The Way of All Flesh (1903) is a semi-autobiographical novel by Samuel Butler which attacks Victorian-era hypocrisy. Written between 1873 and 1884, it traces four generations of the Pontifex family. It represents a relaxation from the religious outlook from a Calvinistic approach, which is presented as harsh. Butler dared not publish it during his lifetime, but when it was published it was accepted as part of the general revulsion against Victorianism.
This novel ranks number 12 of the 100 Great Novels of the 20th Century as chosen by the Modern Library Board of Editors
The novel traces the history of four generations of the Pontifex family from 1727 to 1882. The patriarch, John Pontifex, a carpenter, was born 1727 and died at age 85 in 1812. In 1750 he married Ruth (1727-1811). After 15 years of childless marriage they finally had a son, George, born 1765 in Palem. George is a quick, intelligent lad learning both Greek and Latin. Ruth's sister is married to a successful London publisher (Mr. Fairlie) of religious works. George is so bright that, when 15, he is offered a position with the firm. George takes to the business eagerly and 10 years later is made a full partner with his uncle. He is now moderately wealthy and in 1792 at the age of 27 he marries. His wife dies in 1805 after 13 years of marriage and bearing 5 children: 3 daughters and 2 sons. Of the five only two play important parts in the novel: Alethea, the youngest child was born 1805 and dies at age 45 in 1850; and Theobald, the youngest son, born 1802. The other children are Eliza, Maria and John.
Upon his Uncle Fairlie's death, George Pontifex inherits full ownership of the business. George browbeats his son Theobald to become a minister and sends him to Cambridge. Theobald has no particular inclination to the ministry and panics when he realizes he will soon be ordained. In the Autumn of 1825, age 23, he becomes ordained. A Mrs. Allaby lives in Crampsford, wife of the Reverend Allaby and she has a very big problem: 5 daughters, getting to be old maids, that need husbands! She decides to visit Theobald's college to confer with the wife of the school president as to any eligible students who might make a good husband. Theobald is settled upon - although he is completely naive as to what is about to happen. He is told that the Rev. Allaby needs a part time assistant and off he trudges to his Fate. He meets the family and the 5 daughters immediately begin to argue about who will be his future wife! In a twist right out of Jane Austen, the issue is finally settled by a game of cards. Christina, age 27 and 4 years senior to Theobald, is the winner. Little does he know of the trap now set for him. All conspire in the play and after many months Theobald offers (via a letter no less) an engagement; but with one "out". He cannot afford a wife yet and it may be many years before he can marry. Christina immediately accepts. Then an amazing occurrence: a teaching fellowship opens that normally would have been taken by a man senior to Theobald and he is thrust, quite unwillingly, into marriage a full 5 years after meeting Christina. Immediately after the wedding he realizes he doesn't love her and never did.
They marry in July 1831 and 4 years later the proclaimed "hero" of the novel, Ernest Pontifex is born. Christina is now 37 and Theobald 33. Two more children are added: Joseph, born Oct. 1836 and Charlotte, born June 1837. Each is a minor character.
When Ernest is born two fortuitous things happen. Alethea (now 30 years old) is named his Godmother and Mr. Overton (now 33) is named his second Godfather. These two will have a profound impact upon Ernest.
Theobald decides that Ernest must learn and obey. He thus relentlessly beats and admonishes the child to the point where Ernest becomes love-starved and docile. Ernest is told from earliest childhood that he will be a minister and is finally sent off to college and ordained, much against his wishes.
Alethea meanwhile is independently wealthy and lives a life free to do as she wishes which is frowned upon by Victorians. She correctly sees that Theobald is a pompous bully who has made Ernest's life miserable. While Ernest is still in college she decides to move to that town (ostensibly for her health) in order to help Ernest have a better life. He loves classical music, particularly Handel, and she gets him involved in building an organ for her. This project is designed to help develop him physically (he is a weakling) and musically. Unfortunately she contracts typhoid fever during Easter 1850 at age 45 and dies two weeks later. Ernest is now 15. She has been a lifelong friend of Mr. Overton -- he loves her and has proposed marriage 5 times to her and been gently refused each time. On her deathbed she makes Ernest her heir and asks Overton to manage the money (a considerable amount) for him until he is 28, as she fears Ernest is too immature to handle money yet. One proviso is that Ernest must not know of his good fortune until he becomes 28. Overton reluctantly agrees to this.
At college, Ernest is as wishy-washy as always and ready to adopt whatever someone else says as true. He is known for flying off, mentally and philosophically, like a snipe. At Cambridge there is a group of outcast religious students who belong to an Evangelical sect, Simeonites (slangily called "Sims") which Ernest and his friends mock and avoid. But when a well-known Simeonite speaker, the Reverend Gideon Hawke, speaks, Ernest is overwhelmed and joins the Evangelicals. He is ordained in 1858 at age 23 and obtains a curacy in central London for a moderate High Churchman. The senior curate is Mr. Pryer. Pryer convinces Ernest that Catholic Rome has the greatest organized system of religion, spiritual designs and pathology (i.e. Jesuits) of any religion and that the Church of England is weak vis-a-vis its parishioners because it lacks "religious physicians" in its structure. He convinces Ernest that what is needed is a College of Spiritual Pathology where "young men may study the nature and treatment of the sins of the soul as medical students study those of the bodies of their patients". But Pryer has no money. Ernest, in full naivety, gives all his money (his own, not Alethea's), which amounts to 5,000 pounds. this sum is to be invested by Pryer so as to double that amount quickly, and thereby found the building of the College. In the end Pryer manages to bilk Ernest out of his money and he absconds.
