English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920
Samuel Butler’s seminal evolutionary text Life and Habit (1878) and semiautobiographical novel The Way of All Flesh (1903) instill in modern readers a sense of the social discord of the late-Victorian period. The more well-known novel advocates a break with Victorian morality as professed through the Anglican Church and explores the inability to exercise the free will Butler believed people experienced because of the repressive religious culture and, more interestingly, genetically inherited habits and dispositions. The novel also illustrates Butler’s belief in the need to break away from one’s past and family to obtain personal happiness. A joint reading of Life and Habit and The Way of All Flesh demonstrates Butler’s textual interactions with and depictions of the British religio-cultural system. He shows that free will is unattainable and adaptation1 (whereby one moves from a personal self controlled by ancestral memories to a self free of these memories) cannot occur unless an individual suffers a significant physical or mental trauma that releases her from the control of these inherited memories. The connection between Butler’s nonfictional and fictional texts highlights late-Victorian angst about the place of religion in one’s life and reveals an increasing desire to determine one’s identity outside of the church and family. Moreover, Butler’s hypothesis that psychological trauma encourages positive changes in personal identity challenges both pre-Freudian and Freudian conceptions whereby trauma was more likely to induce hysteria or other mental illness.
Nielsen, Danielle, "Samuel Butler's Life and Habit and The Way of All Flesh: Traumatic Evolution" (2011). Faculty & Staff Research and Creative Activity. 218.