A fly in the ointment: teaching notes

FLY teaching

A fly in the ointment: V.S. Pritchett.

someone or something that spoils a situation which could have been successful or pleasant

Outline: Younger man visits bankrupt father who is depressed following the collapse of his business. The son is a disappointment to the father who looks down on him since his work – a university professor is viewed as a poor career.
The father seems strong until a fly enters the room. Perhaps moved by the visible weakness of his father, the boy offers him money. At once the passion returns and the father brutally demands to know why the offer had not been forthcoming at an earlier date.

Harold: University lecturer (so a successful man), loves father but is resentful of father’s attitude to him. Opening suggests the urgency of his wish to be involved by the short sentences “I must see him”. Son is quiet at first an physically unimpressive – “round shouldered and shabby” 113.5, and described 113.8 as irritated by father’s incessant questions. Father turns these to focus on himself – “Haven’t lost sixpence and found a shilling have you, because I wouldn’t mind doing that.” Son’s irritation might stem form father’s curious reversal of the common phrase…
He is embarrassed and tries to be tactful, “bad luck”. This irritates father. The confrontation sees the son as being nervous – he “stammers” 114.2 and “leans back” away from the fight 114.5 Eventually he snaps and is rude – “you’ve thought big until you bust”. Narrator explains that his “pride is touched”.
After the fly the father becomes even more EMBARRASSING – the son hates to see signs of weakness in the father. 117.5 repeats the negative imperative as though revealing the son’s feelings. This embarrassment continues when he is forced to offer charity. The writing becomes fragmented as his difficulties grow- 117.8 His offer of financial help is seized and father becomes the dominant physical specimen once again as the story closes.

Father: the focus of most of the description in the story, the father is arrogant and demanding, yet also shows his age and frailty before responding to the son’s offer by returning to his prior demeanour. The descriptions are often physical: “his soft rosy face” 113.8, “his eyes went hard too” 114.4, his father had two faces… soft warm and innocent daub of innocent sealing wax…shrewd, scared and hard” 114.5, “warm flood of triumphant smiles” 114.8, “the big face smiled and overflowed on the smaller one” 115.5, “an expression of apology and weakness” 116.4, “like a fox looking out of a hole of clay” 118.3. Idea of two faces existing at the same time suggests the duplicity of the businessman and supports the nervousness of the son.
The father is at first charming, once he has got the usual rites of welcome and the snide “come in professor” out of the way. The questions irritate, probably because Harold knows them to be a prelude to the attack which will develop. Once roused the father uses his hands like “ a hammer at an auction” and presents a physically dominating impression to the son. On 114.5 the change happens and we see the real? Father. There is a link between scared and hard as though the father’s brutish ways come from an inner fear, nevertheless he is focused on justifying his position and putting his son down. Father’s mood swings, but we see a proud, self-made man who is struggling to come to terms with his current position and sees the son as trying to prove his own superiority. He resorts to physical abuse – “your hair’s going thin” 114.9, before the son snaps. After this, the father’s bigger face reasserts itself – the public face?- and he shows his pride and relates his position to the other firms in the city – here is speaking as though at a press conference.
The fly shows father at his weakest and he responds by criticising the son freely, before the memory of the employees finally draws a tear from him. 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.
At the end, the urgency of the questions reveals the business man back in control.

Setting/description: 112.5 Opening paragraph is full of images relating to death and destruction and old age so a mood is created that will pervade the story: “tombstones, dribbling, desert, patch”. 112.8 the new painting and polished knocker suggests pride and reflects the father’s personality. ON 113.4 the firm is metaphorically described as “becoming a ghost” which links with the tombstones.
By 115.7 the description reflects the father as a prelude to the fly – the focus is on weak light, the “frosted window” and the “few bars and panes”. 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.
Pritchett seems to use setting/description to predict or foreshadow the attitude of either the son or the father. As a signal of the final change, a “silver topped pencil” appears, as though by magic in his hands.

Language of description: show don’t tell
page quotation Effect on the reader
113.5 “round shouldered and shabby”
114.2 “stammers” “leans back”
114.4 his father had two faces… soft warm and innocent daub of innocent sealing wax…shrewd, scared and hard”
114.8 “the big face smiled and overflowed on the smaller one”
118.3 “like a fox looking out of a hole of clay”

What do these phrases suggest about character and how is the effect achieved?

Language of setting – foreshadowing:
112.5 “tombstones, dribbling, desert, patch”
112.8 “The name of the firm, newly painted too… newly polished”
113.4 “becoming a ghost”
115.8 “frosted window”
“few bars and panes”
118.2 “somehow a silver-topped pencil was in his hand”
What might these phrases suggest either about specific characters or about the mood of the story?