The Way of All Flesh Characters

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1903

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social realism

Time of work: Nineteenth century

Locale: England

Characters DiscussedEdward Overton

Edward Way of All Flesh, TheOverton, the narrator. Born in the same year as Theobald Pontifex and in the village whence the Pontifexes sprang, he has known the family all his life. He has an intense dislike for Theobald but greatly admires Alethea Pontifex and takes an interest in Theobald’s son Ernest. Alethea makes him the trustee of the money she leaves to Ernest, and it is to Overton that Ernest comes after his release from prison. Overton straightens out Ernest’s affairs and helps him to reestablish his life. Overton is also the spokesman for the author’s ideas.

Ernest Pontifex

Ernest Pontifex, the older son of Theobald Pontifex and the hero of the novel. Because of his repressed childhood under the savage domination of his father, Ernest is a tragic failure. He does poorly at school and emerges from Cambridge unable to face life. He is ordained in the Church of England, not from conviction but from lack of preparation for any other career. He is a failure as a clergyman because he has no understanding of people. Through his extreme naïveté, a friend is able to defraud him of his grandfather’s legacy; through his ignorance of the world, he makes improper advances to a young woman and is sentenced to six months at hard labor. Upon his release, he meets Ellen, a former maid in his parents’ house who has been discharged for immorality. He insists on marrying her because he wants to drop from his position as a gentleman. They set up a secondhand clothes shop. Ellen proves to be a drunkard, and the marriage fails. Ernest is rescued only by the appearance of John, his father’s old coachman, who confesses that he is the father of Ellen’s child and had married her after her dismissal. Rid of Ellen, Ernest sends their two children to be reared in the country and devotes himself to writing. At the age of twenty-eight, he comes into his aunt’s legacy of seventy thousand pounds.

George Pontifex

George Pontifex, the father of Theobald and the grandfather of Ernest. He is a wealthy publisher of religious books who browbeats his children. He forces Theobald into the clergy by threatening to disinherit him.

John Pontifex

John Pontifex, his older son and successor in business.

Theobald Pontifex

Theobald Pontifex, his younger son, the father of Ernest. Forced into the clergy by his father, he obtains the living of Battersby. Thus, he can marry Christina Allaby, by whom he has three children. He is savagely ill-tempered with them as the result of his own domination by his father. His ill-treatment of Ernest almost ruins the latter’s life.

Christina Pontifex

Christina Pontifex, Theobald’s wife, one of five mar-riageable daughters of a clergyman. At their father’s suggestion, they play cards to see who shall catch Theobald, and Christina wins. She is a submissive wife, given to piety and romantic daydreaming, with no understanding of her children.

Alethea Pontifex

Alethea Pontifex, Theobald’s sister. She is more broad-minded and humane than he and, being independently wealthy, can help Ernest, whom she makes her heir without his knowledge.

Joey Pontifex

Joey Pontifex, Ernest’s younger brother, a clergyman.

Charlotte Pontifex

Charlotte Pontifex, Ernest’s unattractive sister.


Ellen, a pretty maid in the Pontifex home. She is dismissed for immorality and is given money by Ernest. Years later, he meets her by accident and marries her. She is a confirmed drunkard, and the marriage fails. He is able to get rid of her when he discovers that she was already married when she married him.


John, the Pontifex coachman, who defends Ernest against Theobald. He is the father of Ellen’s first child.

Dr. Skinner

Dr. Skinner, the tyrannical headmaster of Roughborough School, where Ernest Pontifex was a pupil.


Pryer, a London curate and false friend. He absconds with the twenty-five hundred pounds that Ernest Pontifex had inherited from his grandfather and that had been entrusted to him for investment.

Sources for Further StudyCole, G. D. H. Samuel Butler and “The Way of All Flesh.” London: Home & Van Thal, 1947. Treats Butler’s major works, with a chapter (mostly on The Fair Haven, 1873) devoted to discussion of Butler’s evolving views on Christianity.Daniels, Anthony. “Butler’s Unhappy Youth.” The New Criterion 23, no. 5 (January, 2005). Takes issue with many views expressed in The Way of All Flesh, arguing for instance that Ernest’s Christianity is narcissistic and self-absorbed.Furbank, P. N. Samuel Butler. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1971. Perhaps the best study of Butler’s life and publications. Describes The Way of All Flesh as belonging to the literature of conversion, a body of works including Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come (1678) and Saint Augustine’s Confessiones (397-400; Confessions, 1620).Ganz, Margaret. “Samuel Butler: Ironic Abdication and the Way to the Unconscious.” English Literature in Transition (1880-1920) 28, no. 4 (1985): 366-394. Charts the novel’s many ironic twists of sentimental phrases to show Butler’s abrogation of familiar assurances and his anticipation of twentieth century uncertainty.Guest, David. “Acquired Characters: Cultural vs. Biological Determinism in Butler’s The Way of All Flesh.” English Literature in Transition (1880-1920) 34, no. 3 (1991): 283-292. Discusses Butler’s understanding of Darwin; emphasizes the novel’s anticipation of pessimistic cultural determinism.Holt, Lee E. Samuel Butler. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1989. Asserts the book’s challenge was to show the near-destruction of a young man by the stupidity of his parents while describing a new type of human fulfillment not reflected in traditional terms of success. To this was added Butler’s theories of inherited evolutionary forces.Raby, Peter. Samuel Butler: A Biography. London: The Hogarth Press, 1991. A sound biography, better on the facts of Butler’s life than the content of his works. Discusses in some detail Butler’s decision not to be ordained as an Anglican priest.Rosenman, John B. “Evangelicalism in The Way of All Flesh.” College Language Association Journal 26 (September, 1982): 76-97. The novel charts the history of the influence of Evangelicalism in four generations of English society. Asserts that Butler’s use of scripture surpasses any other writer in English, suggesting that, although he criticizes the practices of Christians, he writes from a deep moral earnestness.Sieminski, Greg. “Suited for Satire: Butler’s Re-tailoring of Sartor Resartus in The Way of All Flesh.” English Literature in Transition (1880-1920) 31, no. 1 (1988): 29-37. Demonstrates how Butler composed his novel as a satirical response to Thomas Carlyle, whom he hated. Ernest does not seek action, but the humiliation of others.Zemka, Sue. “Erewhon and the End of Utopian Humanism.” English Literary History 69, no. 2 (Summer, 2002). Analyzes the key themes in Butler’s other well-known work, relating the themes to Butler’s critique of Victorian society. Addresses in passing Butler’s interest in various types of religious hypocrisy.
Categories: Characters