“Melon” focuses on a particular member of the English aristocracy, showing different facets of him over the course of years, highlighting the different perspectives that one can have as a member of the ruling class. When he is young, he is not the master of his world but instead is watched over by his tutor, Hawkins. Hawkins does not have control over his youthful employer, as might be expected of an older, experienced man: for instance, it is young Hamilton Lindsay who dictates the route of their trip, telling Hawkins where they are to go without asking his permission. At the same time, Lindsay is not autonomous but must rely on Hawkins’s guidance, even if he does so begrudgingly. At this point of his life, he is trying to understand the social order by affecting a knowing tone that does not sound entirely convincing. He tells his cousin Evelina his views about “the people of quality” and the “common people” in France and how they compare to comparable social classes in England. Still, when he sees a man beat another man like a horse, it is so beyond his experience that he cannot explain it.
Fifteen years later, Sir Hamilton, now an estate holder, has grown into a comfortable aristocrat. He is so secure with his servants that he does not feel the need to actively enforce the differences between the social classes; he is not worried about allowing them to play as equals to him on the cricket field. More significantly, he does not concern himself at all about politics, feeling that his hobby, cricket, is more important. His unshaken faith in his own entitlement makes him sure that his rank and privilege will remain constant.
By the end of the story, Sir Hamilton Lindsay is an example of the powerless, clueless aristocracy that the social revolutions of the late eighteenth century attempted to cast aside. He is kept from knowing how powerless he is by a new ruling class that still has some respect for his type. He is allowed to have his wife come and live with him in captivity and is told that he may be useful in a prisoner trade, justifying his existence. Because he has known mostly leisure for his whole life, his only point of reference is his favorite leisure activity, cricket.
One reason that Sir Hamilton Lindsay cannot comprehend the political reality of the coming French Revolution is that he focuses obsessively on cricket. Because of this obsession, he fails to see the importance of the historic events occurring around him. He does not properly understand his wife’s concern about his proposed trip into France at a time when mobs are rising up against the nobility, interpreting her objection as prompted by a dislike of his favorite sport. He does not note the evacuation of French aristocrats, but he does note that his friend, the Duke of Dorset, has missed the cricket season for the first time in years. At the end of the story, as Sir Hamilton looks back on the events, he asserts the naïve belief that the whole revolution could have been avoided by a good cricket match.
To some extent, his final theory might be more than just the enthusiasm of a man with an obsession. While England has a class system at the time of this story, the ruling class’s obsession with cricket overrides some of its more conservative members’ commitment to hierarchy. On the cricket field, noblemen commingle with servants and come to recognize them as people. In a perfect world, such an obsession might have caused the French aristocracy to mix with the peasantry and have created a sense of familiarity between the two sides that may have prevented bloodshed.
During the French Revolution, religion came to signify the breach between the established Catholic Church, which had been the largest landowner in the country, and the self-determination available to ordinary people through Protestantism. In Sir Hamilton Lindsay’s personal story, though, religion represents the status quo in a much more specific way. In his later years, after having witnessed brutal fighting between social classes, he becomes a regular churchgoer, even though, as Barnes explains, “he would as soon step inside a mosque or a synagogue as inside a papist shrine.” The revolutionaries in this small French town have created an alliance between the Protestant aristocracy of England and the French Catholic peasantry: the same people who sacked the church and humiliated the priests are the ones who burned down the hôtel of the Duke of Dorset. In this case, the religious convictions of the commoners have been strong enough to overcome the revolutionaries and keep the church standing. Sir Hamilton relies on the same residual respect for authority to keep him in the villagers’ good graces and to protect him from the revolutionaries’ hostility. Though religion is a small, almost inconsequential matter to him and a symbol of the hated aristocracy to the revolutionaries, it is a source of potential change for the working people.
Shielded by privilege and money from the harsh realities of the hungry working classes, Hamilton Lindsay is unaware of the bitter ferocity with which the French peasants are willing to revolt against the prevailing class system. Although he is aware that something is going on in France in August 1789, it does not seem like anything serious enough to interrupt the cricket game planned for the Champs-Élysées in Paris. He naively feels that a squad of eleven noblemen, armed with cricket bats, has nothing to fear by entering a country that is in the throes of violent social upheaval.
In fact, the French Revolution was the culmination of great frustration with the prevailing social order and, like other political revolutions, was exceedingly brutal. Violence was aimed indiscriminately against anyone who had benefited from the old social order—nobles, aristocrats, landowners, and the clergy, most notably. Also like other revolutions, the change, long in the making, came suddenly. Social observers who were aware of the mood of the majority could see the change coming and could predict that government’s efforts to suppress the revolution would only serve to make it more violent.
However, powerful individuals denied being at risk for as long as they could. The Bourbons had been on the throne of France for nearly three hundred years; they could not see the mayhem of revolt coming. In the last part of this story, Barnes shows an aspect of revolution that is seldom described: the rational side, once the rampant bloodshed has ended. The people of the French town where Sir Hamilton is held know that they have no grievance against him, an Englishman, and so they allow him to go about his days in peace. The new government of Napoleon Bonaparte even allows his wife and servant to join him in confinement. In this interlude, before Wellington’s defeat of Bonaparte at Waterloo and the return of the Bourbons to the throne with Louis XVIII in 1814, the French people do not recognize the English as their enemy.
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