Monday, 26 April 1999

Samuel Butler: The Way of All Flesh (1873/1903)

Edition: Everyman, 1992
Review number: 240

Samuel Butler's posthumously published novel has been described as the first twentieth century novel (it was in fact completed in the 1880s though not published until the early 1900s). In its iconoclasm, it certainly marks a break with the mainstream of the nineteenth century, and foreshadows the way that the twentieth century has seen criticism and questioning of just about every conventional value.

Butler's style and language are, to my mind, fairly resolutely nineteenth century; the novel more closely reminds me of Vanity Fair than anything else. It is much more savage than Thackeray's work, and it should be remembered that Vanity Fair caused something of a scandal when first published.

The Way of All Flesh is principally about the relationship between Ernest Pontifex and his father Theobald, and is strongly autobiographical. One of Butler's chief concerns, writing soon after Darwin's Origin of Species (the book contains material composed over a twenty year span), was with the importance in the eventual character of heredity and environment, what we sometime today call the nature vs. nurture debate. Thus he puts the relationship that is his main concern in the context of Theobald's relationships with his own father and grandfather.

Theobald is a harsh parent and a hypocrite, and he brings up Ernest in the strictest of orthodox Protestant homes, the smallest lapse being punished with a severe beating. Taught to believe himself destined, like his father, to enter the church, Ernest does so, but hates his life, ending up in prison. Being cut off by his family because of this is described as being one of the best things that happened to him, and he finishes his term of hard labour, emerging into the world determined to make a fresh start as a layman.

Although few of her actions directly affect the plot, Ernest's mother Christina is even more unpleasant than his father. She (for example) wheedles confidences out of him as a child, which are then passed on to his father to be the occasion of further beatings; she writes Ernest letters full of pious hypocrisy.

Butler attacks the major institutions of nineteenth century England - the family, the church, the idea of class - because of their stifling effect on those people who do not - can not - fit into the accepted picture of how things are. It is in this that The Way of All Flesh is most powerful, and this is how it foreshadowed much of the writing which followed the effective destruction of these institutions in their nineteenth century form which followed the First World War.

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