not a big reader in high school and what I read was not of a classic nature. But at college, I was exposed to great works of literature and it was a mind-blowing experience. I was introduced to worlds I never knew about and people who captured my attention and my imagination.
What excited me about Vanity Fair was that I really cared about what happened to the people described in the book. Their problems and their challenges became mine and I was engrossed in their lives, even though none of them was a conventional hero. What they all shared was a common humanity, struggling to survive in an indifferent and sometimes cruel world; and their stories fascinated me. Barry Lyndon is another of Thackeray’s great novels, and it has been transformed cinematically into an opulent and engaging story similar in tone to Vanity Fair. It could be called “a film without a hero.”
The narrative begins in the 1750s in Ireland when Barry’s father is killed in a duel. Raised by his mother, he is sheltered from the harsh realities of learning how to earn a living. Instead, he tries to move upward on the social and financial ladder by allying himself with people in positions of power and influence. After numerous years of drifting and gambling, he finally secures the hand in marriage of a rich countess, Lady Lyndon, whose aged and sick husband has recently died.
Although they have a child, Barry is unfaithful to Lady Lyndon. Lord Bullingdon, Lady Lyndon’s son by her first marriage, observes this behavior and sees Barry as an opportunist interested only in his mother’s money. He is correct and, unfortunately, Barry’s life of excess drives the family to the brink of financial ruin by spending his wife’s fortune trying to become a respected and influential member of polite society. He throws lavish parties to ingratiate himself with those in power and purchases overly appraised works of art. Eventually, he regrets his selfishness and apologizes to his wife, but only after much damage has been done. The dysfunctional relationship between Barry and his stepson, Lord Bullingdon, continues, however, with tragic consequences.
Kubrick, a masterful director, captures the opulence and physical beauty of the idle life of the wealthy and privileged with rich and exquisite images. Every scene looks like a museum painting. But beneath the outward beauty is a corrupt society focused only on power and pleasure, a society which disdains work and worships those with influence.
The positive value of work is nowhere to be seen in Barry Lyndon, which portrays a life of excess and leisure. This is in stark contrast to Jewish values. The Talmud, indeed, places great value on work. It is filled with comments abhorring idleness, suggesting that it leads to mental illness and sexual immorality (Talmud Bavli 59b). Moreover, Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Shimon state that work honors the workman (Nedarim 49b), and they themselves would deliberately carry heavy loads to show that manual labor was to be respected.
Furthermore, Rabbi Yehuda Ben Besayrah remarks: “If a person has no work to do, what should he do? If he has a dilapidated yard or field, he should go and occupy himself with it.” Work is therapeutic, for it keeps man mentally healthy. Further, the Sages warn us “not to be tempted by opulence and not to be jealous of those who maintain positions of authority.”
To be idle, in Jewish tradition, is to lead an unproductive life. Work, in contrast, gives man stability, a sense of self-worth, and happiness. Barry Lyndon reminds us that the life of idleness prevents one from leading an emotionally rich and balanced life.