Ernest, while he is being duped by Pryer, decides that the way to regenerate the Church of England is to live among the poor, and as a result of this conviction he ends up as a tenant of a Mrs. Jupp (a Dickensonian character) and in a very seedy area of London. Mrs Jupp's other tenants include a prostitute and an out of work actress, but Mrs. Jupp speaks of them as being of the best quality and Ernest believes everything he is told. One day, much against Mr. Pyrer's counsel, he decides to confront each of the tenants and instill in them his zeal for the church.
One of the tenants is an old fellow who challenges Ernest to tell him the story of the resurrection of Christ according to the four Gospels. Ernest realizes that there are differences within the various accounts and loses his faith in the incontestability of the Bible. He discovers the real profession of one of the other tenants and decides to "save" one called Miss Maitlan, but she is in reality a respectable worker. She runs from the house after Ernest accosts her as his lust overcomes him.
The author summarizes: "Pryer had done well to warn Ernest against promiscuous house to house visitation. He (Ernest) had not gone out Mrs. Jupp's street door, and yet what had been the result? Mr. Holt had put him in bodily fear; Mr. and Mrs. Baxter had nearly made a Methodist of him; Mr. Shaw had undermined his faith in the resurrection; Miss Snow's charms had ruined - or would have done so but for an accident - his moral character. As for Miss Maitland he had done his best to ruin hers, and had damaged himself gravely and irretreivably in consequence. The only lodger who had done him no harm was the bellows' mender, whom he had not visited."
He is arrested and sentenced to 6 months hard labor. The magistrate when sentencing Ernest chastises him for his folly and "...that you have not even the common sense to be able to distinguish between a respectable girl and a prostitute."
He becomes seriously ill in prison and barely recovers. His parents have alreay disowned him and offered to pay his passage to emigrate to America or Australia. To his relief he realizes he is no longer a member of the clergy. As his health recovers he learns how to tailor and decides to make it his profession once out of prison.
He studies the New Testament closely and realizes that "...the story that Christ had died, come to life again, and been carried from earth through clouds into the heavens, could not now be accepted by unbiased people." He had been "...hoodwinked by people who were paid for hoodwinking him."
He has yet another epiphany: As the days went slowly by he came to see that the extremes of Christianity and the denial of Christianity after all met as much as any other extremes do; it was a fight about names, not things; practically the Church of Rome, the Church of England, and the freethinker have the same ideal standard and meet in the gentleman; for he is the most perfect saint who is the most perfect gentleman. Then he saw also that it matters little what profession, whether of religion or irreligion, a man may make, provided only he follows it out with charitable inconsistency, and without insisting on it to the bitter end. It is in the uncompromisingness with which dogma is held, and not in the dogma or want of dogma that the danger lies.
Once out of prison he lives with Mr. Overton while searching for a tailoring position. But Pontifex is too old to be an apprentice and no one will hire him.
He meets Ellen, a very pretty girl, now 27, the housemaid whom his parents had discharged when she became pregnant 'outside of' marriage. At the time his mother had suspected Ernest of being the father. Ernest has always been attracted to Ellen because she treated him nicely and didn't berate him as his parents did. He explains his inability to apprentice for a tailor and she, being 'street-smart', suggests that they could operate a second-hand clothing shop together. Ellen sets off to find a good location. Ernest proposes marriage to Ellen, who is 4 years his senior, and she accepts. Overton begs Ernest to wait until he knows Ellen better. Overton feels Ernest is throwing away his education and future prospects by marrying such a common woman.
Ernest doesn't know or suspect what everyone else knows- Ellen is a raging alcoholic. At first the business is very successful and they save some of their profits. But then Ellen begins to siphon off money from the profits to buy alcohol. Their daughter is born September 1860 and later a son is added to the family. In the interim Ernest has discovered that Ellen has a drinking problem and tries to help her. She recovers briefly, but relapses. One day in March 1862, he accidentally meets John, the old coachman who had worked for his father and discovers that the coachman is actually married, since August 15, 1851, to Ellen. Ellen is, it seems, a bigamist and his marriage to her is therefore null and void. Ernest likens this discovery to awakening from a terrible nightmare and finally begins to feel that Fortune isn't completely against him. But now new problems arose. First, what was to be done about Ellen? Second, what about the two children? Finally, what was Ernest to do to earn a living?
Overton and Ernest first decide to get the children away from Ellen and to pay her a weekly "allowance" for staying out of the way. Ellen was indifferent to the children, so they are given over to the care of Overton's laundress, "A...good motherly sort of woman who took to them, and to whom they took at once."
Ellen was actually relieved at the break-up as she always felt that Ernest was too good for her. For 3 years Ellen collected her one British pound per week when one day she announced she was getting married yet again and moving to America.
Ernest is now 26, but still a year and a half away from receiving (unknown to him) the fortune left to him by Alethea. Of his three and one half years since arriving in London, Ernest has spent 6 months in the clergy, 6 months in prison and two and one half years running a business and experiencing marriage in one of the poorest areas of they city. In short, he has acquired a great deal of experience in a short time and had a new appreciation for the poorer classes and their struggles. It has also given him confidence in his ability to survive.
Overton knows that soon Ernest will come into a fortune which will likely yield between 3,500 and 4,000 British pounds per year without touching the principal. To lessen the shock he decides to have Ernest give up his shop, learn bookkeeping and manage Overton's property (really Ernest's) and be paid 300 British pounds per year in salary. Ernest is delighted to accept.
As for his two children (their names are never disclosed), Ernest wishes them to be raised in fresh air, with other children, and with a poor family. He remembers a family in Gravesend where the parents seemed good and the children happy. They meet the parents who quickly accept one British pound per week to raise the two children as their own.
Ernest now suffers fron nervous attacks and upon seeing a physician is told to visit the zoo and take a trip abroad. In two weeks Ernest is ready, with Overton, to tour Europe.