Upon hearing of Ernest's arrest, both Towneley and Overton rush to his assistance, but neither one is able to save him from being held overnight in jail or from the embarrassment of having his name mentioned in one of the journals. Before pronouncing sentence of six months of hard labor at Coldbath Fields Prison, the judge hearing the case reprimands Ernest for having betrayed his genteel upbringing. "At Cambridge," the judge intones, "you were shielded from impurity by every obstacle which virtuous and vigilant authorities could devise . . . but it seems as though their only result had been this — that you have not even the common sense to be able to distinguish between a respectable girl and a prostitute."
Even before reaching prison, Ernest collapses with an incipient attack of brain fever which leaves him bedfast for nearly two months in the prison infirmary. During his slow recovery, Ernest realizes his mistake of becoming a clergyman and convinces himself that the underlying principle of Christianity, the evidence for the Resurrection, is false. Once satisfying himself on this point, he embraces rationalism and determines to undo all the wrong done to himself and others from Christian teaching: He will try to persuade the Archbishop of Canterbury to publicly renounce Christianity as a monstrous hoax. In the meantime, however, Theobald has already renounced Ernest as his son. Overton, who assumed the burden of bearing the bad news of Ernest's misfortune to Theobald, is pleased by this development, for he is certain that Ernest's chances for straightening himself out are much better without further parental interference.
The speech by the magistrate to Ernest supports the judgment of those critics who place Butler in the company of Swift and Byron as a brilliant satirist. Ostensibly a reprimand of Ernest, the speech is actually the denunciation of the institutions of family, education, and religion for keeping young people in ignorance of sexual knowledge. The logic of the judge's reprimand is that since Ernest has been protected from "contaminating influences" since birth, surrounded by females intentionally selected "on the score of age and ugliness," and then assumed to be free of any impure thoughts by virtue of ordination, he should not be subject to any improper carnal desires.
Ernest's arrest and imprisonment represent the culmination of a series of grievous errors in judgment; his attack of brain fever symbolizes the collapse of a spiritual house of false cards. Unfortunately, however, Ernest's physical recovery does not signal a commensurate spiritual recovery. Ernest has yet to learn that truth does not come in the form of moral absolutes. Evidence for the truth of the Resurrection may not be incontrovertible, but lack of belief on this one point alone need not destroy one's faith altogether. Ernest would now have the whole world renounce Christianity by "salting the tail" of the Archbishop of Canterbury and, if it could be arranged, the Pope of Rome as well. The prison chaplain, however, will have none of Ernest's arguments; he wisely directs his charge to consider what he plans to do after he is released from prison.