The Way of All Flesh
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The Way of All Flesh

3.59 of 5 stars 3.59  ·  rating details  ·  4,206 ratings  ·  226 reviews
The Way of All Flesh (1903) is a semi-autobiographical novel by Samuel Butler which attacks Victorian-era hypocrisy. Written between 1873 and 1884, it traces four generations of the Pontifex family. It represents a relaxation from the religious outlook from a Calvinistic approach, which is presented as harsh. Butler dared not publish it during his lifetime, but when it was...more
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Published (first published 1903)
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This is a true story about me reading The Way of All Flesh. Remember how I once mentioned that I nerdily read in the elevator on the way home (for the whole two minute trip)? Well, I was reading this book on my way down one evening at my old job when an older man that I didn’t know turned to me and asked what I was reading (Modern Library version, so the cover is blank, you dig?). I smiled uncomfortably (I may be a book nerd, but I do recognize that it’s a little odd to read in the elevator when...more
Joselito Honestly and Brilliantly
There's a poem by Kahlil Gibran which goes like this:

"Your children are not your children.They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.They come through you but not from you,And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts, For they have their own thoughts.You may house their bodies but not their souls,For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.You may strive to be like t...more
Anne Hawn Smith
I've read this book at least 5 times and I always come back to it. It has seemed to have something unique to say to me no matter what age I am when I read it. I first read it in my Freshman year of college and there were very few of us who really liked it. I couldn't understand why at the time, but I think I do now.

The book is very introspective and if you are looking for some kind of action or plot, this isn't the book for you. The main action takes place in the character's minds. Butler takes...more
I mean, yes it was a harsh upbringing, Butler, but did you have to take it out on us, the readers? I would have gladly taken a beating for you if you had just shortened the book by about 400 goddamned pages.

Were you supposed to be Ernest? So after all that, you abandoned your own kids to explore the world? Ugh. True, you married a prostitute, so you scored a few points there with me, and you forgave your batshit mother, but you abandoned your own kids after suffering through a shitty childhood....more
I think I would've mistakenly thought this book overly pedantic had I read it ten years ago. But now I find it quite wise. Butler seemed to sense a number of the larger changes that were on the horizon in this autobiographical coming of age story. He saw the individual gaining a new economic footing as the old, rigid class system of England began to dissipate during the mid 19th Century. And at different times it almost feels like you're reading a work of sociology, not an impeccably written wor...more
Moses Kilolo
After reading Theodore Dreiser's introduction to this book, I put it back to the library shelf and consciously staid away for well over two months. I had my reasons, but one of them was not that I didn't want to 'sink my mental teeth' into this, one of the finest and simple yet complex literary pieces. My main reason was Dreiser himself. It stands that one of the books that had a most profound effect on me was Sister Carrie, one among Dreiser's masterpieces. If he, - Mr. Dreiser, at whatever tim...more
Marvin chester
Flesh is what governs the soul. Much of the book contains a scathing, satirical appraisal and condemnation of church, clergy, christianity, and the hypocrisy, dogma and deliberate self-delusion of religion. Pretty outrageous for 1884.

"the story that Christ died, came to life again and was carried from earth through clouds into the heavens could not be accepted ... He (Ernest) would probably have seen it years ago if he had not been hoodwinked by people who were paid for hoodwinking him." p.293

Sep 20, 2010 Veronica rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Veronica by: Modern Library's 100 Best Novels
What a pleasant surprise this book turned out to be. I must admit I wasn’t looking forward to reading a book written in the 1800′s and published in 1903 about repression and family life in mid-1800′s England.

This is a book to be read with focus as much could be lost without careful reading. One can certainly not steamroll through this novel without missing out on great humor from its marvelous author, Samuel Butler. Each page requires longer than usual time for reading, however, the payback is w...more
Slight spoiler

I first read this years ago and it affected me deeply- and the best parts still do, though I now find it a very uneven work. As I see it (after recently rereading his Erewhon books) is that Butler was a divided character: he was a good writer who could tell an entertaining story, but he was also a bitter man who wanted to be didactic - and he couldn't manage to do it without the narrative grinding to a halt at intervals. This is a very good book which could be edited into a great...more
Simon Mcleish
Originally published on my blog here in April 1999.

