Barry Lyndon, Man of Games pt. 1

The end of the labyrinth, for Barry’s father—the end of gameplay.

Crispy has proposed a quadral model of selection, status, performance, and betting gameplay, whose dynamics I explore through Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon—a film about gamesmanship, fortunes, and what might have been.

Chapter One: By what means Redmond Barry acquired the title and style of Barry Lyndon


Barry’s father had been bred, like many sons of genteel families, to the profession of the law. There is no doubt he would’ve made an eminent figure in his profession… had he not been killed in a duel… which arose over the purchase of some horses.

Breathe in the dry irony of the ellipses. This is the labyrinth of forking paths, this is the subject of our film. What was, what could have been, and the acts which picked between them.

Our lives, being a kind of game—an attempt at optimization, within constraints and laws—are subject to four interwoven influences which determine the game’s outcome. Who we are, the choices we make, the abilities we carry, and the luck which accompanies them. In other words, our status, our selections, our skills, and our stars. Each informs the other: who we are, how we choose; what we choose, who we are. From talent and choices arise abilities. From abilities, status; from the stars, choices. (What worked in the past, we trust to work again, even if this working was purely fortuitous…)

Like stimulus to response, selection to consequence: “Barry’s mother, after her husband’s death, lived in such a way as to defy slander.” We begin the film with one kind of game: the duel which ends in Barry’s father’s death. He has made the wrong decision, and he lacked the skill—or luck—to escape from it with his life. And we have now moved quickly to a second, iterated round—the courtships which come a’calling on the passing of her husband. It is a game his widow abrogates entirely, in favor of the game of rearing a child. (Our resources are finite, the more games we play, the more our time and attention are divided between them…)

And yet, like all motherly love, her object eventually renounces her, and switches its affection to some new source. Barry’s choice of love is cast by Kubrick’s narrator as something short of selection, short of free will—it is who he is, a fact of nature. “First love! What a change it makes in a lad. The tender passion gushes out of a man’s heart. He loves as a bird sings… or a rose blows from nature.” Lest we have any hesitations that Kubrick is thinking, as we do, in terms of games, their courtship plays out over cards:

Card games are so often a metaphor for non-fictional games because (1) there is a potent mixture of skill and luck (2) there is a simultaneous presence of public and private information. Only through the view of the third-person camera can we see Nora’s hand. Poker, like social interaction, is a game of inferring private information (opponents’ hands) from public information (their bets, the community cards).

And in the larger game which is their courtship, in an intermission from their cards, another contest begins. His cousin and object, Nora Brady, sets the rules and criteria for success. “I have hidden my neck ribbon somewhere on my person. If you find it, you can have it. You are free to look anywhere for it. I will think little of you if you do not find it.” 

What is the purpose of this game? To bring about intimacy, physical contact—but it accomplishes this by overwriting the regular rules of etiquette and interaction, which would prevent Barry from touch and undressing her. She has opened a new “context,” a new container as in a browser window to an operating system. Its purpose is in part to bring attention to her “status”—who she is, more than what she chooses—the, ahem, assets that make her worth pursuing.

Where’s the ribbon, Barry?

Their domestic tranquility is quickly shattered: the Redcoats come to rural Ireland, put on a performance, a song and dance—first marching, then literal dancing, all of these a set of synchronized movements, with rhythm’s downbeats establishing a shared temporal reality around which participants coordinate.

(Are dancing or marching games? Consider: Are there rules? Is there incentives to follow them, and outcomes of actions which are preferred by players over others? Are there multiple participants, each of whose choices and performance has consequences for the others?)

Success is a combination of natural, kinesthetic and rhythmic ability, but also the attention paid in previous months’ drilling; the choices to attend dances, or practice privately; the choice and luck of who one dances with. Like so many other performance games—executions of skill such as chess or football—it comes out of, and is the culmination of, a long period of selection games. (Courtship, job applications, political elections: We play games to leave games.)

Synchronized group activity, i.e. “dance.” Choreography is the writing of new coordinative schemas through novel combinations of existing symbols.

Their commander, Captain John Quin, selects to dance with Nora (and she with him) on the public green. Barry watches on, melancholy, as the pair take turns performing moves, synchronizing around one another. And when Barry and and Nora walk back home afterward, their choices are taken—as they ought to be; as they always are—to be markers of inner feelings, feelings accessible only through inference and guess-work, the reverse-engineering of external display. “Were you obliged to dance five times with Captain Quin?”

She picks up on the implication immediately, and answers it first, before the literal question, all strategic in this conversational game. 

