Although cast as Ernest Pontifex's biographer and the narrator of the story, Edward Overton is the mature Samuel Butler, thinly disguised. His keen interest in his godson Ernest is that of an older and wiser individual who can dissociate himself from the folly of his own youth. Overton not only narrates the life of Ernest into his middle years and describes Ernest's antecedents, but he also comments on the significance of his godson's struggle to overcome his lamentable upbringing in order to reach a stage of development consonant with that of the idealized founder of the family, old John Pontifex.
The reader who insists that Overton and Ernest remain distinct entities will object to Ernest's gradual transformation into a second kind of Overton. Insistence of this sort, however, suggests obstinacy in refusing to accept the novel on its own terms. Overton, who was born in the same year as Theobald, is clearly a surrogate father whom the author not only wishes he could claim, but also the father he has been forced to become for himself. It is said that a wise father knows his son, of course, but a wise son also knows himself as his own father. Overton, therefore, fulfills a dual function in the novel: He is both the narrator of Ernest's life and the standard by which Ernest's progress can be measured.
Getting to know Overton, therefore, is simply another way of getting to know Ernest, for Overton reflects the character traits and values which his troubled godson increasingly appropriates for himself. The reader is given little factual information about Overton, but, from the very beginning of the story, he is made aware of Overton's accurate comprehension of Ernest's particular disadvantages as "the son of prigs begotten in priggishness." Overton immediately sets the tone and sharpens the perceptions which inform the reader of the dimensions of the forces which obstruct Ernest's progress. These forces are presented as the institutional forms of family, school, and church. Although Overton is not so much concerned with why these institutions have gone wrong, he painstakingly selects the most telling instances of how they are in error.
Overton, first and foremost, is the principal unifying element in the novel. He may occasionally digress on matters incidental to his main purpose, but he never bores his readers if they are in sympathy with the plight of his intelligent, honest, trusting, and sensitive godson. Through Overton, the author issues a warning to anyone who reads external signs as the truth. The truth is not easily discovered, Overton repeatedly implies, and when it is discovered, it rarely comes from the mouths of those who take themselves too seriously and speak in terms of absolutes.