The Way of All Flesh

Few people read Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh anymore, but it would be hard to exaggerate the influence it once exerted over entire generations of angry young men and women. It was published in 1903, a year after its author's death, and burst onto the cultural scene like a cry of rage from beyond the grave. The book was very much of its moment, an intrinsic part of the Shock of the New, early-20th-century style: this was the period in which seminal works by Sigmund Freud, George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, Pablo Picasso, and other groundbreakers were astounding the world. The long Victorian age was decidedly over, and The Way of All Flesh seemed to celebrate that fact with unbridled glee.

But in fact, Butler had written the book decades earlier, between 1873 and 1884. He had deemed it too shocking for publication, as indeed it probably was at the time in spite of the fact that Thomas Hardy and Henrik Ibsen, Butler's contemporaries, were doing much to shake up the pretenses and pieties of that era. Butler's novel was a systematic attack on the entire Victorian social system, written in a laceratingly mocking tone. The Church, the family, the class system: nothing escaped Butler's wicked satire. Shaw, a great booster of the eccentric author, called The Way of All Flesh "one of the great books of the world." E. M. Forster, as great an iconoclast as Butler despite his gentler manner, thought that "if Butler had not lived, many of us would now be a little deader than we are, a little less aware of the tricks and traps in life, and of our own obtuseness." Butler was one of the great liberators of his era, as were Shaw and Forster themselves. In the words of Butler's biographer Peter Raby, The Way of All Flesh was "an uneven, extraordinary and unforgettable book, evoking strong emotions of recognition and horror, and shattering forever the sacred English totem, the idea of the family."

The novel is written in the form of a comic, didactic Bildungsroman. The all-but-omniscient narrator, Overton, is a longtime friend of the Pontifex family and a mentor to young Ernest Pontifex, the novel's protagonist. In Overton and Ernest together, Butler has created a dual self-portrait: Ernest is himself as an unhappy youth, Overton as a satisfied middle-aged man, at ease with himself and his way of life, looking on with tolerant amusement as poor Ernest flounders among the manifold "tricks and traps" his world has set for him.

The history of the Pontifex family encapsulates what Butler sees as the decline of English society in the 19th century. Ernest's great-grandfather, born in about 1730, was a humble countryman but possessed a spirit and intellectual curiosity characteristic, in Butler's worldview, of the Age of Enlightenment. His son George, Ernest's grandfather, has made a fortune and in the process became a conventional man of the world, stingy in business and autocratic with his family. ("When a man is very fond of his money," Overton comments, "it is not easy for him at all times to be very fond of his children also.") George aims to make his sons gentlemen and prides himself on the expensive schools they attend, but "he did not see that the education cost the children far more than it cost him, inasmuch as it cost them the power of earning their living easily rather than helped them towards it, and ensured their being at the mercy of their father for years after they had come to an age when they should have been independent."

George pushes his ineffectual son Theobald into a career in the Church, in spite of the young man's feeble protests. Not that the boy was a religious skeptic; England was going through an evangelistic phase in the mid-19th century, and "It had never so much as crossed Theobald's mind to doubt the literal accuracy of any syllable in the Bible. He had never seen any book in which this was disputed, nor met with anyone who doubted it."

Bullied into an uncongenial profession, Theobald grows into the personification of everything Butler and his fellow skeptical freethinkers hated about the Victorian Anglican church. He marries the daughter of a fellow clergyman, not because either of them loves or even much likes the other but because he needs a housekeeper and she, one of several impecunious daughters, can see no alternative. (The brilliant episode in which Christina and her sisters play a game of cards to decide which of them will get first dibs at Theobald is one of the great comic scenes in modern literature, displaying Butler's view of bourgeois marriage as a fraud and a sham.) Once married and established, Theobald becomes as great a domestic tyrant as his father was. His own life has been ruined by society's rigid rules and expectations; why should his children get off any easier? Young Ernest, like Theobald, is destined for the Church.

George had felt something akin to spite for his son Theobald; now Theobald shows the same spite toward his own children. Butler's originality lay in his vision of the family as largely antipathetic to and destructive of individual fulfillment, and the brutal forthrightness with which he declared this belief is still capable of shocking. "Why should the generations overlap one another at all?" he asks at one point in the book, clearly in his own voice. "Why cannot we be buried as eggs in neat little cells with ten or twenty thousand pounds each wrapped round us in Bank of England notes, and wake up, as the sphex wasp does, to find that its papa and mama have not only left ample provision at its elbow, but have been eaten by sparrows some weeks before it began to live consciously on its own account?"

Overton/Butler mocks the creed in which his generation was raised. The general idea, he says, was that "We were put into this world not for pleasure but duty, and pleasure had in it something more or less sinful in its very essence." If anything was fun or delicious, it had by definition to be a sin. It was true that "Tobacco had nowhere been forbidden in the Bible, but then it had not yet been discovered, and had probably only escaped proscription for this reason."

Ernest falls prey to every illusion his society propounds. A colleague who persuades him to sink his time and money into an idealistic evangelistic project turns out to be a crook. Ernest's brief and disastrous marriage to a woman of the lower classes only serves to convince him that ,contrary to what his pious education has taught him, the poor were not intrinsically worthier than the rich. "Of course some poor people were very nice, and always would be so, but as though scales had fallen suddenly from his eyes he saw that no one was nicer for being poor, and that between the upper and lower classes there was a gulf which amounted practically to an impassible barrier." After numerous misadventures, the hapless Ernest finally succeeds in breaking free of his education, which as he is finally able to acknowledge had been "an attempt, not so much to keep him in blinkers as to gouge his eyes out altogether."

Like his creator, Ernest eventually becomes a writer. Describing his literary output, Overton claims that "Every man's work, whether it be literature or music or pictures or architecture or anything else, is always a portrait of himself, and the more he tries to conceal himself the more clearly will his character appear in spite of him." This is particularly true of The Way of All Flesh. Not that Butler made much attempt at concealment: he was clearly a didactic character, like Overton, and more than a bit of a crank. His collected works filled 20 volumes, and included eccentric tracts like The Authoress of the Odyssey, an attempt -- rather influential in its day -- to prove that Homer was a woman. But today, only The Way of All Flesh and Erewhon, a satire of English life disguised as a utopian fantasy, are much read, though Butler's notebooks are well worth having a look at. The Way of All Flesh is indisputably his masterpiece. In this hugely entertaining novel Butler said many things that were at that time unsayable and even unthinkable. And in spite of the revolutionary social changes that have occurred over the last hundred years, a great deal of what he said is still unsayable, and still needs saying.

About the Columnist
Brooke Allen is the author of Twentieth-Century Attitudes; Artistic License; and Moral Minority. She is a contributor to The New York Times Book Review, The New Criterion, The New Leader, The Hudson Review, and The Nation, among others. She was named a finalist for the 2007 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle.

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