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Samuel Butler's novel The Way of All Flesh, first published in 1903, mercilessly exposed Victorian hypocrisies of religion and social life. The novel built up a large following in the early twentieth century for its unsparing and often bitterly comic depiction of generations of the deluded Pontifex family. Writers like Virginia Woolf, D. H. Lawrence, George Bernard Shaw, James Joyce, and E. M. Forster eagerly adopted it; their fictions of modernist alienation would be impossible without Butler's first foray into dangerous territory. Contemporary readers can appreciate the story of Ernest Pontifex's fitful and troubled journey into intellectual and social independence, even as lip service to the same Victorian pieties has not yet disappeared.
Samuel Butler was born in 1835 near Nottingham, England. He was the son of the Reverend Thomas Butler and the grandson of the Reverend Samuel Butler, headmaster of Shrewsbury school and Bishop of Litchfield. The younger Samuel's upbringing was circumscribed; as the eldest son, he was expected to take up the family role as a clergyman. Shortly after he took his degree at Cambridge he decided not to ordain, much to his father's indignation, and announced his intention to study art. His father vetoed this change of career, but eventually, after many disputes, bankrolled Samuel's emigration to New Zealand. The night before Samuel sailed for New Zealand he neglected to say his prayers. He never said them again. In New Zealand he became a successful sheep farmer. He returned after five years with an independent income, published an account of his emigration, A First Year in Canterbury Settlement (edited without his permission by his father), and pursued his many interests. He simultaneously trained to be an artist, a career for which he had no considerable gift, and completed a series of books, including the popular utopian fiction Erewhon and polemics intervening in debates about religion, evolution, heredity, and psychology. Later in his life Butler turned to art criticism, photography, music composition (he had an abiding love of Handel) and crankier books speculating about the composition of the Odyssey and the 'story' behind Shakespeare's sonnets. In 1901, a year before he died, he published a successful sequel to Erewhon, Erewhon Revisited.
Apart from Erewhon, Butler is remembered for the monumental The Way of All Flesh. The novel is in part autobiography, as Ernest's struggle with his despicable family and his rejection of its religion mirror Butler's exertions. The Way of All Flesh demonstrates Butler's dim opinion of Victorian assumptions about religion, morality, class, and family life. We owe its writing to Butler's gifted friend Eliza Mary Ann Savage, who encouraged Butler throughout its composition. Butler started the novel in August of 1873 to her positive response. She wrote him, "if it goes on as it begins, it will be a perfect novel or as nearly so as may be." He put the novel down for five years while he worked on other projects, intermittently picking it up and setting it aside. He realized that the novel could not be published until after his father's death, as the portrait of Theobald Pontifex closely resembled his father and the description of Charlotte resembled the sisters he despised.
Eliza Savage died in 1885, and Butler did not work on the novel thereafter. It was published in 1903, the year after his death. At that time the novel received decent notices in the literary press but was not a best seller. The influential literary journal the Athenaeum noted that it lacked "form," but concluded very much in favor of Butler: "He says boldly, but sometimes too fiercely, what many are thinking. You may not take his views of life, but you will learn something from examining them." The novel gradually gained its audience in the years after its publication. It went through two more editions in 1910 and was thereafter steadily reprinted. The publication of Butler's Notebooks in 1912 spurred interest in all of his work.
The novel came to speak to readers of the early twentieth century who were themselves rejecting the massive belief-systems of their Victorian parents. Virginia Woolf proclaimed his books' "startling freshness." E. M. Forster wrote a paper on Butler, and The Way of All Flesh appears in his novel A Room with a View when the provincial Reverend Mr. Beebe discovers a copy as he is casually going through the progressive George's library. The novelist Arnold Bennett read and re-read it, noting in his diary, "There is a vast amount of naked truth in the book." The influence of the book's struggle against convention is apparent in the autobiographical novels of the early twentieth century, from James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to D. H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers. Lawrence's love of the book is well known; he gave a copy to his sister-in-law, and he tried to arrange for his scandalous Lady's Chatterley's Lover to be smuggled into the United States in paper covers that advertised its contents asThe Way of All Flesh. Butler's notion of "crossing"–what he calls "shaking yourself into something else and something else into you"--is the source of Lawrence's similar notion of "communion." The most grateful inheritor of Butler's work was George Bernard Shaw, who wrote in the preface to Major Barbara, "I produce plays in which Butler's extraordinarily fresh, free, and future-piercing suggestions have an obvious share."
