Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh, published posthumously, a year after his death in 1902, is an important addition to modern English fiction. Of course, the novel was supposed to have been written long before, in the early seventies, and even revised in the early eighties by Butler. When it came out, at Shaw’s initiative, after Butler’s death, it proved to be an explosion in the world of English fiction.
In fact, Butler’s The Way of All Flesh is found to be a novel with a new subject and a new hero for the contemporary age. The subject here is the assertion of the right to self-determination. The hero, an impulsive youth, is in revolt against his family background and the values it represents. Butler seems to launch a sharp tirade here against the repressive, conservative, middle-class Victorian family through his hero’s protest and revolt.
The story (narrated by a family friend, Overton) was originally called “Ernest Pontifex”.The story of the novel centers around the four generations of the house of Pontifex. The hero, Earnest Pontifex, is opposed to the imposition of the parental tyranny of his father, Theo, who follows his own father, George, in his authoritarian, canting way of life. He, however, reveres his great grandfather John’s liberal, natural, instinctive character. After his ordination, the awkward, inept hero is involved in an unfortunate affair that led to his sentence to imprisonment for taking a respectable lady for a prostitute. During his prison days, Earnest tries to reform himself to forbear the way of his father and grandfather and to follow his great grandfather’s simple, natural life. After his release from the prison, he has, of course, another dangerous involvement, but ultimately he devotes himself thoroughly to literature, with the help of his beloved aunt Alethea’s rich bequest to him. Aunt Alethea was based on Butler’s friend Eliza Savage, who helped with the first half of the book before her death. The book attracted much praise, notably from George Bernard Shaw, and reached the height of its success in the 1920s.
The Way of All Flesh is supposed to have a good deal of autobiographical interests. In this study of the four generations are well marked. Moreover, this is reminiscent of his vindication of free will against Darwinian determinism and his strong notions about Victorian shams and dogmatism.
The Way of All Flesh is definitely an important work, particularly from the perspective of the degenerating Victorian society. It is a bold bid to debunk conventional Victorian notions of traditional institutions and the right behavior. The psychological depth and the sharpness of wit and irony give the work an additional impressiveness to last in the reader’s memory.
Also read: A short summary of the novel “Middlemarch” by George Eliot