The simple-minded, good-natured, and whole-heartedly domestic Jane Bramble is darning a sock while her ten-year-old son Harold Bramble studies. Harold asks his mother to help him with his recitation by looking at a poem while he reads it aloud it from memory. Regarding him with great satisfaction, “like a sheep surprised while gloating over its young,” Jane replies, “Mother will hear you, precious.” Harold doesn’t think his mother’s baby-talk is appropriate for addressing “a young man” who is the school spelling champion. While staring at the glass chandelier above, Harold delivers his verse “with the toneless rapidity affected by youths of his age when reciting poetry.”
Jane’s devotion to her family is plainly apparent in her pride in Harold and her absorption in household duties. She takes her maternal adoration over the top, however, and Wodehouse harshly likens her to a mindless gloating “sheep.” Harold silently objects to his mother’s condescending manner, reminding readers of his conscious pride in himself. He contemplates the chandelier through his spectacles as he recites his poem, suggesting that his refined surroundings correspond to his exceptional intellect. However, his recitation is comically rushed, indicating that he is not so perfect, after all; his excellence is partially in his parents’ heads.
Jane urges Harold to take a break before moving on to study his Scripture and go for a walk. He obeys and leaves. After he exits, she reflects on his model behavior and intelligence. Harold’s perfection compels both Jane and Harold’s father, Bill, to lie to their son about Bill’s (as of yet unnamed) profession. This hadn’t been a problem when Harold was a baby, but as he grew up and his exceptional virtues quickly became apparent, Jane suggested to her husband that they hide the truth of Bill’s occupation. Though lying is distasteful to them both, they feel “there are times when truth must be sacrificed.”
Harold’s parents also take his devotion to learning his Scripture as evidence of his exceptional character. Harold’s perfection, in turn, justifies their ongoing deception regarding Bill’s career. Wodehouse stokes readers’ curiosity about what such an objectionable career could be by emphasizing how Harold’s remarkable qualities of virtue and intelligence are completely incompatible with Bill’s line of work.
Harold has already won two prizes in Sunday School, and the local clergy echoes Jane’s suggestion about keeping the truth of Bill’s job from the boy for his own good. Jane’s brother, Major Percy Stokes of the Salvation Army, also steers the Brambles towards deceiving their son when he stops by the house for supper, insisting that it’s “the least” they can do. Jane takes offense to Percy’s preaching about “men of wrath” while he enjoys a meal at the Brambles’ expense. While pompous Percy is said by some to simply love the sound of his own voice, he can nonetheless preach so persuasively he once convinced a pub owner to donate all his property to the poor—starting with his beer.
Wodehouse implies that Bill’s mysterious profession is offensive on religious grounds by describing Harold’s affinity for church as well as the insistence of two religious figures—a local clergyman and a member of the Salvation Army—that Harold remain ignorant as to how Bill makes a living. However, Percy is quickly shown to be a poor authority on the principles he preaches—he has no qualms about enjoying the fruits of Bill’s disreputable boxing income, and his most successful evangelical mission involved distributing beer rather than providing goods for the truly needy.
Bill easily agrees to conceal his career, being a mild and obliging man at heart. Before Harold was born, he’d readily allowed Jane to choose the baby’s name despite his own preferences. It is near impossible to not like Bill, yet “his walk in life [is] of such a nature that it simply had to be kept from Harold.” The trouble is that Bill is a “professional pugilist.” He had formerly been quite proud of his boxing skills, supposedly able to beat anyone in his weight class in a twenty-round contest. He had even carried around a number of news clippings testifying to his impressive accomplishments. However, after Harold was born, Bill shunned the publicity he once enjoyed, being too afraid that Harold would read about his father in the papers and be ashamed.
