The Way of All Flesh

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Although written in 1885, THE WAY OF ALL FLESH was not published until one year after Butler’s death in 1902. Largely autobiographical, the novel is said to have dealt the Victorian ethos its final blow and pulled England into the 20th century. Through the story of Ernest Pontifex and his godfather, the novel’s narrator, Overton, Butler attacks institutions that the Victorians held sacred, such as the Church, traditional family structure, and the educational system; in addition, he promulgates such new ideas as “creative evolution,” “life force,” and “unconscious memory,” thus anticipating such thinkers as Henri Bergson, Sigmund Freud, C. G. Jung, and George Bernard Shaw.

As narrator and friend of the Pontifexes from his earliest youth, Overton is in a position to tell the story of five generations of the Pontifex family. Ernest, Overton’s favorite, is fourth generation Pontifex, and his experiences during his formative years reflect the experiences of his father before him, as each son struggles in his own way against the dictates of society as embodied in parents and surrounding institutions. Ernest breaks the vicious cycle by providing foster parents for his own children and an atmosphere he considers more conducive to their mental and physical health.

Although Ernest liberates himself from the strictures placed on him by Victorian sanctimony, it takes him many years, several occupations, a jail term, a bigamous marriage, the subtle guidance of Overton, and a substantial...

(The entire section is 619 words.)