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28 "ISKMAEL" OR AiJTI-HERO? THE DIVISION OF SELF THE WAY Of AJLL FLESH By U. C. Knoepflmâcher (University of California, Berkeley) In I887 the wife of Samuel Butler's former art-instructor asked the satirist to endorse a new and controversial book on "the sexual question." The request was a natural one, but Butler's reaction was a flat refusal. His reply is revealing: At present ! have the religious world bitterly hostile; the scientific and literary world are even more hostile than the religious; if to this hostility I am to add that of the respectable world, I may as well shut up shop at once for all the use I shall be to myself or anyone else. Let me get a really strong position like that of Ruskin, Carlyle, or even Matthew Arnold, and I may be relied upon to give the public to the full as much as they will endure without rebellion; but I will not jeopardise what I believe to be a fair chance of future usefulness by trying to do more than 1 can do.' Suddenly unwilling to offend "the respectable world," Butler was readying himself for a new life of "future usefulness." But ahead were only his Odyssey theories, his Italian travelogues, his dogged justification of Shakespeare's sonnets, and the sentimentalized biography of the grandfather who had been acidly satirized in THE WAY OF ALL FLESH.2 From 1887 on Butler's creed resembled the aging Swift's "vive la bagatelle." The antagonists now singled out for combat — classicists, Shakespeare-scholars, and the imaginary detractors of Dr, Butler — were puny windmills for a man who had tilted first against the orthodox dogmas of Christianity and then against the possibility of an evolutionary world wihhout design. Only one product of this later period, EREWHON REVISITED, displays the originality of the earlier writer. But its tone is mellowed and subdued. The one work which would truly have aroused the "hostility" of Butler's contemporaries was cautiously concealed by the writer. THE WAY OF ALL FLESH was not to be published until after his death. Butler rationalized his failure to become a spokesman for his age by reassuring himself that Victorianism had driven him into an "lshmaelitish line" in literature.3 He saw himself, as Shaw did after him. in the iconoclastic role of "the enfant terrible of literature and science."* His enthusiastic Edwardian admirers took him at his word. They extolled his posthumously published novel and NOTE-BOOKS as symbols for their own severance with the past. Ernest Pontifex, social outcast and idol-breaker, was hailed as a replica of Butler and considered as the archetype for Maugham's and Lawrence's vital ist heroes. Later critics more than restored the balance. Butler became "not so much the Anti-Victorian, as the Ultimate Victorian,"5 a fin-de-siecle coward who, lacking 29 the arrogance of a Wilde, found refuge in the neurosis of his Erewhonian daydreams . Neither of these evaluations is wholly correct. But both crystallize the difficulties involved in ar. objective appraisal of Butler's work. The conception of Ernest Pontifex ¡s a case in point, Ernest's alienation from family, society, and religion is diligently supervised by Edward Overton, the novel's narrator, an elderly 'ishmael" at odds With the mores of Victorianism. At the novel;s conclusion, Ernest, now schooled in the ways of the world and of the flesh, is a'lowed to join Overton in his laughter at the foibles of society. Yet, at the same time, Butler regards Ernest's alienation as an act of "future usefulness," Paradoxically enough, Ernest's adoption of Overton's "Ishmaelitish line" allows the young man to recover the ancestral "self" of his great-grandfather , the carpenter John Pontifex, and érables him to will this "true" identify to his own children. Thus, it is not Ernest but Old John, a patriarchal master-artisan who could have easily stepped out of George Eliot's rural novels, who is the rea'i hero of THE VJAv OF ALL FlESH. Significantly enough, even the matured Ernest remains at best an imperfect facsimile of his idealized figure: although he regains some of his forefather's...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 28-35
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
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