“A Family Man” is a short story by British writer V.S. Pritchett (1900-1997), published in a 1977 edition of The New Yorker. Pritchett was a critic as well as a writer, and as a writer, was best known for the short form.
In the past I have found V.S. Pritchett easy to conflate with another prominent (Trinidadian-) British writer with the same initials: V.S. Naipaul, whose work I don’t plan to explore, as Naipaul is infamous for saying on record that woman writers are inferior to men.
Irish writer Kevin Barry, who explains today’s story via The New Yorker fiction podcast, started out reading Pritchett with a different kind of prejudice. The guy’s name is so very English Barry was expecting something tidy and ironic and knowing. But after he started reading he understood the guy is nuts. (“Evident from the first paragraph of any story.”) As you read, keep an eye out for what Barry describes as Pritchett’s “deeply weird dialogue”. (People don’t really speak like this, yet it works.)
Pritchett reminds Barry of the poet Philip Larkin and of records by The Smiths, but with a deranged, light comic touch
V.S. Pritchett is not V.S. Naipaul. Let’s just get that out of the way. Next question: For a mal writer who spent much of his career writing women, how well did he do?
As I was researching Pritchett’s life, and reading what he himself said in interviews, I understood that Pritchett’s fiction is influenced by Dickens and H.G. Wells. In Ireland he got to know (as friends and acquaintainces) William Butler Yeats and other big names of literature. They crossed paths because Pritchett was working as a journalist and they hung out in the same circles. Pritchett was also influenced by: George Russell, Liam O’Flaherty (who Pritchett also knew personally), Frank O’Connor (who he knew later on), James Stephens (another friend), Sean O’Faolain. A lesser-known writer friend of Pritchett was A.E. Coppard. H.E. Bates was another writer admired by Pritchett but forgotten by almost everyone else. He admired Hemingway’s dialogue. He felt the Irish and also Southern American writers were especially gifted at the short story form.
Note that although V.S. Pritchett was never an avowed misogynist, like almost all celebrated males of his era, I can’t find a single woman named among Pritchett’s admired influences and artistic friends. This is pretty typical for white men of a certain generation. Kevin Barry, who has read a lot of Pritchett, said that “for a man writing in the 1970s”, he wrote these women better than most.
Of course, Kevin Barry is not himself a woman, so I leave it to woman readers to decide how to feel about today’s story, and how well the guy ‘writes women’ given that he didn’t seem sufficiently interested to read anything much written by them. (I’ll tell you how I feel down the bottom.)
About V.S. Pritchett
- Like Virginia Woolf, he was one of Britain’s great writer-critics. (A theorist as much as a writer.)
- His father was a Christian Scientist. Pritchett was first published in the Christian Scientist Monitor (essays and travel writing).
- Pritchett considered his first published story of any scale “Tragedy in Greek Theatre“, set in Taormina, a hilltop town on the east coast of Sicily.
- He was sent to Ireland during the Irish Civil War of the 1920s. Ireland and England had been at work with each other, so an English person moving to Ireland was in some ways challenging. However, Pritchett was surprised to learn how well the English and Irish get on.
- At high school he was good in languages.
- He left school at 16 to work as a clerk in the leather trade.
- Politically, Pritchett called himself “a crypto Tory, anarchist Free trade liberal with strong Socialist bias.” He moved from working class to the academic class in his adult life, despite not attending university. He always felt as if he lived in the borders of something.
- Many of his stories are comical. He has a sense of fun.
- Apart from Dublin, Pritchett lived and worked in France and Spain.
- He’s well-known for bringing furniture to life in his stories.
- He was less conservative than the editors at The New Yorker, who wouldn’t let him include any hint of homosexuality in his stories. The New Yorker was also against Pritchett’s male characters objectifying female body parts.
- Most days of his adult life he wrote a steady 1,000 words.
- His second wife had issues with alcoholism; Pritchett was unfaithful to her; their bond was eventually restored. This wife survived him by four years.
- He said that most of his stories were ‘laments’, meaning that people are in a constant state of regret, or lamenting that something did not happen.
