The Way of All Flesh
- Author: S. Butler (1835-1902)
- Title: The Way of all Flesh
- Published: 1903
- Genre: Bildungsroman
- Trivia: Nr 12 on Modern Library’s Top 100 Novels
- #20BooksOfSummer Challenge
- The Guardian List
- This book is Samuel Butler’s autobiographical account
- of a harsh upbringing and troubled adulthood of a
- Victorian clerical family’s domestic life.
- It is the story of the near-destruction of a young man
- …by the stupidity of his parents.
- We read of the influence of
- …religion in 4 generations of English society.
- Ernest Pontifex: youth, adolescent, middle-age
- He grows older while his faith evolves with him.
- According to Butler….
- Anglicanism is arrogant.
- Its demands are exemplified by
- Mr Pontifex (grandfather) and Theobold and Christina (partents of Ernest).
- The son Ernest will symbolize a break
- ….and a more rational approach to religion.
- Ernest’s view of religion has a positive outlook that encourages optimism.
- Ernest is the opposite of his father….Theobald.
- Ernest finds pleasure in counseling people
- …to embrace pleasure and reject suffering.
Strong point: characterization
- The book feels dated….
- but it did hold my attention, at least in the beginning.
- We are introduced to the main characters.
- Ch 15 – very good b/c the characterization of Theoblad mainly by
- describing his tone when speaking (stern, irritable.
- with hand on door of sick parishioner’s room…
- he makes off as fast as he can). He lacks minister’s bedside manner.
- Ch 16 – very good b/c the characterisation of Christina
- …not as spiritually minded as expected of a pastor’s wife, but very socially ambitious!
- Ch 18 narrator: Edward Overton is second godfather to Ernest.
- He is a childhood friend of Theobald, the father.
- Alethea, Theo’s sister, is the godmother.
- Edward Overton and Alethea Pontifix are in love
- ….but never marry.
- Alethea was the flower of the flock of the family Pontifex.
- She is a shining example of a ‘fairy godmother’ to Ernest.
- She made his life bearable.
Weak point: example ch 19
- Butler breaks the narrative about ‘people’ with an
- entire chapter on philosophical issues: be virtuous, tendency of happiness,
- kindness and selfishness of parents towards children and
- the mental stature as the main or mean part of man. (ch 20)
- It is a bit too much.
Weak point: unbalanced
- Butler dwells on childhood and adolescent years
- chapters 1-24 (20%) – childhood
- chapters 27 – 44 (20%) adolescent
- Cambridge was over in a flash! ch 45-50! (9%)
- I’m more interested in Ernest’s adult life.
- This starts in chapter 50. “… the turning point in his life had come.”
- Ernest is ordained as an Anglican clergyman.
- The number of chapters focusing on
- …childhood and schoolboy years could have been shorter.
Strong point: irony (ch 64)
- Ernest rejoices over the disgrace that has befallen him.
- He found a blessing in an unspeakable misfortune.
- His imprisonment has set him free!
Strong point: dramatic irony
- The loss of Ernest’s legacy which his grandfather left him
- …will not leave him financially destitute.
- There is a surprise waiting for Ernst that
- …he is unaware of
- But the readers are in-the-know!
- Butler divides the story in 86 short chapters.
- This does keep the action moving and I kept reading.
- But each chapter was a ‘short thrust’
- ….instead of a long worked out scene.
- Butler overwhelms the read with all these chapters.
- This made a difficult book but even more difficult!
- But structure is not the reason I had difficulty with this book.
- Religious issues and a waterfall of ecclesiastical allusions
- ….failed to interest me.
- I did #NotGiveUp
- Luckily the he last 33 chapters were the best chapters.
- Butler had truly saved the best for last.
- This book may not resonate with all readers
- but do try to get through the first 50 chapters.
- You will be rewarded for you perseverance!
- This book deserves its place on Modern Library’s Top 100 novel list!
Moments of sharp criticism by author:
- Ch 28: Butler warns schoolmasters (Dr. Skinner)
- that a little heavy-eyed boy might in the future be your chronicler.
- “…if I’m not careful, he will one day tell the world what manner of a man I was.’
- That is exactly what Sameul Butler has done!
- Ch 29: He hated Papa and did not like Mamma.
- He did not like Sunday. Catechism was awful.
- This book was understandably published posthumously!