The Way of All Flesh, though written in the years between 1872 and 1884, was not published until 1903, after Butler's death. This was likely because the novel drew heavily from Butler's own upbringing in a strictly religious and patriarchal household. At the same time he was writing The Way of All Flesh, Butler was working on Life and Habit, a scientific work which challenges the assumption of random variation in Darwin's Origin of Species. Though an orthodox Darwinian in earlier years, Butler came to believe in the idea of "hereditary memory," unconsciously inherited from one's parents and shaped/modified throughout the generations. R.A. Streatfield, friend of Butler's and first publisher of The Way of All Flesh, suggests that the novel "ight be "taken as a practical illustration of the theory of heredity embodied in that book."
The publication ushered in Butler's reputation as an "anti-Victorian" and a "proto-modernist." His admirers have included late Victorians George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells as well as D.H. Lawrence, Wyndham Lewis, and James Joyce.
The Way of All Flesh is narrated by a family friend of the Pontifexes, one Mr. Overton who came to be a sort of guardian and friend of Ernest Pontifex, the oldest son of Theobald Pontifex, himself the son of George Pontifex, who made a sizable fortune as a publisher and savvy advertiser of religious texts. Though Ernest is the novel's hero, the first part of the book expends a considerable amount of space to introduce Theobald Pontifex. Theobald was the second son of George, whose strained relations with his father are in part told by the inclusion of letters between father and son. George wanted Theobald to be a clergyman, and when Theobald weakly protests, George quashes his rebellion with a threat of disinheritance. Theobald give in, and soon becomes trapped by the matchmaking Mrs. Allaby into a marriage with Christina Allaby, a woman of rather overblown romantic attachments to religion which the narrator constantly ironizes. Theobald gains a position as the rector at Battersby, and the narrator strongly suggests that Theobald isn't particularly happy with his position or his marriage, but as a generally timid character, finds a way to settle into it.
Ernest was born to Christina and Theobald in 1835. In a rather pathetic scene, George Pontifex rushes into the cellar to retrieve some water from Jordan which he had collected for the purposes of baptizing his first grandson, only to trip on a hamper and break the bottle in his haste. George's servant resourcefully sops up the water with a sponge, and at a ridiculously pompous dinner to celebrate the occasion of Ernest's birth, George pretends like nothing of the sort has happened. At this point, the somewhat secretive narrator reveals that he was in love with Alethea, Theobald's sister, but that "it is impossible for me to explain how it was that she and I never married" though "we knew that neither of us would marry anyone else." The narrator is severely critical of Ernest's upbringing: "Before Ernest could well crawl he was taught to kneel; before he could well speak he was taught to lisp the Lord's prayer, and the general confession." He offers an instance of Theobald's unjust cruelty when he beats Ernest for his inability to pronounce the word "come" (the young boy was only able to stammer out "tum"). Nevertheless, the narrator does allow that Theobald and Christina brought him up as they thought best for him.
Christina had two more children, Joseph and Charlotte. During the unsuccessful birth of her fourth, she writes an overblown and highly melodramatic letter to Ernest and Joseph, entreating them to be pious and dutiful to their father and their God because she thought she might die. It is later revealed that Ernest wanted the narrator to include this letter (which Ernest eventually gets after Christina's actual death much later) in his account, so he does so--next to the narrator's commentary, Christina's letter is severely undercut and made light of. Soon, the Pontifexes decide to send the young Ernest to study with Dr. Skinner, the Cambridge man whom everyone knew to be a "genius" (though really a pedant, as the narrator reveals). At Dr. Skinner's in Roughborough, Ernest is subjected to monotonous and strict training in Latin and Greek. While Ernest is at Roughborough, his aunt Alethea decides to visit him, and determines also to take him on as one of her own cares. The two of them bond over their mutual interest in music, and Alethea encourages Ernest to build his own organ (hoping, secretly, that this will also help him bulk up a little and have a little more confidence as a result). Alethea even decides to move to Roughborough to further suss out if Ernest might be worthy of receiving her own money upon her death.
