Thursday, June 27, 2019

Samuel Butler

The Way of All Flesh is not a novel I thought I would read: it's big and intimidating, and interspersed with appraisals of Anglican theology. But having now finished Samuel Butler's celebrated novel, I can confidently say there's more going on here than meets the eye. 

As V. S. Pritchett notes in the epilogue to the Penguin edition, The Way of All Flesh was launched as a grenade -- and landed like one, too. This is novel, I came to discover, offering an unyielding critique of Victorian society, and nothing is immune: family structure, religion, music -- everything is made a target by Butler, who uses his central character, Ernest Pontifex, as a vehicle to expose just how unloving the nineteenth century had become. 

Pritchett makes a reasonable point, I think, that Flesh is a novel set against itself, and succeeds most powerfully when casting father against son, faith against reason. Pontifex's quest is to overcome his father, and to pursue what he considers a more genuine attempt at happiness. It follows, however, that when Pontifex reaches this moment -- this sort of psychological enlightenment -- he suddenly appears flat, as if the wind has evaporated from his and Butler's sails. Without the father, the son is nothing at all. 

To this extent, there's an anger -- a sense of resentment -- unpinning Butler's novel. Here, too, I took a great deal from Pritchett's observation that Butler was one of the first writers to inject an element of the unconscious into the English novel: because there's no doubt that part of Pontifex's triumph is his ability to reconfigure his outlook: to replace Victorian habits around religious custom, for instance, with more modern concepts of rationality and economy. 

Pritchett does not ultimately find Flesh a fully successful novel, and I agree that there are parts which are overwhelmed by Butler's philosophizing. But as critiques of an entire era go -- of an entire ethos, really -- I can't think of many novels with this much bite, and with this much to say about the hypocrisy embedded in a nation's social structure. Butler's novel really is, then, a bridge to the twentieth-century: not in its style, of course, but in its uncomfortable pursuit of honesty.   

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