Summary and Analysis
Chapters 67-71 (66-69)
After two months of convalescence in the infirmary, Ernest is told by the prison chaplain that Pryer absconded with the remainder of his inheritance. Ernest immediately abandons his plan to emigrate to Australia or New Zealand and decides, instead, to become a tailor. Following the completion of his apprenticeship at this trade, Ernest is praised for learning as much in three months as most inmates learn in a year. More pleased with his lessons in tailoring than he ever was with those in Greek and Latin, Ernest also enjoys another kind of relief from the restrictions of prison life by serving as chapel organist. Perhaps the most beneficial aspect of his confinement, however, is the time he has to think about the new life he must begin when he regains his freedom.
Most of Ernest's thoughts focus on religion and his parents. Although he is depressed to learn of his penury, he is not as alarmed by this fact as would be a mature adult. According to Overton, the loss of money is far worse than the loss of one's health or reputation; Ernest, on the other hand, is far more concerned with the threat to his welfare posed by his parents. At first outraged by his son's misconduct and imprisonment, Theobald gradually becomes more conciliatory toward Ernest and is prepared to offer him a small sum to begin life anew as an office clerk. Ernest, determined to be independent, reaches the conclusion that he must give up his parents for Christ's sake, and he does just that. When Theobald and Christina confront him upon his release, Ernest curtly tells them to think of him as one who is dead. In making a complete break with his parents, Ernest executes his conviction that the highest possible religious principle is the pursuit of self-satisfaction. Emotionally drained by his ordeal, Ernest resolutely seeks out the only person in whom he can confide, his friend and godfather, Edward Overton.
Unlike Charles Dickens and other nineteenth-century writers who vividly described the horrors of life in English prisons, Butler presents Coldbath Fields as perhaps the most enjoyable and beneficial environment of Ernest's life. Critics have often cited this innovation as unrealistic and therefore as a weakness in the novel. The relative comfort Ernest experiences, however, is not beyond credibility, and the reader should recognize that a basic theme of the novel is supported by Ernest's finding prison more to his liking than any of his previous residences, especially Battersby and Roughborough. The irony which Butler achieves is further sustained by his depiction of a prison chaplain who is much more effective in ministering to Ernest's needs than were any of the many clergymen who were associated with him in the past.
The most significant aspect of Ernest's experience in prison is his realization of the vital importance of claiming an independent course of action for himself. He disavows his passive identity and resolves to assert his own judgment. He begins by redefining Christianity to serve his own interests and concludes that the only tenable philosophy to live by is one which is consistent in its inconsistency. He will also "kiss the soil" in the manner prescribed by his Aunt Alethea by becoming a tailor and by shedding all pretensions to gentility. Ironically, Ernest's life in prison liberates him from most of the external and internal forces which have ill-served him in the past. The dramatic renunciation of his parents and the seeking out of Overton for guidance confirm the implementing of his newly forged resolutions.