Here is the paragraph which led me into this particular story:
Berenice has given up waiting for her lover, William Cork, and has started to work on her jewelry, when the doorbell rings. Florence Cork is at the door. She asks for William’s flute and accuses Berenice of having an affair with her husband. Berenice denies this, saying she sees William only at the College where she teachers. Mrs. Cork shows her a letter in which the writer, Rosie, asks her husband for a necklace and his flute. Berenice identifies Rosie as Rosie Glowitz, who works at the College. Mrs. Cork apologises. Berenice tells her that she is making the necklace for Rosie’s approaching wedding and that Mr. Cork plans to play the flute there. Mrs. Cork believes this lie and consoles Berenice on her single status. After Mrs Cork leaves, Berenice thanks about the pathetic nature of marriage.The New Yorker summary from the 2005 box set of New Yorker archive CDs.
And here is something Pritchett has said about short stories in general:
My fundamental view about the story is that it begins as a poetic insight, and that it is also a way of seeing through a situation, a “glimpse through“ as someone has said in which you are in fact writing something perhaps like a short poem. I think the best examples of the short story in this sense are the sonnets of Shakespeare. Each sonnet is an intricate piece of poetry, but at the same time it is “a glimpse through“ the life, a situation, the instance of feeling that he is evoking. It’s more than an impression of surface. It cuts deeper than that.V.S. Pritchett
SETTING OF “A FAMILY MAN”
Where [Pritchett] puts the camera is unexpected.Kevin Barry
1970s (or ‘mid-century’ — it’s not easy for this contemporary reader to pinpoint the decade)
A short visit to a house
an England which Kevin Barry describes as ‘wistful’
In a house on a social visit. It basically plays out in real time. There’s little backstory. The fancy term is ‘isochronical’. A story is isochronical if the timespan of the story and the time it takes to read the story (the ‘discourse timespan’) are the same.
For another story like this, see “Afternoon In Linen” by Shirley Jackson. The humour is similar, as well.
TECHNOLOGY CRUCIAL TO THIS PARTICULAR STORY
There’s a musical instrument utilised to comic effect. I suspect the reason for the existence of the flute is mostly to allow the author the brilliantly comical line: “Is he playing the flute in every garden in London?”
LEVEL OF CONFLICT
This story is to do with the importance of marriage, especially for women. It’s easy to forget that someone like Mrs Cork is highly vulnerable, socioeconomically. She has a philandering husband, but even in the 1970s, she doesn’t have the ability to go to the bank and get her own mortgage or credit card. She has kids to look after, as well as herself. This is a terrified woman, and for good reason.
THE EMOTIONAL LANDSCAPE
Pritchett shows us over the course of the story that Berenice, the main character, wants one thing, takes steps which suggests she’s resigned to a different type of life.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “A FAMILY MAN”
The story turns comically on Mr Cork’s flute. Berenice’s first revelation: This is Mrs Cork at the door. Second revelation: He’s sleeping with someone else who is older (and therefore unattractive). He sees this woman every Thursday whereas he sees Berenice only occasionally.
satisfaction from her small lies. His character has a Quaker background. Comically, she goes from not wishing to lie (simply to protect her own safety) into an excellent liar.
Both are forbidden by her church, and she appears to be attracted to illicitness. Whether she is attracted to Mr Cork himself, on the other hand, I’m not so sure about that.
Barry tells us: “Family Man” is fundamentally about how we want to be seen and how we’re actually seen. A portrait of a young (embryonic) artist. The fundamental requirement of young artists: they need is material. This young bohemian wants and needs material. This guy she’s having an affair with is the melancholy type; he plays the flute.
From the start, I was asking, is Berenice really bohemian? When she answers the door to Mrs Cork, she sounds more like Hyacinth Bouquet than another other character I can think of:
“Yes?” said Berenice.“A Family Man”
The woman woke up and looked unbelievingly at Berenice’s feet, which were bare, for she liked to go about barefoot at home, and said, “Is this Miss Foster’s place?”
Berenice was offended by the word “place”.
“This is Miss Foster’s residence,” she said. “I am she.”
It’s interesting that Pritchett had me immediately conjuring Hyacinth Bouquet (Bucket), because Hyacinth pretends to be someone she is not. She has even fooled herself. She does this by closely observing the women she would like to aspire to. I call this the Socially Aspiring Woman comedy trope. Pritchett’s comedy is significantly more subtle than the slapstick of Keeping Up Appearances, but the mechanism is the same: It seems to me Berenice has bourgeoise values while wanting the interesting, free, artistic life of a Bohemian.
