Aside from many essays and articles, Samuel Butler wrote fifteen books, among them several travel books and five on science. He was strongly influenced by Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859), an influence that is reflected in the substance and style of The Way of All Flesh. That influence, however, is revealed only gradually in the philosophizing of Mr. Overton and Ernest Pontifex. Butler began the novel in 1873 but interrupted its composition several times to do scientific writing; he finally completed it in 1885. In chapters 8 and 25, for letters from Theobald and Christina to their son Ernest, Butler used letters that had actually been written to him by his parents. Because he so caustically satirized members of his family, he refused to publish The Way of All Flesh so long as any of them were living. It was his literary executor who arranged publication in 1903 despite the fact that Butler’s two sisters were still alive.
Those family letters are among the various bits of evidence in The Way of All Flesh that Butler uses wittily but relentlessly to persuade the reader that the central character, Ernest, is fortunate to survive, much less surmount, his parents’ mid-Victorian Christian tutelage and his formal schooling. Ernest slowly and unsteadily begins to overcome the narrow, stupid, and often cruel values imposed upon him. At last, he dimly perceives what Butler believed human beings would instinctively remember had it not been for the restrictions of Victorianism. Ernest learns mostly by hindsight, in the wake of disastrous involvements with such supposed friends as Pryer and Ellen. Nevertheless, he also learns by naïvely and tortuously sifting through the controversial and fashionable religious and scientific issues of his time. Butler gently satirizes Ernest’s pursuit of “first causes” or other abstractions, and his fortunes take a decided change for the better when he gives up “abstractions” for the most part, sheds his alcoholic wife, and realizes that because he is the child of his parents he will be unable to be a good father himself. He therefore places his children with good, simple people who can love them and make them happy adults. Like Butler, Ernest at the age of thirty settles into bachelor quarters in London, where until his death he contentedly writes, paints, enjoys music, and...
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