The Way of All Flesh, published posthumously in 1903, has been referred to as a delayed-action bomb. The novel did not cause an immediate sensation, but when, in 1907, the leading dramatist of the day, George Bernard Shaw, called Butler a neglected genius and praised The Way of All Flesh as one of the greatest novels ever written, Butler's fame skyrocketed. The ensuing critical and popular acceptance of the novel and the renewed interest in Butler's other works thoroughly vindicated the author's resolute faith in himself as a speaker addressing himself to future generations. When Butler finished the novel in 1885, Charles Darwin had been dead for three years, and Butler was already beginning to detect a wider acceptance of his stubbornly asserted views on evolution. His decision to keep his novel in a drawer, however, was possibly influenced by a desire not to offend his sisters, who compositely appear in the novel as Ernest Pontifex's sister, Charlotte, and by an awareness of the need for revisions in the work, especially the last few chapters.
The present-day reader cannot appreciate the shock value of the novel in the early part of the twentieth century unless the reader is mindful of the social milieu of the age. The preceding Victorian period, which roughly corresponds to Butler's life span, was one of unparalleled peace and prosperity for England. Consequently, entrenched interests became further entrenched, and the institutions of family and education assumed a sacrosanct status traditionally limited to the church. Butler was one of the first and most outspoken critics of a materialistic and smugly self-satisfied society which had become virtually fossilized. Butler instinctively rejected Robert Browning's oft-quoted and speciously optimistic line that "God's in his heaven and all's right with the world," even as later did the disillusioned generation of World War I.
Butler's rise to fame during a period of strident anti-Victorianism, however, resulted in mixed consequences for his reputation. Shaw's championing of him as a social prophet, for example, tended to distort Butler's true position, for Butler had no conception of himself as a confederate of socialist revolutionaries. He simply wanted people to look at themselves in the light of their own humanity in order to become a better kind of people, who reflect the potential of their own best inherited characteristics and capacities for adaptation. Even though seemingly written in anger, The Way of All Flesh is fundamentally a celebration of the ability of humanity to overcome both external and internal threats to the realization of its highest personal and social identities. In short, Ernest Pontifex, by assuming an isolated position as an intellectual gadfly, is primarily the embodiment of the author's principle of evolutionary development.
When Butler entered the speculative title, The Baptism of Fire and Folly, in his notebook of 1893, he undoubtedly was thinking of The Way of All Flesh. It is in the tradition of the bildungsroman, or novel of maturation, that the book was written. Although Ernest Pontifex is not another David Copperfield, the two protagonists have much in common. Both Butler's and Dickens' novels attempt to come to terms with unhappy childhood experiences; furthermore, their separate histories closely resemble each other in structure, plot, and characterization. The chief difference between the two novels lies in the "unaccustomed angle," as one critic perceptively notes, in which Butler casts his story. By questioning the comfortable assumptions generally held concerning marriage, family life, education, and religion, Butler was, figuratively, exposing the floor under the parlor rug in the Victorian mansion of complacency. Furthermore, and somewhat paradoxically, Butler's villains are not as thoroughly villainous as those drawn by Dickens. Butler concedes that even though George Pontifex was a tyrannical and miserly father to Theobald, he was quite successful when measured by everyday standards; to all but a few people, George's son Theobald was an exemplary clergyman; in the academic world, Dr. Skinner was widely respected. It is this kind of double vision by Butler which goes beyond an attempt to be fair, and into the realm of relative values where ambiguity rules and only the fully realizable self is held sacred. The crux of the novel, however, firmly centers on the necessity of an individual's rebelling against personally oppressive authority. When young Theobald succumbs to his father's will, he is destined to live a life of unconscious revenge. When Ernest successfully resists his father's will, he begins to reclaim his highest possible identity.
The many novels of maturation which followed on the heels of The Way of All Flesh mark its importance in literary history. The most notable of this group of novels includes E. M. Forster's The Longest Journey (1907), Arnold Bennett's Clayhanger (1910), D. H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers (1913), W. Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage (1915), and James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916).