The Way of All Flesh is the story of Ernest Pontifex, son of an upwardly mobile but hypocritical and domineering family living in the Victorian Period. Ernest struggles with his father's influence over him and with forming his own identity independent of his family's. The story is narrated by his godfather, Overton, a charitable man who disavows the hypocrisy of the Victorian Era. The novel is a sharp rebuke to Victorian morality and ethics.
The story is narrated by Overton, godfather to the central character.
The novel takes its beginnings in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to trace Ernest's emergence from previous generations of the Pontifex family. John Pontifex was a carpenter; his son George rises in the world to become a publisher; George's son Theobald, pressed by his father to become a minister, is manipulated into marrying Christina, the daughter of a clergyman; the main character Ernest Pontifex is the eldest son of Theobald and Christina.
The author depicts an antagonistic relationship between Ernest and his hypocritical and domineering parents. His aunt Alethea is aware of this relationship, but dies before she can fulfill her aim of counteracting the parents' malign influence on the boy. However, shortly before her death she secretly passes a small fortune into Overton's keeping, with the agreement that once Ernest is twenty-eight, he can receive it.
As Ernest develops into a young man, he travels a bumpy theological road, reflecting the divisions and controversies in the Church of England in the Victorian era. Easily influenced by others at university, he starts out as an Evangelical Christian, and soon becomes a clergyman. He then falls for the lures of the High Church (and is duped out of much of his own money by a fellow clergyman). He decides that the way to regenerate the Church of England is to live among the poor, but the results are, first, that his faith in the integrity of the Bible is severely damaged by a conversation with one of the poor he was hoping to redeem, and, second, that under the pressures of poverty and theological doubt, he attempts a sexual assault on a woman he has incorrectly believed to be of loose morals.
This assault leads to a prison term. His parents disown him. His health deteriorates.
As he recovers he learns how to tailor and decides to make this his profession once out of prison. He loses his Christian faith. He marries Ellen, a former housemaid of his parents; they have two children and set up shop together in the second-hand clothing industry. However, in due course he discovers that Ellen is both a bigamist and an alcoholic. Overton at this point intervenes and pays Ellen a stipend, and she happily leaves with another for America. He gives Ernest a job, and takes him on a trip to Continental Europe.
In due course Ernest becomes 28, and receives his aunt Alethea's gift. He returns to the family home until his parents die; his father's influence over him wanes as Theobald's own position as a clergyman is reduced in relative stature, though to the end Theobald purposefully finds small ways to annoy him. Ernest becomes an author of controversial literature.