The Way of All Flesh

by Samuel Butler

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The Way of All Flesh

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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 inheritance from an aunt to emerge from his struggle against cant and hypocrisy and move toward individuation, liberty, and truth.

Although THE WAY OF ALL FLESH is not as closely knit structurally as such other great 19th century initiation novels as Charles Dickens’ GREAT EXPECTATIONS, George Eliot’s ADAM BEDE, and Thomas Hardy’s JUDE THE OBSCURE, neither is it formless or lacking in novelistic interest, as earlier critics maintained. Rather, its form is more subtle, being expressed not so much in linear plot as in counterpoint and ironic juxtaposition; also, its satire is delivered in short thrusts rather than in well-developed, artful scenes. Characterization of both major and minor figures is excellent, though of all the characters, Overton is most clearly developed, since his consciousness is ultimately the shaping force of this classic novel.

Bibliography:

Ganz, Margaret. “Samuel Butler: Ironic Abdication and the Way to the Unconscious.” English Literature in Transition (1880-1920) 28, no. 4 (1985): 366-394. Charts the novel’s many ironic twists of sentimental phrases to show Butler’s abrogation of familiar assurances and his anticipation of twentieth century uncertainty.

Guest, David. “Acquired Characters: Cultural vs. Biological Determinism in Butler’s The Way of All Flesh.” English Literature in Transition (1880-1920) 34, no. 3 (1991): 283-292. Discusses Butler’s understanding of Darwin; emphasizes the novel’s anticipation of pessimistic cultural determinism.

Holt, Lee E. Samuel Butler. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1989. Asserts the book’s challenge was to show the near-destruction of a young man by the stupidity of his parents while describing a new type of human fulfillment not reflected in traditional terms of success. To this was added Butler’s theories of inherited evolutionary forces.

Rosenman, John B. “Evangelicalism in The Way of All Flesh.” College Language Association Journal 26 (September, 1982): 76-97. The novel charts the history of the influence of Evangelicalism in four generations of English society. Asserts that Butler’s use of scripture surpasses any other writer in English, suggesting that, although he criticizes the practices of Christians, he writes from a deep moral earnestness.

Sieminski, Greg. “Suited for Satire: Butler’s Re-tailoring of Sartor Resartus in The Way of All Flesh.” English Literature in Transition (1880-1920) 31, no. 1 (1988): 29-37. Demonstrates how Butler composed his novel as a satirical response to Thomas Carlyle, whom he hated. Ernest does not seek action, but the humiliation of others.

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