The Way of All Flesh By Samuel Butler Critical Essays Point of View in The Way of All Flesh

The point of view in the novel is from first to last that of Edward Overton, the author only slightly disguised. Everything the reader learns comes through Overton, an old friend of the Pontifex family who, significantly, was born the same year as Ernest's father. Overton's importance cannot be overstated, for he defines both what is related and how it is presented. He is usually on the fringe of the action as an observer, but from time to time he assumes an active role, particularly toward the end of the novel when Ernest is finally freed from his foolishness and insolvency.

It is not only Overton's point of view which serves as the principal unifying device but also his set of values which plays a crucial part in the novel by providing a standard for measuring Ernest's progress. Overton's relativism stands in clear opposition to Theobald's absolutism. In other words, Overton sees life more as a process and less as a product, more as becoming than as being. It is absolutism in all its forms, of course, that torments Ernest and obstructs his vaguely conceived quest toward an independent personal position. His course of action is roughly analogous to that of an occupant of a leaky lifeboat cast adrift on an uncharted sea which is violently beset by hurricane winds; the harbor light of Overton is always there although the harried occupant of the battered lifeboat cannot see it clearly until he chances to wash ashore at its very foundation.

The narration of the story from Overton's point of view allows the reader to know Overton as well as he knows Ernest. The result is that the novel thereby gains the same advantage as that achieved by the cinematic split-screen projection. The author simultaneously portrays his younger and older fictional counterparts. Some readers may object to the kind of influence exerted by Overton over Ernest, perhaps interpreting it as only another form of domination of the kind satirized in Theobald. Of the two paternal voices in the novel, however, Overton's is decidedly preferable. Another remarkable effect obtained from the chosen point of view, moreover, is the way in which it reveals the complex process by which the mature author comes to terms with himself as a young man.

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