The Way of All Flesh By Samuel Butler Summary and Analysis Chapters 17-21

Summary

The birth of Ernest during the fifth year of Theobald and Christina's marriage is especially welcome news to George Pontifex, for Ernest is his first grandson. Wishing to mark the event in a special way, George personally enters his wine cellar to retrieve a bottle of water taken from the Jordan River. Unfortunately, he drops the bottle, but his servant's quick work with a sponge and filter saves enough of the precious fluid to be used at the infant's christening. The family dinner following the event goes exceedingly well, Overton observes, excepting George's extreme perturbation at being served a cock lobster instead of a hen lobster.

The dinner is also notable for the presence of Theobald's sister, Alethea (who asked to be Ernest's godmother), and the narrator, Overton (who was requested to be the second godfather). Overton makes a brief comment on his long courtship of Alethea, who, for some unexplained reason, has never consented to marry him. Neither of them, Overton observes, will ever marry anyone else. In writing about Ernest's christening many years after the actual event, Overton wryly asks himself, "Why cannot we be buried as eggs in neat little cells with ten or twenty thousand pounds each wrapped round us in Bank of England notes" before we wake to find "that papa and mamma . . . have been eaten by sparrows?"

The death of George Pontifex from a chronic liver condition caused by excessive eating and drinking elicits a eulogy from Overton. Admitting that the deceased had his full share of faults, Overton believes that, on the whole, George lived according to the pleasure principle which most unexceptional men should follow. If George had been a mean person, he was mean in the total sense of the word and not merely crabbed nor excessive in his virtues and vices. The observance of higher moral standards would have prevented him from obtaining the wealth he needed to live pleasurably. If he had been something of a miser, his money-gathering represents a talent which few people possess. "Judge him according to a fair average standard," Overton concludes, "and there is not much fault to be found with him."

Ernest is scarcely a toddler when his parents begin the regimen which continues until Ernest is sent away to school. Theobald does not like children, and Christina wishes that they could be born as "full-grown clergymen . . . with comfortable livings." Constantly on guard against leniency, Theobald gives his eldest child daily lessons and beatings to eradicate any signs of self-will in him or in his younger brother and sister. Christina obediently tries to follow her husband's example in child rearing, but she succeeds better in entertaining idle fancies about their futures than in administrating corporal punishment. Imagining herself grown more spiritually pure from having "left off eating things strangled and blood," Christina dreams of herself as a possible Madonna and Ernest as a reincarnation of Christ.

Analysis

Even after the birth of Ernest, the central character in the novel, the author, through his assumed identity as the aging Edward Overton, continues to center his attention on Ernest's immediate family and the family patriarch, George Pontifex. The hilariously comic incident involving the spilling of the bottle of Jordan River water also portends the kind of life Ernest will experience as a lay Christian and cleric. The reactions of Ernest's parents and grandfather to his birth confirm the earlier descriptions of them. George is exceptionally proud of acquiring a grandson who will continue the family name; Theobald exults in having produced a grandson before his older brother produced one; Christina rejoices in Ernest's being baptized with the holiest of water.

The chapter devoted to eulogizing George Pontifex is a late addition to the novel and therefore represents a softened attitude on the author's part. Butler may have been influenced in this respect from having written a biography of his own grandfather, a man of whom he had no personal recollection. The chapter is not without a desired artistic effect, however, for the reader is given the impression that no matter how bad a father George was, Theobald is worse. Having been brought up to obey his father's will and to suppress his own, Theobald resolves to stifle any signs of self-will in his children. Ernest, the firstborn child of Theobald and Christina, is unfortunately destined to suffer the initial wave of Theobald's self-righteous paternal resolution.

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