Critical Essays Technique in The Way of All Flesh


It is quite possible and even likely that many readers will thoroughly enjoy The Way of All Flesh without a conscious awareness of its accomplishment as literary art of a high order. Overton leisurely unfolds the story of his godson in a simple, direct, and compelling fashion; there are no complicated flashbacks, intricate sub-plots, or other technical acrobatics. Digressions frequently occur, but they are usually unobtrusive and easily blend with the steady, chronologically ordered action. The absence of a dazzling or striking technique, however, is both deceptive and disarming. The effect of artlessness is in itself a notable artistic accomplishment.

The two foremost elements of technique in the novel are point of view and irony; they shall be given special attention in the sections which immediately follow. First, however, it is well to note the presence of other elements that contribute to the effect of artlessness which the novel achieves. Butler early espoused what he called a plain style in opposition to the ornamental or frequently extravagant style generally practiced during the Victorian era, often referred to as "fine writing." To say that Butler is a plain writer, however, is to oversimplify the matter; certainly he wrote unostentatiously and without drawing undue attention to himself. The attendant effect of effortlessness is, of course, appropriate to his articulated philosophical stance, the position represented by Overton and later assimilated by Ernest.

The structure of the novel is equally unobtrusive, for the straight chronological sequence begins with John Pontifex and steadily proceeds well into Ernest's adult years. No simpler structural scheme could be devised by any author. The point to remember, however, is that within this structure there exists a definite rhythm which both keeps the story moving and provides a desired emphasis and intensity. The alternation of story line and digression also contributes to the tempo. Positive and negative pulses follow in rapid succession from the start. This effect is comparable to that sought for by an artist who arranges the colors and objects on his canvas in order to capture the vitality inherent in his subject. Even before Ernest makes his appearance in the novel, he is at least figuratively tossed back and forth among his forebears, whose opposing characteristics vie for supremacy in the yet unknown and unexpected child. Throughout Ernest's early years, of course, the beat falls more heavily on the dissonant notes, but the sounds of hope, joy, and fulfillment — no matter how faint — are never completely extinguished.

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