The Way of All Flesh By Samuel Butler Summary and Analysis Chapters 56-60

Summary

While praying for the stock market to behave properly, in the way God intends it should, Ernest grows restless and impatient at the delay. Thousands of souls are being lost hourly without being saved. Ernest determines to begin his campaign of saving souls by canvassing his own neighborhood. Immediately after making this vow, however, Ernest accidentally meets a former college friend, fittingly named Towneley, an individual perfectly and effortlessly adapted to the world. When Ernest awkwardly asks Towneley whether he likes poor people, the prompt and forceful reply of "No, no, no" produces a devastating effect on Ernest.

After rationalizing Towneley's rejoinder to be the voice of the devil, Ernest resolves to carry out his scheme of saving souls by first calling on the other tenants of Mrs. Jupp. Unfortunately, the result of this decision, to paraphrase Overton, is that one tenant, Mr. Holt, puts him in fear of physical harm; a married couple, Mr. and Mrs. Baxter, nearly convert him to Methodism; a lowly tinker, Mr. Shaw, undermines his faith in the Resurrection; and an alluring young woman, Miss Snow, nearly ruins his moral character. It is while he is speaking to Miss Snow that Ernest is startled by the unexpected and untimely arrival of Towneley, although "at his appointed time," as Miss Snow comments. Ernest goes back to his own room, where he agitatedly kicks his Bible across the floor. He then forces himself into the room of a second young woman, Miss Maitland, whom he supposes to be of the same moral persuasion as Miss Snow. Terrified by the sudden intrusion into her chambers, Miss Maitland flees in alarm to the street, where an overly zealous police officer is stationed. Moments later, Ernest is arrested on a charge of attempted assault.

Analysis

Ernest's "malaise," according to Overton, is comparable to a very young foal's inclination "to eat some objectionable refuse." In other words, Ernest needs guidance, for he is incapable of foraging for himself. Lamentably, he cannot discriminate between a series of attractive choices which are personified most prominently by the evangelistic Mr. Hawke, the theologically conservative Pryer, and the urbane Towneley. The disastrous conclusion of Ernest's short-lived evangelistic campaign is the climactic event in his increasingly severe befuddlement over his proper identity and course of action.

One of the strongest impressions one receives from these chapters is that the many assorted characters all act as foils to the vacillating and confused main character. Although these secondary characters represent differing philosophies and conditions of life, they all are firmly placed. Mr. Holt's brutality, the Baxters' Methodism, and Miss Snow's promiscuity, for example, may be in various degrees repugnant from an authorial point of view, but there is no uncertainty as to each character's identity. Ernest cannot recognize these qualities any more than Don Quixote was capable of distinguishing wrongdoers from windmills. Moreover, the narration is all the more remarkable in these chapters for preserving a comic tone while relating Ernest's pathetic catastrophe.

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