"The Fly in the Ointment" is a short story by V. S. Pritchett. The story begins in the fall, November, when Harold arrives at his father's manufacturing building, the very day the business will close its doors for the final time.
Harold is quick to dismiss the cab driver some distance from the door:
Better not arrive in a taxi, he was thinking. The old man will wonder where I got the money.
Two things become immediately apparent: money is an issue, and Harold does not want to antagonize his father. These two elements set the mood for the remainder of the story. Harold is approximately thirty-five years old. He is not a young man, but he still hesitates to bring anything to his father's attention that will make things uncomfortable. Because Harold's concern is the spending of money (even his own money), it is clear that finances are an issue. The son believes he knows his father well enough to be careful, and decides to walk the rest of the way to the factory.
Harold's father is closing down the business after thirty years, having built his company from the ground up. Success was achieved for a short while, but then difficulties arose, including "rumour," "quarrels," and finally, bankruptcy. The son notes that his memories of family fights about money have suddenly disappeared. Instead of feeling uncomfortable, Harold is deeply saddened that things have come to this for his father, so he has traveled out to support him on the company's final day. The younger man feels a compulsion to help his dad if he can, even if only by showing his support.
Harold's father comes to the door and lets his son in. His father is friendly and solicitous, happy to see the younger man, "lowering his pleased, blue eyes for a second's modesty."
Both seem shy in the other's presence until the father pulls himself together and takes on an air of authority. As they look around the now-empty rooms, the son recalls his dad as a much younger man, speaking with an almost unrecognizable voice—one obviously reserved for customers. As they move to the office, both men have a similar stature, but whereas the father is wearing a fine suit and has the appearance of success, the son is
round-shouldered and shabby, a keen but anxious fellow in need of a hair-cut and going bald.
The older man ushers the younger man into the office, aware of how the room has changed:
"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.
For a moment he seems "bewildered," but then he offers his son a cup of tea in the only cup available. Harold declines. While the elder drinks, he apologizes profusely for drinking in front of his boy. Then he makes casual conversation, asking about his daughter-in-law and grandchildren. Harold answers his questions and then shares his concern for the failing business, but the old man brushes it aside as if it is nothing. When his son says that his father is an optimist, his dad's manner of speaking changes:
his warm voice going dead and rancorous and his nostrils fidgeting. His eyes went hard, too.
All of a sudden, as Harold looks at the older man, it is like he is seeing him for the first time. Someone the son had never noticed before was speaking to him, as if his father had two faces. The outside face, perhaps the one his customers...
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would see, was affable and engaging. However, the inside face was
a much smaller one, babyish, shrewd, scared and hard. Now this little face had gone greenish and pale. . . . The small, drained purplish lips . . . were speaking.
He is telling his son that being an optimist is the only thing that has kept him in the business. Without optimism, he notes, he would not be there, and the inference is that he would have taken his life long ago. He speaks of how hard building the business was, and of how many days he slept in the office. Suddenly he loses his aggressive demeanor and becomes soft. He hints at past mistakes, and offers up concerns that he is broke; it's not easy starting over at his age, he says. Quickly, though, he begins to smile again—everything about him is particularly pleased.
Then, in a split second, he begins to frown and points out that his son is going bald. He does not just mention it, he comments on it repeatedly. Then he advises his son that he needs to have big ideas—they all do. He mentions Harold's job for the first time, a lecturer at the university, but admits he could never do that kind of work. His son speaks sharply to his father—without thinking—and then tries to cover it up, pretending to have meant that one educator in the family is enough, all the while trying not to make his father angry. He admits he is not like his dad. The old man, in turn, tells his son not to compare them or worry.
Suddenly, there is a fly in the room. The father hates flies, and his son helps him balance on a chair so he can try to kill the buzzing insect. Climbing down, the older man seems suddenly very tired—exhausted—though he still has enough breath to start nagging Harold about his hair loss again.
His son may have spoken sharply to him earlier because the older man is often so critical. But just as suddenly, the aggressive man of moments ago has disappeared again, and his son tries to comfort him and ease his troubled spirit. His father turns his head while brushing a tear from his eye. Harold's heart swells with concern for the old man: "A glow of sympathy transported the young man. He felt as though a sun had risen."
This would seem to be a new feeling for the younger man. But when the father begins to explain where he has made past mistakes, Harold becomes embarrassed, silently praying that his dad will not start talking in a way that will "humiliate" him—because what he has done in the past, which the entire family is aware of, includes making excuses, telling stories, and cheating his customers. The old man insists that money has been his problem. He swears that if Harold came to him at that moment and offered him a huge sum of money, he would not take it. He simply wants to retire somewhere quiet.
Through the progression of the story, the reader has become aware that the old man hates his son. His son is afraid to cause trouble or to insult his dad. It is safe to assume that the man the customers saw was never the man his son saw. However, Harold has come to offer his help and support. With new eyes, the son has seen something in his father that he never saw before: two faces—the faces of a schemer. He has also admitted to himself that his father's life of success has been a lie; the family has known for years. However, now, at the father's lowest point in thirty years, Harold may well believe that the old man has changed his priorities. He has just insisted that money means nothing to him, and he becomes adamant about it, telling his son that money "isn't necessary at all."
Earlier, Harold noted that he would not allow his father to see him arrive in a cab because he knew his father. In truth, it would seem he does not know him. Full of concern, the son offers to help his father in whatever way he can. He admits he does not have any money, and he is embarrassed by his own poverty. Still he pushes on, telling his father that if he is ever short of cash, the younger man will do whatever he can to get it for him—in one way or another. Of the two faces Harold observed earlier, the soft one is for other people. The hard face is the man Harold's father truly is, regardless of his circumstances. The look of self-satisfaction the old man had worn, with his assurances that money meant nothing, disappears. The father is described as having folds of skin around his face like a fox—a sneaky creature that steals and kills to get what it wants. Immediately, the father's entire countenance and attitude change:
"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?"
Unfortunately, the old man has learned nothing from his experience. He has no love for his son, but will take money from him even though Harold has admitted that neither he nor anyone else in the family has any. The reader can assume that the hunger for money is what has kept Harold's father's going all these years. The "fly in the ointment," it would seem, is that the old man has not changed a bit, and has no intention of doing so.