Sunday, January 29, 2006

Yikes, I didn't mean that last post to be so depressing. I just get tired of the doomsayers! The end may very well be nigh, but that doesn't necessarily mean things are any worse than they've ever been. Different, yes, but worse? Frankly I'm perfectly happy not to have to test my faith against lions and gladiators.

I was thinking about sinning clergy while reading The Way of All Flesh. There are many examples of the subject in the novel, the greatest being the serious emotional abuse that Theodore Pontifex, a well-respected clergyman, inflicted upon his children, but the one that particularly struck me was the practice of buying a living. This concept comes up all the time in English literature (the privilege supposedly taken away from Wickham in P&P, for instance), and it's a bizarre one. Taking orders was a career like any other during that time, one for second sons or less-privileged men, rather than a calling. And if you wanted a good place, you'd better have some cash available. Is this really any better than current clergical sins? Can we claim that people in the 19th century were really more devout or Biblically literate? More of them may have been able to recite their chatecism, but I'm not sure that counts, and they certainly didn't all go to church. The narrator of The Way of All Flesh didn't, nor did several of the other characters, and even the protagonist rejects Religion in the end.

Speaking of the time frame, I realized that the reason I liked this book so much was because it didn't really belong on a list of modern novels. While it was published after the turn of the century, Butler actually wrote it in the 1870's, so it's set in an era in which I feel right at home. It's a good novel, too, though it begins weakly; I nearly despaired when after the first 50 pages I still wasn't sure who the hero was. Actually I think it ends weakly too, but that may be intentional. As I said, the protagonist rejects Religion, but he never really understood it in the first place. He never had a relationship with God, so he couldn't sever it; rather, he turned his back on the church and his father's idea of Religion. And I can hardly blame him.

Poor Ernest Pontifex grew up under the tyranny of selfish and narrow-minded parents. He was sent to a school that seemed indifferent to providing moral strictures or regulations of any kind until forced, and the aunt who befriended him died suddenly. The woman he fell in love with turned out to be a drunkard, and his desires to live a quiet, simple, common life were trampled by everyone around him. The narrator, an old family friend, comes off as Ernest's savior, but only in a material sense. In the end Ernest is just as lost as he ever was, and maybe that is the way of all flesh.

Oh dear, this post is depressing too.

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