Edward Overton, the fictional biographer of Ernest Pontifex, begins his story by describing three generations of Ernest's paternal forebears. As a small child, Overton knew Ernest's great-grandfather, John Pontifex, a carpenter who lived unpretentiously with his wife in the small village of Paleham until his death in 1812. Although lacking a formal education, John Pontifex was a naturally gifted artist and musician. A man of admirable character, he was held in near reverence by his fellow townspeople and especially by Overton's father, who much preferred Old John to his son, and only child, George.
As a boy, George Pontifex was quick, aggressive, and eager for book learning. After being apprenticed to an uncle who lived in London, George saw less and less of his parents and eventually became the sole proprietor of his uncle's business, a publishing house which catered to the conventionally pious tastes of the general public. George's own tastes were, like those who purchased his books, distressingly Victorian in every respect, from performing the grand tour of continental Europe in the prescribed manner to beating his two sons as regularly as he trimmed his beard. As a father, his main object was to break the will of his sons and three daughters; the most vulnerable of his children to attack was the weak-willed second son, Theobald, the eventual father of Ernest.
Theobald, whom Overton knew as a childhood acquaintance, wished to be a seafaring man, but he lacked the necessary courage to resist his father's plans for him to enter the Anglican ministry. After taking his orders, Theobald became an assistant to the Reverend Allaby, the father of five daughters of marriageable age. Christina, the second oldest daughter, gained exclusive matrimonial rights to Theobald by winning a card game in which he was the stakes. Christina, four years older than Theobald, was at the same time more and less stable than her intended. She knew that she wanted him for a husband, but he could not think of sufficient reasons not to want her for a wife; on the other hand, he was quite matter-of-fact and practical, but Christina regularly indulged in elaborate fantasies in anticipation of her role as a clergyman's wife. Following a lengthy engagement, Theobald finally, not without being firmly prodded by his prospective father-in-law, agreed to a wedding date; his having received a parish of his own stripped him of further reasons for delay. Once married, Theobald congratulated himself for honoring his word to Christina even in the face of his father's opposition to a financially unprofitable match. At home in their parsonage in Battersby-on-the-Hill, Theobald and his bride quickly settled into the strict and stern routine which would characterize their entire married life.
Unlike most fictional autobiographies, The Way of All Flesh does not begin with the birth of the protagonist; it beings with an account of his paternal forebears of the preceding three generations. The author's purpose, however, is not simply to provide a genealogy of the Pontifex line for its own sake. Butler, in keeping with the intellectual climate of his age, is ardently engaged in weighing the consequences of evolutionary theories and doctrines which were made popular by Charles Darwin and others. Butler's interest in evolutionary theories was, in fact, so intense that he wrote four books in which he presented his own views on evolution. Ernest's antecedents, therefore, take on a special significance as biological prefigurations of Ernest's own delayed groping and struggling to attain manhood.
John Pontifex, as Overton makes abundantly clear, represents the highest form of evolutionary development. A man of humble origins and modest attainments, Old John is nevertheless the kind of "mute, inglorious Milton" eulogized by Thomas Gray in his famous "Elegy." Very much at home in his world of everyday concerns, he found his greatest satisfaction in playing his own hand-built organ and in sketching and painting. His closeness to nature is symbolized by his words, "Good-bye, sun," which he speaks softly on the eve of his peaceful death.
George Pontifex, on the other hand, represents the qualities which Butler detests. Aggressive, bookish, and conventionally pious, George is extremely heavy-handed in rearing his children. It is in the depiction of George Pontifex that the reader can first witness Butler's skillful use of irony. When Overton advises parents who wish to lead a quiet life to point out their own perfection and to make their children believe themselves to be inferior and depraved, he is, of course, using George as a target for a satiric thrust. At this point in the novel, George is redeemed only by his ability to make money and to leave most of it to his heirs.
Theobald Pontifex, George's younger son, is but a pale shadow of his father. Essentially a passive and weak character, he lacks both convictions and the determination to carry them out. He accedes to his father's choice of a profession for him even as he allows himself to be drawn into marrying a woman for whom he feels little genuine attachment. Christina is also a weak person, but she is better natured than Theobald and certainly more amiable in her faults. She is perhaps Butler's most memorable character. Her precarious balance between loyalty to her husband and abandonment to her absurd daydreams is exceptionally well presented. When Theobald forces her to order their wedding day dinner at a wayside inn, the author not only captures the essence of these two characters and their relationship to each other, but he also displays his deft way of comically illustrating the significance of apparently insignificant events.
At least one other observation should be made here, and that is the narrator's readiness to digress whenever he chooses to do so. Modern readers accustomed to economical prose may have difficulty in appreciating a novel which abounds in digressions. What the reader must understand, however, is that these digressions are essential to the fulfillment of the author's purpose. Butler is not only telling a story, he is also disseminating a hard-earned and fervently held philosophy of life. Furthermore, as the reader discovers before the end of the novel, Ernest is the fictional counterpart only of the younger Samuel Butler, and Edward Overton is the older, and much wiser, same person. In other words, Butler is writing this novel as an apology: an explanation and defense of his life and final position. Ernest may indeed be the prototype of the modern anti-hero in the novel — he is not intended to be an Everyman — but he is, first of all, the representative of a class of young Englishmen who, for reasons largely traceable to their upbringing, find that they are ill-prepared for life. If earlier novels of maturation were concerned with a protagonist's quest for identity, The Way of All Flesh presents this quest with a vital difference: The protagonist is compelled to discover a philosophy of life compatible with his own best inherited nature which will enable him to overcome the severe handicaps imposed on him as a child by misguided and misguiding parents.