The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler – Learning to Love the Bomb

Samuel Butler wrote The Way of All Flesh in the 1870s and 1880s, but it was not published until after his death in 1903.

The book is famous for satirising Victorian morality and family life. Words like ‘scathing’ and even ‘blow up’ (V.S. Pritchett) appear in reviews. There’s a feeling that this bomb of a book was so destructive to Victorian sensibilities that it could not be published at the time of writing, having to wait for a slight loosening that came with the early twentieth century.

The book is certainly interesting for charting the effect of scientific advance – the publication of Darwin’s research – on a specific, rigidly religious family in England, and their wider society. But the quality of the book doesn’t really lie in simple demolition.

The interesting thing for me was how many echoes of the old world we find in the emerging new one. Literal interpretations of the Bible do come in for demolition. But while taking a metaphor at face value might be ridiculous, the general drift of the thing might not be so ludicrous. For example if someone tends to be positive rather than negative in their outlook, that state of mind can tend to make things go better for them. Some people would call that ‘having faith’. Separating the dogmas of Christian faith from just faith in general is the kind of thing The Way of All Flesh goes in for.

I sometimes find an assumption that the job of a writer is to act as a kind of investigative reporter with a wide ranging brief to expose social hypocrisy and delusion and make people see where they are going wrong. This is a tough task, it seems to me, when people will only want to see where they are going wrong when they are good and ready, which is usually a long time after they went wrong. Otherwise they won’t be interested and no one will buy the brave writer’s book. The thing about The Way of All Flesh is that it does show people their wrongs, but does so in a humane way, where right and wrong, new and old, can be shades of each other. In that sense The Way of All Flesh is both a modern book and a good book.

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