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The Way of All Flesh
Samuel Butler
Introduction by Theodore Dreiser
Published by Easton Press in 1980
Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2002


Even after reading this book I hadn't the foggiest of why the title. It seems to hint that everyone goes through what Ernest, the hero of story, goes through and yet most of the story is about the characters that do not change in the course of their live: Theobald, Christina, Joey, Charlotte, Ellen and Overton. Ernest undergoes many transformations, however; he goes from naive schoolboy, to sophisticated clergyman, to disgraced prisoner, to self-sufficient businessman, to happily married, to unhappily married, to happily unmarried, to penniless recluse, to well-endowed gallant and so forth. Certainly Ernest's way was not the way of all flesh, but the philosophical tidbits that Butler drops in at points throughout this embellished story of his own life enlightens us to the universals of life (which I suppose may be called the "the ways of all flesh").

The author pulls us into the story and drags us through the book with the unswerving intent of an oxen team pulling a plow. We marvel at the new and unexpected flora and fauna turned up into the open with each stroke of the plow. And through it all Ernest, muddied and wearied, holds onto the arms of the tiller. It is his life and he develops an inner determination that clears the biggest boulders from his path with dispatch.

He is the ultimate "identified patient" in a family of a perfect father, loving mother, and perfect brother and sister. He must err, he must deviate from their expectations or not live at all. His first excursion from the perfect path was with Pryer when the two new clergymen planned the College of Spiritual Pathology. His first visitation to his selected converts is hilarious (albeit it sad). He ends up being converted by each person he visits in turn - the last one, a Miss Maitland, converts him into a prisoner.

In prison he finds the resolve to defy his parents to their face and begins to treat his life as a do-it-yourself job and does well - making mistakes in just the right way that befits his chronological age at the time. This is undoubtedly the perfect book for not-so-perfect teens in our time.

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