Samuel Butler & 'The Way of All Flesh'

According to Samuel Butler’s biographer, Peter Raby, The Way of All Flesh is “an uneven, extraordinary and unforgettable book, evoking strong emotions of recognition and horror, and shattering forever the sacred English totem, the idea of the family.” This novel is a cry from the heart against the inhumanity of parents to their children, it is a challenge to all types of dogmatism and authority, and a scathing expose of hypocrisy and greed.

Hailed by George Bernard Shaw as “one of the summits of human achievement”, The Way of all Flesh covers five generations of a family, focusing chiefly on the relationship between Ernest and his father, Theobald. Family sagas of the Victorian and Edwardian eras tended to show a family growing from rags to riches, making successful marriages and money, this book turns that plot inside out. It ends where it began, with tradespeople earning their livings respectably and with satisfaction.

“The advantage of doing one’s praising for oneself is that one can lay it on so thick and exactly in the right places.” ― The Way of All Flesh, Samuel Butler

I first read this novel as a teenager. In so many ways it was ‘foreign’ to me. I had fantastic, loving parents; I was a happy atheist whose life had not been troubled by religion; I had been able to study the subjects I loved; and I got on famously with all my siblings. And yet I felt the book’s power. It has to be one of the most ferocious novels ever written, and is a superb indictment of hypocrisy and the evils of fake piety. Its energy, bite and its attacks on so many aspects of the 19thC meant that I could never view Victorianism in quite the same way again after reading it.

Today this tends to be a book which many people have heard of, but never read, and have certainly never watched in a film version. And yet it is a book which everyone ought to read, which is why I included it in my literary series. You may not ‘enjoy’ it, but I hope you feel its power and that it makes you stop and think.

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Featured image credit- Samuel Butler, Family Prayers, 1864, St John’s College, University of Cambridge, https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/family-prayers-139359
Body images credit- Samuel Butler https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Samuel_Butler_(novelist)

Comments (4)

  1. Deb

    What a remarkable coincidence: the unusual name Alethea in this book and the last one!

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Yes, isn’t it. Jane Austen had a friend called Alethea, so maybe it was much more common in the early 19thC, but it’s not a name you hear today except in books.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Thanks for letting me know. I couldn’t find anything on-line about theatrical version.

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