56 pages 1 hour read

Samuel Butler

The Way of All Flesh

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1903

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Summary and Study Guide


The Way of All Flesh is a novel by Samuel Butler, written between 1873 and 1884 but not published until 1903. Drawing on his life experiences, Butler follows several generations of the fictional Pontifex family to examine the transmission of Victorian values from one generation to the next, with particular attention to the roles of church and family. The Way of All Flesh is now regarded as a landmark work, and the Modern Library named it one of the 100 greatest 20th-century English-language novels in 1998. Citations in this guide correspond with the 2004 Dover edition.

Plot Summary

Edward Overton narrates the biography of his godson, Ernest Pontifex, starting with Ernest’s grandfather, John Pontifex. John was a carpenter in the village of Paleham, England, where Overton grew up. John married Ruth in 1750; they had a child, George, in 1765. With the help of an uncle, George became a successful publisher of religious texts. George pressured his son, Theobald, to become a clergyman, and he did so. Theobald also married Christina Allaby, the daughter of a rector.

Christina gives birth to a son, Ernest, in 1835. George provides a vial of water from the River Jordan for Ernest’s baptism in the hopes that he will lead a devout religious life. Theobald and Christina raise Ernest and his siblings, Charlotte and Joey, in a strict religious environment, beating them when they fall short.

At the age of 12, Ernest goes to a boarding school in Roughborough run by the impressive Dr. Samuel Skinner. Lacking motivation, Ernest struggles at school and picks up some vices from his peers. Hoping to have a positive influence on Ernest, his aunt Alethea Pontifex, whom Overton loves but never marries, moves to Roughborough, where she encourages Ernest’s interest in music by building an organ. In 1850, Alethea dies of typhoid fever and leaves her money in Overton’s care to be given to Ernest at the age of 28, unknown to Ernest or his family. Saddened by Alethea’s death, Ernest’s conduct and academic performance worsen.

During a visit home for the holidays, Ernest is sad to discover that Christina dismissed Ellen, one of her servants, after discovering that she is pregnant, though unmarried. Wanting to help Ellen, Ernest gives her a few of his belongings, including a watch that Alethea gave him. When Theobald goes shopping for a replacement watch, he comes across Ernest’s old watch, and the truth comes out. Theobald and Christina reprimand and question him, learning about his and his peer’s illicit activities at school, which they report to Skinner. Back at school, Skinner institutes strict new policies; Ernest is pitied rather than hated for his role.

After graduating from Skinner’s school, Ernest goes to Cambridge University and prepares to enter the clergy in keeping with his parents’ wishes. While there, he hears a sermon that fills him with religious zeal for the first time in his life. In 1858, he is ordained a deacon.

He takes up work as a junior curate in a London rectory. Under the influence of the senior curate, Pryer, he plans to reform the church, but he struggles to find meaning in his day-to-day clerical work. He relocates to live among the poor but finds his efforts to preach awkward and unfulfilling. One day, he gives into a lustful impulse and attempts to seduce a young woman who lives nearby. She flees, and Ernest is arrested and sentenced to six months in jail.

Ernest spends the first few months of his term in bed, recovering from shock and distress. As he recovers, he resolves to abandon religion for rationalism. On the day of his release, Ernest rejects his parents’ attempt at reconciliation and starts looking for work with Overton’s help. He runs into Ellen, whom he asks to marry him. She accepts, and they open a secondhand clothes shop, with some success.

At first, Ernest and Ellen are happy, and she gives birth to two children, but her heavy drinking habit, which she conceals from Ernest, takes a toll on their business and relationship. When he discovers the truth, he stays with her out of duty but is increasingly unhappy. One day, he runs into John, Theobald’s former coachman. John reveals that he was probably the father of Ellen’s child at the time of her dismissal, and he married her shortly after leaving Theobald’s service himself. Because their marriage was never annulled, Ernest’s marriage to Ellen is annulled and the two separate amicably. Ernest and Overton find a family to adopt their children, with ongoing financial support.

In the aftermath of Ernest’s traumatic marriage, Ernest and Overton travel to aid Ernest’s recovery. Overton hires Ernest as a financial manager of Alethea’s money that will soon be his. With Overton’s encouragement, Ernest takes to writing. When Ernest turns 28, Overton presents him with the inheritance, and Ernest decides not to tell his parents.

Christina becomes ill, and Ernest visits his family. Ernest’s parents and siblings are shocked to see his fine clothes and learn of his inheritance. Following Christina’s death, Ernest is genuinely moved, but Theobald only feigns sadness.

Ernest takes a trip around the world to learn of various cultures and customs. After returning to London, he writes. His first book, a serious of essays, is successful, but his subsequent works prove controversial. He comes to feel that he is writing to future generations.

In tracing Ernest’s choices and development, Butler sheds light on the way that social institutions serve to protect values and customs, even when those values and customs are detrimental to human welfare.

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By Samuel Butler