12. The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler

Year Published: 1903
Pages: 374
First Sentence: When I was a small boy at the beginning of the century I remember an old man who wore knee-breeches and worsted stockings, and who used to hobble about the street of our village with the help of a stick.
Rating: 1/3 (don't bother)

The Way of All Flesh is one of the last books left on The List that I had never really heard of prior to starting this project. (Under the Volcano is the very last one, and it's coming up next.)

This book's alternate title, Ernest Pontifex, or the Way of All Flesh, reveals what it's mostly about, i.e. a man named Ernest Pontifex. It begins with telling about Ernest's grandfather and his father, though, and then gets into Ernest's boyhood, young adulthood, and manhood. If you can't tell from how lifelessly I'm writing about this book, I'll come straight to the point and say that I didn't like it much.

For one thing, I Didn't Get It. I haven't bothered to learn much about Samuel Butler and the origin and conception of this novel, other than that it was written in the 19th century and published posthumously in 1903, making it yet another one of The List's cheats in my opinion. But anyway, the other thing I've learned about this book is that it's a critique of Victorian society, values, hypocrisy, whatever. That's perfectly fine and good, except that it also means that the 21st century reader needs more than just the text of the novel to know what's going on as far as some of that goes.

Besides being about the Victorians in general, The Way of All Flesh is also about religion, child abuse, and, in my opinion most of all, Ernest's giant trust fund. The child abuse comes via Ernest's father, who is the Reverend Theobald Pontifex. Theobald is a very harsh master to his three children, especially Ernest, the eldest. He also happens to be a minister in the Anglican church, and Ernest becomes one eventually as well. Before that happens, one of his spinster aunts takes an interest in him and suddenly dies, leaving him the majority of her money, to be held in trust for him until age 28, by our narrator, Mr Overton.

The Way of All Flesh wasn't terrible. It even had a bit of black humour in it here and there. But the reason I gave it a 1/3 instead of a 2/3 is because of that statement I always include in brackets, that is: don't bother. I don't think this book is relevant to 21st century readers. And even as I write that sentence, I'm thinking of ways and reasons to argue with myself about it. After all, deconstructing religion and worship is still a relevant pursuit! The cruelty that can be inflected on a child by a well-meaning but misguided parent still exists!

Here's the thing though: I'm pretty sure both of those themes are explored more effectively in newer works, where they aren't also mixed up with a lot of esoteric references to 18th century religious writers. It's so telling that this old book about a rich man made it to #12 of The List but there was only room for nine women writers' works. On top of the "dated" nature of the book, I also didn't find the characters that memorable or the prose that special.

I think I've just gotten more impatient with The List as I've gotten closer to the final title. Considering that I Didn't Get The Way of All Flesh, it's entirely possible that I missed the point entirely. But I still say don't bother with this one.
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The want of fresh air does not seem much to affect the happiness of children in a London alley: the greater part of them sing and play, as though they were on a moor in Scotland. So the absence of a genial mental atmosphere is not commonly recognised by children who have never known it. Young people have a marvelous faculty of either dying or adapting themselves to circumstances. Even if they are unhappy—very unhappy—it is astonishing how easily they can be prevented from finding it out, or at any rate from attributing it to any other cause than their own sinfulness.
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These young ladies had either been so shy that they and Theobald had never amalgamated, or they had been supposed to be clever and had said smart things to him. He did not say smart things himself and did not want other people to say them. Besides they talked about music, and he hated music, or pictures, and he hated pictures, or books, and except the classics he hated books; and then sometimes he was wanted to dance with them, and he did not know how to dance, and did not want to know.
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