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Showing 1-10 of 53 reviews(Verified Purchases). See all 98 reviews
on December 20, 2011
Published in 1903 (but written in the 1870s), this book is ranked 12th on the Modern Library list of 100 Best English Language novels of the 20th Century -- and it is quite good.

If you love big sprawling novels you can get lost in, you will enjoy this book. Spanning multiple generations, it is the tale of the Pontifex family, but focused mostly on the unlucky Ernest Pontifex. Hampered by a set of hypocritical and nasty parents, Ernest spends the first part of his life stumbling from mistake to mistake. It's handled in a witty way that makes it a comical tragedy. Butler was a very talented writer -- not only does he create wonderful characters, he brings their world to life and make you care about things like "high" versus "low" church debates. The narrator's voice is dry and enjoyable -- the book is packed with magnificent one-liners and well-phrased observations. Butler has a point to make about how parents treat children and the best way to grow to full maturity, but he doesn't neglect his story to make it.

As far as formatting, the Kindle version has pretty standard formatting. You don't have lots of white space between chapters (do you really need this to enjoy a book?) and you don't have a active table of contents -- but these aren't standard for free classics anyway. What you get is a free classic in a format that is perfectly readable with virtually no errors.
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on January 8, 2011
I won't comment on the Kindle edition-vs-the hard copy of this book, but on the book itself. Having heard of it forever, when the Kindle version came out, free, I went for it, and was amazed. It was written in the 1860's, but not published until Butler's death in 1903 or 1905, and the reader can see why. It's a semi-autobiographical novel about a young man growing up in rural surroundings in nineteenth-century England. His father, the local curate, and all the other "pillars" of English society are shown to be hopelessly pompous, ignorant hypocrites, while still believable as characters. When he finally comes into some money,independently, his entire wretched family pitches in to convince him, first, that he is unworthy of such good fortune, and, second, that he should give it all to them. Butler's writing style is to leave most of the dialogue indirect, so there aren't a lot of quotation marks in the book, but that gives him plenty of room to offer snide comments on the proceedings. The resulting style is like a three-way cross between Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Anthony Burgess.
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on May 15, 2016
I might not have had the patience to read this 19th Century classic when I was young but, having aged a bit, I thoroughly enjoyed the rich writing style, the gentle humor, and the word portrait the book created of another place, time, and sensibility.
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I'll share all the book details momentarily but here's the core of the story first:

Over the course of a century three generations of the Pontifex men transpired from solid and esteemed, to religiously fanatical and noxious, to naïve and repressed. Their respective spouses pretty much mirrored the husbands in both their outlook and their temperament.

The ultimate protagonist, (it takes a few chapters for him to clearly emerge as the human object of this compelling yarn), Ernest Pontifex, was the eldest son of an odious Church of England clergyman, Theobald Pontifex. Whatever amount of respect Ernest had fostered for his grandfather was notably exceeded in dimension by his contempt for his own sire. Theobald constrained even Ernest's most insignificant activities throughout the lad's youth and during his subsequent college years where this young unfortunate was compelled to study, (of course), theological subjects. Ernest's self-indulgent father also derived a perverse brand of joy from the Draconian disciplinarian acts that he perpetrated without cessation against his wretched son, ergo: "...spare the rod, spoil the child."

[But I must insert here that this is definitely not a gloomy Dickensian-type novel so don't quit reading quite yet!]

Ernest's most remarkable teen experience occurred on the day when an attractive, young household domestic was hastily driven from the home when it was revealed that she was soon to become a mother and the father was yet unknown to any but herself and her paramour. Ernest felt so bad for the girl that he chased after her carriage and gave the poor lass his watch and what little money that he possessed. This altruistic act, perceived as outright rebelliousness by Theobald and his nasty shrew of a wife, was rewarded with even further tyranny and psychological domination.

During his years away at a small but prestigious private school under the tutelage of one Dr. Skinner, an old profligate who ranked on a scale of malevolence only slightly less prominently than Theobald himself, Ernest's blameless nose was kept firmly applied to the collegiate grindstone although his marginal grades never reflected any marked fruits of such devoted toil. Only a singular figure within Ernest's extended family gave rise to hope towards any promise of future happiness: he had an aunt, (Theobald's sister), who in addition to being kind and motherly, was wealthy as well. She was also quite close to our narrator, Mr. Overton, a man of equal understanding and tolerance, tenoned with the highest of ethical standards.

And so it goes... Ernest works his way through college, into the clergy, (where he was as inept as he was miserable), and thence down numerous of life's pathways, chiefly as a consequence of events. Think of Ernest Pontifex as a Victorian version of Holden Caulfield, (the youthful and puerile protagonist of J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye.)

My copy of this remarkable novel is the Classics Club (Walter J. Black, New York) deep red hardcover edition (no copyright date but pretty old), with a helpful Note by R.A. Streatfeild prefacing the work, the man who saw Samuel Butler's manuscript through to its initial publication (all with Butler's deathbed permission) in 1902. Butler actually completed the book in 1884 but Streatfeild had to re-write the fourth and fifth chapters following Butler's death from the original working notes as that small segment of manuscript had been lost. Streatfeild did a fine job with this brief but enigmatic task and I could detect no inconsistency whatever in this transitory text. There are eighty-six chapters in all, spread out over 389 pages.

