What a pleasant surprise this book turned out to be. I must admit I wasn’t looking forward to reading a book written in the 1800’s and published in 1903 about repression and family life in mid-1800’s England.
This is a book to be read with focus as much could be lost without careful reading. One can certainly not steamroll through this novel without missing out on great humor from its marvelous author, Samuel Butler. Each page requires longer than usual time for reading, however, the payback is well worth the effort.
Butler’s wit is found throughout The Way of All Flesh and helped the reader go along with him as the main character, Ernest Pontifex comes of age in a repressed English household in the mid-1800’s. Butler’s ability to capture the essence of all his characters is evident upon reading and was apparently based on his own parents along with other relatives, family friends and teachers.
Ernest’s parents are quite believable as Butler portrays the vanity of a mother who fancies her portrait on display when her son becomes bishop and a father who demands a financial accounting from all family members and claims monetary hardship to the point of unnecessary self sacrifice.
Ernest endures beatings from his father who then forces him into the clergy. The naive young man must learn to grow and finally rebels, only after unwittingly being imprisoned while living among the poor as a young cleric. I won’t say more for fear of revealing too much of this wonderful story.
Ironically, the repression Butler himself experienced wasn’t completely squashed as he ensured The Way of All Flesh was not published until after his death in 1902. I believe Butler did so as to not offend the many readers who could be recognized in his book. Butler claimed he was still revising the novel he had worked on from 1872 to 1884 and postponed its earlier publication and only at his deathbed did he request its being published as it were.
I think I could get into some trouble with Mr. Butler were I to meet him as I believe him to be a rebel such as myself. I believe he truly wrote from his heart and I would love to ask if he really kept little notebooks in his pockets as Ernest does in The Way of All Flesh.
…Papas and mamas sometimes ask young men whether their intentions are honourable towards their daughters. I think young men might occasionally ask papas and mamas whether their intentions are honourable before they accept invitations to houses where there are still unmarried daughters.
If a young man is in a small boat on a choppy sea, along with his affianced bride and both are seasick, and if the sick swain can forget his own anguish in the happiness of holding the fair one’s head when she is at her worst–then he is in love, and his heart will be in no danger of failing him as he passes his fir plantation.
Theorists may say what they like about a man’s children being a continuation of his own identity, but it will generally be found that those who talk in this way have no children of their own. Practical family men know better.
‘What can it matter to me,’ he says, ‘whether people read my books or not? It may matter to them–but I have too much money to want more, and if the books have any stuff in them it will work by and by. I do not know nor greatly care whether they are good or not. What opinion can any sane man form about his own work?’
My rating for The Way of All Flesh is a 9 out of 10.
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