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Transcript of Literature Project
VS Pritchett was a British novelist and short story writer. His father was in trouble with creditors most of the time, so the family moved towns frequently, living with diverse relatives to escape creditors. Many of his stories are intensely autobiographical drawing on his experiences and the character of his father. Pritchett himself did not do anything for long; perhaps the disturbed childhood had affected him adversely. Nevertheless, he was a powerful writer and was awarded the title Companion of Honor and knighted in 1975. Pritchett lived up to the age of 97.
Firstly we should take a look at the title since a good understanding of it could provide some insight on what the story focuses on. The title is an idiomatic expression that means “something that destroys something else” - which in this case, is the father and the son’s relationship. The money is ultimately the ‘fly’ that spoils the ‘ointment’ of the father and son’s relationship.
The father's lust for money has ruined what could have been a chance to repair the relationship with his son who, after all, has demonstrated loyalty by offering him financial help. Hence, the appropriately-titled story "The Fly in the Ointment" explores the effects of what one tragic flaw can exert on something that should be valued, such as family unity.
The story is set on a November afternoon during a time of severe money struggles that is causing various companies and factories to close their doors and give up their assets. Unemployed men, beggars and more are bleak and lifeless as they wander around the streets mindlessly, disappearing and reappearing as if they were on an inner, personal route. The time is of great depression and little hope.
The factory in which the characters interact in was once in fact a prosperous company, though now it is empty, with dust lining the shelves and the marks of the showroom cupboards on the floor. The machines that were once there, humming and throbbing with life, are now nothing but an echo. This sets a sad and sombre mood.
The mood of "The Fly in the Ointment" can be defined as one of loss and alienation. This is relayed through the son’s realization that his father is a man with "two faces," and this disturbs him.
On the surface, the father appears a savvy businessman, impressively dressed. Beneath however, he is a scheming unscrupulous man who has “swindled people out of their money”.
The character of the father has been influenced by Pritchett’s perceptions of his own father. Harold’s father is a mixture of bravado and weakness; he is shifty, boastful and dishonest. He puts on a veneer of normalcy which cracks every now and then revealing the truth that lies beneath. He never misses an opportunity to deride his son’s position in life, even trying to undermine his confidence by making negative comments on the bald patch on his head.
The father has a great passion for money that he claims to have overcome. Some might say that the father knows all along what he is doing and is only putting up a pretense in front of his son. It could be that he is, in essence, tricking his son into giving him money, which shows how he values money above all other things, even family.
Prose, Realistic short fiction
Slice of life: naturalistic representation of real life
Satire- satirizes people who value money more than relationships, and shows how greed ends up sabotaging family ties.
In the midst of an economic turmoil where money is scarce and funds are limited, a low paid lecturer named Harold visits his father at his factory. The economic depression has taken its toll on the father’s business, despite being in service for thirty years, and the liquidators have done nothing more than clean the factory of anything they deem worth money.
Person vs. Person:
The father-son relationship in V.S. Pritchett's "The Fly in the Ointment" is conflicting because it is hindered by several things: a) the financial problems of, both, the father and the son; b) the father's tendency to emasculate and humiliate the son, c) the son's own sense of inadequacy as a result of his father's abrasive behavior.
The personality and interests of both father and son are also quite conflicting. The father values money more than family ties and has a habit of deriding his son. The son however is caring and eager to help his father. He comes to the aid of a troubled father, showing that he does value relationships.
Person vs. Self:
Harold is caught in a minor conflict with himself: he knows about his father’s cons and swindles yet he thinks it his duty to help the man. He is disgusted by the man’s two faces, yet cannot help feeling sorry for his father. He also offers to raise money, and in the process has to admit his own “poverty” which he hates to do. Although he does not really admire his father, he pretends to be polite and does not voice his lesser opinions about him; there is a conflict between his words and thoughts.
The father is also caught in a conflict with himself. He tries to overcome his passion for money, but is not successful. There is also a conflict in his different attitudes towards his son. Although he tries to be kind, occasionally his uncouth remarks end up wounding the son’s self-esteem.
The father’s reaction to his son’s visit is one of initial surprise, but Harold does nothing more than express his commitment to sympathize with his father in this time of hardship. Although the father seems friendly and solicitous, we soon learn that the father despises his son because of his job status since he is “low paid,” and that the father and son’s relationship is strained - primarily due to money.
The father 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. He does not want to seem a failure, but instead to be content with whatever he has accomplished. Although he has lost his business, he can now live a quiet, simple life, without worrying about money.
However the father’s early display of modesty and humbleness towards the prospect of money and his freedom from the burden of it is halted when a fly interrupts the conversation between the two family members.
The old man confesses that he has wasted his life chasing money. He becomes a bit emotional; the memory of the staff coming to wish him good luck brings tears to his eyes. The son is overwhelmed and drenched in embarrassment at his father’s confession. The father then expresses his humble wish to spend his remaining years in a small cottage by the sea. Harold is not impressed however and sardonically remarks: “You want money even for that”.
