Edward Overton Ernest's godfather and fictional biographer who initially acts as a detached and ironic observer and recorder of Ernest's Pontifex antecedents and his early years of development; later in the novel, he becomes an active force in promoting Ernest's maturation. One of the few idealized characters, Overton is essentially a mouthpiece of the author in his older and more mature years.
Theobald Pontifex The father of the main character and the principal target of the author's most ironic and biting satire. Bullied by his father and forced to become a clergyman against his own wishes, Theobald seeks to gain revenge on life by bullying his own children. To his wife and parishioners, however, he seems to be an exemplary man of the cloth.
Christina Pontifex Ernest's mother, a comically deluded dreamer and a source of both comfort and anxiety to her son. Although Ernest is her favorite child, she inevitably loses his affection from betraying him too many times to her husband, Theobald, to whose shortcomings she remains oblivious.
Alethea Pontifex An idealized conception of what Ernest would like his mother to be, she provides her nephew with nearly the only pleasure he experiences in his early years at home and at school. Her bequeathing a delayed inheritance later allows Ernest a life of financial security and independence of action.
Ernest Pontifex The main character; his delayed appearance in the novel emphasizes the importance of the conflicting traits of his inheritance and upbringing on his character and development. Modest, gentle, and shy by nature, Ernest is severely handicapped by a compulsive devotion to overbearing parents bent on teaching him all the wrong things. By virtue of his essential goodness and his adult experiences, however, he survives a series of incredible follies to reclaim his identity, a triumph crowned by his Aunt Alethea's legacy.
Mrs. Jupp One of the most brilliantly realized bawds in all literature, Mrs. Jupp, Ernest's landlady, supports Overton's observations about his godson's foolish aspirations to bring spiritual reform to the lower classes of London society. Her malapropisms and earthy humor provide hilarious comic relief.
Towneley A college friend of Ernest's who, in his unconscious but perfect adaptation to life, acts as a foil to Ernest and his bumbling efforts to find his personal identity and role in society. More a type than a fully developed character, Towneley yet shows admirable loyalty in helping Ernest during his most troubled moments.
Pryer The cunning and corrupt senior curate in the London parish in which Ernest is junior curate. He easily convinces Ernest of the need to establish a "College of Spiritual Pathology," then he absconds with the money Ernest entrusts him with for its founding.
John Pontifex The unassuming founder of the modern Pontifex line. A skilled craftsman, accomplished musician, and talented artist, he represents the highest stage of evolutionary development in his unconscious perfection and closeness to nature.
Ruth Pontifex Old John's wife; she gives birth to George at an advanced age for childbearing. Humorless, domineering, and obstinate, she introduces undesirable traits into the Pontifex lineage.
George Pontifex Following an apprenticeship, he assumes control of his uncle's publishing house in London, which caters to conventionally pious tastes. His early zeal for book learning indicates an unfavorable characteristic, that of conscious knowledge; his miserliness and tyrannical treatment of his children also sharply distinguish him from his father, Old John.
Mr. Allaby The rector of Crampsford and the father of seven children, notably Christina, the second of five unmarried daughters. When he tires of her prolonged engagement, he gently prods Theobald into honoring his commitment.
Mrs. Allaby An outwardly good woman who adroitly schemes to marry off her daughters; her powers are no better demonstrated than in her promoting the match between Christina and Theobald.
Mrs. Cowey A friend of Mrs. Allaby who, having succeeded in finding husbands for her own daughters, delights in lending her talents to the cause of Mrs. Allaby.
Mrs. Thompson A dying parishioner at Battersby who desperately seeks the comforts of religion which Theobald is unable to provide.
Gelstrap George Pontifex's butler; he is blamed for spilling the bottle of Jordan River water reserved for Ernest's christening. Actually, George is to blame and Gelstrap's quick thinking enables most of the water to be saved.
Joseph (Joey) Pontifex Ernest's younger brother and eventual curate to Theobald. He is too compliant as a son but, finally, hates his father more than does Ernest.
Charlotte Pontifex Ernest's sister, the embodiment of the worst Pontifex traits. She counters her father's will only in conniving to introduce higher ritualism into the Anglican church service.
Dr. Skinner A famous headmaster of Roughborough whose liberalism and learning seem a sham to Ernest, his reluctant pupil.
Ellen The unusually attractive and generally capable former domestic servant at Battersby whom Ernest marries. After Ellen's hopeless addiction to alcohol severely tests Ernest's powers of endurance, the discovery that their marriage is bigamous enables Ernest to regain his freedom. She is probably the least successfully portrayed character of prominence in the novel.
John, the Coachman He threatens Theobald with bodily harm when Ernest is discovered to have given Ellen a silver watch. His confession of earlier marrying Ellen releases Ernest from his supposed marital obligations.
Mrs. Cross A small shopkeeper at Roughborough, Mrs. Jones being another, who provides refreshments on credit to schoolboys with voracious appetites.
Badcock A sleazy sizar at Cambridge and leader of the Simeonites, a small group of religious zealots who live in extreme poverty.
Mr. Hawke A fervent and skillful evangelist whose passionate oratory moves Ernest to become a religious activist.
Holt A drunken and brutal wife-beater living at Mrs. Jupp's; Ernest quickly dismisses him as a likely prospect for conversion.
Emily Snow A pretty young girl of easy virtue who lives at Mrs. Jupp's. Ernest's attempt to convert her is futile.
Miss Maitland Another pretty young girl who lives at Mrs. Jupp's, but, unlike Miss Snow, her virtue is intact. She has Ernest arrested on a charge of assault.
Dawson A Cambridge friend to whom Ernest addresses several patronizing letters which outline his plans to found a College of Spiritual Pathology.
Mr. and Mrs. Baxter A married couple living at Mrs. Jupp's whom Ernest attempts to convert, but who nearly succeed in converting him to Methodism.
Mr. Shaw A lowly tinker whose knowledge of the Bible astonishes Ernest; he plants the seeds of skepticism in the porous soul of Ernest.
Mr. Ottery Overton's attorney; he advises Ernest to throw himself on the mercy of the court; later, he manages the weekly payments to Ellen after she agrees to a separation from Ernest.
The Magistrate He pronounces sentence on Ernest after delivering the most comically ironical speech in the novel.
Mr. Hughes Ernest's chaplain at Coldbath Fields Prison and the only clergyman to give Ernest sound and practical advice.
Mr. Larkin Overton's tailor; he sensibly shows why Ernest is unemployable as a tailor in a London shop.
"An Eminent London Doctor" He prescribes therapy for Ernest which is in accord with Butler's own views on the desirability of living in harmony with nature.
Georgie and Alice Pontifex Ernest's two children by Ellen; they prosper as foster children of a simple bargeman and represent the racial "memory" of old John Pontifex's unconscious perfection.
Mr. Rollings A robust and friendly owner and operator of barges who provides Ernest's children with a suitable home.