Nora: I don’t care a fig for Captain Quin. He dances prettily, and is a pleasant rattle of a man. He looks well in his regimentals. He asked me to dance. How could I refuse him?

Barry: But you refused me.

Nora: I can dance with you any day. To dance with my cousin looks as though I could find no other partner.

They have entered a game of conceptualization, of narrativizing. The event has occurred, there is no denying its basic facts; the degrees of freedom which remain are that of ascribing meaning and motivation, of psychologizing and framing the event. Motivation and intent: That which is hidden, that which is always hidden, which can only be inferred and engineered from public act. And yet this algorithm, despite its hidden quality, is what interests us most. This algorithm of motivation and intent is what makes future choices; it is on this algorithm all future coordination depends. 

This algorithm, and its implication for their future relationship, is what Nora and Barry now do battle over. Nora wishes to keep peace, perhaps keep her options open—that, should Quin leave town, her relationship with Barry will remained unharmed. We can call this intrinsic empowerment, or agency—the degrees of freedom, the possible paths in the labyrinth, which remain available.

Nora reminds Barry of the games in which Quin is winning, the ways he is Barry’s superior: “You’re only a boy and penniless.” These competitions of status—Quin’s employment and rank; his being English instead of Irish—are ones in which Barry is disadvantaged. So he seeks instead to win the right to Nora through another game entirely—or, at least, to remind her of his capacity within this alternate gameplay: “If I meet him again, you will find out who is the best man. I’ll fight him, Captain as he is.” But she only reminds him, once again, of their status differential: “It is mighty well of you to fight farmers’ boys, but to fight an Englishman is a different matter.” And it is this inferiority, not of selection or skill but of selfhood, of status, that sets Barry’s heart again Quin and Nora both.

At first, Barry tries—emulating his mother—to renounce the courtship game entirely, selecting to exit it as player. Narrator: “Barry resolved never to see Nora again. But such resolutions, steadfastly held for a whole week… are abandoned in a few moments of despair.” This is the crucial temporal aspect to selection: one’s macro selections, what one decides, in advance, to do, are worth very little compared to the task of selecting to do it day after day, moment after moment, opportunity after opportunity. There are plans, in which we believe we decide what to decide, and there are actual decisions, actual selections. The temporal gap between plan and action creates a gap between plan and action—Jane Austen writes in Mansfield Park—“as time is forever producing between the plans and decisions of mortals, for their own instruction, and their neighbours’ entertainment.” Our plans are almost never binding; unless they are binding, unless we have made it impossible to choose differently in the future, when the moment comes—then we have not really selected a future, picked a path in the labyrinth, at all.

On display: The two kinds of status-capital most valued in hetero courtship games.

These moments of despair, which change Barry’s mind, are brought on by Nora’s success in her games of courtship with the desirable Quin. (The desirable: a status that motivates selection.) The pair meet in the garden, outside the family estate. He swears vows, stakes his reputation on a stated fact whose subtext is his commitment to Nora: “Except for you… and four others… I vow before all the gods my heart has never felt the soft flame.” Again the dry irony of the ellipses—and Nora notes her own commitment by speaking to his singularity as her object, by exceeding his own claim to commitment—“Ah, you men, you men, John… …your passion’s not equal to ours. We are like some plant I’ve read of. We bear but one flower and then we die.” Quin: “​​You, you, you mean you… never felt an inclination for another?” Nora: “Never, my John. How can you ask such a question?” The use of a first name, instead of his title, creates intimacy by representing it (the reflexivity of representation). 

She is deceiving him, of course, in her claim to singular love; this we know, from her history with Barry—and this Quin too comes to know—because our own testimonies, Nora’s and all of ours, are being constantly underwritten, supported or contradicted, by physical evidences, which are held as more reliable than our words. (Non-sentient and material objects, we trust, cannot on their own decide to deceive us—though their convenient materialization, by interested parties, ought to arouse our suspicions.) Barry will soon produce such physical evidence, and it will nearly break up the happy couple.

Our narrator tells all: “Nora was chaperoned [in the garden] by her brothers Mick and Ulick, whose interests would be affected by the favourable outcome of her affair with Quin.” We are in the midst of a selection game, in which the mutual decisions of Quin and Nora are of relevance not merely to the selectors and selected, but also to all those whose fortunes are bound up in its outcome. Whenever one is making a selection, among objects whose choice is varyingly preferable to other agents, one is liable to influence. For insofar as one can be persuaded to choose, these interested individuals will come calling with persuasions. Non-interventionism, though polite manners, is a civilizing impulse, a kind of ascetic self-restraint, rather than the natural order.

