David Carter

Publication Date


Advisor(s) - Committee Chair

George McCelvey

Degree Program

Department of English

Degree Type

Master of Arts


To scholars of Victorian literature, Samuel Butler has always been a rebel who strikes out at society with wide-ranging criticism. After years of studying subjects as varied as music, art, biology, literature, and theology, Butler felt (like many Victorian writers) that he could make valuable social comments with his satires, travelogues, biological studies and one novel.

Critical studies of Butler have tended to treat in broad outline all facets of his life and work. This study, however, examines in depth Butler’s novel The Way of All Flesh, as the focal point of his critical analysis of Victorian society. It treats the work as a sociological novel showing the main character Ernest Pontifex manipulated by harsh societal forces and presents the thesis that man needs to be freed from restrictive social determinism. It is thus the purpose of this study to suggest that Samuel Butler wrote The Way of All Flesh to summarize his criticism of Victorian society and to set forth his plea for a society governed by the principle rational moderation in human affairs. To demonstrate this thesis, the present study will begin with Butler’s life, emphasizing his study with schoolmasters, exposure to the clergy, and life with his parents in an attempt to show the development of his unconventional attitude toward contemporary society. A short introduction to Butler’s life is particularly important to study of The Way of All Flesh because this novel contains a great deal of pure autobiography.

Following this introduction, the three strongest areas of sociological comment will be examined as they appear in The Way of All Flesh. Victorian schoolmasters, clergymen, and parents all force Ernest Pontifex to suffer a repressive existence. An inquiry into Butler’s criticism of these three social types and their influence Victorian society will form the main body of this study.

The next chapter of this thesis will be devoted to explaining how Butler proposes to solve the problems that he has introduced with his social criticism. Following this chapter, the conclusion will summarize the main ideas of this study and will deal with Butler’s critical reputation. Also the conclusion will show the debt our freer society owes to Samuel Butler’s Way of All Flesh by examining some similarities between his novel’s social criticism and other targets of social criticism found in four influential twentieth century novels of rebellion. It will finally be seen that Samuel Butler was not a flawless novelist (or for that matter, a flawless philosopher), but the critical message of his Way of All Flesh far outweighed the strengths or weaknesses of its artistic form for a whole generation of anti-Victorians.


English Language and Literature | European History | Literature in English, British Isles