The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler

I’m not a big one for nonfiction. I spend too much of my working day with nonfiction, so I don’t tend to want to see much of it when I get home. I’m also not a big proponent of Victorian ideals. A criticism of such isn’t likely to convince me of the flaws of the Victorian era much more than I already am. Still, I wanted to give The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler a look.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 2nd for Percival Everett.)

I’ve seen this book described as autobiographical, but though Butler describes in the context of his own experiences, the center of the book is Ernest Pontifex, the great grandson of one of Butler’s neighbors when growing up.

Ernest’s grandfather was a good man, but Ernest’s grandfather was kind of a nasty and avaricious man. He browbeat his son Theobald into becoming a clergyman, and Theobald in turn became a nasty, hypocritical man. Well meaning as he may have been, he was still nasty and hypocritical. The way he raises Ernest stays well within this hypocrisy and nastiness:

“Ernest,” said Theobald, from the arm-chair in front of the fire, where he was sitting with his hands folded before him, “don’t you think it would be very nice if you were to say ‘come’ like other people, instead of ‘tum’?”

“I do say tum,” replied Ernest, meaning that he had said “come.”

Theobald was always in a bad temper on Sunday evening. Whether it is that they are as much bored with the day as their neighbours, or whether they are tired, or whatever the cause may be, clergymen are seldom at their best on Sunday evening; I had already seen signs that evening that my host was cross, and was a little nervous at hearing Ernest say so promptly “I do say tum,” when his papa had said he did not say it as he should.

Theobald noticed the fact that he was being contradicted in a moment. He got up from his arm-chair and went to the piano.

“No, Ernest, you don’t,” he said, “you say nothing of the kind, you say ‘tum,’ not ‘come.’ Now say ‘come’ after me, as I do.”

“Tum,” said Ernest, at once; “is that better?” I have no doubt he thought it was, but it was not.


I laughed, but Theobald turned to me impatiently and said, “Please do not laugh, Overton; it will make the boy think it does not matter, and it matters a great deal;” then turning to Ernest he said, “Now, Ernest, I will give you one more chance, and if you don’t say ‘come,’ I shall know that you are self-willed and naughty.”

He looked very angry, and a shade came over Ernest’s face, like that which comes upon the face of a puppy when it is being scolded without understanding why. The child saw well what was coming now, was frightened, and, of course, said “tum” once more.

“Very well, Ernest,” said his father, catching him angrily by the shoulder. “I have done my best to save you, but if you will have it so, you will,” and he lugged the little wretch, crying by anticipation, out of the room. A few minutes more and we could hear screams coming from the dining-room, across the hall which separated the drawing-room from the dining-room, and knew that poor Ernest was being beaten.

Ernest’s parents mislead and manipulate him his entire life, making him become a clergyman himself. He is so unable to think for himself and so incapable of interacting with the world, he ends up in prison due to a mistake. His parents are horrified, but ready to step in and manipulate him more later to guide him towards respectability again.

Luckily, there is also Butler and an aunt of Ernest’s who aren’t as caught up in the Victorian hypocrisy/nastiness. The aunt left Ernest a great deal of money, but Butler isn’t supposed to tell him about it until he’s 28. In prison and afterward, Ernest manages to separate himself from his parents and actually start developing as an independent human being. He still has missteps, but he eventually manages to live a fairly happy life.

Now, I can certainly see the criticism of Victorian society in The Way of All Flesh, but I’m not sure I entirely see the lesson it puts forth in opposition. The Victorian apparatus is definitely represented by some nasty and hypocritical people, but Ernest seems to end up coming right more by accident of fortune than anything else. If it weren’t for Butler and the Aunt, Ernest would still have been sunk.

Butler seems to present himself and the aunt as paragons of reasonableness and intelligence, and perhaps they are, but perhaps it’s easy to look at things that way since the money works out and Butler is the one presenting the story. It’s pretty easy to make oneself look good while pointing out the nastiness and hypocrisy of another. We just don’t know in this what Butler’s own problems might have been. Perhaps he didn’t have any, or perhaps he doesn’t tell us.

From The Way of All FleshI end up taking away that nasty people do harm and tend to raise other nasty people. I’m sure I should be getting more than that. I enjoyed the book, but I’m not as awed as I felt I should have been. I probably missed something.

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