Here, what the brothers stand to gain is income. What Barry stands to lose is his object of affection. Hence, the two-person selection game between Nora and Quin quickly expands to multiplayer. The brothers chaperone Nora; the family makes arrangements behind the scenes to ensure a marriage; Barry attempts repeatedly to blow these arrangements up.

Barry intervenes, while Quin looks watches, hands on his hips, sword in his belt.

He arrives at the garden, spotting the couple together, and confronts his cousin Nora. See how he holds up her ribbon, which he had just days earlier discovered between her breasts, tucked away for him—holds it up not just in front of Nora, but in front of Captain Quin, who stands watching. Their performances are not just for one another, but for him. As is always the case in three-person selection games, where a judge assesses an exchange between two players, reality matters far less than the perception of the judge.

Barry holds up the ribbon, less for Nora’s sake than for Quin’s.
Nora strategically narrativizes Barry’s possession of the ribbon for Captain Quin.

So when she fibs, she faces Quin, and the camera—it is for him, and us, she is performing. (The constant thematic attention directors pay to acting is often commented on, by critics, as formally “meta,” an attempt to talk about cinema and filmmaking through the content of the film. But it is equally, and perhaps more commonly in intent, a reflection of the parallels between social life—with its expression games and strategic self-presentation—and the career that is acting. Any naturalistic presentation of social games will inevitably include acting, and therefore, any naturalistic depiction of human life can be conceptualized as “meta-cinematic” by critics over-indebted to the literary-modernist frame of reflexive textuality.)

Just as Nora earlier played a conceptualization game with Barry, in attempting to explain away the clear facts of her dancing with Quin on the green, now she plays the same game, attempting to conceptualize Barry’s possession of her ribbon, such that it will not seem there is history between them. She emphasizes to Nora that Barry is her “cousin,” literally stressing the word as she speaks it; the pair dance around the implication of intimacy, but when they fail to make progress through implicature, they advance to explicitness.

Quin: Miss Brady, it would appear you both have something private to discuss. It would be best for me to withdraw.

Nora: Captain Quin, I have nothing private to discuss with my cousin.

Quin: Miss Brady, it appears you have a great deal to discuss in private.

Nora: Good heavens Captain Quin, he is but a boy, and don’t signify any more than my parrot or lapdog. 

Quin: Indeed! Are you in the habit of giving… intimate articles of your clothing to your parrot or lapdog? 

Nora: Mayn’t I give a bit of ribbon to my own cousin? 

Quin: You’re welcome, miss. As many yards as you like. When ladies make presents to gentlemen, it’s time for other gentlemen to retire.

What sinks her ship? (War metaphor.) What gives away her bluff? (Cards metaphor.) Why does she fail to convince? With Barry, after the green, it was her condescension towards Barry, and her exaltation of Quin—as boy versus man, endowed vs. penniless—which, perhaps, was her own justification, for and to herself, for switching romantic projects. But here it is her history, and the meanings which this history creates. Under normal circumstances, possession of a ribbon may successfully be argued not to signify intimacy—it is “just” a “bit of ribbon” she claims—but, it turns out, Nora has gifted a nearly identical ribbon to Quin as part of their courtship. The significance of the “move”—that is, her gifting of a ribbon—as testified through Barry’s possession—as well as the move’s implication as to the game being played—Nora’s goals, her courtship with Barry—are thus established; she is doomed to be disbelieved. 

Quin holds up his own courtship ribbon.

When Quin storms off, Nora’s brother gives chase. It is now Quin’s turn to declare absconsion from the field of play. “I resign all claims to this young lady.” The brothers call Barry a “meddling brat”—a label, of course, which applies equally to themselves. In an earlier version of the script, Kubrick was subtle about their interestedness: “Your hand is in everybody’s pie! What business have you to quarrel with a gentleman of substance?” In the finished version, he is explicit: “What business have you to come quarreling here with a gentleman who was £1500 a year?”

Cut scene to the dinner table, Quin and Nora somehow having resolved their dispute, despite Barry’s best efforts. As the couple eats, Barry enters; the love theme on harp for Barry and Nora, first heard during that opening cards scene, plays again as she sets her eyes on him. Quin, feeling secure in his victory, gloats; Nora performs her best manners, marrying up as she intends—dabbing the corner of her mouth with a napkin, drinking slowly and calmly from her glass. Quin instigates a show of intimacy between them, speaking an aside to her privately—setting in motion a coming toast—and Nora smiles her assent. Quin then pivots to her father; Nora’s approval of the plan secured, he relays it on, and the father initiates a toast. “Mrs. Brady and ladies, if you please. This sort of toast is drunk too seldom in my family, and you’ll please to receive it with all honours. Here’s to Captain and Mrs. John Quin and a long life to them.” Barry’s face is lit up by light, almost angelic, almost a painting in chiaroscuro, but he does not raise his glass.