Samuel Butler's posthumously published novel has been described as the first twentieth century novel (it was in fact completed in the 1880s though not published until the early 1900s). In its iconoclasm, it certainly marks a break with the mainstream of the nineteenth century, and foreshadows the way that the twentieth century has seen criticism and questioning of just about every conventional value.

Butler's style and language are, to my mind, f...more
Shannon (Giraffe Days)
When this book came up as the October selection for the Classics Book Club (a "real life" book club here in Toronto rather than an online one, run by Chris of Eclectic Indulgence), I was pretty pleased because it meant getting around to reading a book I've had on my shelf for about fifteen years. The reason I had this - which, let's face it, isn't one of the more famous Classics you've heard of - is rather silly but I'll tell you all the same. I grew up watching A Room With a View - I've probab...more
Greg Deane
Butler's narrator rarely asserts his identity, and it would be easy to miss his name, Overton. But in fact he is a very valuable actor in the life of his godson, who is ever present as a safety net ready to save his godson, Ernest Pontifex, by lending him money that comes out of the inheritance due to him from his well-disposed aunt. Old John Pontifex, a simple man who earned a private fortune, bequeaths both a capacity for accumulating wealth and for enjoying the things he earns. But these capa...more
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Witty, sarcastic attack on the institutions of Victorian England published in 1903 (but written decades earlier). Most of the humor still holds up, and I really enjoyed most of the book. I don't seek out novels of that period as a rule, because I generally dislike their prolixity and find their themes dated and uninteresting. This is an exception. It's on the 5 side of 4 stars.


I found the description of how alcohol destroys one poverty-stricken female character to be annoying,...more
I wasn't familiar with Samuel Butler prior to borrowing this book from the library, but it makes me want to dig up some of his plays. This book is an autobiography that tells the story of the Pontifex family culminating on the focus of Ernest. Butler spends the entire book mocking Victorian Era behaviors for their hypocrisy. Ernest has spent his life with some intolerable characters {namely his totally weird and self-absorbed parents}, and Butler examines what that has done to the outcome of his...more
Courtney H.
The Way of All Flesh is a scathing indictment on Victorian middle-class society, its religion, and its religious practices. The ideas contained in the novel are worth considering, and the narrator is certainly gives thoughtful voice to many of the extremes of the time. And one cannot fault Butler for wanting to indict his parents, who subjected him to the same sort of physical, mental, and emotional assaults that Ernest endured. The problem was that Butler couched his ideas in a novel, and used...more

I enjoyed Butler’s semi-autobiographical novel far more than Sons And Lovers. (And much more than A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man. Was there some requirement that turn-of-the-century novelists from the British isles write such a work?) Although written some 30 years earlier, I found it much more accessible to the modern reader. Framing the entire story as a second-hand account from someone who was occasionally involved in the plot but in general was told about things long after the fact...more
David Alexander
Reading Samuel Butler's autobiographical novel The Way of All Flesh, I was immediately confronted very early by a somewhat antagonistic view not just of Victorian society and Victorian Christianity, but of extrapolations from it to judgments about Christianity in general. However, at the same time I was confronted by a humane, humorous and reflective voice. I should clarify that Butler's position toward Christianity in the novel is complex and not like "new atheists" in tone or venom. For instan...more
The Way of All Flesh Samuel Butler (1903) #12

May 21, 2006

This was one of those books that took forever to read. I have been pretty busy as of late, but there was something about this one that made it a slow reader.
Finished in 1884, this book was published posthumously in 1903, which in my opinion disqualifies this book from being in the Modern Library list (although we have seen other examples of disqualifiers with other books, so I will look the other way for the time being). I feel that twen...more
Ty mader
reminiscent of james joyce's "ulysses". not in the fact that it is difficult to read by any means. it is rather simplistic in that respect. depicting mid 19th century England in a no "frills" manner. the truth is laid out on the page as the narrator saw it. suspense in my opinion isn't large in this book, neither is much action. but i feel as though that is what is able to give this book such charm. i would recommend this book, but the reader should know that it wont be extravagant in many, if a...more
At first I was really enjoying this book, for I like the prolixity of Victorian novels and their comments on society. However, as the story of Ernest Pontifex wore on, and on and on, I found too much philosophizing with only occasional bits of dialogue, action and humor to break it up. The book was not published until 1903, years after the author's death, and is a good argument for the editor's blue pencil, which might have improved it. It was a book that was supposed to blow the lid off the Vic...more
This is one of those books that doesn't seem to be as widely read as it once was. I'm reminded a little of Of Human Bondage-- our hero-of-a-sort, Ernest Pontifex, spends a lot of time hunting for a god that isn't there, and while his end circumstances are pretty far from ideal, he's at least stepped out of his doll's house, and that's something.

