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Way of All Flesh, The

The Way of All Flesh

Samuel Butler's semi-autobiographical novel, published posthumously in 1903. Butler began the work in 1873 and had completed his last revisions by 1884. He chose to leave it unpublished during his lifetime, chiefly because it displays what Robert Bridges termed ‘his bitter onesided almost venomous regard for his own family’; in doing so, it functions on a more general level as a revelation of the subtly sadistic hypocrisy and stifling conventionality of middle-class Victorian family life. The early chapters deal with the family background and childhood of the chief protagonist, Ernest Pontifex, whose unhappiness under his parents' regime of punitive harshness and repressive religious zeal closely resembled Butler's own. In accordance with his father's wishes, Ernest is ordained as an Anglican minister; socially and sexually naïve, he makes a disastrous pass at a respectable woman during a pastoral visit, as a result of which he is imprisoned for indecent assault. A violent breach with his social and familial conditioning thus effected, he makes a bad marriage and runs a second-hand clothes shop in London. He is released from his circumstances when his alcoholic wife's bigamy is disclosed and his Aunt Alethea, the only member of his family of whom he was fond, leaves him £70,000. Ernest retires to a cynically atheistic bachelorhood and occupies himself with writing. George Bernard Shaw, E. M. Forster, Leonard Woolf, John Galsworthy, H. G. Wells, and Lytton Strachey were among those who led the gradual recognition of The Way of All Flesh as a novel of the first importance.

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Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: Robert Penn Warren Biography to Kenneth White Biography