The Way of All Flesh By Samuel Butler Summary and Analysis Chapters 77-80 (72-75)

Summary

As soon as it is legally possible, Ernest and Ellen are married, and their efforts at shopkeeping are quickly rewarded with a prosperity more than sufficient to meet their immediate needs. The happy couple occasionally attend concerts and plays, and Ellen at first accompanies Ernest on Sunday hikes. Ellen is content to allow Ernest evenings to himself in the sitting room, where he plays the piano, reads, and writes. Overton recognizes his godson's literary instincts but objects to Ernest's preoccupation with scientific and metaphysical subjects. Overton is greatly relieved when Ernest finally drops these subjects after concluding that no tenable philosophical system can be based on an absolute first principle.

About six months after their marriage, Ernest returns home from a buying trip to find Ellen uncontrollably sobbing. Morning after morning the same phenomenon repeats itself, and Ernest, who does not suspect Ellen of drinking, assumes this strange conduct to be caused by her being with child. Following the birth of a daughter, Ellen remains sober for a few weeks but then relapses into her daily routine of hysteria whenever Ernest leaves the shop. As Ellen is again pregnant, Ernest does not suspect the true cause of her irrational behavior even after he discovers that she has been surreptitiously taking money from the shop cash drawer. More distressed by his wife's dishonesty than by the loss of money, Ernest gradually realizes his error in insisting on taking a moral position by marrying Ellen. As money worries once again begin to plague him, he becomes more and more despondent, the nadir of his despair being reached when Ellen suddenly comes down with delirium.

Analysis

The importance of the dual point of view in the novel is especially evident in these chapters, for Ernest at first enjoys good fortune, and Overton's apprehensions concerning his godson's marriage appear to be ill-founded. This streak of good luck for Ernest is destined to be short-lived, however, for Ellen lapses into her earlier addiction to alcohol, a practice she artfully conceals from her unsuspecting husband. Once again, then, the naiveté, inexperience, and trustfulness of our hero work against his better interests. After meeting what he considered to be a moral obligation in marrying Ellen, Ernest finds himself in as painful a position as he ever experienced at Battersby or Roughborough.

It is Overton's judgment, therefore, which is resoundingly confirmed by the events in these chapters. Not the least of his objections to Ernest's marrying stem from his apprehensions that the demands of keeping a small shop would impair Ernest's development as a thinker and writer. At first disturbed by Ernest's exclusive interest in abstruse philosophical and religious questions, Overton is relieved of this anxiety only to find that Ellen's hopeless condition prevents Ernest from having the time to think or write at all. At least the reader can be comforted by realizing that the author is not recounting an experience from his young manhood. His friend and biographer, H. F. Jones, reports that young Butler knew well enough how to distinguish between good girls and the other kind.

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