Samuel Butler’s «The Way of All Flesh», a reflection of the moral and hypocrisy of an age

8813664The Way of All Flesh (one idiom of the Nineteenth Century England that means the tribute that is given to death), is the more well-known work of Samuel Butler which remained unpublished by express desire of the author, till his death in 1903. This work is a vast and cruel portrait of a four generations Victorian family. (Biografías y Vidas) [1]

The novel relates the simulated biography of Ernesto Pontifex and the history of his relatives. At the beginning, Butler examines the Pontifex family from a distant great grandfather (dead in 1812) to the father of the main character, Teobaldo (born in 1802): “When I was a small boy at the beginning of the century I remember an old man who wore knee-breeches and worsted stockings, and who used to hobble about the street of our village with the help of a stick.  He must have been getting on for eighty in the year 1807, earlier than which date I suppose I can hardly remember him, for I was born in 1802.” (Butler) [2]

This picture of that family does not try to deduce inheritance laws, as was common in that time since the publication of Darwin´s ideas on evolution [3], but to show the methods and the basic beliefs of the century they lived. In short and penetrating chapter is represented the life of Jorge Pontifex and the cruel education he gave to his children. This is not just a novel of manners; during all the history there is a succession of costumbrist notes that do not exclude the satire and that may induce to think that we are talking about that kind of novel, but not at all, since there is a strong critic of the society carried out by Butler on it.

The anecdotal envelope allows drawing the characters totally and establishes the convictions, the beliefs and the superstitions followed by the men in 1835, year in which our main character from the novel is born. Then the picture is complete and the reader knows the atmosphere in which the life of Ernesto will be developed. The epitaph of Jorge Pontifex closes this first part of the work: George Pontifex put up a monument to his parents, a plain slab in Paleham church, inscribed with the following epitaph: — SACRED TO THE MEMORY OF JOHN PONTIFEX […] AND OF RUTH PONTIFEX, HIS WIFE, […] THEY WERE UNOSTENTATIOUS BUT EXEMPLARY IN THE DISCHARGE OF THEIR RELIGIOUS, MORAL, AND SOCIAL DUTIES. THIS MONUMENT WAS PLACED BY THEIR ONLY SON.” (Butler) [4]

In the following part (that is extended until the majority of age of Ernesto) Butler carefully indicates the basic but no intentionally cruelty of the educative methods of Teobaldo; his stingy and cold intelligence, its comfortable orthodoxy and his faultless and rigid moral. The childhood and youth of Ernesto is developed in indifferent and brutal means, limited by the inflexible formulas of the Victorian education and aggravated by the clerical background of their home: Before Ernest could well crawl he was taught to kneel; before he could well speak he was taught to lisp the Lord’s prayer, and the general confession.  How was it possible that these things could be taught too early?  If his attention flagged or his memory failed him, here was an ill weed which would grow apace, unless it were plucked out immediately, and the only way to pluck it out was to whip him, or shut him up in a cupboard, or dock him of some of the small pleasures of childhood.”  (Butler) [5]

The life in the school of Dr. Skinner and in Cambridge helps him to increase the assumption that intelligence is reached as already preconceived ideas. The punishments (morals and materials) fortify the spirit of their victims; the cruel and dispassionate oppression that undergoes Ernesto annuls him so he decides to become a priest, following the steps of Teobaldo: Ernest felt now that the turning point of his life had come.  He would give up all for Christ — even his tobacco. So he gathered together his pipes and pouches, and locked them up in his portmanteau under his bed where they should be out of sight, and as much out of mind as possible.  He did not burn them, because someone might come in who wanted to smoke, and though he might abridge his own liberty, yet, as smoking was not a sin, there was no reason why he should be hard on other people.” (Butler) [6]

In the third and last part of the book we attend to “the liberation” of Ernesto, after a painful purification. An intense experience (jail, marriage) and step by step, our hero reveals its true personality: It is said that those who have been nearly drowned, find the return to consciousness much more painful than the loss of it had been, and so it was with my hero.  As he lay helpless and feeble, it seemed to him a refinement of cruelty that he had not died once for all during his delirium. […] Almost from that moment his thoughts began to turn less to the horrors of the past, and more to the best way of meeting the future.” // ”Then things began to shape themselves more definitely.  Whatever happened he would be a clergyman no longer. […] He hated the life he had been leading ever since he had begun to read for orders; […] and found a blessing in this very imprisonment which had at first seemed such an unspeakable misfortune.” (Butler) [7]

This liberation goes accompanied of the discovery of his authentic vocation as a writer. The formation of his personality has been completed: I knew he was writing, […], and I did not know that he was actually publishing till one day he brought me a book and told me flat it was his own.”  (Butler) [8]

The history of Ernesto Pontifex does not occupy the total content of The Way of All Flesh. Butler did not try to just exemplify an individual conquering his own personality. He wrote about the conditions against which a man of his time had to fight. The critic of the author is not limited in any particular case but in the general conditions that were applied on his life time. It is true that the evolution that undergoes Ernesto is completely personal (as well as the solution of his conflict); but this, nevertheless, does not modify the fact that his fight is carried out against the same prejudices and the same conventionalisms that their contemporaries were facing.

The peculiar intelligence of the author, his strong irony, his powerful and logical imagination, his absolute lack of prejudices has turned this solid study in one of the most frightful attacks against a society based on the lie and the moral compulsion. The critic is constant, although sometimes it appears attenuated or disguised subtly. This meticulous and a careful analysis does not respect any institution nor authority. This is so well explained on Butler´s own words: “I have never written on any subject unless I believed that the authorities were wrong.”


Altamirano, Óscar. «Letras Libres.» 2001. Letras Libres 21 de 04 de 2009.

Biografías y Vidas. 14 de 04 de 2009.

Butler, Samuel. The Way of All Flesh. United Kingdom: Grant Richards, 1903.

[2] From The Way of All Flesh (page 1)

[4] From The Way of All Flesh (page 9)

[5] From The Way of All Flesh (page 58)

[6] From The Way of All Flesh (page 147)

[7] From The Way of All Flesh (page 182)

[8] From The Way of All Flesh (page 258)

Publicado el 2 noviembre, 2013 en Literatura y etiquetado en , , . Guarda el enlace permanente. 2 comentarios.

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