In V.S. Pritchett’s short story The Fly in the Ointment, Harold’s aging father is revealed gradually through the course of the narrative as a person the son would rather not know. Having arriving at his father’s factory on the day it is to close for good due to bankruptcy, Harold is cautious about saying or doing anything that could conceivably upset the old man. As the taxi in which he is riding approaches the factory, Harold thinks to himself: “Better not arrive in a taxi. . .The old man will wonder where I got the money.” This is an early indication that Harold is accustomed to walking on egg shells in the presence of his father, and that concerns about profligate spending may be a divisive issue between them. While indicators such as the issue about conspicuous consumption could conceivably appear endearing, however, it becomes increasingly apparent as the story progresses that the relationship between father and son is strained, that the father does not respect, or even like, the son (“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.”), and that the father presents a face in public markedly at variance with that shown to his family – with the latter being the decidedly less benign.
Pritchett’s narrative presents the father as a deeply troubled man whose demeanor towards his son, at least in this meeting, which is, Harold points out, an aberration, continuously swings between kind and proper, and indications of a much sterner demeanor – the demeanor reserved for his family. Contrast the description the author uses in the following passages, the first [A] illustrating the more thoughtful, cordial person, the second [B] an exchange illuminating the harsher tone more indicative of a man accustomed to snapping at those around him:
[A]“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.
[B]This—” he nodded with embarrassment to the dismantled showroom, the office from which even the calendars and wastepaper basket had gone—“this—” what was the most tactful and sympathetic word to use?—“this is bad luck,” he said.
“Bad luck?” said the old man sternly.
“I mean,” stammered his son, “I heard about the creditors’ meeting.”
This exchange clearly exemplifies a relationship involving an imbalance of power, and a history of ambivalence between the two parties. The following quote from the story is part of the above exchange, and reflects the emotional pendulum that is Harold’s father:
“I knew it was your last day—I thought I’d come along, I . . . to see how you were.”
“Very sweet of you, old boy,” said the old man with zest. “Very sweet.
That quickly, the father has gone from shy and reserved, undoubtedly embarrassed that his son has arrived to witness the father’s failure, to revealing the underlying hostility that exists, to reverting back to the practiced cordiality that Harold discovers is reserved solely for the customers. When the discussion between father and son arrives at the subject of money, the full measure of the former’s moral ambivalence is revealed. Commenting that he’s “done with money,” and expressing a desire to retire to a hypothetical seaside cottage, Harold immediately rebuts him: “You want money even for that,” the son said irritably. “You want quite a lot of money to do that.” The father continues to insist that his need or desire for money has evaporated, and acknowledges that there is none left following the liquidation of his business, prompting Harold to suggest that, had he any money, he would help his father. The conversation, however, is increasingly tense, but the father continues to insist he has no further need of wealth – a protestation to which Harold may finally succumb:
“Money,” the father said, “isn’t necessary at all.”
Now like the harvest moon on full glow the father’s face shone up at his son.
Harold sees a glimmer of light, despite all he has learned about his father. Uncomfortably explaining that, if his father does need money, Harold will “raise it somehow,” the veils are now fully lifted from the son’s eyes. He will now have his worst images of his father fully realized:
The father’s sailing eyes came down and looked at his son’s nervous, frowning face and slowly the dreaming look went from the father’s face. Slowly the harvest moon came down from its rosy voyage. The little face suddenly became dominant within the outer folds of skin like a fox looking out of a hole of clay. He leaned forward brusquely on the table and somehow a silver-topped pencil was in his hand preparing to note something briskly on a writing pad.
“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?”
The story’s end on that cynical note is Pritchett’s way of affirming the worst of human nature, at least with regard to the father. He has illuminated the strained relationship between father and son, and displayed the latter’s growing disenchantment with the father, it turns out, he hardly knew. Harold has lived his life walking gently around this paternal figure, and it has all been for nothing.