The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler
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Date Added: 2001-01-31
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Further to Donald McIntyre's review of 2004
Mr McIntyre's review is perceptive and wonderfully concise. The book itself affects me in the same way as it did him. I lost my 'directions' in the last 30 pages. I feel that the early theology material does not hold the same popular attraction now as it must have done in 1903.
By Donald L. McIntyre on December 4, 2004
It is baffling to this reviewer that this great work does not appear on most lists of "the greatest novels of all time." For any reader interested in Victorian fiction, it certainly rates along with anything by James, Dickens or the Brontes.
Though the novel goes to some length to prepare us for its main character by providing two thoroughly interesting generations of family history, the meat of the story begins with the introduction of Earnest Pontifex, whose lifelong character could not be better described than by his own first name. He is indeed earnest in all that he endeavors; indeed, in all that he thinks, feels, regrets and dreams.
He is thus a perfect sort of movie screen on which the author may project his themes. Primary among these is a thorough and passionate exploration of virtually any entity in his time that might have gone under the label of "Christianity."
Herein is every denomination, movement, belief or direction that was available to the "eanest" Christian of Victorian England. The story itself, however, remains primary; and before that story has completed, we have come to know with some intimacy virtually every Victorian type as each can embody that major strain.
Earnest's parents represent wickedness covered over with religious hypocrisy. Their actions and motivations often leave the reader in a condition of palpable tenseness and subtle horror. They are drawn a little heavy-handedly, but certainly far less so than Dickens' villains.
Earnest's parents are generally contrasted by the novel's narrator, who is also Earnest's godfather, who observes and works diligently in the background in ways that provide Earnest with a "salvation" that, though quite unlike that of explicit Christian faith, seems to combine practical humanity and divine inspiration that is not unlike the very idea of incarnation.
In our own time, the novel - indeed all fiction - mus compete with more immediate visual media, and therefore must always be pressing the story forward. It is the rule of the day that ideas are to be expressed only by action. This was not the case in 19th Century England, and Butler very often takes a break from the action to allow his narrator to comment and philosophize. To this reviewer, the practice, though now considered old-fashioned, only adds to the quality of this work. One who disagreed with the comments thus offered would likely take a different view.
It seems that, for Samuel Butler, "The Way of All Flesh" means that all people - at various times, in various ways, and with varying degrees of destructiveness - use the ideas of religion and righteousness as a cloak for mere manipulation and the forcing of one's will. It is an unpleasant idea, and would be almost unbearable if the novel itself did not hold out the possibility for hard-won growth toward genuineness - and perhaps even genuine Christian faith.