The Way of All Flesh is often considered to be Samuel Butler’s masterpiece, and is frequently included in many lists of best English-language novels of the 20th century. Despite this acclaim, Butler never published it in his lifetime—perhaps because the novel, a scathing, funny, and poignant satire of Victorian life, would have hit his contemporaries too close to home.
The novel traces four generations of the Pontifex family, though the central character is Ernest Pontifex, the third-generation wayward son. The reader follows Ernest through the eyes of his watchful godfather, Mr. Overton, as he strikes out from home to find his way in life. His struggles along the way illustrate the complex relationships between a son and his family, and especially his father; all while satirizing Victorian ideas about family, church, marriage, and schooling.