How does Pritchett make us feel sympathy for the old man in The Fly in the Ointment?
For the most part, the old man—Harold’s father—isn’t likeable. He’s portrayed as a grasping businessman who looks down on his son for choosing to work as a low-paid university lecturer.
Still, there are several moments when we feel sorry for the old man.
We’re told that he opens the door for his son “shyly” and that he lowers his eyes with “modesty.”
“It’s Harold, father,” the young man said. The door was opened.
“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.
The father is also described as having two faces: an aggressive business face and one that is softer—an old man’s face. It’s this old man in need of help that’s likeable.
There are many quotes that describe these switches. The simplest of them is perhaps this one:
“He looked decided and experienced like a man of forty, but now he softened to sixty again.”
In addition, near the end of the story the old man talks about renouncing his obsession with money. He states:
“I’ve done with money…If you came in now and offered me a thousand pounds I should laugh at you…. All I want now is just to go to a nice little cottage by the sea,” the old man said. “I feel I need air, sun, life.”
While at the end of the story, the old man is described again as a grasping businessman, it’s unclear whether he's returned to the topic because of his own desire, or because the son presses the topic on him. After all, when he tried to share his dream of moving to the countryside with his son, we’re told that “the son was appalled.”
Indeed, it’s the son, not the father, who speaks about the dream in monetary terms and presses the conversation towards money. In response to the father's discussion of a cottage, we're told:
“You want money even for that,” the son said irritably. “You want quite a lot
of money to do that.”
Thus, while most analyses of "Fly in the Ointment" focus on the plight of the son, the father also deserves some sympathy. Although he doesn't succeed in connecting with his son the story leaves open the possibility that much of his limitedness is due to shyness rather than a willful narrow-mindedness.