Places: The Way of All Flesh

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1903

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social realism

Time of work: Nineteenth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*England

*England. Way of All Flesh, TheAll events in this novel take place in Victorian England, a powerful society which presided over a vast British Empire. Armed with an aggressive confidence and a puritanical morality, Victorian England is depicted in Butler’s novel as both preposterous and dangerous and as having an especially dire effect on the young.


Battersby-on-the-Hill. Small English farming village that is based on Butler’s own childhood home at Langar Rectory near Nottingham. Dominated by a large hilltop rectory, this clergyman’s abode appears to be a cherished stronghold of Victorian family values, but it is here that Ernest is subjected to incidents in which his natural trust and affection is betrayed by his father, the rector Theobald Pontifex, and his slavishly devoted wife Christina. For Ernest, the rectory, which appears idyllic, is in reality the venue where his complacent, self-congratulatory parents subject him to relentless abuse. Battersby-on-the-Hill’s name suggests the psychological and physical battering Ernest must endure at the hands of his parents.

Roughborough Grammar School

Roughborough Grammar School. School that Ernest attends. Typical of the exclusive British public schools of its day and based on the Shrewsbury School, which Butler attended as a child, this school is presided over by Dr. Skinner, a character modeled on the headmaster who succeeded Butler’s own grandfather. Seemingly a figure of unassailable moral rectitude, Dr. Skinner is portrayed as foolish, pedantic, and self-deluding. At Roughborough, whose name, like that of Ernest’s home, is apt, Ernest struggles against an impervious educational system that seems to exist solely to dog him with demerits. His only safe haven is his kind Aunt Alethea, who has moved to the area to make his life bearable.

Emmanuel College

Emmanuel College. Fictionalized college of Cambridge University. Cambridge has an Emmanuel College, but Butler based this setting on St. John’s College, Cambridge, which he attended himself. This setting is distinctive in that it is one of the few places in which Ernest finds himself truly happy. Cambridge University, located in the south of England and long renowned as one of the finest universities in England, is presented as a venue in which personal development and intellectual freedom are valued far more than in the rest of Victorian England. It is here, however, that Ernest comes under the baleful influence of his classmate Pryer, who persuades him to invest money unwisely in a venture called the College of Spiritual Pathology. It is at Cambridge that Ernest also becomes fervently religious and is ordained as a minister.

Ashpit Place

Ashpit Place. Small working-class street in London near Drury Lane Theater. A more raffish, fictional version of Heddon Street, in which Butler actually lived during this time of his life, it is in a boardinghouse here, run by the colorful and eccentric Mrs. Jupp, that Ernest attempts to convert and minister to the poor. However, Ernest fails to do anyone in the area any good and instead undermines his own faith in his vocation. After mistaking a respectable boarder for a prostitute, Ernest is sentenced to six months in jail.

Coldbath Fields

Coldbath Fields. Prison to which Ernest is sentenced to six months of hard labor. Here he loses his religion, realizes he is nothing but an insufferable prig, and begins to sense a great chasm opening up between his past and his future.

*Blackfriars Bridge Road

*Blackfriars Bridge Road. Street on the south side of the River Thames near the public house known as the “Elephant and Castle,” where Ernest and his wife, the former Pontifex housemaid Ellen, live above a shop where they sell old clothes and books. It is here that his two children are born and where his wife reverts to her old, alcoholic ways.

*The Temple

*The Temple. Set of courts and buildings in London by the Thames, with rooms originally intended for lawyers. Here Ernest finally lives as a contented bachelor and finds his true vocation writing iconoclastic books which question the conventional wisdom of the Victorian era.

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: Places