Last reviewed: June 2018
English novelist, essayist, and artist.
December 4, 1835
June 18, 1902
Samuel Butler, English novelist and essayist, was born in the village of Langar, in Nottinghamshire, England, on December 4, 1835. He was the son of the Reverend Thomas Butler and the grandson of a bishop of Lichfield, a clerical ancestry that would have its influence on his writings. Butler was educated at St. John’s College, Cambridge, and was intended for the church; because of his religious doubts, however, he declined to take orders, preferring to study painting. The resulting estrangement from his father led him to leave England in 1859 for New Zealand, where he spent five years in sheep farming. He became interested in the theories of Charles Darwin and wrote the essay “Darwin among the Machines” (1863), the germ of Erewhon (1872). Returning to England in 1864, he continued his painting, exhibiting regularly, and also composed music. He became a friend of Darwin but disagreed with the latter’s theory of evolution and wrote several books to advance a theory of his own, which was never taken very seriously by scientists. Samuel Butler.
Butler’s next phase was classical. He became interested in the Homeric question, maintaining that the Iliad and the Odyssey were by different authors and that the latter was written by a woman. Like his books on evolution, these writings now belong to the curiosities of literature.
Butler’s importance lies in his contribution to the reaction against Victorianism. Erewhon (“nowhere” in reverse) is a satire on the machine age and was the forerunner of several modern novels. By depicting a society in which the possession of any mechanical device is illegal, he made fun of nineteenth-century industrialism and then proceeded to satirize much of Victorian morality. In Erewhon, sickness is a crime, while crime is a sickness and is treated as such. Thus, society’s attitude toward morals is the product of convention; it is as illogical to condemn a man for stealing as to condemn him for contracting influenza.
Perhaps Butler’s most important novel, however, is The Way of All Flesh (1903), written between 1873 and 1883 but not published until a year after his death. This book, which George Bernard Shaw claimed had influenced him greatly, is a satiric portrait of Butler’s own childhood. Theobald and Christina Pontifex are modeled on his parents, while Butler himself appears twice: as Overton, the narrator, and as Ernest, the repressed son. The work is a blistering indictment of the worst aspects of Victorian family life, with its excessive strictness, exaggerated piety, and hypocrisy. The book is hardly a novel; it is more a series of essays in which Butler attacks the shams of the world of his childhood in a clergyman’s family, and at the same time expresses his philosophy of common sense. His hero is the prototype of the modern youth who revolts against his parents’ mores and eventually builds a life of his own. It is the story of Butler’s own struggle for freedom.
Butler died at a nursing home in London on June 18, 1902, age sixty-six.