Silence is a form of speech; nudity is a fashion statement. Conspicuously sitting out a game is a move as much as any.

The father, then, makes a tactical mistake. “Redmund,” he says, calling out Barry’s non-observance. Up to this point in the meal, Barry has declined the game that is supporting, and ensuring, the couple’s engagement. But by calling Barry out, his father essentially invites him to make a move, rather than sit passively by—and since Barry’s move cannot be in support, it will be in opposition. He tosses the glass in Quin’s face; glass shatters; Quin’s brow begins to bleed. 

The father’s blunders—first inviting Barry to the dinner, then entreating him to toast the couple’s engagement—comes from ignorance. One cannot optimize around facts one is not aware of. At the same time, Barry’s aggression toward Quin is, to Nora’s father, completely uninterpretable—“In heaven’s name, what does all the row mean?” He is aware of the facts, what he wants it meaning, narrative—where is the motivation? Where does the row come from, and what does it entail for the future? Thus, an answer to his question, which eventually comes from one of the brothers, must be psychological, algorithmic:  “The fact is, sir, the young monkey’s fallen in love with Nora. He found herself and the Captain mighty sweet in the garden today, and now he’s for murdering Jack Quin.” In other words, what are Barry’s feelings, desires, aims; what is the end-goal he is pursuing; what is the game which he plays.

Quin is furious, and flexes his status in indignance: “I’m an Englishman! And a man of property!” He calls Barry, by contrast, an “impudent swine,” and demands he be horsewhipped. And this—the original insult by Barry; the corresponding insult by Brady—creates a justifiable premise for Barry’s initiating a different kind of game than mere courtship. Barry has been losing at this courtship game, fueled as it is by status and the possession of capital (financial, symbolic, sexual, etc). In a duel, his chances are far better. The challenge also affords him the opportunity of re-conceptualizing his own status, publicly damaged by Quin’s affront, his answer to the implications of boyishness from Nora and the Captain alike. “Mr. Quin can have satisfaction any time he pleases, by calling on Redmond Barry, Esquire of Barryville.”

As he exits, Captain Grogan—a kind of go-between, ally both to the family and to John Quin—follows to do damage control, to cool the mark. His attempt at persuading Barry to drop the challenge is marked by the kind of frank, strategic talk which modern culture finds too vulgar to speak out loud, or even to privately entertain. But its explicitness reveals the dynamics of the games in play, the strategic interests which the duel risks compromising. “Knowing your uncle is distressed for money, trying to break off a match which will bring £1500 a year into the family…. Quin has promised to pay off the £4000 [debt] which is bothering your uncle so. He takes a girl without a penny… a girl that’s flinging herself at the head of every man in these parts. And missing them all! And you, who ought to be attached to your uncle as to your father…. And this is the return you make for his kindness? Didn’t he harbour you when your father died? Hasn’t he given you and your mother a fine house, rent free?” It is selection games and debt, all the way down. Nora has been “flinging” herself as an option to “every man” in the area, but none have selected her. Barry owes his uncle a great deal, and his uncle owes the bank a great deal as well, which puts both into obligations. This debt is part of what compels the uncle to choose to support Nora’s selection, just as, Grogan hopes, Barry’s debt will compel him to select differently, to select to rescind his challenge, to select to support instead of sabotage the pairing. Debt narrows our agency, lessens our intrinsic empowerment; it is a shackle on our freedom to choose.

But Barry is dead-set, and his idealism wins the heart of the Captain. With it, he wins himself an ally.

Barry: Mark this, and come what will of it. I will fight the man who pretends the hand of Nora Brady. I’ll follow him if it’s into the church and fight him there. I’ll have his blood, or he’ll have mine.

Grogan: Faith, and I believe ye! I never saw a lad more game in me life. Give me a kiss, me boy. You’re after me own soul. As long as I live, you shall never want a friend or a second.

Next time: Barry and Quin face off; Barry flees home and joins the military.

2 responses to “Barry Lyndon, Man of Games pt. 1”

  1. […] I said, PDL’s protagonist is basically a Barry Lyndon who always stayed a mama’s child, who never volunteered for military service which is to say […]


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