A semi-autobiographical novel by Samuel Butler
that challenged Victorian
domesticity, published in 1903, approximately one
year after Butler’s death.
“The Way of All Flesh” offers the story of four family generations and is narrated by a family friend named Overton. The main focus sits on Ernest Pontifex, who is greatly pressured by his Christian parents, especially by his father Theo, to follow a disciplined, religious and respectable (Victorian) life. Ernest is extremely intimidated by his father, yet as a young boy is also guided by his (unintentionally rebellious) emotions, which make him stray from “proper” actons on occasion. For instance, when a maid to the family becomes pregnant and is sent off without a penny, he catches her on her way out and gives her all of his money. This, among other actions, he felt he should do, yet is considered abominable by his family. After a rough life at a private school he becomes a priest, but is eventually put in prison because he mistook a respectable woman for a whore. When released from jail, he reconnects with the former maid, Ellen, and is further shunned by conventional society.
Though the book lagged at times, it does offer an interesting and humerous viewpoint of someone who challenges Victorian society. Butler has a witty and eloquent writing style, and the book’s focus on the struggles of an individual’s upbringing and purpose in life can reach readers of today, not just readers of the Victorian period. Reading, one can tell that the narrator, Overton, is quite caring and emotional when it comes to Ernest, and the narrator’s cynical attitude overshadows most of the tale. Butler was obviously rather disgusted with much of what he had to deal with in his youth, and he cloaks himself as the character of “Overton” to write his tale in a manner that was rather powerful for the time. All in all, I give the book 3 out of 5 stars. The book is #12 on the Modern Library’s 100 Best Books: Fiction.
Here are a few of a number of interesting passages in “The Way of All Flesh:”
“There are two classes of people in this world: those who sin, and those who are sinned against; if a man must belong to either, he had better belong to the first than to the second.” (This is a prime example of why this work would be thought as controversial for the period.)
“I fancy that there is some truth in the view that is being put forward nowadays, that it is our less conscious thoughts and less conscious actions which mainly mold our lives and the lives of those that spring from us.”
“The clergyman is expected to be a kind of human Sunday.”
“She did not know, poor woman, that the true greatness wears an invisible cloak, under cover of which it goes in and out among men without being suspected.”