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

Luigi D'Agnone


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.


literature; American studies; Samuel Butler



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