Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
“The Fly” is a story told primarily through the eyes of “the boss,” the protagonist, who is described not by name but by function. The story has two parts. In the first part, Mr. Woodifield (whom the boss thinks of as “old Woodifield”), retired since his stroke and woman-dominated, visits his friend the boss, who though, five years older than Woodifield, is still in charge of the firm. Woodifield and the boss have one experience in common: Both lost sons in World War I.
The boss enjoys showing Woodifield his redecorated office and benevolently offering him some whiskey. Then Woodifield, who has momentarily forgotten what he meant to tell the boss, remembers. His daughters have been in Belgium to see the grave of their brother, Woodifield’s son, and they have also seen that of the boss’s son. After Woodifield reports that the cemetery is well kept, he leaves, and the first part of the story is concluded.
Feeling that he must weep, the boss tells the cowed messenger, Macey, to give him a half hour alone. He feels as if he can see his son in the grave. However, although he muses that his life has been meaningless since the death of his promising only son, whom he was grooming to take over the business, the boss cannot weep.
At this point, the boss sees a fly in the inkpot, pulls it out, and puts it on a blotter, where he proceeds to torture it, placing one drop of ink on it at a time and repeating the operation every time the fly seems to have extricated itself and gained hope. Even though he admires the fly and cheers it on, the boss continues to drop ink on it until at last the fly dies. He feels miserable, but he cannot remember what he was thinking about before he began his experiment with the fly.