Edward Overton, the narrator. Born in the same year as Theobald Pontifex and in the village whence the Pontifexes sprang, he has known the family all his life. He has an intense dislike for Theobald but greatly admires Alethea Pontifex and takes an interest in Theobald’s son Ernest. Alethea makes him the trustee of the money she leaves to Ernest, and it is to Overton that Ernest comes after his release from prison. Overton straightens out Ernest’s affairs and helps him to reestablish his life. Overton is also the spokesman for the author’s ideas.
Ernest Pontifex, the older son of Theobald Pontifex and the hero of the novel. Because of his repressed childhood under the savage domination of his father, Ernest is a tragic failure. He does poorly at school and emerges from Cambridge unable to face life. He is ordained in the Church of England, not from conviction but from lack of preparation for any other career. He is a failure as a clergyman because he has no understanding of people. Through his extreme naïveté, a friend is able to defraud him of his grandfather’s legacy; through his ignorance of the world, he makes improper advances to a young woman and is sentenced to six months at hard labor. Upon his release, he meets Ellen, a former maid in his parents’ house who has been discharged for immorality. He insists on marrying her because he wants to drop from his position as a gentleman. They set up a secondhand clothes shop. Ellen proves to be a drunkard, and the marriage fails. Ernest is rescued only by the appearance of John, his father’s old...
(The entire section is 670 words.)