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The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler

The Way of All Flesh (1903)

by Samuel Butler

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    As Good as God, as Clever as the Devil: The Impossible Life of Mary Benson by Rodney Bolt (nessreader)
    nessreader: Way of all flesh is a novel about monster victorian sanctimonious paterfamilias; Life of Mary Benson is about a real one, her husband the archbishop of canterbury. Both books are hilarity-propelled rants that are in the end touching.

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Another novel from my Victorian Novels class, which I loved, reveling in the satire. My copy is heavily underlined, with various enthusiastic marginalia. "Ha!" "Ironic" "Lecture on English Clergy" "!" "Weepy, rather" "Really!" "Ernest tries to publish""Coincidence!" "Ernest is still innocent!" "Ernest goes independent" "Hypocritical" "Sounds like his mother"

I wrote "This doesn't make sense" in 1971 to this remark by Pryer: "...If a vice in spite of such efforts can still hold its own among the most polished nations, it must be founded on some immutable truth or fact in human nature, and must have some compensatory advantage which we cannot altogether afford to dispense with."

It does now. Just wasn't cynical enough back then
  deckla | Jan 13, 2019 |
When I was reading this book for my Ph.D. exams in a coffee shop, a guy came up to me and asked, "Who's forcing you to read Samuel Butler?" "Uh, I guess I am," I replied, because no one suggested I put The Way of All Flesh on my exam list... except myself! He told me he pitied me. That's actually the main thing I remember about The Way of All Flesh, to be honest, other than a vague sense that it's sort of a less good rip-off of Edmund Gosse's Father and Son (even though Way of All Flesh came first).

Even though it was published only two years after the Victorian era ended, it seems very modernist in its take on reason/logic, but also an extension of George Eliot's ideas in some ways. The book points out that we think we live in a world defined by reason, but we resolutely do not, despite the trappings of it: "They [reasonable people] settle smaller matters by the exercise of their own deliberation. More important ones, such as the cure of their own bodies and the bodies of those whom they love, the investment of their money, the extrication of their affairs from any serious mess – these things they generally entrust to others of whose capacity they know little save from general report; they act therefore on the strength of faith, not of knowledge" (306). The book ends up concluding that it is impossible to separate the subjective from the objective, the inner from the outer, the fact from the feeling:

The trouble is that in the end we shall be driven to admit the unity of the universe so completely as to be compelled to deny that there is either an external or an internal, but must see everything both as external and internal at one and the same time, subject and object – external and internal – being unified as much as everything else. This will knock our whole system over, but then every system has got to be knocked over by something.
     Much the best way out of this difficulty is to go in for separation between internal and external – subject and object – when we find this convenient, and unity between the same when we find unity convenient. This is illogical, but
[...] all philosophies that I have ever seen lead ultimately either to some gross absurdity, or else to the conclusion already more than once insisted on in these pages, that the just shall live by faith, that is to say that sensible people will get through life by rule of thumb as they may interpret it most conveniently without asking too many questions for conscience sake. Take any fact, and reason upon it to the bitter end, and it will ere long lead to this as the only refuge from some palpable folly. (327-8)

Forget modernist, this seems downright postmodernist: the Grand Narratives have failed us, so all you can really do is muddle through with the stories you've got, and they'll help you as much as they do, and not only is that okay, but maybe even it's for the best?

I vaguely remember the philosophy of the book, as thankfully I took notes, but do not at all remember the actual events of the book, even upon rereading those notes, so take that as you will. I seem to recall it belongs to that genre of post-Victorian takes on the Victorian era that still seems a little too Victorian for its own good (like Rachel Ferguson's Alas, Poor Lady). That is to say, it's trying to push a new philosophy, but it's married to the most tedious aspects of the old plotting. The modernists would do this kind of thing much better.
  Stevil2001 | Apr 13, 2018 |
I didn't like the whole chapters devoted to moralizing on the actions and thoughts of the characters. Butler seems to like to hit us over the head with his values, as if we can't figure them out for ourselves. Otherwise this wasn't a bad book. ( )
  AmandaL. | Jan 16, 2016 |
This is becoming a lost classic. It is very specific, very English novel that surprisingly captures enduring human feeling, from politicians that are too good to how it feels when you can no longer return to a place where you lived. ( )
1 vote linenandprint | Feb 22, 2015 |
510. The Way of All Flesh, by Samuel Butler (read 19 May 1957) I did not appreciate the author's sneering attitude to things, as I recall ( )
  Schmerguls | Jun 12, 2013 |
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» Add other authors (22 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Butler, SamuelAuthorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Arnett, Curtis JamesIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Cochrane, JamesEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hoggart, RichardIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Streatfeild, R. A.Forewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Weber, J. SherwoodAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Zabel, Morton DauwenIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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We know that all things work together for good to them that love God.

—Rom. viii.28
First words
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. He must have been getting on for eighty in the year 1807, earlier than which date I suppose I can hardly remember him, for I was born in 1802.
It is better to have loved and lost than never to have lost at all.
it seems to me that youth is like spring, an overpraised season - delightful if it happen to be a favourable one, but in practice rarely favoured and more remarkable, as a general rule, for biting east winds than genial breezes. Autumn is the mellower season, and what we lose in flowers, we more than gain in fruits. (Chapter VI)
A pair of lovers are like sunset and sunrise: there are such things every day but we very seldom see them.  (Chapter XI)
The devil, in fact, when he dresses himself in angel's clothes, can only be detected by experts of exceptional skill, and so often does he adopt this disguise that it is hardly safe to be seen talking to an angel at all. (Chapter XIX)
those who are happy in this world are better and more lovable people than those who are not   (Chapter XXVI)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0140430121, Paperback)

'I am the enfant terrible of literature and science. If I cannot, and I know I cannot, get the literary and scientific big-wigs to give me a shilling, I can, and I know I can, heave bricks into the middle of them.' With "The Way of All Flesh", Samuel Butler threw a subversive brick at the smug face of Victorian domesticity. Published in 1903, a year after Butler's death, the novel is a thinly disguised account of his own childhood and youth 'in the bosom of a Christian family'. With irony, wit and sometimes rancour, he savaged contemporary values and beliefs, turning inside-out the conventional novel of a family's life through several generations.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:00:34 -0400)

(see all 6 descriptions)

Written between 1873 and 1884 but not published until 1903, a year after Butler's death, his marvelously uninhibited satire savages Victorian bourgeois values as personified by multiple generations of the Pontifex family. A thinly veiled account of his own upbringing in the bosom of a God-fearing Christian family, Butler's scathingly funny depiction of the self-righteous hypocrisy underlying nineteenth-century domestic life was hailed by George Bernard Shaw as "one of the summits of human achievement."… (more)

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An edition of this book was published by Penguin Australia.

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