Butler: The Way of All Flesh (1884)

Having read and enjoyed Samuel Butler‘s Erewhon last year I was looking forward another Victorian novel from him. “The way of all flesh” was terrific, but very different from his other famous book in every aspect: plot, setting, style and major philosophy. The plot revolves around four generations of the Pontifax family. I wasn’t aware of it in advance, so the first third of the book felt like a very long introduction. It was clear from a series of hints that we are not at the main topic of the book yet, but we still were treated to lengthy descriptions of people, their personalities, motives and situations. This precipitated the entrance our hero, Ernest. Giving all this background on one hand helped us to understand where, what kind of family, he came from. On the other hand via the story of a single family it was a treatise on the whole of society and changing family values and parenting styles.

I could say it was one of the most unfair books I read. There are so many bad things happen to Ernest, which were not his fault that one has to feel sorry for him. The only person, who cares for him, his aunt, dies after only half a year of supporting him. He is cheated out of his money by a prior after spending half a year a catholic, despite his Anglican upbringing and training as a clergyman. He goes to prison for half a year due to a serious of unfortunate misunderstandings when a young girl thinks he wanted to attack him. He marries an alcoholic woman, without being aware of her affliction, who spends the money they make from an otherwise successful store. But throughout his tribulations we knew that he would come out OK as the narrator, his godfather, is writing the book retrospectively. So the feeling of unfairness is balances with a prediction of happy ending.

The book takes a wobbly stance against bigotry and religion. It is a stand as there are plenty of lines written from the perspective that questions the truth of organized religions. But it is not a very solid opposition, as most of it I in the faux naïve comparison of true believers and those who do question the dogma. The protagonist ends up being the main explorer of these questions, but he seldom comes out to say that he is a full-fledged atheist. The book does more than exposing the idea that it is possible to not believe in God, but just barely.

There are two bits that I couldn’t get out of my mind while reading the book. The phrase “son of a clergyman” was repeated over and over the book. This reminded me of a song, I could recall the memory of and though that has this phrase as its main line. Now that I finished the book I searched it out and turns out I was singing along with Dusty Springfield‘s “son of a preacher man.” out I remembered incorrectly and listening to the song showed no relation to the book.

The other idea was that I should have researched the currencies of the Victorian Great Britain. It would helped my understanding of the dynamics had I known the pecuniary aspects as well. It only changed in 1971, but I am still not familiar with it. So for those of us who never learned it, here is a summary based on this page:

  • a pound was worth twenty shillings
  • a shilling was worth 12 pennies
  • a shilling was also known as a bob
  • a five shilling piece was also known as a crown or a dollar, made of silver
  • a guinea was a pound and a shilling
  • a gold coin was worth a pound and was called a sovereign
  • a half sovereign was worth ten shillings and was also of gold
  • a florin was a two shilling coin

I hope this helped.
The book was a lot of fun of the slow river variety.

The book @ Amazon.com

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