Sunday, November 25, 2007
The Way of All Flesh
Samuel Butler 1835-1902
Our narrator in The Way of All Flesh is the middle-aged writer Mr. Overton. In many ways he is far more interesting that his "hero" Earnest Pontifex. Overton writes burlesques in Victorian England and he uses his wry sense of humor to lampoon the era and its embodiment, the Pontifex family. The book starts slowly. Overton is a friend of the Pontifex family who is peripheral for the first half of the novel. The patriarch of the Pontifex family is the benevolent John. He is an artist and a humble country man. His son is George, a smart, ambitious kid who makes good publishing religious tracts. Two of his children, Alethea and Theobald play important roles in the narrative.
We get a full account of Theobald's strange courtship of Christina. It is a sly commentary on the very unromantic machinations that parents often put in place to get rid of unmarried daughters. One of their children, Earnest Pontifex, is our main character. So halfway through this 320 novel we finally get to know our main character, Earnest. This is both an interesting and frustrating part of The Way of All Flesh. We get to see how generations of development lead to an individual's personal characteristics. The lineage of John, George, and Theobald is the main force directing the way Earnest behaves. We also get to know a woman from the Pontifex family, Aunt Alethea. Her self confidence, not conceit, is refreshing and she is a genuinely friendly person. Yet, despite the interest that the family history provides, Butler's genealogy of the Pontifexes can become tedious at times. It simply takes to long to get to the meat of the book, only when Earnest enters the fray do we get any tension and drama.
Earnest is set to be a typical Pontifex in the tradition of the very traditional George and Theobald. He shuffles through life at his miserable prep school and Cambridge. He doesn't stand out in school and is easily led astray by stronger personalities. His father, a stronger personality, assumes that Earnest will enter the clergy, and Earnest goes right along with this path. When he enters the clergy, however, he isn't ready for what faces him. He never really studied what he now preached. Easily swayed by Pryer, another priest, he enters a scheme of making money to open a blasphemously odd religious college. Pryer was interested in cash, not religious education and he quickly fleeces Earnest.
Earnest is nearly at his wit's end because of his religious confusion when he enters into a brilliant scene. He roams throughout his boardinghouse and tries to convert various tenants. They all ask him questions that force him to consider his line of work. Finally he tries to convert a prostitute. He finally goes off the deep end when a classmate he admires arrives early for an appointment with the young lady. He is jealous and feels betrayed by his choices. He heads over to another young lady's apartment and, assuming she was also a prostitute, makes some moves on her and takes it too far. Enraged, she calls the police and he is sentenced to jail.
Aunt Alethea did not live to see this shameful incident, but she had become interested in her nephew. She decided she would leave her money to Mr. Overton. Mr. Overton in turn would keep the money until Earnest turned 26, upon which time the money would be turned over to an unsuspected Earnest. The only caveat to this was that Earnest could not crash and burn during this time. The arrest was not a good start. Earnest, however, was unburdened by his change in status. He eschewed help from his furious father and refused to take a do nothing job with Mr. Overton. Instead, upon release, he started a tailor shop. He completes his fall to the working class by marrying a former maid at his parents' house, Ellen. Ellen was beautiful and charming, but an alcoholic who ran with a bad crowd. Earnest was drawn to her, however, and without knowing about her drinking problem, he married her. This infuriated Mr. Overton, a bachelor, who felt that Earnest could never regain his upper class standing with the anchor of Ellen. In truth, Ellen was a godsend in starting his business. For awhile she helped in every facet of the tailoring enterprise. Eventually she reverted to her former lifestyle which shocked and dismayed Earnest. He was resigned to a life with a drunk until he ran into a former coach driver at the Pontifex house. The coach driver told him about his marriage to Ellen, which was also derailed by her drinking. This joyous news meant that the Earnest/Ellen married was null and he was a free man.
Earnest's life is rejuvenated, Mr. Overton let's him manage the money for a while before revealing that the cash is actually his. Eventually Earnest makes his way back and boosts his sick mother's spirits. The ending is pretty lame, to tell the truth, Earnest has grown up and proves to his family that he doesn't have to rely on them.
My knowledge of the Anglican Church hurts my reading of this book. Theobald's religiosity and Earnest's experience in the cloth are interesting commentary on the state of the church. Earnest also finds employment writing books about religion and other things that people besides himself might not be able to say publicly.
The real brilliance of this book is the humor and the generational development. I wish Butler could have cut to the chase a little faster, but once we meet Earnest the book picks up.
"Having, then, once introduced an element of inconsistency into his system, he was far too consistent not to be inconsistent consistently..."
"He should not have had the courage to give up all for Christ's sake, but now Christ had mercifully taken all, and lo! it seemed - as though all were found."
"The greater part of every family is always odious."
Rating: 6/10 The generations of Pontifexes rise and fall, that is the beauty. Earnest couldn't learn how to be a gentleman until he fell all the way to the cellar, and even then he didn't really want to be a gentleman.