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 coachman, who confesses that he is the father of Ellen’s child and had married her after her dismissal. Rid of Ellen, Ernest sends their two children to be reared in the country and devotes himself to writing. At the age of twenty-eight, he comes into his aunt’s legacy of seventy thousand pounds.
George Pontifex, the father of Theobald and the grandfather of Ernest. He is a wealthy publisher of religious books who browbeats his children. He forces Theobald into the clergy by threatening to disinherit him.
John Pontifex, his older son and successor in business.
Theobald Pontifex, his younger son, the father of Ernest. Forced into the clergy by his father, he obtains the living of Battersby. Thus, he can marry Christina Allaby, by whom he has three children. He is savagely ill-tempered with them as the result of his own domination by his father. His ill-treatment of Ernest almost ruins the latter’s life.
Christina Pontifex, Theobald’s wife, one of five mar-riageable daughters of a clergyman. At their father’s suggestion, they play cards to see who shall catch Theobald, and Christina wins. She is a submissive wife, given to piety and romantic daydreaming, with no understanding of her children.
Alethea Pontifex, Theobald’s sister. She is more broad-minded and humane than he and, being independently wealthy, can help Ernest, whom she makes her heir without his knowledge.
Joey Pontifex, Ernest’s younger brother, a clergyman.
Charlotte Pontifex, Ernest’s unattractive sister.
Ellen, a pretty maid in the Pontifex home. She is dismissed for immorality and is given money by Ernest. Years later, he meets her by accident and marries her. She is a confirmed drunkard, and the marriage fails. He is able to get rid of her when he discovers that she was already married when she married him.
John, the Pontifex coachman, who defends Ernest against Theobald. He is the father of Ellen’s first child.
Dr. Skinner, the tyrannical headmaster of Roughborough School, where Ernest Pontifex was a pupil.
Pryer, a London curate and false friend. He absconds with the twenty-five hundred pounds that Ernest Pontifex had inherited from his grandfather and that had been entrusted to him for investment.