Many stories open with a temporary desire/plan, which I like to call the ‘McGuffin Desire’ (riffing only slightly on a term Hitchcock made up). Berenice anticipates her lover arriving at her ‘residence’ (ha). What she says she likes about her lover: He turns up sporadically. This is at odds with what the reader witnesses happening: She prepares herself in advance for her sporadic lover’s ‘spontaneity’. She’s not living the spontaneous life she thought she was.
Barry says: “[Berenice] is drawn to spending time with couples because they make her feel her singleness, but not around single men, because they try to put an end to her singledom. We fear for her. She’s not a ‘husband hunter’. She wants an outside view of married life. “It’s odd and makes us wonder about her.”
It’s interesting to see that as far back as the 1970s, writers were (obliquely) interrogating the difference between what sex writers now commonly refer to has responsive versus spontaneous desire. The (false) sexual ideal: Everyone in a ‘healthy’ sexual relationship, desire happens spontaneously. This is Hollywood stuff. The reality: Oftentimes desire happens only in response to deliberate efforts to muster it up. In the 1970s, men and women both were told that unless they were feeling spontaneous desire there was something wrong with their relationship. Women were told that there was something wrong with them. Spontaneous desire is related to libido, which is related to hormones, and there is a sex difference here: A typically female hormonal profile is less likely to make someone feel spontaneous desire, which is why the myth (that the only ‘true’ desire is spontaneous) is more damaging for women.
For more on that, see Emily Nagoski’s book Come As You Are.
Researchers have spent the last decade trying to develop a “pink pill” for women to function like Viagra does for men. So where is it? Well, for reasons this book makes crystal clear, that pill will never exist—but as a result of the research that’s gone into it, scientists in the last few years have learned more about how women’s sexuality works than we ever thought possible, and Come as You Are explains it all.
The first lesson in this essential, transformative book by Dr. Emily Nagoski is that every woman has her own unique sexuality, like a fingerprint, and that women vary more than men in our anatomy, our sexual response mechanisms, and the way our bodies respond to the sexual world. So we never need to judge ourselves based on others’ experiences. Because women vary, and that’s normal.
Second lesson: sex happens in a context. And all the complications of everyday life influence the context surrounding a woman’s arousal, desire, and orgasm.
Cutting-edge research across multiple disciplines tells us that the most important factor for women in creating and sustaining a fulfilling sex life, is not what you do in bed or how you do it, but how you feel about it. Which means that stress, mood, trust, and body image are not peripheral factors in a woman’s sexual wellbeing; they are central to it. Once you understand these factors, and how to influence them, you can create for yourself better sex and more profound pleasure than you ever thought possible.
Using terminology that was never available to a woman living through the 1970s, Berenice (Pritchett) nevertheless understands (via messaging of the dominant culture) that she is expected to feel spontaneous desire, yet also understands that this is not how her own desire works. So, while confecting an image of herself as spontaneous, she works to make desire happen.
Is Berenice attracted to this man? I doubt it. Pritchett does not let us into Berenice’s fantasy life, so we never get to see any genuine hotness or pining or yearning. I would suggest this is because Berenice is not attracted to William: She is oriented towards illicitness. This becomes clearer and clearer as we realise ‘lying’ serves thes same purpose for Berenice as sex, with that little frisson of pleasure at ‘getting away with something’.
It’s entirely possible that Berenice is on the asexual spectrum. She finds men her own age unappealing, perhaps because they are so very available to her. Perhaps Berenice is aromantic, at least. She does not want marriage. Ostensibly this is because she is drawn to a life of freedom, and for a 1970s woman, to be married is to lose reproductive freedom and all sorts of other autonomies. However, we could also argue for asexuality as her motivation for seeking out what in the 1970s was called the ‘Bohemian life’ in the first place. (It surprises me constantly how often I come across 20th century characters who arguably fit the new (21st century) asexual labels.)
Berenice reminds me of a Robin Williams character in a film called One Hour Photo. (I wonder if Gen Z would understand the title?)
In One Hour Photo, Robin Williams plays a loner who lives his fantasy life via his work developing film in a mall. He develops a fixation for one beautiful family in particular. When he discovers via photos that all is not what it seems (because of course it’s not — this is a story), his protective instincts kick into gear.
