The Way of All Flesh By Samuel Butler Summary and Analysis Chapters 72-76 (70-72)

Summary

Ernest relishes the comforts of Overton's room but declines to stay more than a few days with his gracious host. Theobald and Christina call on Overton without pointedly asking him about their son's whereabouts. After moving into rooms of his own, Ernest seeks work as a tailor, albeit fruitlessly. The problem, as Overton's tailor explains, is that Ernest is hopelessly handicapped by his age and genteel background; tailors, who begin their apprenticeship at an early age, simply will not accept him into their ranks. While growing despondent from the bleakness of his prospects, Ernest chances to meet Ellen, the former servant at Battersby who was dismissed when it was discovered that she was pregnant. Without realizing that she is a streetwalker, Ernest renews his acquaintance with Ellen as though he were the one who had fallen into greater disgrace.

Ernest's defensiveness increases when Ellen chides him for disparaging his parents and recalls her years in their service with pleasure. He is nonetheless infatuated with Ellen, who has lost little of her attractiveness in spite of the dissolute life she has led since leaving Battersby. Her attractiveness to him is, in fact, so great that Ernest quickly determines that he wants her to be his wife. Overton, the incarnate bachelor, is dismayed by this news and attempts to dissuade Ernest from committing yet another impulsive and foolish act. Ernest will not be deterred, however, especially after Ellen suggests that they open a used-clothing shop, a line of endeavor in which she has had experience. Overton once again resigns himself to his godson's will by offering financial help to the young couple so that they can obtain a shop which will also provide living quarters.

Analysis

That Ernest has not yet succeeded in attaining full maturity is amply demonstrated in these chapters. By this point in the story, the reader has become accustomed to rely on Overton's judgment, and Overton instinctively judges Ernest's involvement with Ellen to be imprudent. Ernest believes Ellen to be an answer to his prayers; Overton, on the other hand, observes that people who think of themselves as favored by Providence are usually self-deluded. Overton admits that as a confirmed bachelor he is constitutionally opposed to marriage, but he also senses that Ellen's background, especially her resorting to prostitution to satisfy an addiction to alcohol, does not bode well for the future of a young man who is destined to regain a respectable position in society when he comes into a delayed inheritance.

Clearly, then, Ernest's trials and tribulations are certain to continue. Having realized the impracticality of his religious and educational training and the harm caused by his parents' baleful influence, Ernest has not yet learned the essential matter of how to govern his sexual impulses. His deficiency in this matter, of course, was vividly presented in the earlier episode involving Miss Maitland. When Ernest agitatedly wanders the streets of London at night without effecting a satisfactory liaison, Overton dryly remarks, "What he wanted was in reality so easily to be found that it took a highly educated scholar like himself to be unable to find it." Ernest's incapacity to distinguish a respectable girl from a prostitute is again shown when he rashly proposes marriage to Ellen. His setting himself up as a tradesman, however, underscores a central theme in the novel: No matter how much foolishness he has yet to rid himself of, Ernest possesses at least a modicum of common sense to justify Overton's and the reader's concerns for his welfare.

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