"A Russian friend of mine, who escaped the Soviet Union for America and who now lives in England, once told me that in his early years in the West he would always introduce himself at parties by saying, “Hello, I’m Alex, I hate my parents, don’t you?” Slightly taken aback, his interlocutors would consider for a split second and then say, “Well, as a matter of fact,”—or “Now you come to mention it,”—“I do.” No one ever admitted to any other feelings about his parents than hatred or contempt: to have done so would have been to lose caste, at least in the intellectual circles in which he then moved. An unhappy childhood and tortured relations with one’s progenitors were essential preconditions of a reputation for profundity. If a wise son maketh a glad father, a happy childhood maketh a shallow intellectual....."
(Anthony Daniels, Butler's unhappy youth, On Samuel Butler’s autobiographical novel The Way of all Flesh at The New Criterion, January 2005)
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 revulsion against Victorianism.
Mr Overton, the narrator, George 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.
"The Way of All Flesh is one of the time-bombs of literature," said V. S. Pritchett. "One thinks of it lying in Samuel Butler's desk for thirty years, waiting to blow up the Victorian family and with it the whole great pillared and balustraded edifice of the Victorian novel." Written between 1873 and 1884 but not published until 1903, a year after Butler's death, his marvelously uninhibited satire savages Victorian bourgeois values as personified by multiple generations of the Pontifex family. A thinly veiled account of his own upbringing in the bosom of a God-fearing Christian family, Butler's scathingly funny depiction of the self-righteous hypocrisy underlying nineteenth-century domestic life was hailed by George Bernard Shaw as "one of the summits of human achievement.
If the house caught on fire, the Victorian novel I would rescue from the flames would be The Way of All Flesh," wrote William Maxwell in The New Yorker. "It is read, I believe, mostly by the young, bent on making out a case against their elders, but Butler was fifty when he stopped working on it, and no reader much under that age is likely to appreciate the full beauty of its horrors. . . . Every contemporary novelist with a developed sense of irony is probably in some measure, directly or indirectly, indebted to Butler, who had the misfortune to be a twentieth-century man born in the year 1835.
Samuel Butler's semi-autobiographical novel, published posthumously in 1903. Butler began the work in 1873 and had completed his last revisions by 1884. He chose to leave it unpublished during his lifetime, chiefly because it displays what Robert Bridges termed ‘his bitter onesided almost venomous regard for his own family’; in doing so, it functions on a more general level as a revelation of the subtly sadistic hypocrisy and stifling conventionality of middle-class Victorian family life. The early chapters deal with the family background and childhood of the chief protagonist, Ernest Pontifex, whose unhappiness under his parents' regime of punitive harshness and repressive religious zeal closely resembled Butler's own. In accordance with his father's wishes, Ernest is ordained as an Anglican minister; socially and sexually naïve, he makes a disastrous pass at a respectable woman during a pastoral visit, as a result of which he is imprisoned for indecent assault. A violent breach with his social and familial conditioning thus effected, he makes a bad marriage and runs a second-hand clothes shop in London. He is released from his circumstances when his alcoholic wife's bigamy is disclosed and his Aunt Alethea, the only member of his family of whom he was fond, leaves him £70,000. Ernest retires to a cynically atheistic bachelorhood and occupies himself with writing. George Bernard Shaw, E. M. Forster, Leonard Woolf, John Galsworthy, H. G. Wells, and Lytton Strachey were among those who led the gradual recognition of The Way of All Flesh as a novel of the first importance.
(The Way of All Flesh at jrank.org )
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....
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 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.
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.
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….
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.
(Brooke Allen, The Way of All Flesh By Samuel Butler, January 07, 2008, at Barnesandnoble.com llc)