When Alethea falls ill suddenly, the narrator is called upon to be the executor of her will. Her conditions are that Mr. Overton would accept in trust everything which she had minus £5000 until Ernest reached the age of twenty-eight. If Ernest were to go bankrupt before then, Mr. Overton could keep the money. Additionally, Mr. Overton would be charged with investing the remaining £5000 in ways that he sees fit; these earnings would go to Ernest with Mr. Overton taking a small cut for his troubles. Back at Battersby after Alethea's death, the Pontifexes all believe that Alethea has left everything to Overton, and Theobald berates Ernest for not earning his aunt's trust enough to get her money. Ernest has some trouble in school, spending his pocket money on drinking and smoking and receiving less than ideal report cards (which the narrator includes as part of his account). Back at home for the holidays, Ernest meets a pretty servant named Ellen who, during the time when Ernest is home, gets pregnant and is sent away. Ernest doesn't know why she has been sent away, but feels bad for her, deciding to give her a silver watch (which his aunt gave him) and some money. Unfortunately, Ernest lies about what happened to the watch and his money, and his father finds out later what has happened through a pawnbroker who has received the watch from Ellen. Needless to say, he gets in no small amount of trouble with his father.
Ernest manages to make his way to Cambridge, where he does much better than at Roughborough. The narrator relays that Cambridge in 1858 was a time of relative calm, though Ernest would encounter a low-church, religiously evangelical group known as the Simeonites. Ernest at first makes fun of the Simeonites for their deliberately poor dress and austere ways, until he hears a sermon by a characteristic preacher. Ernest suddenly becomes intensely evangelical himself, experiencing a sort of sudden religious awakening which alarms his father. Ernest is soon ordained a deacon, but his religious beliefs again take a dramatic turn when he falls prey to a boy named Pryer's high church ideas when he serves as a curate. Along with Pryer, Ernest wholeheartedly embraces the idea that the masses need priestly mediation, that an elite should only have access to the Bible, and that a spiritual transformation of society on a grand scale was necessary. Their idea is to erect a "College of Spiritual Pathology" founded on systematic, scientific notions of how best to spiritually transform society. Ernest idealistically takes himself up amongst the London poor, comically trying to convert his neighbors, one of whom ends up knowing more than he does about theology. Things take a bad turn when the money Ernest gives to Pryer to put into the stock exchange is squandered and when Ernest visits a prostitute in hopes to "convert" her. In a misunderstanding of the situation, Ernest gets arrested and sentenced to six months labor. In prison, he falls ill and learns that Pryer has not only lost all of his money but also disappeared.
In prison, Ernest turns to a more rationalistic way of looking at life. He also importantly comes to the realization that he must cut off ties with his parents, who have been responsible for his inability to have an independent mind of his own. The narrator concurs, and contends that this is actually the most Christian thing that Ernest has ever done: he was "giving up [his] father and mother for Christ's sake." After he leaves prison, Ernest decides to work his way up from the bottom of the social ladder, learning how to be a tailor. He experiences some slow but steady success. Back in London, Ernest runs into Ellen, and he ends up marrying her. The narrator reveals that he and Ellen "instinctively" don't get along; affirming how homosocial bonds inevitably become frayed when either member of a homosocial bond gets married. This antagonism that the narrator has against Ellen seems to one of the most psychologically and emotionally revealing aspects of his character thus far. The narrator's "instincts" toward Ellen turn out to be correct when Ellen ends up being an alcoholic and a bigamist--she had already been married to (and pregnant by) John, Theobald's former coachman. Between himself and Ellen, Ernest has two children, whom he sends away to be cared for, using money which Overton tell him as being from his aunt's estate. With the financial support of Overton, Ernest gets along okay, turning his attention to building up his income again and turning to literary pursuits in his spare time. Ernest even ends up making enough money to travel on the continent, and to engage in a brief (but failed) stint writing for the periodical press. Ernest is soon twenty-eight, and he inherits the money from his aunt's estate plus the profits from Overton's smart and steady investment, totaling £70,000.
Soon after he has been made comfortable by his inheritance, Ernest receives a letter from his dying mother. He decides to visit Battersby, and finds that everything there seems the same, whereas he has changed much. He finds that subtle cutting remarks from Charlotte, Joey, or his father no longer affect him. Back in London after his mother's death, Ernest turns to writing unorthodox books "in which he insisted on saying things which no one else would say even if they could, or could even if they would." His first book proves the most successful, an anonymous collection of essays on theological and social subjects "purporting to have been written by six or seven different people," because the reviews were kept guessing that it might have been written by someone famous. Ernest books don't turn out to be successful, the narrator says, because they are "impractical," and because he didn't belong to any sort of literary "set" or "club." Ernest's only response is "wait," signaling his belief that his writings will be important to later generations. The novel concludes with the narrator calling Ernest an "advanced Radical," the first to have broken free from the molds and conventions which have shaped his family through the generations.
Butler's "anti-Victorianisms" are fairly apparent: he critiques patriarchal austerity (Theobald and George), romantic religiosity (Christina), family and marriage (tellingly, both Ernest and the narrator end up bachelors), educational systems which stunt natural development (Dr. Skinner), religious movements/fads amongst university elites (Simeonites, Pryer), and the periodical press and its reviewers, to name just a few of Butler's obvious major targets.