That Bill is a mellow and easygoing fellow makes the idea of him being employed in distasteful work even more puzzling. Wodehouse intentionally sets up this revelation that Bill is a boxer as an anticlimax, having led readers to imagine worse and worse jobs for Bill to be engaged in that could so badly offend decent sensibilities. Boxing is not nearly so unpleasant an occupation, all things considered—and all the fuss about it seems excessive in retrospect. Wodehouse feeds this reaction by describing Bill’s former pride in his profession. Bill didn’t always feel that his work was something to be ashamed of; on the contrary, he used to promote his achievements in the ring. Wodehouse thus lays the foundations for the story’s taboo against boxing to appear foolish and baseless.
Harold is especially intelligent compared to his rather witless parents. So intelligent is Harold, in fact, that Bill and Jane are intimidated by him, considering him to be of a “superior order.” He excels in both his academics at a private school and his religious studies, singing in the church choir and attending Sunday School. Given these superior virtues, his parents feel bound to pretend that Bill has a reputable job as a commercial traveler, or salesman, rather than admit the truth: that he is merely a coarse athlete, known as “Young Porky.” Harold, “a self-centred child,” doesn’t question this story.
Given that neither Jane nor Bill are naturally quick-witted or particularly well-educated, they feel inferior to their bright son. Moreover, Harold shows an enthusiasm for attending church and studying Scripture that they, too, lack, judging by how impressed they are by his zeal. While a merely average intellect and interest in religion aren’t necessarily shameful, Harold’s parents feel especially sensitive given their lower-class origins and the more prosperous rank they now occupy, as Jane will later testify. They don’t want Harold to be conscious of their less sophisticated and enlightened background, so they substitute a successful salesman’s profession for Bill’s coarser livelihood.
Jane, still darning socks, thinks happily of Bill’s plans to retire after his next big match and apply for a respectable and comfortable job as an instructor instead. Suddenly her brother and husband arrive, unexpectedly interrupting her reverie. When she questions why Bill isn’t training at his gym, the White Hart, Percy babbles about “wrestling with Bill” and being “vouchsafed the victory,” while Jane expresses her confusion and disdain. Percy says he sent letters and pamphlets to Bill and tried to talk to him in person to dissuade him from boxing, but was threatened by Bill’s trainer, Jerry Fisher. He asks Bill which treatise finally turned him away from “the primrose path” of sinfulness, but Bill maintains that it was what Percy wrote about Harold that changed his mind, rather than any of Percy’s treatises.
Jane approves of Bill’s intention to retire from the boxing circuit and become a salaried school instructor. There is a clear element of hypocrisy in how Bill’s current career as a boxer is judged compared to how his job as an instructor would be, however, as it will later become clear that the young, upper-class men Bill would teach are themselves interested in learning to box. Bill then corrects Percy to say that he cared more about Harold than Percy’s lectures or leaflets on the alleged immorality of boxing.
Jane still doesn’t understand what’s going on and demands a straight answer from Bill. Finally, Bill admits that he isn’t going to fight next week. Jane asks him what about the money he was supposed to earn from the match, and Percy scoffs at the question. She reminds her brother that she has lent him enough money in the past. She tells Bill that she’s never liked his career, but it’s earned them good money and allowed them to give Harold a superior education. The earnings from the upcoming fight were supposed to guarantee Harold a better start in life than his parents had.
Upon hearing that Bill is quitting boxing sooner than they had agreed, Jane thinks first about the lost earnings from the match. Percy’s hypocrisy is evidenced by the fact that he scorns her economic mindset yet can only afford to do so because the Brambles helped him financially in the past. Jane chiefly tolerates Bill’s profession because it’s profitable, granting them a comfortable lifestyle with luxuries like servants, chandeliers, and private schools for Harold. These benefits, primarily for Harold’s sake, have thus far warranted their morally-questionable choice to sacrifice the truth rather than simply leave boxing altogether. Despite the Brambles’ concern that boxing is a shameful profession, they add to their unvirtuous course by lying. Their idea of “a better start in life” involves a foundation based on wealth rather than honesty.
Jane starts to cry as Bill explains that he is thinking of Harold, and how he decided not to fight after Percy pointed out that the big match-up with the American Jimmy Murphy would likely be covered by the major newspapers with his picture, and Harold would see it and realize the truth.
