Summary and Analysis
Chapters 85-89 (79-83)
Even after being saved from a disastrous marriage and awarded employment by Overton, Ernest suffers an attack of nervous prostration from his ordeal. An eminent London physician consulted by Overton prescribes rest and change for Ernest, who begins his treatment by visiting the Zoological Gardens, where he watches pigs and elephants, and by visiting the Abbey, where he listens to Te Deums. In three weeks' time, he is sufficiently recovered to travel abroad with Overton, who directs him to Italy by way of France.
Upon returning to England, Ernest is physically fit but beset with feelings of guilt for resuming life as a gentleman; he cannot forget his earlier imprisonment. Consequently, he vows to avoid old friends, even Towneley, who is the only person other than Overton to know of Ernest's approaching inheritance. Ernest fears that in carrying out his intention of writing and speaking as he sees fit, he will lose the good opinion of the one man he admires most after Overton. When he seeks employment as a writer, however, he meets with little success. An editor who gives him several books to review stipulates how they are to be judged; a journal that accepts some of his articles immediately goes out of business after their publication. Threatening to resume his occupation as a dealer in used clothing, Ernest is diverted from this backward step by Overton.
One shock is followed quickly by another when Ernest reaches the age of twenty-eight and receives his inheritance, for Theobald writes of Christina's critical illness and implores Ernest to leave at once for Battersby. When he presents himself to his family in fashionable attire and reports the good fortune of his inheritance, it is Theobald's turn to be shocked. Christina, although on her deathbed, instantly imagines Ernest as destined to become Prime Minister, and Joey, her younger son, who is now Theobald's curate, the Archbishop of Canterbury; her only discomforting thought is that there will be a problem in deciding who shall be commissioned to paint the portrait of the mother of these distinguished brothers. When Christina at last dies, she is spoken of affectionately by Overton, who helps Theobald select an appropriate epitaph for her tombstone.
As these and preceding chapters attest, the author appoints Overton at first to describe Ernest's prolonged series of agonies and then to propose remedies for them. When Ernest comes to the verge of another collapse, Overton readily accepts the prescription of another authorial spokesman, an eminent London physician, to work a cure on his godson. Observing elephants and listening to Te Deums not only reflect the author's own way of regaining peace of mind, however, but also anticipate developments in the field of psychiatry. Furthermore, Ernest's frustration at attempting to build a career as a writer for small magazines and popular journals also allows Overton to disparage editors in general, a distinct species of professional life which Butler found especially repugnant.
From the lengthy account of Ernest's homecoming on the sad occasion of his mother's fatal illness, one can assume the event to be of considerable importance to Ernest. Actually, this whole episode is a shrewd and skillful blending of the disparate elements of revenge, sorrow, anger, and reconciliation. The history of Ernest's relations with his parents was always complex, and his newly acquired inheritance, along with the emotional visit to his dying mother's bedside, only complicates it further. When Ernest shocks his father with the news of his inheritance, he refuses to gloat. When Christina again comically indulges in fantasies, she has to be taken seriously for begging assurance of her otherworld worthiness. The only member of Ernest's immediate family to lack even a glimmer of a redeeming quality is Charlotte, who would have Ernest bear all the responsibilities for her own problems. As a spinster lacking marital prospects and the prime exemplar of Pontifex priggishness, she represents everything Ernest might have become had he not escaped his father's net. It is essential to remember, however, that even though she emerges as the lowest form of family development, Charlotte is never treated maliciously by Butler.