Summary and Analysis
Chapters 90-94 (84-87)
Upon returning to London from Battersby, Ernest decides to go abroad in search of those societies which have the "best, comeliest and most lovable" people. At the end of three years of globetrotting, he resumes life in England well supplied with notes from which to fuel his literary ambitions. His first book is a collection of essays on a variety of topics, ostensibly written by separate authors and published anonymously. The subject matter and ironical nature of these essays are reminiscent of Butler's own earlier literary efforts. The book is received well by the public and critics alike, and when the name of the author is made known, Ernest becomes famous overnight. Unfortunately, however, his subsequent writings meet with much less success because of their controversial nature.
When Theobald dies at an advanced age, a surprising number of people express their sorrow, an emotion not shared by his children. Ernest's own children, Georgie and Alice, prosper from being placed with foster parents who treat them as their own. They grow up to be handsome, healthy, and responsible adults unencumbered by a formal education. Mrs. Jupp produces strong evidence that Ernest may have sired a third child by another union, but Overton refrains from asking Ernest to confirm or deny this possibility. Even when Overton has passed his eightieth birthday, however, he continues to urge his godson to write with the general public in mind, but Ernest, like the author whom he resembles, goes his own way, heedless of others' opinions in the belief that a later generation of readers will give him the readership he lacks during his own lifetime.
The reader who requires his hero to triumph grandly by winning a large fortune, a fair lady, and a coveted place in polite society will be at least somewhat disappointed in the ending of this novel and its hero. Although in many ways a modern kind of David Copperfield, Ernest is a distinctly unusual protagonist: a battered but unbowed nonconformist who uses his fortune to live apart from society in order to attack its shams. Admittedly, the tightly controlled comic irony which is superbly sustained throughout most of the novel loosens as Ernest's mature identity solidifies, but, as at least one critic has noted, Butler was working in a new tradition and therefore should not be inordinately blamed for not knowing his ground perfectly.
To judge the success of a novel, the primary question is to determine how well it fulfills its own purpose. How well, then, can Ernest Pontifex, an intelligent and sensitive young man who is subjected to thoughtless and insensitive treatment by his elders, particularly a father who is a walking disaster as a human being, reclaim a decent existence for himself? Butler's answer to the question is plainly that he can, but in a way that is peculiarly desirable to Ernest alone. That Ernest's ultimate liberation into a comfortable second bachelorhood should displease many readers and critics would not surprise the author. If, in fact, the central intention of the novel is to be fulfilled, Ernest cannot be allowed to emerge at the end of the novel as a fully restored "normal" human being, in the usual sense of the word. Instead, and more importantly, he comes to a full realization of what his upbringing and ensuing experiences mean to him and how they render him incapable of living the way most "normal" people do. Scarred but unembittered, Ernest assumes an unconventional social role as an intellectual gadfly. His recovery is incomplete only in that he will not be able to claim for himself the natural and unconscious perfection of the best of the Pontifex line, Old John. Ernest's children, Alice and Georgie, are awarded that honor.