The Way of All Flesh, like so many novels of the nineteenth century, is a Bildungsroman, a novel in which a young, naïve character gains maturity, wisdom, and experience. But other Victorian novels cannot show a complete break with the beliefs of the period, particularly with its trust in the beneficent influence of the nuclear family and in the Christian religion. Most novels of the nineteenth century paper over these difficulties by making their main characters orphans and showing little outward religious development: Think of Pip of Charles Dickens'sGreat Expectations and Dorothea of George Eliot's Middlemarch. Their authors' ambivalence about whether they should embed the adult character in a new family shows up in their epilogues; Dickens wrote two different ones for Pip (one in which he presumably marries, and the other in which he remains single) and George Eliot moves Dorothea's second marriage off-stage. But Butler depicts the rupture with the Victorian family--and with the religious and domestic ideologies that support it--as essential to self-development. The originally passive Ernest breaks with his cruel and stupid family; he rejects its Evangelical Protestantism and its values. But more important, he cultivates his own intuitive beliefs to replace the old ones. He develops a religion infused by Christianity but far more individual and forgiving than the Christianity he left, and a way of raising children outside of the strangling family circle. His own children are farmed out to a bargemen's family. Ernest sees them only occasionally. They never educated and are safe from the overweening paternal influence that so warped Ernest, though Ernest is a gentle soul.
The Way of All Flesh demonstrates Butler's faith in the necessity of the individual to choose his own way of life through intuition rather than convention. He wrote several books that countered Darwin's thinking in The Origin of Species, that species mutated haphazardly until the adaptations that were most helpful for survival enabled the 'fittest' specimens to pass on their characteristics. Influenced by earlier figures, including the Comte de Buffon and Jean-Baptiste Pierre de Lamarck, Butler emphasized the role of the will in evolution. Ernest, assisted early on by his Aunt Alethea and later by Overton, wills himself to become a different person in this life than he was as a child. At the same time, Butler asserted a role for memory in heredity. As Butler wrote in his Life and Habit: "Life, then, is faith founded upon experience, which experience is in its way founded upon faith–or more simply, it is memory." The new person Ernest becomes recovers the character of his great-grandfather, the simple carpenter John Pontifex. An unpleasant wife diluted John's hearty, healthy pre-industrial worldview. Their son, the grasping publisher of religious books, George Pontifex, and his son, the feeble and cruel Theobald, epitomize a hypocritical religious culture supported by commercial society. Only Ernest, through trial, error, and choice, can escape his warped training. As a youth his Aunt Alethea introduced him to his great-grandfather's craft of organ making and his love of music; but after Alethea dies, Ernest goes astray, fumbling from one inadequate belief system to another. In college he does not find it in him to reject his father's plans for him to be a clergyman, and he then flits from the ascetic, Evangelical "Simeonites" to the high-church beliefs of the untrustworthy and sexually dangerous Pryer. Ernest's attempts to convert the other people in his lodgings end in a series of laughable debacles.
Out-argued by a freethinking tinker, he interrupts his friend Townley visiting a prostitute; his attempt to follow Townley's example with another woman in the building who does not share the same profession lands him in jail, where he has to start from scratch. He will not avoid making new mistakes until he learns to trust himself more completely. When he does, Ernest will enable his children, too, to inherit his great-grandfather's characteristics.
The novel is notable for its comic moments, particularly in the depiction of Ernest's sincere but scatterbrained mother Christina and her courtship with the passive Theobald. Christina and her sister play cards to see which of them will marry Theobald, the only available man in their parsonage. As many critics have noted, this card game parodies the randomness of natural selection. The character of Theobald, the superficially correct but actually heartless clergyman, has drawn much praise. Critics have reacted least sympathetically to the last third or so of the book. Even the supportive Miss Savage found Ernest's arrest improbable, and U. C. Knoepfelmacher, one of the book's most prominent readers, notes that the resolution of the novel is "stagy." Ernest eventually, with the help of Overton, becomes another dilettante-gentleman like Overton (and Butler) himself. Ernest's wife's abrupt removal from the stage is perhaps another stagy moment. One must remember that Butler did not revise the last portion of the manuscript, which he simply set aside.
The Way of All Flesh will be remembered as the book that bridges the Victorian and Modernist eras. It exposes Victorian pieties in ways that spoke to readers of the early twentieth century and still speak to us now, even as those pieties survive. As Virginia Woolf noted, "The novels that have been fertilized by The Way of All Flesh must by this time constitute a large library, with well-known names upon their backs."
James Najarian is Associate Professor of English at Boston College. He is the author of Victorian Keats (Palgrave Macmillan, 2002) and articles on Matthew Arnold, Wilfred Owen, and the nineteenth-century book market.
Posted December 10, 2002
I don¿t agree with the ranking of this book as the 12th best English-language novel of the 20th century, but it¿s certainly worth a look. It¿s Samuel Butler¿s only novel, it¿s semi-autobiographical, and it was published posthumously. Narrated by the protagonist¿s godfather, the book follows the Dickensian life of Ernest Pontifex, from his upbringing by clueless, hypocritical parents, through his schooldays as a lackluster student, to a young adulthood of poor decisions and misplaced loyalties. One cannot help but wonder how such a man went on to translate Homer for today¿s readers. (If you have a copy of The Iliad or The Odyssey, Samuel Butler probably translated it.) The title implies the author¿s belief that everyone goes through such growing pains, and, of course, he¿s right, with the possible exception of the exceedingly good fortune that awaits him. Though not a page-turner, this book is easy to read and full of timeless, insightful observations on life.
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