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...
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