Kevin Barry uses the word ‘fabulist’ to describe the character of Berenice. We might also say ‘fantasist’. I’ve noticed that ‘fabulist’ and ‘fantasist’ are descriptors more frequently applied to young women than to any other demographic, though there are certainly many male examples; One Hour Photo contains a standout example. The men tend to be called stalkers, because of what a few, absolute worst of these men do with their fabulations and fantasises.
Back to One Hour Photo: It’s interesting to examine how photography is used in fiction. One Hour Photo (obviously, from the title) has a plot which hinges upon photography as a cultural phenomenon. But in Pritchett’s story, too, there is mention of photography:
For Berenice, one of the attractions of William was that their meetings were erratic. The affair was like a game; she liked surprise above all. In the intervals when he was not there, the game continued for her. She liked imagining what he and his family were doing. She saw them as all glued together, as if in some enduring and absurd photograph — perhaps sitting in their suburban garden, or standing beside a motorcar, always in the sun, but with William himself, dark-faced and busy in his gravity, a step or two back from them.“A Family Man”
There’s no actual photograph, only an imagined one. Photograph symbolism goes hand-in-hand with fabulism, perhaps because we have always been suspicious of what we see in photos. Even when photos are not outright doctored (as they frequently are today), photos are nevertheless a Potemkin village of a whole life, and can never, by definition, show more than a tiny glimpse. Moreover, that glimpse is of the happiest times. People don’t show photographs of arguments, of sickness, of failed dinner parties, of double chins and frowns.
Barry describes, in reading “A Family Man”, “a sense of a long relay in a tennis match where you never know exactly who has an advantage. The women want to believe the best of the glum philanderer and their own places.”
First we have the “cruelly depicted” (Barry’s phrase) Mrs Cork at the door.
The dreadful, narcissistic young men are mentioned briefly — these are the young men Berenice is supposed to want to marry, but doesn’t.
Another opponent is revealed later: the main other woman of Berenice’s lover. This turns Mrs Cork into a sudden ally, since they’ve both been cast aside for another woman.
How stories often work: Characters in the same social network (often family) are bickering and fighting, and then a Minotaur Opponent appears which has the effect of binding them together in the same fight. (It might be a cyclone in a disaster movie or a supernatural threat in a horror.) Rosie is like a comical Minotaur Opponent. She serves that storytelling function, anyway.
THE ETHICS OF WRITING FAT CHARACTERS
Mrs Cork is described as an enormous woman. Pritchett uses the word ‘balloon’. The woman’s vast size is repeated throughout the story and I’m immediately on guard; too many writers use fatness as a shorthand for unlikeable, especially when writing female characters.
We live in a fat phobic society. But what does this mean for writers? Must writers shy away from mentioning body size entirely, because of the history of lazy writers leaning on size prejudice?
What if the fat character turns out to be not so bad after all? If the reader doesn’t like the fat character, does that say more about the reader than the writer who simply described her, with the plausible deniability of “I was simply describing what my character looked like”?
Also, many contemporary fat activists are keen to strip fatness of its negative connotations by confronting it head on: In which case, yeah, she’s fat. What of it?
In this particular story, V.S. Pritchett creates a motif around inflation and deflation. The body sizes are all part of an imagistic pattern which extends to psychology. Berenice herself feels inflated and deflated (metaphorically, not actually) as she tells lies throughout the story. Her lies have different effects, depending on her relationship to the truth. Some lies inflate her, others deflate. Accordingly, her perception of Mrs Cork deflates as Berenice becomes less intimidated by her, successfully extricating herself out of a very messy situation.
Certainly, when writers create fat characters, they need to interrogate their own prejudices. Too many writers lean on the fat=bad/comical trope without further interrogation. I’m not entirely comfortable with Pritchett’s use of female girth. He is at once commenting on how fat women are of lower social status, and also cementing that view by writing. I mean, the same thing was said about Mad Men. By sexually objectifying women, the show both commented on the objectification of women and continued to objectify women.
Berenice’s overall plan: To retain the freedom of a single young artist while having certain needs met (not necessarily sexual ones, I have argued) with married men, who will never want to pin her down or claim too much of her.
Lets take a look at the various revelations in order:
- First Berenice is flummoxed about the identity of this woman at the door. Her heart sinks when she realises it’s the wife of the man she’s been having an affair with.
- Her heart sinks again (but the power balance completely shifts) when she realises her lover is having an affair with another woman (as well as herself.)
