(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Often autobiographical in nature, a Bildungsroman depicts a protagonist’s coming of age, following the protagonist from youth to maturity while focusing on the forces shaping the young person’s character. While lesser examples of this genre explore just one aspect of a hero’s development—intellectual growth, for instance—the best examples of the genre touch on many areas of growth. By this measure, Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh, which investigates with equal vigor its hero’s intellectual growth, emotional maturation, and spiritual flowering, ranks among the very best of the genre.

The hero who grows, matures, and flowers in The Way of All Flesh is Ernest Pontifex, the pitiable son of a cruel and self-righteous Anglican clergyman. (That Butler was the son of an Anglican cleric hints at the autobiographical nature of the novel.) At birth Ernest is endowed with many positive qualities common to children—cheerfulness, curiosity, self-confidence—but over time these qualities are exorcised (like demons) by a bullying father, to such an extent that by age twenty Ernest has utterly lost his way, living not as his own soul or spirit (his “true self”) counsels but as his parents—representatives of an uncaring society—dictate. However, Ernest will recover, abandoning his father’s path (ordination, marriage, respectability as a clergyman) to map his own way.

At the heart of The Way of All Flesh is a depiction of two sets of forces, one set furthering Ernest’s deterioration, another set contributing to his recovery. The immediate cause of Ernest’s decline is his father, Theobald, a brutish disciplinarian who, having been bullied himself into becoming a cleric (the bully was Theobald’s own father, a miserly publisher who would “shake his will”—that is, threaten disinheritance—to get his way), works to break Ernest’s spirit, the better to make him...

(The entire section is 789 words.)

The Way of All Flesh Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Mr. and Mrs. Pontifex are middle-aged when their son George is born. When the time comes for George to learn a trade, they accept the offer of Mr. Pontifex’s brother-in-law to take George with him to London as an apprentice in his printing shop. George learns his trade well, and when the uncle dies he wills the shop to his nephew.

George marries, and five children are born to him and his wife: John, Theobald, Eliza, Maria, and Alethea, at whose birth Mrs. Pontifex dies. George considers himself a parent motivated only by the desire to do the right thing for his children. When Theobald proves himself not as quick as John but more persistent, George picks the clergy as Theobald’s profession. Shortly before his ordination, Theobald writes to his father that he does not wish to become a minister. In reply, George threatens to disinherit him. Theobald submits and is ordained. He then has to wait for an older member of the clergy to die so that he can be given a living.

The Allabys have three daughters, all of marriageable age. After selecting Theobald as a possible husband for one of the daughters, Mr. Allaby suggests to his daughters that they play a game of cards to decide who will become Theobald’s wife. Christina wins. Without knowing of this, Theobald obligingly courts Christina until he wins her promise to marry him. George writes to Theobald that he objects to his son’s marriage into the impoverished Allaby family, but Theobald is too deeply committed to release himself. Five years later, he obtains a decent living in a community called Battersby, where he and Christina settle. Because their first child is a son and the first new male Pontifex, George is pleased. For the first time in his life, Theobald feels that he has done something to satisfy his father. After Ernest comes Joseph and then Charlotte. Theobald and Christina rear their children with strict adherence to principles that they believe will mold fine character. The children are disciplined rigorously and beaten when their parents deem it appropriate. When George dies, he leaves 17,500 pounds to Theobald and 2,500 pounds to the oldest son, Ernest.

From the oppressive existence at home under the almost obsessive rule of his parents, Ernest is sent to Roughborough to be educated under Dr. Skinner, as strict a disciplinarian as Theobald. Ernest is physically weak and mentally morose. He might have succumbed completely to his overpowering environment had he not been rescued by an understanding and loving relative. Alethea Pontifex, Theobald’s sister, retired to London, where she lives comfortably on an inheritance that was wisely invested. Looking about for someone to whom she can leave her money when she dies, Alethea hits upon Ernest....

(The entire section is 1122 words.)