By Dr Oliver Tearle
‘The Fly’ is not one of the best-known short stories of the New Zealand-born writer Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923), but it is significant for being one of her few stories which deals directly with the First World War. In the story, a man is reminded of the death of his young son in the war, only to become distracted by a fly which has fallen into the inkpot on his desk.
A classic example of Mansfield’s modernist fiction, ‘The Fly’ is about loss, grief, war, and death, among other themes. You can read the story here before proceeding to the summary and analysis of the story below. The story takes around 10 minutes to read.
‘The Fly’: plot summary
The setting of the story is the office of a man referred to simply as ‘the boss’. Old Woodifield is making his weekly social visit to the boss’s office. It becomes clear that Woodifield used to work at the company the boss runs, but after he suffered a stroke, he has taken early retirement and his daughters only let him out of the house once a week for his visit to the company where he used to work.
The two men admire how snug the office is, and the boss thinks how old and near to death Woodifield looks. Woodifield has something he meant to tell his host, but he cannot remember it. To treat his guest and to try to jog his memory, the boss takes out a bottle of rare whisky and pours them both a drink.
Then Woodifield tells the boss that his daughters have recently visited his son’s war grave in Belgium. He mentions that the girls also found the grave of the boss’s son. The boss has not made it over to Belgium to see his son’s grave yet.
After Woodifield has gone, the boss finds himself struggling to grieve for his dead son, who was killed in the war. He reminisces about how much promise the boy had shown, and how well-liked he was at the company, where the boss had been training him up to take it over one day when he, the boss, retired. But then the war had broken out and his son had gone off to fight, and had never come back. He tells Macey, his office messenger, not to allow anyone to disturb him for half an hour.
While he is caught in these reminiscences, examining an old photograph of his son, the boss notices a fly that has fallen into the inkpot on his desk. He fishes it out onto the blotting paper and then takes a drop of ink and drops it over the fly, watching it struggle. He then does the same again, and again, willing the fly to wash itself clean and carry on.
However, when he chances a fourth drop, it proves too much for the fly, which stops moving and dies. The boss throws the fly’s corpse into the waste paper basket and then finds he cannot remember what he was thinking about beforehand. He has forgotten about his son.
‘The Fly’: analysis
Mansfield wrote ‘The Fly’ in February 1922 in Paris, and the story was first published in The Nation and Athenaeum in March of that year. 1922 was a key year for modernist responses to the First World War: T. S. Eliot’s long poem The Waste Land, in many ways a response to the chaos wrought by the war, was published in the same year, as was Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, in which the title character dies in the war, leaving a grieving mother behind.
More than many of her other stories, ‘The Fly’ draws on Mansfield’s own life and family experiences for its inspiration. Her younger brother, Leslie Beauchamp, aged just 21, had been killed in 1915 during a grenade training drill while serving with the British Expeditionary Force. Like the sons mentioned in ‘The Fly’, Leslie died in Belgium, and like the boss’s son, he had been working at his father’s firm before the outbreak of the war.
‘The Fly’ is an example of modernist fiction, and this modernism is evinced in the story in several ways. First of all, there is Mansfield’s interest in the interiority of her characters’ minds, specifically the mind of the boss here. She is concerned with reflecting his psychology to us, including his rather strange trains of thought. More specifically, she uses the symbolic encounter with the fly to suggest the deep grief the boss feels, but is unable to confront even six years after his son’s death.
Second, there is the ambiguity of the symbolism, which makes the story’s meaning ultimately open-ended and undecidable. Does the boss kill the fly out of spite or malice? Or simply lack of empathy for another living thing? And if so, is Mansfield trying to suggest a link between the boss’s actions and those of all of the generals and field marshals and other men of a similar age, who sent so many young men to their deaths during the war?
Note, in this connection, how the boss completely forgets about his son not long after he had been lost in his reveries about him. No sooner has he recalled him to mind, it would seem, than he was capable of forgetting about him all over again. We are invited to draw a parallel between this act of swift forgetting and the boss’s casual discarding of the fly’s dead body into the waste paper bin. No sooner is it out of sight than it is out of his mind.
However, when we examine the boss’s actions – and, even more crucially, examine his psychology while he is attacking the fly with the drops of ink – a more complex picture emerges. The boss, we are told, ‘felt a real admiration for the fly’s courage.’ And although we might at first be tempted to interpret the boss’s dousing of the fly’s body with ink as a callous act, designed to taunt the poor creature, the boss clearly sees it slightly differently. When he drops some more ink on the insect, he ‘felt a rush of relief’, Mansfield tells us, when the fly rallied and cleaned itself once again.
The state of the boss’s office is perhaps significant here. It is cosy and snug and well-furnished, we are told at the beginning of the story. Behind his comfortable desk, like so many of the generals who sent young men over the top in France and Belgium, the boss has no knowledge of the real struggle the fly is facing as it battles for its life, just as he can barely comprehend what his son, and millions of young men like his son, went through in Belgium.
In the last analysis, it is thoughtlessness, perhaps, rather than heartlessness which is the cause of the boss’s blind spot.