As a student at Emmanuel College of Cambridge University, Ernest is conscious of being happy for the first time in his life. Freedom of movement, comfortable surroundings, and the companionship of desirable friends all contribute to his sense of well being. Lacking ambition as a scholar, Ernest at least gains a modest reputation as an intellectual after arguing in an undergraduate magazine that the reputations of some of the classical Greek dramatists — Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides — are greatly exaggerated. This one essay is to remain his only triumph, however, until he surprises himself, his friends, and his family by completing an honors degree in mathematics and classics.
During his last year at Emmanuel, Ernest, along with other of his classmates who plan to enter the Anglican ministry, becomes more attentive to religious topics. Ernest is especially attracted to the Simeonites, a group of evangelistically fervent students of all ages who eschew the comforts of ordinary society to live piously among themselves in extreme poverty. After Ernest falls under their spell, he vows to renounce his habitual pipe smoking, a step which he hastily retracts. When he writes to his family of his new awakening to Christ, Christina and Theobald are greatly disturbed: Religious faith, even among the clergy, is to be exercised in moderation. Ironically, Ernest's period of religious enthusiasm comes at a period in English history in which skeptical currents were becoming popular with the public.
Ernest's four years at Cambridge are presented as a pleasant interlude between periods of strife. Neither boy nor man, Ernest experiences a reprieve from the misery of his earlier years and the harrowing experiences which will complicate his forthcoming years of early manhood. Once given the opportunity to find himself in a congenial atmosphere, Ernest reveals flashes of brilliance and yet fails to gain the knowledge of himself and of the world which he needs in order to attain manhood. His interpretation of the eminent classical Greek dramatists as important to their contemporaries only in the way most Victorian clergymen are to their congregations is nevertheless an indication of the kind of clever insight which readers associate with the mature satirical genius of Butler. Ernest, however, lacks both the appreciation of his unique talent and the method by which he can develop it. In other words, he has never been allowed by his elders, and consequently does not allow himself, to entertain the idea that he possesses distinctive intellectual gifts.
The pilgrimage of Ernest to manhood is considerably helped by the Cambridge years, and yet our hero's lack of self-assurance leads him toward misadventures, mostly of his own making. In abandoning his developing sense of humor and ability to think for himself by engaging in mindless evangelical enthusiasms, Ernest becomes susceptible to the follies which will burden him for the next five years of his life. With the incipience of a new crisis, therefore, the rhythm of the novel is regained: The hero at college may be relatively happy, but this period of tranquility is neither described in detail nor permitted to continue beyond Ernest's taking of a university degree.