0325 | The Way of All Flesh | Samuel Butler

0325 | The Way of All Flesh | Samuel Butler

Context: Finished this on my e-book reader as I cycled 320km around the far southwest of PNG on a survey of the communities of the Tonda Sub-Family of languages.

REVIEW

Wasn’t really sure what to expect as I started this after having read Butler’s Erewhon but I was surprised to find not only that I liked it but that I also wanted to keep reading at night when I should have been letting my body get back the vast amounts of energy it had expended cycling around on the Tonda Survey.

It’s the story of two generations of a family that, for the most part, you just want to corner in a narrow space and kick around so infuriating are the actions of the father and son who are the central characters here. The book starts off with the grandfather raising the father and, about a third of the way in, moves on to focus more on the life of the son as he grows up under clergic tyranny.

I really liked it. It was written so tongue in cheek. It was one of the most subtle satires I’ve ever read and had a huge amount to say about families and relationships and how we cope with life without once shouting its message from the rooftops. I really liked it.

As the son grows, you see the increasing hypocrisy of a father who preaches love but hasn’t the faintest idea what it means in practice. You wonder at how the son takes this but Butler paints him so sympathetically (the POV is the son’s godfather as narrator) that you can’t help but side with him even though he makes some ridiculous decisions.

It was a book that I think you could simply enjoy as a story of someone growing up and disentangling themselves from the apron strings. In this regard it had elements of Great Expectations or The Corrections in it, a kind of comic bildungsroman. But aside from this, I think what makes the book much more significant is that, underneath, it has to be a critique of the types in society that the father and son represent. Butler was no friend of organised religion and the father, a parish priest, gets absolutely no sympathy from him. The son seems to represent what is dysfunctional about the educated middle-classes.

So, as I said, I really liked it.

OPENING LINE

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.

QUOTES

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.

A pair of lovers are like sunset and sunrise: there are such things every day but we very seldom see them.

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.

those who are happy in this world are better and more lovable people than those who are not

Having, then, once introduced an element of inconsistency into his system, he was far too consistent not to be inconsistent consistently…

CLOSING LINE

His father and grandfather could probably no more understand his state of mind than they could understand Chinese, but those who know him intimately do not know that they wish him greatly different from what he actually is.

RATING

0325 | The Way of All Flesh | Butler | 78% | Very Good

Key: Legacy | Plot / toPic | Characterisation / faCts | Readability | Achievement Read more about how I come up with my ratings

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