Julian Barnes’s short story “Melon” has many political implications. It is the tale of an English nobleman’s encounters with French culture at three distinct times in his life, giving readers his view of that country before, during, and after what is arguably the most significant event of the country’s history, the revolution that transformed it from a monarchy to a republic. Still, this history lesson might have less impact if it were not attached to the personal story of a credible protagonist. Barnes makes his readers think, as they piece together the dates and places mentioned in the story into a recognizable timetable that corresponds with the French Revolution. But putting too much emphasis on the external events, the researchable aspect of the story, can distract readers from an important part of its design. The French Revolution adds highlights to the story of Hamilton Lindsay, the protagonist of “Melon,” but it should not be allowed to eclipse the story entirely: without a basic structure that can stand on its own without historical events, this story would be less meaningful.
The primary story, told in three distinct segments, concerns how Hamilton Lindsay, a man of leisure, seems to age backwards, going from maturity when he is young, through a decidedly adolescent middle age, and ending up his final years in infancy. Barnes makes this a story that could happen to anyone, really, regardless of their historic period or social class. It helps that Lindsay is a member of the upper classes, of course, because that gives him the luxury of focusing on frivolous matters that a lower-class working person could not afford. In the first phase of the story, Hamilton Lindsay is probably a teenage boy or young man. He is too young to travel on his own and tours the continent with his tutor, Mr. Hawkins, whom he criticizes for treating him like “some feeble-minded boy.” It also becomes clear that this trip—originally intended for Italy and rerouted at Lindsay’s discretion—is meant to be educational, a grand tour of Europe intended to broaden his knowledge of culture and history. Hamilton is not yet considered mature enough to act independently. Even so, he is mature enough to write a letter to his cousin Eveline, giving a detailed account of his trip that includes acute observations and even some sharp reflection on himself, indicating that he is smart enough to know what is lacking in his own education.
Of course, he has some childish ways about him, but he also has an eagerness to look at the world and learn from experience. His tone with his cousin has the sort of sniping, faux-angry flirtatiousness that might be expected of a boy but that balances nicely with his formal closing, including regards to her parents and an appropriately expressed desire to see her again. In the first section, Hamilton Lindsay clearly knows his limitations. He may complain that his chaperone holds old-fashioned ideas, but he is smart enough to evolve, to change his assessment of French customs when he can see that he has been wrong: “I have come to a warmer understanding about such things,” he explains about the local oddities of dog barbers and open-air lemonade stands. It is made clear throughout his letter that he is willing to see things anew. At this stage in his life, certain outside experience can change him. Unaware of the degree to which privilege blinds him to the realities of the working classes, he nonetheless is perceptive and recognizes cultural differences.
The same cannot be said of Lindsay in middle age. In the second section of the story, when he is most likely in his thirties, Hamilton Lindsay, now titled, is no longer interested in exploring strange lands, different cultures, unfamiliar foods, or the relative differences between nationalities. His attention is so narrowly focused on the game of cricket that he can dismiss the distant rumblings of the French Revolution; the sort of issue pressing on his mind is whether butter, ham fat, or urine might be best for curing the wood of a cricket bat. Thus focused on entertainment and game, he is slow to realize that the French peasantry is capable of violence against the country’s aristocracy. When he senses this threat, he locates it away from himself, among the French, and with denial well rooted in noble privilege, he assumes the political and social upheaval in a neighboring country has nothing to do with him: the only adjustment he makes in light of the news of difficulty in France is to consider It is no coincidence that ‘Melon’ crosses a time when the world is undergoing an unprecedented growth spurt with the story of one individual who is devolving from maturity to infancy.” a new venue for the match that was scheduled for Paris. As an adult, Hamilton Lindsay focuses on playing a game.
He has the attention span and ego of a child. Affluence has indulged him and blinded him to the wider world. He was born into the world he now enjoys, one that has existed with little alteration for generations. Its origins are medieval; its system is feudal. If it is unfair, the ones favored by it would be the last to notice. The upper classes, people of Sir Hamilton’s social circle, have the luxury to live for the day, not to think about what tomorrow brings, since all the tomorrows they have known provided for all their needs and desires and then some. In this section of the story, which takes place in England, France is described through John Sackville, the third Duke of Dorset, who, as Great Britain’s ambassador, is placed as close to the revolution’s epicenter of French ruling groups as an Englishman can be. Lindsay views the revolution through Dorset’s description. But the trouble can be put out of mind; upon his return to England, Dorset immediately directs his attention to rearranging cricket matches. Leisure is a mindset and over time generates blind spots. In the last section, Hamilton Lindsay is a prisoner in France, circumstances which should bring about a sense of one’s own mortality that would turn a person’s thoughts toward the serious. The town in which he lives is burned out: the church has been damaged, and food is scarce. People he knows have died. Still, it is cricket that consumes Sir Hamilton’s thoughts. Unlike his middle-aged self, though, he does not live in the present plan for the game. Now, he lives in the past, struggling to keep clear about his all-star cricket team. Mentally unstable, Sir Hamilton cannot list the members of his team correctly, even though the same eleven names have been with him for, perhaps, decades. His wife attempts to distract him from morbid thoughts of his fallen station by directing his attention to a sweet melon, but he is not able to remain in touch with reality for any length of time. He has the mind of a child, frustrated at times because he can at times recognize his limitations but cannot master them.
It is no coincidence that “Melon” crosses a time when the world is undergoing an unprecedented growth spurt with the story of one individual who is devolving from maturity to infancy. The shielded, privileged lifestyle that enabled a man to concentrate on a game throughout his adult life was bound to fall someday in the face of a massive shift in political thinking. Against a distant backdrop of the French Revolution, Barnes creates a representative of an endangered specie in Sir Hamilton Lindsay: a man so addled by privilege that his entire life is a backward slide toward an infantilized state. This story is about a person, not an age: unlike many stories, though, it is tempting to read “Melon” as a history lesson, rather than a lesson about the workings of the mind.
David Kelly, Ira Mark Milne – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 24, Julian Barnes, Published by Gale Group, 2006