Samuel Butler : Contribution to Novel

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      Samuel Butler (1835-1902) was the grandson of the Dr Samuel Butler, who was, in turn, Headmaster of Shrewsbury School and Bishop of Lichfield. Some idea of his childhood and his relations with his father, who was also in the church, can be gained from The Way of All Flesh, in which the figure of Theobald Pontifex is modelled on Canon Butler. He was educated at Shrewsbury and St John's College, Cambridge, where he won distinction in the Classical Tripos, and, after refusing to take orders, he unsuccessfully tried teaching. In 1859 he emigrated to New Zealand, and, after five years of successful sheep-farming, the first year of which he described in A First Year in Canterbury Settlement (1863), he returned to England to lead a life of leisured ease. Painting was his first hobby, and he was sufficiently successful for his work to be hung in the Royal Academy. But at the same time he pursued his interests in science, music, and literature.


The Notebooks of Samuel Butler were posthumously published in 1912. His reputation rests, however, not on these (though his studies in evolution throw a valuable light on passages in his fiction), but on his three novels, Erewhon (published anonymously 1872), its sequel, Erewhon Revisited, which appeared, with a revision of the earlier book, as Erewhon and Erewhon Revisited (1901), and The Way of All Flesh (1903).
Samuel Butler

      Butler's versatility and breadth of interest are reflected in his pamphlets and prose treatises. Those inspired by the Darwinian theory of evolution (a doctrine which, with certain reservations, he whole-heartedly embraced) include Life and Habit (1877); Evolution Old and New (1879); Unconscious Memory (1880); Luck or Cunning as the means of Organic Modification? (1887). His classical interests are reflected in The Trapanese Origin of the Odyssey (1893), his prose translations, in 1898 and 1900, of the Iliad and Odyssey, and the amazing The Authoress of the Odyssey (1897). Among his other miscellaneous publications were the charming travel book Alps and Sanctuaries of Piedmont and the Canton Ticino (1881); Shakespeare's Sonnets Reconsidered (1899); The Life and Letters of Dr Samuel Butler (1896); Ex Voto (1888); and Essays on Life, Art and Science (1904).

      The Notebooks of Samuel Butler were posthumously published in 1912. His reputation rests, however, not on these (though his studies in evolution throw a valuable light on passages in his fiction), but on his three novels, Erewhon (published anonymously 1872), its sequel, Erewhon Revisited, which appeared, with a revision of the earlier book, as Erewhon and Erewhon Revisited (1901), and The Way of All Flesh (1903). The first, a collection of a number of articles previously written, one as long ago as 1863, is the best of the many Utopias which appeared toward the end of the century. Church institutions, parental authority, the worship of machinery, and the treatment of crime were aspects of contemporary society which it satirized with a shrewd and penetrating irony. Its cloak of romantic narrative, its characterization, and the authenticity of its New Zealand setting gave it considerable popularity. Its sequel, Erewhon Revisited, is a more unified work, which is based largely on Butler's disbelief in the doctrine of the Ascension, here represented by Sunchildism, and the hypocrisy it entails.

      Again the sustained irony is most effective, and the work is full of mordant wit. The Way of All Flesh, published posthumously, is an important modern novel. Into its story of the house of Pontifex went much autobiographical reminiscence and most of Butler's chief ideas on life. It is a vindication of free will against Darwinian determinism, and an unflinching attack on the shams and hypocrisy of Victorian family life. It is remarkable for its frankness, its subtle study of the unconscious which gives depth to its psychological analysis, and the typical Butlerian wit and irony which are found throughout.

      An acute and original thinker upon social problems, Butler ranks as the greatest prose satirist since Swift. Shams and hypocrisies of all kinds, whether religious, social, or political, he exposed with a fearless honesty, and a humour which often turns into the most biting satire. As an indication of his influence on others it is sufficient to list among his disciples Shaw, D. H. Lawrence, Somerset Maugham, and Wells. He considered himself, to be primarily a thinker, but the artistic qualities of The Way of All Flesh are sufficient to assure him of fame when the views he expounded have all been abandoned or disproved, or absorbed as everyday common places.

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