Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*England. All events in this novel take place in Victorian England, a powerful society which presided over a vast British Empire. Armed with an aggressive confidence and a puritanical morality, Victorian England is depicted in Butler’s novel as both preposterous and dangerous and as having an especially dire effect on the young.


Battersby-on-the-Hill. Small English farming village that is based on Butler’s own childhood home at Langar Rectory near Nottingham. Dominated by a large hilltop rectory, this clergyman’s abode appears to be a cherished stronghold of Victorian family values, but it is here that Ernest is subjected to incidents in which his natural trust and affection is betrayed by his father, the rector Theobald Pontifex, and his slavishly devoted wife Christina. For Ernest, the rectory, which appears idyllic, is in reality the venue where his complacent, self-congratulatory parents subject him to relentless abuse. Battersby-on-the-Hill’s name suggests the psychological and physical battering Ernest must endure at the hands of his parents.

Roughborough Grammar School

Roughborough Grammar School. School that Ernest attends. Typical of the exclusive British public schools of its day and based on the Shrewsbury School, which Butler attended as a child, this school is presided over by Dr. Skinner, a character modeled on the headmaster who succeeded Butler’s own grandfather. Seemingly a figure of unassailable moral rectitude, Dr. Skinner is portrayed as foolish, pedantic, and self-deluding. At Roughborough,...

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(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Cole, G. D. H. Samuel Butler and “The Way of All Flesh.” London: Home & Van Thal, 1947. Treats Butler’s major works, with a chapter (mostly on The Fair Haven, 1873) devoted to discussion of Butler’s evolving views on Christianity.

Daniels, Anthony. “Butler’s Unhappy Youth.” The New Criterion 23, no. 5 (January, 2005). Takes issue with many views expressed in The Way of All Flesh, arguing for instance that Ernest’s Christianity is narcissistic and self-absorbed.

Furbank, P. N. Samuel Butler. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1971. Perhaps the best study of Butler’s life and publications. Describes The Way of All Flesh as belonging to the literature of conversion, a body of works including Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come (1678) and Saint Augustine’s Confessiones (397-400; Confessions, 1620).

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....

(The entire section is 472 words.)