The conversation turns towards Harold offering to raise money in order to aid his father. Although he hates admitting his own poverty and offering charity to his father, he resolves to raise a little money somehow if needed. The father pounces on the offer as if he had been waiting for it all along.
The story ultimately ends with the now dominant father berating Harold for not pitching the idea of raising money earlier, and demanding an explanation as to how raising money can be accomplished, showing that the father has not changed at all.
Person vs. Circumstances:
The father is grappling with the troubles of bankruptcy. The circumstances have taken a toll on him. The son occasionally voices this opinion:
“It must have been worrying”, “You’ve had a bad time”
Both the son and father are involved in a financial crisis. The son is also a poorly paid lecturer, and is struggling against the pressures of poverty.
Harold, who is a married man in his thirties, worries about showing up at his father's factory in a cab—we sense that he has been intimidated in the past. The reader discovers that family fights over money have also been a major concern for Harold and perhaps caused him to distance himself from such turmoil—till now. He is quiet at first and physically unimpressive – “round shouldered and shabby”, and described as irritated by father’s incessant questions.
Harold has no illusions about his father. He has wriggled free and made a life for himself somewhere though he does not have much money. In a vague way he feels he should help out his father but probably also knows that any money that he lends will be lost forever. He is aware of his father’s wheeling-dealing ways and can see right through his facade. He is a good, caring son, who is disturbed by his father's dishonesty. He is obviously forgiving—he puts aside his own pain to help his father.
The father and son are very different men, perhaps polar opposites.
Their reunion brings to the surface the underlying frictions in their relationship.
Pritchett gradually reveals this lack of mutual understanding. The narrator tells us straightforwardly that the father ‘despised his son’ and charts the alarming way in which the mood changes during their talk, with the father’s true nature being revealed.
Point of View:
The fly that buzzes about in the father’s office evading his efforts to kill it is a symbol for his lust for money that he tries to overcome but does not succeed.
The way it interrupts their conversation is symbolic of the old man’s greed that ruins the relationship between father and son.
1. “the firm was becoming a ghost”
The firm is metaphorically described as “becoming a ghost” which links with the tombstones in the first paragraph, creating a gloomy atmosphere.
2. The fly in the story acts as a metaphor for the father’s inability to suppress his lust for money. The father’s weakness for money is projected as a fly that he is not able to conquer.
1. There are many instances of foreshadowing. One that is apparent is the use of 'his father had two faces.' which shows the contrasting emotions the old man can show and his ability, like a businessman to show the face that will suit his end needs.
2. Another very apparent example of foreshadowing is the blunt statement the narrator himself makes:
"He despised his son, who was, in fact, not a professor but a poorly paid lecturer at a provincial university."
3. The father’s true nature is hinted at when he is bothered by a fly in the room. We can tell that the father is stubborn and resolute. This gives us some insight to his character, as one of boastful purpose.
4. The use of the word “actually” is also an example of foreshadowing since it makes the reader wary of the father’s act, knowing it is unusual for the man to be behaving this way. ("He actually wiped a tear from his eye")
5. The father's concern with social status is shown when the author states 'A small man himself, he was proud to be bankrupt with the big ones; it made him feel rich.' This also foreshadows that despite the old man's statements about having no need for money he is still truly concerned about it, since he has a desire to feel rich.
6. “The father suddenly took (to his son’s fancy) the likeness of a convict in his cell”
The description reflects the father as a prelude to the fly –there is a focus on the father’s physical appearance which moves Harold but raises the thought that his father is actually guilty, as has been suggested.
1. “the latest office buildings of the city stood out alarmingly like new tombstones”
Opening paragraph is full of images relating to death and destruction and old age so a mood is created that will pervade the story. The “new tombstone” in this commercial neighbourhood is the father’s failed business.
2. “Now, like the harvest moon in full glow, the father’s face shone up at his son.”
There is a suggestion in the moon simile that the father knows clearly that this will affect the son and that will work to his advantage. His face “shone” up at his son carries overtones of interrogation in it.
3. “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.”
This reflects the father's dual personality.
4. “Like a fox looking out of a hole of clay.”
The old man seizes his son's offer like a predator pounces on its prey. The canny side of the old man’s character is shown here.
“I never want to see another penny as long as I live.”
Although the father declared that he had changed his views on wealth, his statements were exaggerated, hinting that the reader should believe no such thing and ultimately that turned out to be justified with the father still thinking primarily about money.
“He rested his hands on his waistcoat and that seemed to be smiling too, his easy coat smiling, his legs smiling and even winks of light on the shining shoes. Then he frowned.”
The narrator reminds us that, being a wily businessman, the old man was very much capable of deceiving people by his superficial smiles and conviviality.
