The Way of All Flesh By Samuel Butler Summary and Analysis Chapters 22-26

Summary

Ernest's early childhood is recollected as an unrelieved succession of Victorian Sundays. Of the two parents, Christina is the more tolerable and affectionate, but her role is rather that of an accomplice to Theobald's tyranny than as a loving and kindly presence whose love and kindness are sorely needed. When Ernest, age three, cannot pronounce the word come correctly, he is whipped for being "self-willed and naughty." A measure of relief from this oppressive existence comes on Sunday evenings when the children are permitted to select their own hymns to sing. Overton confesses that "the sight of so much suffering" dissuades him from visiting the Pontifexes more often.

When questioned by Overton in his later years about his childhood, Ernest, perhaps out of stubborn family loyalty, refuses to wish he had been treated differently as a child. He is quite emphatic, however, in his insistence that the family as an institution should be confined to a lower species. His point is well borne out by the reproduction of a letter written by Christina to her children at a time of confinement when she feared that she would not survive the delivery of another baby. Her solicitude for her children's welfare consists entirely of admonishing them to be obedient to their father. Their own salvation is considered only in terms of a final day of judgment, and there is no reference to their happiness as mere worldlings. Overton sums up Ernest's early years by remarking that Ernest was made to suffer from "home-sickness," a kind of "starving, through being over-crammed with the wrong things."

Analysis

As in the chapters prior to these, the author provides further anecdotes, scenes, and philosophical digressions related to Ernest's painful early years in the Pontifex household at Battersby. Ernest continues to be mistreated, but his own nature is shown to be naturally good, trustful, and endearing. If there are no cowslips to make tea with in heaven, Ernest says that he would not wish to die, even though he might be able to sing beautiful hymns with his grandmother there. Life on earth, however, passes as an unrelenting endurance contest. As a clergyman, Theobald is even described as a kind of "walking Sunday." To Overton, Theobald's Old Testament readings find their objective correlative in the bees which mistake the Pontifex drawing room wallpaper design of roses as actual flowers. The bees traverse the walls "without ever suspecting that so many of the associated ideas could be present, and yet the main idea be wanting hopelessly, and for ever."

In these chapters, as frequently throughout the novel, Butler borrows from other of his writings on various subjects to comment on the phenomena of Ernest's early childhood. Overton takes a characteristic Butlerian stance, for instance, when he espouses the rule of clerical celibacy enforced by the Roman Catholic faith. Anglican clergymen are subject to unnatural tensions and their children are but defenseless objects of their suppressed anger. Furthermore, a man dedicated to defending an institution which for three hundred years had not changed "a single one of its opinions" is obviously unsuited for the role of father. Not content with limiting family life to a species of life lower than man, Overton would rid the world altogether of clergyman fathers. Such observations demonstrate that even before psychology was generally regarded as a scientific discipline, Butler held acute perceptions as a social psychologist.

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