I didn’t know what to make of this book at first but given that it is no. 12 on the Modern Library’s Top 100 List, I figured I would have to give it a try. I was surprised by how much I liked it.
With The Way of All Flesh, Samuel Butler threw a subversive brick at the smug face of Victorian domesticity. Published in 1903, a year after Butler’s death, the novel is a thinly disguised account of his own childhood and youth ‘in the bosom of a Christian family’. With irony, wit and sometimes rancour, he savaged contemporary values and beliefs, turning inside-out the conventional novel of a family’s life through several generations.
A novel of keen perceptions, The Way of All Flesh, as Richard Hoggart remarks in his Introduction, ‘blows a refreshing wind of ironic laughter and caricature through some rooms of the mind that had become very musty indeed’ and ‘shows that fascinating interplay between art and the raw material of a man’s life’.
This was a great anti-Victorian novel. The beginning is a little slow and can feel like Butler is lecturing a little but a few chapters in, the story really gets moving. I was surprised by how much I wanted to keep reading. This is the first book that I can say I actually “damaged” as I dog eared pages and underlined passages that stood out to me.
“We must just men not so much by what they do, as by that they make us feel that they have it in them to do.”
Butler portrays his characters in a way that society dictates that they ought to be. In how they act, dress, etc. Then as the story moves on, he positions his characters so they experience hardships that make them realize the hypocritical way people live. For example, Ernest, the main character of the novel, realizes his father Theobold, a clergyman, a man who is supposed to be a leader in the community and treats everyone else with patience and respect, is mean to his own children.
Ernest is raised in the mold his parents have shaped him to be – to be a clergyman like his father. There are few times, where Ernest has some time of epiphany, sometimes with help from others, where he questions his future. Yet, every time Ernest tries to break from the mold, something happens that sends him back a few steps. The reader can’t help but feel for Ernest and frustrated with those who are influencing him.
“I supposed people almost always want something external to themselves, to reveal to them their own likes and dislikes.”
My favorite part of this book is when Ernest has an “enlightened” moment after he falls to his lowest point and realizes the truth about the clergy. He begins to reflect on his religious upbringing and questioning everything he had been taught. One of the examples is the story of Jesus’ resurrection and whether it was meant to be taken literally. This part made me smile and made me think back to my college days. I had gone to an all girls Catholic school and so a religious class was mandatory. I will never forget the day when my professor told us that the Bible was written by man and that upon reading each gospel, I found that they told the same story but in different ways. MIND BLOWN! I had never thought of the Bible in such an analytical way before. While I still have my faith, college made me approach my faith in a whole new way.
I can see why Butler didn’t want to publish this book until his death. It would have probably been thought of as heresy. And this is just one example.
There were other passages which I found still related to today from common sayings that you still hear today to questions that are still argued today.
“Surely if people are born rich or handsome, they have a right to their good fortune. Some, I know will say that one man has no right to be born with a better constitution than another; others again will say that luck is the only righteous object of human veneration…”
Isn’t this an argument that we still hear when we argue about whether we should tax the rich? A Victorian idea that is still argued today. I couldn’t help but shake my head.
The only criticism I have about this book is that the ending makes me feel conflicted. I don’t feel like Ernest got any resolution but rather stayed stagnant through to the end. Maybe I am used to everything getting tied up with a nice little bow and this book is not about that. And yet, I understand the point Butler is trying to make. I think I may have to reread this one to full grasp everything Butler wants to say.