Sidenote: it's honestly pretty weird to think that Butler himself believed that this book would so damage his reputation that he didn't get it published...more
Robert Falck
I don't agree with Butler's conclusions on the resurrection and other cornerstone Christian doctrines. But his attack on the smug and hypocritical practice of religion is a pearl of great price.
Patrice Sartor
Feb 16, 2013 Patrice Sartor marked it as gave-up-on  ·  review of another edition
I hereby vow to myself to never again pick up random titles in the Classics section of a used bookstore simply because I have a credit at the store that is burning a hole in my pocket, and because I live 30 minutes away and do not wish to return any time soon.

That's how I picked this up, some years ago, and after only a few pages have decreed it not something I wish to read. If that makes me less of an intellectual, I embrace my shallowness.

If this was a movie, and I watched it in my home theate...more
Stephen sangirardi
A classic, obviously, but Butler is too chatty and didactic. His intrusiveness gets in the way of his narrative. We don't want to know the history of England's nineteenth-century High and Low churches and its concomitant preachers. Yes, we may want to know a thing or two, but not ten-pages worth! The book, ultimately, is more essay than novel. And yet, Butler is a brilliant stylist and satirist as he exposes Victorian hypocrisy. For example, a father may viciously flog his son for not knowing h...more
This novel had me at the description of the wallpaper (a mass of roses, in want of bees). Of course a child would imagine bees flitting from flower to flower, or crawling down the wall! There is a delight in the verbal descriptions of visual things, as well as the unfolding of the story of the Pontifex family and their generational flaws. Sure, there are PLENTY of digressions and tangents, but you get that with this particular era of writing. Although some might consider it stuffy (you have to d...more
Alex Lee
Butler may not have adhered to any school of thought but I found in this a strange quasi-mixture of both existentialist and naturalist thinking. The damnest thing that Butler has done is to trace lineal history, as some kind of psychoanalytic background, in order to create a mesh that would explain the particularity of the main character Ernest's upbringing.

In fact, the climax of the work, if there is indeed one, comes in pretty late when Ernest is forced into prison and nearly dies because he i...more
It would be hard to overstate how much we owe to George Bernard Shaw if we thought only of his own works, but the debt becomes immeasurable when we consider also that "The Way of All flesh" would have been forgotten without his endorsement. GBS was not joking when he called it "one of the summits of human achievement."

Unlike other contemporary books also qualified as shocking or revolutionary, The way of all flesh does not deal in the mere denouncement of victorian values, and for that reason it...more
Wes Townsend
This novel is a character portrait of a man named Ernest Pontifex - it starts a couple generations before he is born, and it goes through his life until roughly middle age. It was a surprisingly good read for a Victorian novel - Samuel Butler has a real dry wit that makes the narrative seem personal and lively. Throughout the book he constantly pokes fun at norms of Victorian society, including marriage, family, and especially religion. There are a lot of big ideas all through these pages and re...more
Jenn Torm
This is a piece that is deserving of its #12 rating on Modern Library's list of 100 Best Novels. And I would readily recommend this book to a friend.

The prose was very easy, though its length makes it a slow read. Basically, this book takes a good hard look at all that is wrong with society, the church, and the role parents play in their children's lives and in the lives of future generations.

The main theme is the way in which parents control and manipulate their offspring, how easy it is to be...more
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[For the author of Hudibras, see .]

Samuel Butler was an iconoclastic Victorian author who published a variety of works, including the Utopian satire Erewhon and the posthumous novel The Way of All Flesh, his two best-known works, but also extending to examinations of Christian orthodoxy, substantive studies of evolutionary thought, studies of Italian art, a...more
More about Samuel Butler...
Erewhon (Erewhon , #1) Erewhon Revisited (Erewhon , #2) Erewhon, Erewhon Revisited The Note Books of Samuel Butler The Authoress of the Odyssey

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