The Way of All Flesh By Samuel Butler Summary and Analysis Chapters 39-44

Summary

Upon learning of Ellen's sudden dismissal from the Pontifex household, Ernest runs several miles in pursuit and finally intercepts the carriage bearing her away. He insists that she take his silver watch, pen knife, and his small amount of pocket money to ease her plight. At the urging of John, the coachman, she accepts these gifts and promises to repay him for them at a future time. In order to explain the loss of his possessions to his parents, Ernest fabricates a story which momentarily assuages their anger and suspicions. Soon thereafter, however, Theobald finds the missing watch at a pawnbroker's shop and uses his discovery to force Ernest to confess not only to his charity to the disgraced Ellen but also to his and other Roughborough boys' delinquencies at school.

Once Ernest breaks his resolve to withhold information about these practices — relating to the vices of profanity, smoking, drinking, and running up bills of credit — Theobald compiles a chart on each of the schoolboys' individual conduct and submits it to the headmaster, Dr. Skinner. Ernest is punished in every way possible at the beginning of the new term and all the boys are confined to grounds. By voluntarily confessing to the other boys about his guilt in telling tales out of school, Ernest receives their forgiveness. Dr. Skinner's prompt burning of the report given him by Theobald in the latter's presence both limits the severest penalties to Ernest and deters Theobald from interfering again in school affairs. When the boys choose Theobald to burn in effigy on Guy Fawkes day — which is also the day of Ernest's confirmation into the Church — Theobald remains silent. Ernest's remaining days at school pass without further incident. By the time he leaves Roughborough, Ernest has earned at least a modicum of approval from Dr. Skinner in spite of practicing the organ with much more ardor than he could ever muster for his academic lessons.

Analysis

The two major incidents involving Ernest which are described in these chapters — the attempted concealment of his gifts to Ellen and confessing to his own and other schoolboys' vices — are important in completing the indictment of Christina and Theobald as incompetent parents. Butler's dramatic abilities are nowhere more apparent than when Christina attempts to coax Ernest into confessing to her the nature of his relationship with Ellen in one of Christina's memorable "sofa talks." In keeping with her past fantasies, Christina is disappointed to learn that her son cannot possibly be "a kind of Joseph and Don Juan."

Theobald, on the other hand, is in no way redeemed by comical treatment. Having discovered Ernest's attempt to conceal his help to Ellen, Theobald relentlessly works on Ernest's financial worries to extort the most exact details not only of Ernest's, but the entire lot of Ernest's schoolmates', wayward habits. The burning of Theobald in effigy symbolizes his incarceration as a kind of "devil"; Ernest's confirmation on the same day, November 5, or the day the English annually observe the seventeenth-century Guy Fawke's plot to destroy Parliament, foreshadows Ernest's unpromising future as a follower of the Christian faith in the same way as the spilling of the holy water prior to Ernest's christening. A hopeful sign can be discerned, however, when Ernest leaves Roughborough after his graduation: He looks out of the window of his train to laugh at the sun, remembering how he helped to burn his father in effigy. Ernest's better and truer nature, symbolized by an act reminiscent of old John Pontifex's closeness to nature, has not been completely stifled.

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