As his son's principal antagonist, Theobald Pontifex is developed more fully than any character in the novel, other than Ernest. The numerous references to his own childhood and early adult years set a pattern which is repeated after Ernest first appears in the story. Ernest, however, responds differently to parental domination than did Theobald. As the weak-willed second son of George Pontifex, Theobald lacked the vigor and determination to follow his own vaguely conceived desire to become a seafaring man. Ernest, too, acquiesces in his father's occupational choice for him, but subsequently the help and comfort extended by Alethea and Overton, the merits of his own character, and the happenstance of sheer good luck combine to spare him the kind of death-in-life which characterizes Theobald's adult years.
Theobald represents the most lamentable characteristics of the Pontifex line, which were first implanted by Old John's wife, Ruth, and quickly came to bloom in George, their son and Theobald's father. Theobald's miserliness and living life out of duty and not for pleasure are his principal defects. His passive acceptance of his father's insistence that he become a clergyman is highly symbolic; George at least asserted his own will in becoming a businessman. Consequently, the weak and petty Theobald is the object of much devastating satire. When he callously forces his bride to order their wedding day dinner, for instance, he is treated in mock heroic fashion; when he frets at the demands of a dying parishioner who seeks religious solace, he is revealed as a man highly unsuited for his occupation; and, most significantly, his tyrannizing of his children exposes him as a man who is unconsciously revenging himself on life.
Theobald's course in the novel runs diametrically opposite to that of Ernest. When Ernest is an infant and small child, Theobald's dominance is complete; after Ernest enters Roughborough, however, Theobald's supremacy falters when he is burned in effigy; and when Ernest leaves prison, Theobald's disowning of Ernest is balanced by Ernest's renunciation of both parents and by his turning to Overton for fatherly protection and guidance. By the time that Ernest returns home to visit his ailing mother's bedside, the reversal of roles is nearly complete. That Ernest refrains from gloating over receiving Alethea's legacy leaves Theobald more to be pitied than scorned; it also confirms Ernest's basic decency. In the final analysis, Theobald's villainy resembles that of a schoolboy bully: To the defenseless child, a bully is a very vivid horror; to the mature adult, however, a bully is merely a pathetic aberration of nature.