Once again, morality is not the most important factor behind the Brambles’ decisions. They act according to their desires to protect their comfort, status, and pride. Rather than giving up boxing because of its arguable immorality, Bill won’t risk Harold becoming ashamed of him, because he couldn’t bear the shame he would feel in turn.
Just then Jerry walks in and rushes toward Percy. Percy dives under the table “like a performing seal” while Bill and Jane tell Jerry not to act so rudely. Jerry manages to restrain himself while he pleads with Bill to come back to the gym. Bill tells Percy to explain everything to Jerry, and Percy tells Jane to do it. Jane refuses, and Bill finally confesses again that he’s not going to fight. Jerry urges Bill to consider the money, the crowds, the publicity, the title he can contend for if he wins—as well as Jerry’s own reputation as a trainer—but Bill refuses.
Percy cowers when faced with Jerry’s bluster, showing little courage in his convictions. Neither Bill nor the formerly vocal Percy are eager to inform Jerry of Bill’s intention to quit. The fierce boxer and the fiery missionary are comically afraid to stand their ground. Jerry is dumbstruck by Bill’s decision to withdraw from the match, which goes against every rationale he knows: wealth, fame, glory, and reputation. Bill insists on withdrawing for Harold’s sake, an ostensibly selfless move that nonetheless serves Bill’s own pride, hinging as it does upon Harold’s opinion of him.
Suddenly Harold returns from his walk, and a furious Jerry seeks revenge on Bill by telling the boy the truth about his father. Bill and Percy try to cut him off, but he talks over them. Bill and Percy tell Harold not to be ashamed because Bill has quit boxing forever, no matter who should plead with him to reconsider—not even the King of England could persuade him to dishonor his son.
Jerry’s pride is so bruised by being denied a chance to prove his talents as a trainer that he seeks to inflict humiliation on Bill by exposing the boxer’s secret. Bill and Percy try to temper Harold’s anticipated distress at the news by assuring him Bill will never fight again under any circumstances. To earn his son’s respect, Bill would refuse the King of England.
Harold unexpectedly demands to know what will happen to his bet on the match if Bill quits. He declares that it’s quite unfair for his father to spoil his bet after all the research he’s done about boxing. Harold also says it’s unfair of his father to have kept this secret from him all this time, since the other boys would have fallen all over him if they had known who his father was, instead of looking down on him as “Goggles.” He urges his father not to withdraw from the match.
Harold indeed bursts out in disappointment, but not the kind his parents imagined. Instead of condemning his father, he astonishes everyone—the reader included—by blasting Bill for quitting and ruining his carefully-planned bet on the upcoming match. He and his friends evidently appreciate good boxing, and Harold wishes he could have capitalized on his father’s fame to stop the other boys from calling him “Goggles” after his spectacles. The name is undesirable because of its association with fragility. Harold clearly glorifies the robust fighters, given his extensive knowledge of the boxing league.
Jerry praises Harold’s response, and the boy explains that he and his friends have followed boxing for years. Another boy supposedly owns a photo of a boxing champion, and Harold begs his father for a picture of him boxing so he can flaunt it, too, and put an end to the nickname “Goggles.” Jerry and Bill return to the gym, and Harold resumes practicing his recitation with Jane.
Harold apparently feels no ethical scruples about being a boxing fan. His parents’ concerns on his behalf, thus, appear to have been projections of their own anxieties regarding upper-class morality and respectability. Harold is the only character to freely acknowledge his intention to bolster his pride by laying claim to a famous boxer as his father and dispelling an embarrassing nickname. Realizing that Harold idolizes boxers, Bill and his pride readapt, and he returns to the gym. Jane is able to resume her domestic mission, spared the financial derailment that Bill’s early retirement had posed. And Percy disappears to stage his next vain intervention. The younger generation’s disregard for outdated standards of virtue and propriety relieves everyone from their distress, and the story ends happily.