Climbing Down a Family Tree: Rejected Fathers in Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh


  • Luigi D'Agnone



literature, American studies, Samuel Butler


At the end of chapter LXVI in The Way of All Flesh (1903) we read: “The greater part of every family is always odious; if there are one or two good ones in a very large family, it is as much as can be expected.” (TWAF 313) The statement hardly leaves any room for doubt that Butler's overall purpose in his posthumous novel is to observe and criticize the typical idea of family. Nevertheless, it must be said that this fictional attack constantly maintains an ironic tone and, above all, never aims at destroying it as a social institution. Standing back from the text, we perceive a double movement of emerging rebellion against restraints and self-imposed respect for patriarchal moral education, which depicts the protagonist Ernest as a weak-willed person, incapable to escape his parents' influence. Moreover, Butler's sharp eye for paradox and linguistic reversal is the engine of a complex texture providing us with laughter and serious reflections at the same time, so to expose the main unsolved contradictions in the late nineteenth-century lifestyle. In this essay I will try to discuss on the one hand the challenges posed by the shifting narrator, both personified by the adult point of view of Mr. Overton and the innocent look of little Ernest, and on the other hand the reaction to traditional values with respect to parental, religious and literary models, all conceived as a whole category of overwhelming fathers.


Amussen, Susan Dwyer. An Ordered Society: Gender and Class in Early Modern England. New York: Blackwell, 1988.

Butler, Samuel. The Way of All Flesh, ed. by James Cochrane. Introduction by Richard Hoggart. London: Penguin Books, 1966.

Daniels, Anthony. “Butler's Unhappy Youth.” in The New Criterion 23.5 (2005): 11-17.

Stone, Lawrence. The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500-1800. New York: Harper and Row, 1977.

Verzella, Massimo. Samuel Butler. Disegni narrativi e figure del paradosso. Roma: Carocci, 2009.

Watt, Ian. The Rise of the Novel. Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1959.

Websites cited





Articles (general section) - American language, literature, and culture