Critical Essays Irony in The Way of All Flesh


Even as the point of view in the novel is its principal unifying device, the extensive use of irony provides its distinctive flavor. Overton's witty criticisms of Ernest's tormentors and, subsequently, of Ernest himself are wrapped in layers of irony. He often says exactly the opposite of what he means, or he perceives a situation in the opposite way from what one ordinarily expects. When, for instance, Dr. Skinner reluctantly consents to be served a supper of bread, butter, and water, he fully expects and receives a dinner of banquet proportions. The humor is not without its point, for the anecdote perfectly characterizes the celebrated headmaster of Roughborough. Overton follows with the question, "How could it be expected to enter into the head of such a man as this that in reality he was making his money by corrupting youth?" After Dr. Skinner is set up as a master of self-deceit, the reader's response to the question is foreordained. The author has also, once again, skillfully demonstrated the significance of an apparently insignificant event.

Another kind of irony allows the writer to present his own deeply held philosophical theories under the cloak of humor. When, for example, an eminent London physician instructs the physically exhausted and nervously unstrung Ernest to undergo therapy by watching elephants at the zoo, the reader readily smiles at another of the author's oddly amusing but subtly persuasive truths. The prescription represents Butler's belief that people can gain restorative benefits by subjecting themselves to experiences which refresh their unconscious memories, that part of themselves which reflect their most perfect development.

Other kinds of irony are also present in the novel. The parody of an epigram which employs the technique of inversion, for example, is found in Overton's words of comfort to Ernest upon his separation from Ellen: "Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have lost at all." Butler delighted in "quoting from memory," as he whimsically called it, and particularly enjoyed wringing his own kind of truth from the poet laureate, Lord Tennyson, or any other source he considered unreliable. Irony also abounds in the names given to characters and places. Ernest, Theobald, Christina, Skinner, Battersby, Roughborough, Ashpit Place, and Coldbath Fields are only a handful of such ironic designations. Perhaps the most remarkable form of irony, at least in the sense of its prefiguring later novelists' extensive use of it, is the stream of consciousness observed in Ernest and his parents, most notably Christina. A clergyman's wife pledged to lead an exemplary pious life, she invariably dreams of herself as a popular heroine of high romance, be it as a martyr to her faith or as a mother of famous men. In reaping the harvest of irony in the work, however, the reader should be careful not to assume that the author's display of fairness to his satirized characters is necessarily another form of irony. In softening his blows just enough to convince his reader of a lack of malicious intent, Butler was more often than not guileless.

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