The Way of All Flesh

by Samuel Butler

Paperback, 1998

Call number

FIC BUT

Collection

Genres

Publication

Modern Library (1998), 448 pages

Description

Hailed by George Bernard Shaw as "one of the summits of human achievement," Butler's autobiographical account of a harsh upbringing and troubled adulthood satirizes Victorian hypocrisy in its chronicle of the life and loves of Ernest Pontifex. Along the way, it offers a powerful indictment of 19th-century England's major institutions.

User reviews

LibraryThing member otterley
This is a peculiar and partly autobiographical book. Butler explicitly drew on his own family and childhood experiences in this tale of the Pontifex family and, in particular, the passage of young Ernest Pontifex to adulthood. It tackles what Butler saw as the hypocricies of the church and society - moral, sexual, educational and personal - and puts young Ernest through a testing workout of tribulations before (spoiler) ending in a state of equilibrium and contentment. Parts of the novel are sharp and comic - Butler is harsh but comically fair on Ernest's parents, showing the social constraints that lead to heavy-handed Victorian paternalism, while making the parent-child relationship both harrowing (Ernest's oppressed childhood) and comic (his mother's rich fantasy life, as one example). The book has a rather peculiar first person narrator, who acts as a sort of patron to Ernest, but a misanthropic and manipulative one at that.
Perhaps the most contentious aspect of the book - certainly when it was written - is the negative portrayal of religion. Again we get sharp satire of all the different types and manifestations of Christianity in Victorian England - the parson who seeks only interest; Puseyite hypocrites, evangelical fervour and Ernest's own brand of inept vacillation, before breaking with the church and resigning from holy orders.
Overall, it's a very interesting read; the structure is rambling and the characterisation broad brush, but it is teeming with ideas and satire being thrown out on to the page at a great rate. Worth a read for anyone with an interest in C19th culture and literature.
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LibraryThing member hansel714
The 19th century novel tells a story of six generations of the Pontifexes through a disinterested narrator, Mr. Overton. The narration is both brilliant and flawed as Overton has access to even the inner thoughts of the characters. Brilliant because it is as if Mr. Overton is Ernest Pontifex, the protagonist, like how when you ask for advice, you would say, "My friend has this problem," and that "friend" is you. But if this is a veiled autobiography, then we must know that Overton is prejudiced and inaccurate about his evaluation of the characters.

The dark-humored, Daniel-Defoesque novel starts off very slowly but the third volume of the book picks up and is in fact quite exciting.

There are two great flaws which prevent the novel from being canonical: it has too many references to politicans, theologians, scientists and poets in 19th century so contemporary readers will fail to understand the book; and as an invective against against society and religion, this book uses the rhetoric of religion (didactic cant), which fails.
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LibraryThing member soylentgreen23
I've always been fond of erudite books where the author isn't afraid to digress in order to tell you something insightful or just simply interesing, and Butler's most famous novel is a great example. His story follows the life of a young man, an everyman who carries in him Butler's beliefs, and reflects the society he lived in.… (more)
LibraryThing member auntieknickers
At first I was really enjoying this book, for I like the prolixity of Victorian novels and their comments on society. However, as the story of Ernest Pontifex wore on, and on and on, I found too much philosophizing with only occasional bits of dialogue, action and humor to break it up. The book was not published until 1903, years after the author's death, and is a good argument for the editor's blue pencil, which might have improved it. It was a book that was supposed to blow the lid off the Victorian family, not to mention the Church and society in general. Anyone who's read Anne Perry's Victorian historical mysteries will have come across far worse things happening to children in perfectly respectable families than anything that happens to Ernest. The narrator's voice grates more and more as he allows himself to give way to his desire to philosophize. I'd much rather be reading Trollope.… (more)
LibraryThing member auntieknickers
At first I was really enjoying this book, for I like the prolixity of Victorian novels and their comments on society. However, as the story of Ernest Pontifex wore on, and on and on, I found too much philosophizing with only occasional bits of dialogue, action and humor to break it up. The book was not published until 1903, years after the author's death, and is a good argument for the editor's blue pencil, which might have improved it. It was a book that was supposed to blow the lid off the Victorian family, not to mention the Church and society in general. Anyone who's read Anne Perry's Victorian historical mysteries will have come across far worse things happening to children in perfectly respectable families than anything that happens to Ernest. The narrator's voice grates more and more as he allows himself to give way to his desire to philosophize. I'd much rather be reading Trollope.… (more)
LibraryThing member humdog
this book is a magnificent satire right up there with jonathan swift. it is a 19th century mommy dearest.
LibraryThing member keylawk
Samuel Butler created Ernest Pontifex as the hero of this "Victorian" novel. This work is somewhat satirical, philosophical, and naturalistic -- challenging religious and academic assumptions. This was published in 1903 after Butler's death in 1902 by his literary executor, R. A. Streatfeild [sic].
LibraryThing member linenandprint
This is becoming a lost classic. It is very specific, very English novel that surprisingly captures enduring human feeling, from politicians that are too good to how it feels when you can no longer return to a place where you lived.
LibraryThing member markfinl
The Way of All Flesh tells the story of the Pontifax family over four generations, focusing on the last two generations, the loathsome Theobald and his son George. I loved the book. It is a sarcastic, scathing indictment of nearly every aspect of society. It is one of the funniest books I have ever read.
LibraryThing member fiverivers
My second pass of this much-acclaimed early 20th century novel, and now I remember why I didn't remember -- verbose, pompous writing, author-intrusive and a window into Butler's navel.
LibraryThing member caitlinspencer
excellent book to accompany explorations including Richard Dawkin's scientific perspective of religion. though long, it is a revealing (and not nearly as arrogant) journey (doesn't everyone use that word in book reviews?) through one person's struggle to prove/disprove the validity of religion and faith.
LibraryThing member Fledgist
The autobiographical novel by Butler (not to be confused with the author of Hudibras) better known as the author of Erewhon.
LibraryThing member Stevil2001
When I was reading this book for my Ph.D. exams in a coffee shop, a guy came up to me and asked, "Who's forcing you to read Samuel Butler?" "Uh, I guess I am," I replied, because no one suggested I put The Way of All Flesh on my exam list... except myself! He told me he pitied me. That's actually the main thing I remember about The Way of All Flesh, to be honest, other than a vague sense that it's sort of a less good rip-off of Edmund Gosse's Father and Son (even though Way of All Flesh came first).

