The Way of All Flesh By Samuel Butler Summary and Analysis Chapters 51-55

Summary

Soon after taking his degree and being ordained as a curate, Ernest is assigned to a London parish. The senior curate, Pryer, is slightly older than Ernest and is a personable and persuasive conservative whose High Church views appeal to Ernest as much as did the diametrically opposed views of the Simeonites. Pryer's espousal of an odd mixture of clerical license and lay subservience to Church tenets gains Ernest's support, and the two of them soon agree on founding a College of Spiritual Pathology. They intend to treat people's souls in the manner that physicians treat bodies and thereby bring church practices up-to-date with developments in the field of science. Ernest not only pledges the inheritance from his grandfather to this cause but also writes solemn, pompous, and patronizing letters to his college friends, describing his design to regenerate the Church and the nation.

Upon visiting Ernest in his living quarters — appropriately named Ashpit Place, a squalid quarter of the oldest section of London — Overton is vexed to learn of Ernest's ill-conceived plans. Mrs. Jupp, Ernest's cockney landlady, supports Overton's judgment by referring to Ernest as "knowing no more than an unborn babe." The metaphor is more appropriate than either of these two people realize, for Ernest soon permits Pryer to assume the entire responsibility of investing his money in the stock market so that the anticipated profits from the expected "quick killing" will hasten their implementation of God's work in the world. Unfortunately, in attempting to play the Good Shepherd, Ernest unwittingly allows himself to become a sacrificial lamb.

Analysis

These chapters demonstrate the severe handicap imposed on a young man who enters the workaday world insufficiently prepared. As Overton observes, Ernest's belated discovery of his abilities and self-confidence as a student at Cambridge is, as it were, "nipped by a late frost." Having caught the fever of evangelism, Ernest welcomes ordination as a curate only to play the fool by rushing into a ghetto where angels would certainly fear to tread. Moreover, Ernest's only angelic qualities are an apparently limitless naiveté and blind trust in anyone to whom he takes a fancy. If Ernest is more the fool, his fellow curate, Pryer, is clearly the knave. In attaching himself to Pryer, Ernest disregards both the questionable nature of Pryer's morality and his theology. Worst of all, Ernest allows Pryer the management of his financial resources.

At the same time that Ernest is sinking further and further into the chasm he is digging for himself, two other characters, Overton and Mrs. Jupp, act as observers and commentators on the young man's folly. Mrs. Jupp is remarkable as a character type that dates back to Chaucer's Wife of Bath and includes the most celebrated bawds in English literature — Shakespeare's Mistress Quickly, Laurence Sterne's Mrs. Slip-Slop, and even in a different sense, Richard Sheridan's Mrs. Malaprop. Although of the lowest class and lacking a formal education, Mrs. Jupp possesses an instinctive wisdom which enables her to share Overton's skeptical attitude toward his godson's antics. If she is only of incidental importance to the central action of the novel, Mrs. Jupp is nevertheless a brilliant triumph of characterization and brings riotously comic relief at a time when the main character could well be written off by the reader as one of the world's greatest dupes.

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