The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler

First read: 5/2003
Reviewed on: 5/4/2003
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I did not like it.
I liked it.
I thought it one of the Best Novels of All Time

The first twenty to thirty pages of this book are wretched. I gave up somewhere in there, probably when I found Laurel's bookmark and realized that she had given up as well. I read the preface and found out that this is a 20th century novel only by a technicality; it was published in 1903, but written in the 1870s. That partially explains why we begin the story of Ernest Pontifex by speaking of the life and personality of his great-grandfather (and there is even a brief description of his great, great grandfather). I hate that stuff. In the early 20th century novels, they usually start by speaking of the main character's grandfather, and in the mid 20th century, we begin with the tale of the Father. I believe (and if I were connected to the Internet now I would check this out, but I am typing in the passenger seat of my car while Laurel drives us home from a wonderful trip to Minneapolis, like you care) I believe that Novels didn't exist in the fifteenth century, but if they did, a typical 15th century novel would probably begin this way:

"In order to tell you the story of Richard Worthingtipple, I must first tell you of the caveman Oggg, his remote ancestor. Oggg's grandfather, Og, had settled in a large, damp cave in the mountains of the township of what is now known as Frestichire. Og was a short, thoughtful caveman, fleet of foot with a missing index finger, who came of age at the age of fifteen and went off one day to look for a mate..."

Anyway, I put it down, and read some nonfiction for awhile, and then other things, and forgot about it. I picked it up again because it was on The List, and I do want to eventually read all of them. The Way of all Flesh gets much better after the first few chapters.

It is clear that The Way of all Flesh was revolutionary for its time, or at least its author thought he was being revolutionary. There were many short digressions that clearly thought they were skewering sacred cows, impaling unquestioned onions, or poking at popular pineapples, making the book seem like it was partially intended to be a metaphorical revolutionary shish-kebab. (Sorry about that, I know it was self-indulgent - I had a birthday recently and three people got me shish-kebab kits for the new barbecue-grill.) Once I got used to them, I quite enjoyed his digressions into philosophy:

"Pleasure, after all, is a safer guide than either right or duty ... The devil, in fact, when he dresses himself in angel's clothes, can only be detected by experts of exceptional skill, and so often does he adopt this disguise that it is hardly safe to be seen talking to an angel at all, and prudent people will follow after pleasure as a more homely but more respectable and on the whole much more trustworthy guide."

"We forget that every clergyman with a living or curacy, is as much a paid advocate as the barrister who is trying to persuade a jury to acquit a prisoner. We should listen to him with the same suspense of judgment, the same full consideration of the arguments of the opposing counsel, as a judge does when he is trying a case."

"Some people say that their school days were the happiest of their lives. ... It is hard enough to know whether one is happy or unhappy now, and still harder to compare the relative happiness or unhappiness of different times of one's life; the utmost that can be said is that we are fairly happy so long as we are not distinctly aware of being miserable."

Lines like these make me smile a bit, but I'm sure that they would have been quite shocking to read over one hundred years ago. Butler also can be quite funny, once you get into his style:

"[Mr. Holt, the man to whom Ernest feels compelled to Witness to] was a great hulking fellow, of a savage temper ... They say it takes nine tailors to make a man, but Ernest felt that it would take at least nine Ernests to make a Mr. Holt ... if the man were to be violent, what should he do? Paul had fought with wild beasts at Ephesus, - that must have indeed been awful - but perhaps they were not very wild beasts; a rabbit and a canary are wild beasts; but, formidable or not as wild beasts go, they would, nevertheless, stand no chance against St. Paul."

"A man's friendships, like his will, are invalidated by marriage."

"Ernest was at first in doubt whether it would be right for him to assist at religious services more than he was actually compelled to do, but the pleasure of playing the organ ... made him see excellent reasons for not riding consistency to death. Having, then, once introduced an element of inconsistency into his system, he was far too consistent not to be inconsistent consistently, and he lapsed ere long into an amiable indifferentism which to outward appearance differed but little from the indifferentism from which Mr. Hawke had aroused him."

The tense of the book is jarring at first - I would call it First Person Omniscient. You are reading the story of Ernest, and (for most of the book) the narrator is but a minor character in his life. So after a chapter or two of "Ernest did this" and "Ernest did that" you will get a sentence about "Ernest went to this dinner-party, and I was invited as well, but I wasn't able to show up." It took a few such narrative intrusions like that for me to get used to this way of telling a story. It got sad towards the end, when the narrator became a real character. It seemed that he was thinking of himself as a major character in Ernest's life, but I still got the feeling that Ernest didn't really consider him so. If Ernest's life were movie, I think the narrator would be what Roger Ebert calls a "plot pointer" - a character that exists only to deliver six lines of information, or to make a loan, and then disappear.

What of the actual story? Nothing you haven't read about before. Little boy, strict parents, little boy grows up to be strict to his little boy who grows up religious, but questions his religion as he gets older. This book was good because of the writing. Samuel Butler never describes a beating in detail, he doesn't need to do that to tear your heart. The narrator witnesses Ernest getting one for a youthful speech impediment. We see the build up, we see it coming, we ache, and then Ernest's father takes him off into another room. And you feel so, so awful. Butler is a master of making you feel for the characters, to "be there", without resorting to tricks and gimmicks.

Once I got into this book, I carried it with me everywhere, reading it every chance I got. It wasn't absorbing enough to make me neglect my work, but it was good enough to make me neglect my online settlers-of-catan playing. And that, one can argue, might have been a good thing.


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