How can we give a comparison and contrast of father and son in V.S. Pritchett's "The Fly in the Ointment"?  

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booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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In V. S. Pritchett's "The Fly in the Ointment," the father and son are very different men, perhaps polar opposites.

The story opens as the son arrives at his father's factory, which is going out of business—in bad financial times that have closed other such businesses already. After thirty years, the father is being forced to "close up shop," so money is obviously an issue. The son is intelligent and either thoughtful or showing signs of self-preservation (probably both) when he arrives in a taxi; he has the driver let him off a short distance away:

Better not arrive in a taxi, he was thinking. The old man will wonder where I got the money.

We quickly get a glimpse into the family's past and the kind of person the son truly is, in a few sentences:

Suddenly all the money quarrels of the family, which nagged in the young man's mind, had been dissolved. His dread of being involved in them vanished. He was overcome by the sadness of his father's situation.

When the young man arrives inside, the reader begins to get a clearer sense as to just how compassionate and forgiving he is, for his father has never been kind or loving towards him. The son notices right away how different his father's attitude is toward him. We may be able to explain this in that people—when life is crushing their spirit—often lose a desire to fight, as if adversity has humbled them. It would seem that this is the case here.

"It's Harold, Father," the young man said...

"Hullo, old chap. This is very nice of you, Harold," said the old man shyly, stepping back from the door to let his son in, and lowering his pleased, blue eyes for a second's modesty.

However, as they walk through the room, the history between the two is exposed.

"Come in, Professor," said the father. This was an old family joke. He despised his son, who was, in fact, not a professor but a poorly paid lecturer at a provincial university.

The mention of money again shows us that this is a sore spot between the men. While we get the sense that the son (Harold) is as he always is—willing to be flexible and make amends—we learn that his father has had little time for his own boy, and resents the fact that he is poorly paid—but not for his son's sake. We can infer that perhaps he resents his son for not being more like him. For although the father seems congenial, offering his son tea and showing concern for his comfort, this is something new that the son is not accustomed to.

By the story's end, Harold is seeing his father in a new light—a man with two very different sides. And in the last paragraphs of the story, as the son desperately wishes he could help his father, we find that the father has not changed at all.

"What I came around about is this," said the son awkwardly and dryly. "I'm not rich. None of us is...we can't do anything. I wish I could, but I can't...but the idea of your being—you know, well short of some immediate necessity, I mean—well, if it is ever a question of—well, to be frank, cash, I'd raise it somehow.

The son is embarrassed by his "poverty." He cringes at the knowledge that his father has cheated clients. Still he shares his desperate wish. Unfortunately, his father is true to form.

The little face became a fox looking out of a hole..."Raise it?" said the old man sharply. "Why didn't you tell me before you could raise money? How can you raise it? Where? By when?"

Harold is a good man, a loving son, but his father cares only for himself.


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