The Way of All Flesh

by Samuel Butler

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Critical Evaluation

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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 reflects upon the folly of much that transpires in the world.

Butler did not go to prison; instead, he went to New Zealand, where between 1858 and 1864 he raised sheep profitably. The earlier circumstances of Ernest’s life, however, closely parallel those of Butler’s through the Cambridge period and, to a lesser extent, following that period. Much of the critical discussion of the novel has, as a result, centered on the author’s personal life. Some critics have thought that Butler treats Theobald and Christina unfairly and thereby alienates the reader. Other critics have said of Butler, as Overton says of Ernest in contrasting him with Othello, “he hates not wisely but too well.”

Critical comment also addresses the quantity of coincidences in the novel. Of perhaps the greatest consequence is Ernest’s encounter with John, from whom he learns that John and Ellen are legally husband and wife; this leads to Ernest’s being freed from a dreadful marriage. It may also be considered implausible that Overton is so successful in investing Ernest’s inheritance that it increases fivefold and allows Ernest to live comfortably for the rest of his life.

Many critics interpret the autobiographical dimension in The Way of All Flesh as a literary precedent for parent-son and self-discovery novels...

(This entire section contains 984 words.)

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such as Somerset Maugham’sOf Human Bondage (1915), D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (1913), and James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1914-1915). Other perspectives, however, are possible, particularly for readers long familiar with Freudian and post-Freudian psychological approaches to the novel. Readers of Norman Mailer’s autobiographical works, for example, may view Butler’s work as more than either personal diatribe or overreaction to the excesses of Victorianism. Novelists now thread through mazes of neuroses and attempt to expose the origins of neurotic and self-destructive behavior such as that practiced by Ernest; often, they propose therapeutic solutions to the protagonists’ problems. However imperfectly Butler integrated the autobiographical or personal and the theories that underlie his novel, he was doubtless trying to show the causes of Ernest’s stunted personality and his path to relative self-respect and happiness.

The narrative of the novel proceeds slowly because only in the course of thirty years of painful experience can Ernest achieve some intellectual objectivity and degree of self-knowledge. He learns that he must totally reject his self-centered parents’ pious domination. He learns, according to Mr. Overton, that virtue springs from experience of personal well-being—the “least fallible thing we have.” When meditating in prison, Ernest decides that a true Christian takes the “highest and most self-respecting view of his own welfare which is in his power to conceive, and adheres to it in spite of conventionality.” Nevertheless, circumstances change, as Mr. Overton informs the reader, and the self is always changing: Life is nothing but the “process of accommodation,” and a life will be successful or not according to the individual’s power of accommodation. Mr. Overton is doubtless Butler’s alter ego, and his detached view of Ernest reveals that “smug hedonism” is more accurately seen as less than a perfect resolution: Ernest is somewhat withdrawn and lonely, bearing ineradicable marks of his heredity and environment.

Butler explores the themes of heredity and environment plurally through telling the histories of several generations of Pontifexes: Only Ernest’s great-grandparents led happy, instinctual lives. The title of the novel gives a summarized version of Butler’s judgment, that it is the way of all flesh to learn, if at all, by rejecting convention and dogma and to live by self-direction.


The Way of All Flesh