Butler's "proto-modernism," however, seems less apparent. I want to approach the question of The Way of All Flesh's purported proto-modernism through a view of its form. I will focus particularly on its first person narrator, his compilation techniques of letters and other historical documents from Ernest Pontifex's life, and the ways in which the account is a "bildungsroman" of Ernest Pontifex. Overall, while these different aspects of the text contribute to a potential sense of its fragmentary nature, to place Butler's work into a genealogy which culminates in Woolf or Joyce seems a bit forced. However, to say, at least, that experimental elements in Butler's novel loosens the conventions of the Victorian novel seems appropriate to what Ernest ends up doing in becoming an "advanced Radical."
The First-Person Narrator/Chronicler: All that we really know about the narrator is that he is a bachelor (though it's "impossible" for him to say why), a writer of popular burlesque drama, godfather to Ernest, and someone who has always taken a critical view of how things were done in the Pontifex family. It isn't clear why he should turn family chronicler, or why he should offer this account of Ernest as his "hero" at all. For the most part, the narrator tries to maintain some sense of distance from the story, in his telling the story through the inclusion of documents, or withholding information about his own romantic attachment to Alethea. The moment where he seems the most emotionally invested and close is his anger when Ernest marries Ellen. He concludes that his hatred for her is "instinctive" and seems to strongly indicate that he favors homosocial relationships between bachelors, and more specifically, seems to regard his relationship with Ernest as one such homosocial relationship (before this moment, the narrator styles his role as primarily guardian to Ernest). Additionally, the narrrator's attitude towards Ellen's demise is fairly callous; indeed his portrayals of other women (Christina and Charlotte, for example), with the exception of the unmarried Alethea, seem equally callous and unsympathetic. We can safely say, I think, that the narrator favors homosocial relationships between bachelors as the most enabling relationships. The homosocial desire of the narrator complicates our view of his account of Ernest: how much influence does Mr. Overton in fact have on Ernest? He suggests that Ernest ends up a bachelor free-thinker on his own, that Mr. Overton lets him "fall," and simply helps him along when it becomes absolutely necessary to do so. That Ernest ends up exactly as the narrator does, however, tends to cast some suspicion on Mr. Overton as being much more of a "guardian" than he might admit to. One wonders, finally, how sufficient of a substitute "family" this kind of homosocial community might be--after all, Alethea's bequeathal is a necessary part of what makes this possible, and also it seems good that Ernest has children who end up being productive member of society in "conventional" ways (George becomes a bargeman, and Alice marries well).
Compilations/Documents: The narrator compiles letters, report cards, sermons, musical notations, and epitaphs to support his chronicle. One letter in particular, Christina's to her sons when she thought she was going to die, is one which Ernest tells the narrator to include, which suggests a kind of collaborative aspect to the work (this notion is strengthened by the various moments where the narrator tells of how Ernest "winces" at the narrator's inclusions, as if Ernest had much to do with the narrator's writing process). This suggestion of collaboration and the inclusion of other documents don't really contribute to an overall sense of greater objectivity--practically without exception, the documents occupy a place in the narrator's text as caricatures of people who produce them or the ideologies that they represent. Christina's letter caricatures her own melodramatic religiosity, and the report card from Skinner's school tallying the number of times each boy drank or smoked satirizes its own strict inflexibility. Thus The Way of All Flesh fails to be heteroglossic in the way that many Victorian realist novels strive to be--the account is through and through Mr. Overton's because his editorship and controlling commentary subordinate these lesser texts to his master narrative.
Bildungsroman: The irony with which Overton treats Ernest's development from Roughborough to Cambridge to his "epiphany" in prison and finally to his failed marriage makes the account feel much like Joyce's Portrait of an Artist at times. Like Stephen Dedalus, Ernest gets really into certain beliefs (his Simeonite period, his high-church principles, the collaborative marriage with Ellen), only to realize suddenly that these beliefs are false. The ending reveals Ernest to be triumphant in his artistic self, a bachelor and an "advanced Radical" who cared not for the market or the present-day audience, but only to convey the ideas which he thought right despite their being likely too unorthodox for the current generation. Ernest's triumph and final incarnation is actually much more certain than Dedalus's; there isn't a "fall" coded into his name. The only potential check to this triumph is that as in the case of Bulwer-Lytton's comedy, Ernest is only finally be the kind of independent artist that he wants to be because he has the money to do so, which came to him through no exertions of his own.