The Way of All Flesh By Samuel Butler Summary and Analysis Chapters 81-84 (75-78)

Summary

Following her breakdown, Ellen once again takes the pledge of abstinence. After she is delivered of a second child, a boy, her relationship with Ernest again improves, but she no longer commands Ernest's respect and increasingly resents his expectations of her. When Ellen relapses into drinking again, Ernest's lack of respect turns into hatred. He would take the children with him to America where he possessed of sufficient means, nerve, and energy. Ernest's physical and mental condition is such, however, that he can only grimly resolve to shoulder his burden in full expectation of being reduced to penury.

A chance encounter with John, the coachman, however, unexpectedly brings about a sudden reversal of fortune to Ernest. John, who is taken to Overton's living quarters by Ernest, tells of having married Ellen shortly after they left the service of Ernest's parents. Ellen, who began to drink secretly at Battersby, continued her tippling as the wife of John. Her conduct as John's wife was, in fact, much the same as it was when she lived with Ernest: near perfect when sober, but impossibly irresponsible when not. Upon hearing John's story, Overton and Ernest both experience intense relief, for Ellen's previous marriage invalidates her marriage contract with Ernest. Overton immediately arranges for Ellen to agree to a separation from Ernest and places the children in the care of his own laundress. He also hires Ernest as his secretary, for he believes that Ernest, now twenty-six years old, has suffered enough. As Overton's secretary, Ernest will, unknown to himself, be engaged to manage the fortune which he is to receive in two years' time.

Analysis

This group of chapters provides both the extremes of Ernest's distress and of his good fortune. Apparently fated to live out his life married to an incorrigible alcoholic, Ernest is released from his self-imposed obligations when hitherto concealed facts are revealed by his father's former coachman. If there is cause to complain that the rescue of our hero is arbitrary or capricious, it should be remembered that Butler firmly believed in the importance of luck in the determination of one's fate. Ernest, finally, is very lucky. He is, in fact, a lucky fool. Before luck comes to his rescue, however, most of the foolishness has been knocked out of him. Overton, something of a deus ex machina, wisely refrains from actively intervening in Ernest's life until he is certain of this fact.

These chapters also serve to advance other key ideas inherent in Butler's complex philosophical outlook. When Overton observes, for instance, that Ernest has been inoculated against marriage and poverty, he is ironically commenting on a human's condition as a biological organism which is subject to unalterable laws of nature. Ernest has already expressed his conviction that he, "a hewer of wood," as opposed to the unconsciously perfect Thwneley, must learn about life the hard way. Furthermore, the older and wiser Overton encourages Ernest to accept the principle of the perfection of unconscious effort even in the realm of finance: The best way to husband one's resources is to make safe investments which require minimal effort and risk on the part of the investor. In other words, the highest and best stages of humanity's development are discoverable whenever anything or anyone proceeds effortlessly and unconsciously.

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