Way of All Flesh, The

by Samuel Butler (1904)


This one sort of recalled Of Human Bondage, another autobiographical novel where the protagonist bottoms out for a good chunk of the middle portion before finally (and predictably) ascending to a state of success/contentment.

I think I’m finally figuring out that these early 20th-century bildungsromans aren’t my cup of tea. Even when engagingly written, like this or Maugham’s, and even when presenting philosophies with which I agree, they remain too sterile and (usually) bloated for me to greatly enjoy. I wouldn’t necessarily say I regret the time I spent with them, as they’re classics and I consider it important to familiarize myself with works that are highly regarded by the literary community. But all the same, I may have reached a saturation point on old British guys telling (and telling, and telling) about their younger, more rebellious days.

This one made incisive points on human nature, the double-edged sword of family ties (especially parental ones), and about both aristocratic and religious hypocrisy. And I did care about Ernest and his travails. Also, Butler has a gift for metaphor and is able to unexpectedly tease them out without torturing them — one of my favorites was his comparison of daily prayer to bees trying to drink from flowery wallpaper. Yet there was much that felt extraneous and the 430 dense pages felt ultimately unconsummated by the distinctly mundane ending.

As I said though, I’m happy to have read it, I just can’t recommend it except for avid fans of Brit-Lit or those highly motivated to read as many of the classics as possible. It did have one of the more favorite quotes I’ve read in awhile, especially meaningful to me as an occasionally aspiring writer:

‘What can it matter to me,’ he says, ‘whether people read my books or not? It may matter to (the critics) — but I have too much money to want more, and if the books have any stuff in them it will work by and by. I do not know nor greatly care whether they are good or not. What opinion can any sane man form about his own work? Some people must write stupid books just as there must be junior ops and third-class poll men. Why should I complain of being among the mediocrities? If a man is not absolutely below mediocrity let him be thankful — besides, the books will have to stand by themselves some day, so the sooner they begin the better.’ 428

Obviously, literary history has confirmed Butler’s apathy toward his own accomplishments to be not only healthy but prescient.

P.S. Something that bothered me about the book but that I had forgotten until reading Marvin Chester’s review was Butler’s treatment of the Ellen character.  She’s apparently irredeemable, much unlike Ernest despite being in a similar position.  The only difference between them, of course, is their breeding stock.  So really despite all of Butler’s radical criticisms of hypocrisy and elitism, he’s as guilty of it himself in the very midst of his critique.  All a person needs in order to self-actualize is to be high-born and then inherit bottomless wealth.

Similarly, Butler sort of cops out when discussing Ernest’s children.  They’re of course neither high-born nor educated, so all they have is wealth (and I guess good genes?).  Yet the reader is seemingly meant to believe that everything will work out for them just because Ernest was able to set them up.  No chance of them squandering everything as Ellen did. . . if this is just Butler’s idealism, it’s really short-sighted and quite inexcusable.

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