The Way of All Flesh (novel)

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The Way of All Flesh (1903) is a semi-autobiographical novel by Samuel Butler which attacks Victorian-era hypocrisy. Written between 1873 and 1884, it traces four generations of the Pontifex family. It represents a relaxation from the religious outlook from a Calvinistic approach, which is presented as harsh. Butler dared not publish it during his lifetime, but when it was published it was accepted as part of the general reaction against Victorianism.

In 1998, the Modern Library ranked The Way of All Flesh twelfth on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century

Main characters

  • Mr Overton, the narrator, Alethea Pontifex's friend.
  • Old Pontifex, Theobald's grandfather.
  • Ruth Pontifex, Theobald's grandmother.
  • George Pontifex, old Pontifex's son.
  • Eliza, Maria, John, and Alethea Pontifex are George's children.
  • Theobald Pontifex, father of the central character, Ernest.
  • Christina Pontifex, Ernest's mother.
  • Ernest Pontifex, the central character.
  • Ellen, a former housemaid of his parents, then Ernest's wife.
  • Dr Skinner, Ernest's teacher.

Plot summary

The story is narrated by Overton, godfather to the central character.

The novel takes its beginnings in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in order to trace Ernest's emergence from previous generations of the Pontifex family. John Pontifex was a carpenter; his son George rises in the world to become a publisher; George's son Theobald, pressured by his father to become a minister, is manipulated into marrying Christina, the daughter of a clergyman; the main character Ernest Pontifex is the eldest son of Theobald and Christina.

The author depicts an antagonistic relationship between Ernest and his hypocritical and domineering parents. His aunt Alethea is aware of this relationship, but dies before she can fulfill her aim of counteracting the parents' malign influence on the boy. However, shortly before her death she secretly passes a small fortune into Overton's keeping, with the agreement that once Ernest is twenty-eight, he can receive it.

As Ernest develops into a young man, he travels a bumpy theological road, reflecting the divisions and controversies in the Church of England in the Victorian era. Easily influenced by others at university, he starts out as an Evangelical Christian, and soon becomes a clergyman. He then falls for the lures of the High Church (and is duped out of much of his own money by a fellow clergyman). He decides that the way to regenerate the Church of England is to live among the poor, but the results are first, that his faith in the integrity of the Bible is severely damaged by a conversation with one of the poor he was hoping to redeem, and secondly (under the pressures of poverty and theological doubt), that he attempts a sexual assault on a woman he had incorrectly believed to be of loose morals.

This assault leads to a prison term. His parents disown him. His health deteriorates.

As he recovers he learns how to tailor and decides to make this his profession once out of prison. He loses his Christian faith. He marries Ellen, a former housemaid of his parents, and they have two children and set up shop together in the second-hand clothing industry. However, in due course he discovers that Ellen is both a bigamist and an alcoholic. Overton at this point intervenes and pays Ellen off. He gives Ernest a job, and takes him on a trip to Continental Europe.

In due course Ernest becomes twenty-eight, and receives his aunt Alethea's gift. He returns to the family home until his parents die: his father's influence over him wanes as Theobald's own position as a clergyman is reduced in stature, though to the end Theobald finds small ways to purposefully annoy him. He becomes an author of controversial literature.

External links

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