This fictional account is conveyed in First Person, (all from Overton's perspective), and the prose and dialogues flow as does warm honey. The story is bulging with a subtle brand of typically British wit, all nicely mingled with a notably robust account of period English culture, with a marked emphasis on (fictional) prominent figures associated with the Church of England. One unique caveat of Butler's writing style was his clever literary handling of the principals: the protagonist is not the narrator as we traditionally encounter in First Person novels.

I'm pretty well read in this particular era of European fiction and Butler's work much parallel's many of the positive features which we encounter in Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native (Modern Library Classics); Anatole France's Penguin Island, and; Ivan Turgenev's Fathers and Sons (Penguin Classics). This is first-rate literature -- during his lifetime Samuel Butler (born, 1835) also penned the well-known Utopian satire Erewhon.

In summary, this book is one of those little treasures which devotees of classic literature have to occasionally pry out of historical obscurity. It's nice that this superlative work has now seen various reprintings. I cannot recommend it highly enough for those who, like me, foster an unbridled appreciation for outstanding literature of this compelling era.
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on August 21, 2017
Salman Rushdie proclaims that understanding one life requires a knowledge of the entire history of the world. This immense book doesn't quite accomplish this goal, but it does provide enough background to give true insight into the protagonist. The pace is slow, and this might dissuade some readers, but the quality of the writing rewards patience. This is a classic that lives up to its acclaim.
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on September 13, 2017
This is a thrilling can't put down read. Awesome that the hero of this story is a woman. Scary in a way that this sort of act by terrorists can actually happen in real life. This book would make an excellent movie.
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on March 9, 2017
Sublime soap opera. Psychology has never been so innocently fun. He observes an interesting segment of the nineteenth century with a profanely divine love and detachment. A master work.
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on February 3, 2014
A scathing (especially considering the time when it was written) satire of mid-nineteenth century religion and mores. There were parts that made me laugh out loud and unlike many books from this time period, it was thoroughly comprehensible and held my attention.
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on December 14, 2016
Interesting ideas about religion and parent child relationships. Some of the characters are clueless about how their behavior affects the development of their children. Overall, a worthwhile read.
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on July 28, 2013
Published officially in 1902 after having been worked on through 1884, Butler's `The Way of All Flesh' follows the familial lineage of the Pontifex Family.

A very cumbersome story to read (it took me longer than the average novel, as of late), and certainly not something that should be read too quickly by consideration of the sheer number of humanistic foibles and lessons which are drawn out and elaborated upon. For example virtue and vanity (the latter being ever present and the prior always having a tint of the other in it) and other prominent concepts such as: parental lineage and the inevitable screwing up of the children, to some degree - the study of the Oedipus complex, to another degree - nature versus nurture or genetics versus the environment and importantly a brief study of epistemology, how we arrive at the truth. Suggesting that many of our made decisions are done so with concrete knowledge and concepts but are instead a `leap of faith', somewhat akin to Kierkegaard's concept, but more encompassing and less confined to theology alone, despite the work having a heavy theological tone and the characters playing that pious part.

Commencing with the protagonist's great grandfather and focusing minutely here, the story progresses to his son George, who then bears sons Theobold and John along w. a few other children. Only Theobold and Alethea become prominent characters.

Theobold becomes a prominent character by virtue of himself being the father of Ernest, the character which the narrator, Edward Overton, refers to multiple times as the stories `hero'. Ernest comes into more prominence once he's left home and escaped the abusive tendencies of his father. However, he is never truly free of these abuses, as his father's modus operandi appears to be to harass his eldest offspring as much as possible.

During the story we see Theobold, a man ordained, travel through his tumultuous history with his father and bring that history to the relationship with his son. His son, Ernest, is a slowly developing boy who's physical prowess drags behind his peers. He is all three physically, mentally and emotionally abused by his father. He is weak and generally impressionable because of it. He's also financially abused in that his father exudes threats toward his financial generosity should Ernest fail to pursue the path of clergy.

The fallout occurs when Ernest is arrested, after he's been ordained. Through a very vague series of events, he is jailed for six months. Upon emerging he severs all ties with his parents and goes on to live his own life for a handful of years while he also learns that he has lost every pound of inheritance that was left him by his grandfather to a fellow clergyman who was to invest the money in the `stock exchange' (one of the earlier mentions of this, historically, I'd imagine). He also marries a woman whom he took to be perfect, only to discover much later that she is a perpetual drunkard.

In secret Mr. Overton watches Ernest's proceedings while he is sitting atop a fortune left him by his Aunt Alethea. Having invested wisely Mr. Overton has increased the balance greatly, but it is only to be bequeathed to Ernest on his 28th birthday, per the agreement he'd made with Alethea.

The story rounds out with Ernest travelling home to spend his days with his family during his mother's final days. Here he does some standing-up for himself and appears to get many of his affairs in order, despite the closing lines - they all wish him different than he truly is.

`It is far safer to know too little than too much.' (350)

`There is often more kindness in plain speaking than in any amount of kind words.' (888)

`The more he tries to conceal himself the more clearly will his character appear in spite of him.' (1125)

`All animals, except man, know that the principal business of life is to enjoy it...' (1485)

`The devil, in fact, when he dresses in Angel's clothes, can only be detected by experts of exceptional skill, and so often does he adopt this disguise that it is hardly safe to be seen talking to an Angel at all.' (1551)

`We are fairly happy so long as we are not distinctly aware of being miserable.' (3592).

`Everyone has a mass of bad work in him which he will have to work off and get rid of before he can do better - and indeed, the more lasting a man's ultimate good work is the more sure he is to pass through a time, and perhaps a very long one, in which there seems very little hope for him at all.' (4215).
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