“Accidents which happen to a man before he is born, in the persons of his ancestors, will, if he remembers them at all, leave an indelible impression on him; they will have molded his character so that, do what he will, it is hardly possible for him to escape their consequences.”
Samuel Butler's semi-autobiographical novel, The Way of All Flesh, covers four generations of Pontifex men. The forefather "Old" John Pontifex is a village carpenter; his only son, George, a big city publisher and first-class "prig;" George's second son, Theobald, is a miserly village rector; finally Theobald's eldest son, Ernest, is a bit of a lost soul due his father's dictatorial parenting: at first a scholar and clergyman like Theobald, he cannot articulate reasons for loving or even believing in God. He gets into trouble and is sent to prison. An apostate when released into society, he leaves the Church of England and his parents' shadow forever. He finds a trade as a tailor but struggles with an alcoholic wife. At this time, his only outlet for pleasure is his love of Handel's music and scribbled intellectual musings. After so much failure, he comes into a large inheritance, adopts Darwin as a guiding light, and writes a series of book treatises that the public mostly ignores, but with wealth and self-realization, Ernest remains finally happy all the same.
Our narrator, Mr. Overton, is Ernest's godfather. He is an English gentleman, meaning he is independently wealthy, runs in high society, and the quotidian problems of the hoi polloi are not his concern. He writes for the theater and lives a bohemian lifestyle. He has an active interest in Ernest's welfare and is the caretaker of the wealthy estate left to Ernest by his aunt. Overton doesn't like Theobald, and neither do we, as he is a bit of a manipulative monster. As the title suggests, the novel is about how difficult it is to break free from the stranglehold of family. The mistakes of our ancestors, the rage and sense of inferiority are embedded in our DNA. We might hate where we come from but we are not so dissimilar in temperament and life outlook.
Ernest's avidness as a do-right clergyman (along with a fellow London curate, Prior, he seeks to found a "College of Spiritual Pathology") is not a handpicked life. He is following his father's footsteps and in a burgeoning adult intelligence realizes that he is not only not good at offering spiritual comfort but that he cannot exactly rationalize God's existence in the first place. “By faith in what, then shall a just man endeavor to live at this present time? At any rate not by faith in the supernatural element of the Christian religion.” Leaving the Church of England is rejecting his parents' piety as much as it is abandoning God. Being free-thinking is not just a secular thing, but also a declaration of independence: Ernest looked "back upon this as the time when he began to know that he had a cordial and active dislike for both his parents, which I suppose means that he was now beginning to be aware that he was reaching man's estate.”
Ernest's departure from religion to philosophy reminds me quite a bit of James Joyce's Stephen Dedalus in The Portrait of the Young Artist As a Young Man, substituting Catholicism for the Church of England (Joyce's narrative owes some considerable debt to Samuel Butler, who got here first and seems that for most critics this debt remains unacknowledged). Ernest is something of a fool and a sucker, buying into various ideas and schemes with a fanatic's enthusiasm, only to be ruined when truth (or reality) destroy the fantasy. Like many literary heroes he is something of a loser who must live and learn that it was “...impossible to reduce life to an exact science. There was a rough-and-ready, rule-of-thumb test of truth, and a number of rules as regards exceptions which could be mastered without much trouble, yet there was a residue of cases in which decision was difficult-- so difficult that a man had better follow his instinct than attempt to decide them by any process of reasoning.”
Samuel Butler-- The Way of All Flesh,
due its autobiographical nature, was published posthumously
It is a wonderful pleasure to read about fuck-ups, but there is one keen problem with Butler's novel: it is something of a deus ex machina, in that for all his wrong turns, Ernest is still an entitled aristocrat, though one slow in coming. His problems are solved for him, rather than him wising up to the ways of the world, or finding happiness without money. There is thus no drama to the novel, since the reader knows quite early that Ernest is to inherit a great sum (we know even if Ernest himself does not). And while he might reject his parents' conditional love, he is far from an ideal father himself. We follow his journey for almost 400 pages, and for what? To see him evolve into a pompous essayist? Is he then just a variation of his overbearing father, the way of all flesh? At the end, the self-confident, ultimately well-adjusted Ernest is far less likable than the impressionable naive young man: “I will live as I like living, not as other people would like me to live; thanks to my aunt and you, I can afford the luxury of a quiet, unobtrusive life of self-indulgence.” This might be the end-all for someone of Butler's taste, but definitely not welcomed words of any hero of my own.