- It sinks lower when she understands that William sees this other woman every Thursday whereas he sees Berenice only occasionally.
Now for the big revelation, not to do with plot, but to do with psychology: BERENICE IS THE MOST EXCELLENT LIAR.
She finds her true calling. This is why Pritchett is known as a comic writer.
It makes sense that Berenice is having an affair with a married man. The way Berenice feels about lies (a sensual pleasure) is almost certainly the way she feels about having sex with a married man. Getting away with something forbidden can create a rush of pleasure. (Some people get their fix by shoplifting items they don’t need.)
Why does Berenice save not only herself but also William and Rosie? She could easily throw them to the wolves and tell Mrs Cork that her husband is having an affair with Rosie.
The answer relates to the self-revelation: Despite the title, this story isn’t about William Cork, “family man”. It’s about a young woman “discovering her true creative talent” (as Kevin Barry puts it): lying her way out of tricky situations. She even manages to make Mrs Cork feel better leaving than when she came in.
The story has ended with Berenice is the cusp. The best stories include a kind of crossroads. Berenice may be drawn into Bohemia, or into bourgeoise life. How do we know this? Pritchett has utilised a trick:
Writers are frequently told not to introduce new characters in the final paragraph. I think it comes from essay writing, actually, in which the final paragraph plays a specific role. V.S. Pritchett shows us in this story that there’s no such rule when it comes to fiction. The final paragraph of “A Family Man” functions as a sort of epilogue, and introduces the character of Mrs Brewster, who Kevin Barry describes as “rather sniffy”. Barry also explains the important storytelling function of this snapshot of a character: Berenice’s act is slipping. It’s becoming apparent to those around her that she’s not the beautiful, alluring, footloose and fancy free artist that she’s making herself out to be. (Across cultures, women are encouraged to get married before their ‘looks fade.’)
Although V.S. Pritchett is considered a master of the short form, he is not read especially widely these days. Kevin Barry suggests this might be because not much of his work has made it to screen, which is a shame, he says, because so much of his work is perfect for it.
If you’re after more of Pritchett’s stories from this era, “A Family Man” is included in the collection called On The Edge Of The Cliff.
An old (70-ish) man in love with a loving young (25) woman — jealous when she strays but too fine a fellow to show it. A philanderer’s angry wife descending on her hubby’s latest paramour. Middle-class couples drifting into adultery . . . No, these aren’t novel notions, nor are most of the others in this collection of nine stories — but V.S. Pritchett hardly needs arresting premises to grab anyone’s attention; timeworn situations take on a first-time fascination when lavished with his shrewdly chosen details, his understanding of the little ways in which the mind and heart get out of sync, his seductive shifts from one finely shaded viewpoint to another.
As for the subject matter, we continue to be interested in how women turn each other into opponents while living under patriarchy.
Finally, my complex reaction to reading these women, written by a man:
- It’s entirely possible Pritchett leaned on the ‘fat equals bad’ when creating Mrs Cork, even though he also uses her ‘inflated’ body shape as a motif.
- When men think of friction between women, stories reveal that men frequently think it all comes down to beauty. Whoever’s the most beautiful has the power.
- If Pritchett had stopped there, I wouldn’t have been impressed. However, I believe the author has a solid handle on Berenice’s psychology. He understands the social pressure heaped upon women, in particular: The requirement that ‘true freedom’ contains spontaneous desire, which conflicts with how desire really works (or doesn’t).
- He understands the social pressure on women to get married, and the way older women (the Aunt Lydia’s) police the marriage market.
- Is Berenice believable in other ways e.g. the way she fantasises about being the wife? Here’s the thing: This isn’t realist fiction. It’s comic. These women don’t talk like real people because (as Kevin Barry points out) none of Pritchett’s characters talk like real people.
- Berenice realises she’s an excellent liar. There’s a long and troubling history about women being liars. It has real world repercussions e.g. a woman goes to the doctor in great pain; doctor does not believe her; fails to prescribe the medication she’d be prescribed were she a man. However, that Berenice is an excellent liar is funny precisely because she never tried it out before. This particular story does not convey the ideology that women, in general, are liars.
In this story, at least, V.S. Pritchett made a decent job of writing about specifically female ways of being, even though he used, at times cruel, character archetypes to that end.