Quinn is the boss at work. Below him is Prentis, who is the head researcher, and below Prentis are Eric and two other researchers. When Prentis goes home at the end of each day he assumes the role of boss and becomes just as arbitrary and cruel in his treatment of his wife Marian as Quinn appears to be to him. As Quinn demands the respect of his workers, so Prentis demands the respect of his children, Martin and Peter.
The relationship between Prentis and his family, twisted though it may be, is explained to some extent by his hamster. The novel opens with an extended passage on Sammy, the hamster that Prentis had as a child. Prentis describes his pet in loving terms and seems to be a normal child. That is until he admits that he "used to torment [his] hamster. I was cruel to Sammy. It wasn't a case of wanting to play with him, or train him, or study how he behaved. I tortured him." (p.2) This cruelty was based upon a discovery that the young Prentis had made, "that this creature which I loved and pitied was also at my mercy." (p.2) Thus the hierarchy begins to emerge, and the dominant Prentis feels the need to exert his power.
The treatment that Sammy got is transferred directly to Prentis's family. What is most intriguing is that Prentis is aware of his actions and is still powerless to do anything about them: "I move suddenly forward to pull Peter up from the floor. I know I am about to act like an ogre, a madman -- it's happened before (when did all this begin?) but I can't do anything about it. He tries to squirm free but I catch him by the collar. There is a moment when he swings obliquely, dangling in my grip, has sandaled feet not yet having found a footing on the floor, and just at this point, for some reason, I get a sudden mental vision of myself sitting in Quinn's leather chair." (p.10) This single passage tells the entire tale. Prentis describes Peter's struggle in the same terms that he had previously described his hamster's attempts to escape. At the same moment he pictures himself in the boss's chair, delineating the entire power structure as it is arranged in his own head. What is much sadder is that Prentis, while at work, thinks of his family as "a wife who tends house-plants and two healthy kids whom you take out on the common at weekends to play with frisbees and cricket bats." (p.24)
The relationship between Prentis and his wife is similarly warped, modeled not after Prentis's office life but after his competition with his deranged father. His father is a World War II hero, and Prentis often wonders what it would be like to be "brave and strong" (p.63) instead of the "weak, cowardly man" (p.33) that he thinks himself to be. His downfall comes because he has no testing ground in which to prove himself brave. Since he cannot recreate his father's life as a spy, he seeks adventures in sex. That is exactly how Prentis describes his sexual relations with Marian, as "the adventure." (p.74) Prentis acknowledges that sex must assume this role in his life, "that sexual adventure is the only form of adventure left to us in our age. It compensates for all the excitement and initiative we've lost in other ways." (p.74)
The unhealthy (and unwarranted) competition between Prentis and his father affects his married life in the same way that his situation at work affects his relationship with his children. His entire life is dictated by outside factors. The interweaving of all these facets by Swift brings Shuttlecock together into a densely packed tale, so that nothing is extraneous. Not even an extended discussion on a hamster.