Even though it was published only two years after the Victorian era ended, it seems very modernist in its take on reason/logic, but also an extension of George Eliot's ideas in some ways. The book points out that we think we live in a world defined by reason, but we resolutely do not, despite the trappings of it: "They [reasonable people] settle smaller matters by the exercise of their own deliberation. More important ones, such as the cure of their own bodies and the bodies of those whom they love, the investment of their money, the extrication of their affairs from any serious mess – these things they generally entrust to others of whose capacity they know little save from general report; they act therefore on the strength of faith, not of knowledge" (306). The book ends up concluding that it is impossible to separate the subjective from the objective, the inner from the outer, the fact from the feeling:

The trouble is that in the end we shall be driven to admit the unity of the universe so completely as to be compelled to deny that there is either an external or an internal, but must see everything both as external and internal at one and the same time, subject and object – external and internal – being unified as much as everything else. This will knock our whole system over, but then every system has got to be knocked over by something.
     Much the best way out of this difficulty is to go in for separation between internal and external – subject and object – when we find this convenient, and unity between the same when we find unity convenient. This is illogical, but
[...] all philosophies that I have ever seen lead ultimately either to some gross absurdity, or else to the conclusion already more than once insisted on in these pages, that the just shall live by faith, that is to say that sensible people will get through life by rule of thumb as they may interpret it most conveniently without asking too many questions for conscience sake. Take any fact, and reason upon it to the bitter end, and it will ere long lead to this as the only refuge from some palpable folly. (327-8)

Forget modernist, this seems downright postmodernist: the Grand Narratives have failed us, so all you can really do is muddle through with the stories you've got, and they'll help you as much as they do, and not only is that okay, but maybe even it's for the best?

I vaguely remember the philosophy of the book, as thankfully I took notes, but do not at all remember the actual events of the book, even upon rereading those notes, so take that as you will. I seem to recall it belongs to that genre of post-Victorian takes on the Victorian era that still seems a little too Victorian for its own good (like Rachel Ferguson's Alas, Poor Lady). That is to say, it's trying to push a new philosophy, but it's married to the most tedious aspects of the old plotting. The modernists would do this kind of thing much better.
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LibraryThing member deckla
Another novel from my Victorian Novels class, which I loved, reveling in the satire. My copy is heavily underlined, with various enthusiastic marginalia. "Ha!" "Ironic" "Lecture on English Clergy" "!" "Weepy, rather" "Really!" "Ernest tries to publish""Coincidence!" "Ernest is still innocent!" "Ernest goes independent" "Hypocritical" "Sounds like his mother"

I wrote "This doesn't make sense" in 1971 to this remark by Pryer: "...If a vice in spite of such efforts can still hold its own among the most polished nations, it must be founded on some immutable truth or fact in human nature, and must have some compensatory advantage which we cannot altogether afford to dispense with."

It does now. Just wasn't cynical enough back then
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LibraryThing member Schmerguls
I did not appreciate the author's sneering attitude to things, as I recall
LibraryThing member lucybrown
I read this back in the early 80s. If I happen to find a review I wrote at that time I will add it. I remember liking the book very much

Pages

448

ISBN

0375752498 / 9780375752490
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