The Fly in the Ointment by V.S. Pritchett

In The Fly in the Ointment by V.S. Pritchett we have the theme of greed, trust, corruption, loyalty, selfishness, discontent and identity. Narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator the reader realises after reading the story that Pritchett may be exploring the theme of greed. Harold’s father tells his son that he no longer wishes to have or to chase money. That he knows that life is not about money. Yet when Harold offers to help his father, Harold’s father wonders how quickly Harold can raise the money. This may be important as it suggests that money is the primary goal for Harold’s father even though he suggests it’s not. It also leaves the reader wondering as to whether Harold’s father can be trusted. If he lies about not wanting money what else may he be lying about. Perhaps his balance sheets were fraudulent and perhaps the business had been dysfunctional for a period of time that the creditors were unaware of. In reality it would be very difficult to trust Harold’s father based on the information supplied to the reader in the story. If anything not only can Harold’s father not be trusted but he may also be corrupt. It is also noticeable that he is pleased to be able to identify with other people who were richer than him and who went bankrupt. It is possible that Harold’s father’s outlook is tainted and that he believes things are not as bad for him because he didn’t lose as much money.

However the point is that Harold’s father has lost everything. He no longer owns anything and is reliant on the charity of his son. A man whose own means is limited. Yet he is prepared to help his father if he can. Even though he is most likely fully aware that his father is still driven by money (and greed). Nothing has changed for Harold’s father. The setting of the story (an empty factory) may also be important as in many ways the setting mirrors Harold’s father’s situation. He too is an empty man. Where once the factory was successful so too was Harold’s father. Now there is nothing but a continued desire for money, regardless of the amount. Symbolically the fly may be significant. Just as Harold’s father is chasing the fly around the room and never catching it so too has he been chasing money all his life and getting nowhere.

Pritchett may also be exploring the theme of identity. Harold’s father has two sides. Something that is symbolically noticeable by the two sides of his face that are described to the reader by Pritchett. One side is soft and caring maybe even innocent and the other side is shrewd and hard. There is a sense that the shrewd and hard faced man is what Harold’s father is more comfortable with and it is this exterior that he wishes the world to see. The fact that Harold’s father is literally two-faced also plays on the theme of trust. Again Harold’s father is not a man who can be trusted. There is also no doubt that Harold’s father is an unhappy man but what is interesting about him is the fact that though he wants the best for Harold he knocks Harold down on several occasions throughout the story. It is as though he is attempting to transfer his own discontent onto Harold. One side of him compliments Harold yet the other side takes the compliment away.

Harold’s character is also interesting. Not only is he prepared to raise some money for his father but he made a point of going to the factory and seeing his father on his father’s last day at the factory. This along with the fact that Harold at no stage in the story criticizes his father suggests that Harold is loyal to his father even though he may be a dishonest businessman. It is also noticeable that at no stage in the story does Harold act negatively when his father criticizes him. The title of the story may also be symbolic. It is an idiomatic expression that means ‘a single thing or person that is spoiling a situation that could have been very positive.’ The fly that Pritchett is referring to may be money and the ointment is the relationship that both Harold and his father have with each other. It is being spoilt by the father’s lust for money. However the only person who can see this is Harold. The father himself is blind to the fact that his relationship with his son is going to be strained even further. Particularly due to the fact that rather than being grateful for his son’s assistance. Harold’s father is just thinking about how quick Harold can raise the money. The relationship is one way with Harold doing all the work without receiving any type of personal recognition. The most important thing in Harold’s father’s life is money (and himself) and not the possibility of developing a relationship with Harold that is based on love and respect. Harold’s father is a selfish man.


Cite Post
McManus, Dermot. "The Fly in the Ointment by V.S. Pritchett." The Sitting Bee. The Sitting Bee, 14 Sep. 2017. Web.


  • how does humour act as an effective theme

  • may you please teach me how to answer these type of questions

  • Well summarized and analysed.

    What could be the reason of the father’s contuinous critizisim towards his son,mentioning something wrong with his son’s hair twice.
    Could this have been because of the way he truely felt in his heart? He could have been embarrased of the way he had failed to achieve what he wanted, being a rich businessman. Moreover, how plainly it was obviously seen by his son?

  • how does pritchett present the relationship between father and son?

  • What would happen to be the point of view of this story?

  • why cant the father come forth with his failures is it that there is the theme of pride there?????

  • Hello, whats the significance of the opening of the story?

  • what would you say is the genre for this short story?

  • Hi! I have a few questions:

    1: Describe the TONE and the MOOD in the story.
    2: How does the author use SETTING to create mood? Explain briefly: a) setting in time – a November afternoon
    b) setting in place – the factory outside and inside
    3) The fly: a) Explain what its appearance means literally and metaphorically
    b) From the point of view of the father, his son could be “the fly in the ointment”. In what way?

  • Can you describe more on the theme of identity and how relevant is the topic to the text

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