Wednesday, November 16, 2016

or if people could buy ready-made children at a shop - Samuel Butler's comedy

Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh is the book.  Ernest Pontifex is badly treated by his father, a clergyman, his mother, a religious fanatic, and the brutal pointlessness of his school.  His vocation as an Anglican priest is meaningless, unconnected from anyone’s lived experience, so unconnected poor Ernest lands in prison.  His friend is a con man, his wife an alcoholic, his family cruel, his beliefs empty.  But everything works out all right.

Butler’s novel is a comedy in the tradition of Thackeray and Forster.  Their omniscient narrator – I am currently reading A Room with a View (1908) and enjoying the narrator enormously – is replaced by Ernest’s godfather, a character in the story with his own opinions on everything that are often not those of Ernest.  He is collaborating with Ernest to tell his story, so he knows everything Ernest knows, or pretends to, and also knows more.  Semi-omniscient, and a clever solution.  He is often sarcastic:

Young people have a marvelous faculty of either dying or adapting themselves to circumstances.  (Ch. 6)

He is more often sarcastic about the opinions of others, like this mockery of Ernest’s father:

If [Ernest’s mother] could have given birth to a few full-grown clergymen in priest’s orders – of moderate views, but inclining rather to Evangelicalism, with comfortable livings and in all respects facsimiles of [Ernest’s father] himself – why, there might have been more sense in it; or if people could buy ready-made children at a shop of whatever age and sex they liked, instead of always having to make them at home and to begin at the beginning with them – that might do better, but as it was he did not like it.  (Ch. 20)

The reader who does not find that funny will not find much in this book funny.

This narrator does not have much to do with the physical world, but he is good with psychological metaphor.  This is a favorite – teenage Ernest has been not quite caught in a sin – will he confess all to his mother?:

Ernest, through sheer force of habit, of the sofa, and of the return of the associated ideas, was still so moved by the siren’s voice as to yearn to sail towards her, and fling himself into her arms, but it would not do; there were other associated ideas that returned also, and the mangled bones of too many murdered confessions were lying whitening round the skirts of his mother’s dress, to allow him any possibility to trust her further.  (Ch. 40)

The fact is that I don’t care much whether Victorian ideals and institutions are demolished.  That part of The Way of All Flesh has receded into history.  There is a passage early on where the narrator mocks the philistinism of Ernest’s grandfather, compared to Ernest’s (eventual) freedom from received ideas about art.  But by the time Butler is writing, anti-philistinism is also a received idea, the shot at the old-timers funny but cheap.  The Bildungsroman, though, and the great comedy of a son escaping from his father, even if it lands him in prison, are stories that have to be told again and again.


  1. Butler was one of the most flippant minds England has produced (notice the subtle way he implies Shakespeare is overrated):

    Is the reputation enjoyed by the three chief Greek tragedians, AEschylus, Sophocles and Euripides,one that will be permanent, or whether they will one day be held to have been overrated.

    How far I wonder did the Athenians genuinely like these poets, and how far was the applause which was lavished upon them due to fashion or affectation?

    Numbers, weight of authority, and time, have conspired to place Aristophanes on as high a literary pinnacle as any ancient writer, with the exception perhaps of Homer, but he makes no secret of heartily hating Euripides and Sophocles, and I strongly suspect only praises AEschylus that he may run down the other two with greater impunity. For after all there is no such difference between AEschylus and his successors as will render the former very good and the latter very bad.

    Without some such palliation as admiration for one, at any rate, of the tragedians, it would be almost as dangerous for Aristophanes to attack them as it would be for an Englishman now to say that he did not think very much of the Elizabethan dramatists. Yet which of us in his heart likes any of the Elizabethan dramatists except Shakespeare?

  2. I was wondering, at that point in the novel, why Butler was spending so much time on an iconoclastic undergraduate essay. That's the essay where he takes an aggressive side-jab at the Psalms!

    "Flippant" is good.

    Ch. 46, if anyone wants to see the passage in context.