Connection with real life/ historic events/human condition:
Personal Connection Question
The “Fly in the Ointment” by V.S. Pritchett is written in the third person narrative. Third-person narration provides the greatest flexibility to the author and thus is the most commonly used narrative mode in literature. In the third-person narrative mode, each and every character is referred to by the narrator as "he", "she", "it", or "they". In third-person narrative, it is obvious that the narrator is merely an unspecified entity or uninvolved person that conveys the story but has no real part in the story.
“He was ashamed to think how he, how they all dreaded having the gregarious, optimistic, extravagant, uncontrollable, disingenuous old man on their hands."
Pritchett's style as a narrator is quite unique in that it focuses more on the interaction of the characters rather than on the narration of a plot. This means that the actions and reactions of the characters are what actually move the plot forward while also creating an atmosphere that goes hand in hand with the mood of the characters.
From my perspective the father represented a government and Harold, a nation and it seemed to me as though the story was a discrete representation of corruption. Corrupt governments waste money, using it for their own benefits and they abuse their power, crippling their own nation and their own people. Some people of power and influence let money become more important to them than caring for their subjects much like how the father let money become the central factor in his life; he made it more important than anyone or anything else.
Harold's father's career is crashing around him; when his son comes to the office, the old man is shy with him, an unusual response:
"Hullo, old chap. This is very nice of you, Harold," said the old man shyly.
This is an extremely accurate glimpse into the human condition by the author: when an individual becomes subject to life’s hardships and cruelties, he softens. The father seems to have changed. He loses the mask of superiority and pride and humbles.
The story was written in 1932, three years after the Wall Street Crash and during the Great Depression. The Wall Street Crash was the most devastating stock market crash in the history of the United States. The crash signaled the beginning of the 10-year Great Depression that affected all Western industrialized countries.
Many of us have double personalities. One is our real personality and the other is that which we show to the world. A lot of people are hypocrites. They conceal a very ugly interior under a beautiful exterior.
The story also shows how people run after money, putting everything at stake. Dishonesty, swindling, corruption, greed are common vices that plague our society.
Lust/greed for money:
Although money is necessary for a family to thrive, it also strains their relationship, as when money becomes an obsession to someone, they lose sight of what is really important.
In the old man's speech to his son on the irrelevance for money he states, 'If you came in now and offered me a thousand pounds I should laugh at you.' this shows the reader that the father has outgrown his cruel, greedy ways. The irony emerges when the son does in fact merely mention raising cash when the father, instead of refusing it, brutally demands why it had not been forthcoming.
When the fly enters the room, the father focuses his concealed anger on it, and stands on the table to kill it, but cannot reach the ceiling. He asks Harold to open the door and tries swatting at it a few times, but fails. His disgust at the fly seems quite unreasonable:” I can’t sit in a room with a fly in it…I hate them”.
Harold is a bit befuddled at his father’s persistence and suggests it will leave if they simply leave the door or window open. The old man does not resign however and shyly admits: “It may seem a fad to you. I don’t like flies.”
Still, both of them can only gaze helplessly as the fly buzzes around the cord of the electric light.
The old man flings the duster at it. The son asks him to be careful:”Don’t lose your balance”. The old man almost suddenly appears weak and tired and resignedly allows Harold to help him down.
One prevalent theme deals with the duality of Harold's father. With various examples of foreshadowing, we learn that while he seems soft on the outside, the hard heart of a tenacious and competitive man—one who has even swindled people out of their money—is still alive and living inside Harold's father.
Explore how Pritchett uses words and phrases to raise sympathy for Harold's father, yet also subtly hints at his true nature. Which effect do you think is stronger?
use of adverbs: "shyly" "apologetically"
begins to cry with the memory of the men coming to say goodbye to him "he actually wiped a tear from his eye"
he begins to confess-the mark of man recognising his faults, this again raises sympathy
his innocent passion-"a nice little cottage by the sea" the care with which the father stresses the lack of size here shows humility
repeatedly apologises to his son- "pardon me" "an expression of apology and weakness"
seems helpless and shy-"suddenly he looked tired and old" "said the old man with embarrassment"
offers the son tea in the only teacup he could find "Have a cup?...Go on.Why not have another?"
Hints at the father's true nature:
glimpse into previous encounter "the old man will wonder where I got the money"-we sense he is intimidating
The new painting and polished knocker suggests pride and reflects the father’s personality."the name of the firm, newly painted too"
we are shown that he has little regard for his son "Come in professor"
the mention of the father's two faces "like all big-faced men his father had two faces."
criticises Harold relentlessly "Your hair's going thin" "Hasn't Alice told you how bald you are?"
lectures his son about "thinking big"
likes to feel rich "he was proud to be bankrupt with the big ones; it made him feel rich"
the son's impression of his father "a convict in his cell", suggests guilt
"I never want to see another penny as long as I live" his statements are exaggerated, suggesting we should believe no such thing
In the end Pritchett makes the father's true nature very clear "Why didn't you tell me before you could raise money?"