Compare and contrast the inner and outer personalities of Harold's father in relation to events and text, in V.S. Pritchett's "The Fly in the Ointment."

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In V.S. Pritchett's "The Fly in the Ointment," there are two sides of Harold's father.

The inner and outer personalities of Harold's father are contradictory. It is only by drawing inferences and reading the text closely that the reader can get a clear sense of who this man really is.

When Harold arrives, his father greets him kindly:

Hullo, old chap. This is very nice of you, Harold.

This is a positive acknowledgement that seems to promise a pleasant exchange between father and son. The father exudes a pleasant personality as his son enters:

[The father] was a vigorous, broad man with a pleased impish smile.

This description provides the sense that the older man has a sense of humor; perhaps he is even a prankster. However, a contradiction comes very early in the story—we learn of another aspect of the father's personality that is not exhibited in his early behavior with Harold:

"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.

However, in the next line, we witness an attitude not generally present between the father and his son:

"Come in," said the father, repeating himself, not with the impatience he used to have, but with the habit of age. "Come inside, into my office..." he apologized.

Again the father is uncharacteristically thoughtful in how he deals with his son—it could be argued that the father never apologizes to Harold. The father offers Harold a cup of tea, but Harold declines, suggesting his father drink it instead. His father says:

Well...I feel badly about this. This is terrible. I feel really awful drinking this tea and you standing there watching me...well, how are things with you? How are you?

Knowing that the father despises his son, we can infer that this cordial behavior may be the result of his failing business. When one is experiencing success and power, it is easy to be selfish. Disaster, however, has a sobering effect, and this may well account for the father's change toward Harold.

Soon, again, however, we get the sense of the man Harold's father really is, lurking like a predator in the jungle, just out of sight. Harold makes a benign comment and quickly his father responds:

"Listen to me a moment. I want you to get this idea," said his father, his warm voice going dead and rancorous and his nostrils fidgeting. His eyes went hard, too. A different man was speaking, and even a different face...the son noticed for the first time that...his father had two faces. There was the outer face like a soft warm and careless daub of innocent sealing wax...and inside it...was a much smaller one, babyish, shrewd, scared and hard.

Now there is a clearer sense of the two men that live in the older man's body: the strong and imposing one, and then the child-like, fearful one. The gentle man Harold sees when he first arrives is the fearful child: his business is going under. What will he do? However, the imposing self is not conquered—and this is the man Harold already knows.

As they continue to speak, Harold comments that he wishes he could raise some money, and like vulture, his father snaps at his "wish:"

"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?"

First seeming like a child, we soon see that the father has not changed. The man inside is very different than the public face he wears.

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