Study Guide

The Fly

by Katherine Mansfield

The Fly Essay - Critical Essays

The Fly, Katherine Mansfield

Introduction

“The Fly” Katherine Mansfield

The following entry represents criticism concerning Mansfield's short story, “The Fly.” See also, Katherine Mansfield Criticism and "The Garden Party" Criticism.

This disturbing tale has been the subject of considerable, often heated, critical debate, and there is little consensus on either the story's meaning or literary merit. The events surround a boss who is reminded of his son's death during a visit from an old friend. The man then rescues and causes the death of a common housefly. The story's simple action, which is understated but offers a telling description of character and place, is marked by a lack of humor and compassion. The story also makes a fascinating study of a psychological crisis that afflicts a man almost completely lacking in self-awareness. The story has elements found in many of Mansfield's other works, including the use of epiphany as the focal point of the narrative; greater concern with internal crisis than external crisis of plot; and use of symbolic patterning, with key ideas and images repeated to suggest the complexity of characters' motives and situations. Interpretations of the work abound, and is often interpreted as the author's autobiographical statement in her final months of life and how she viewed herself as a helpless victim of dark and unknown forces. The story also is a critique of war and patriarchy, as well as a metaphysical exploration of humans' place in the world. All interpretations, however, seem to concur that “The Fly” is perhaps the darkest and most haunting treatment of human corruption in Mansfield's literary oeuvre, as well as and one of the starkest expressions of post-World War I existential helplessness and despair.

Plot and Major Characters

The story begins with a retired man, old Mr. Woodifield, making his weekly visit to the office where he worked before suffering a stroke. Woodifield has made a habit of returning to visit his old boss on Tuesday afternoons—the only day of the week his wife and girls allow him out of the house. The boss, five years older, is stout and fit, a stark contrast to his enfeebled former employee. It does a man good, Woodifield thinks, to see the boss going so strong. Woodifield admires the office and the boss explains, as he has done for several weeks now, that he has done it up lately. He points to the new carpet, new furniture, and new electric heating. Woodifield notices that the boss does not point to the photograph of a grave-looking boy in uniform. The photograph is not new; it has been there for the past six years.

As the two men enjoy their surroundings and each other's company, Woodifield says he cannot recall something he wanted to tell the boss. The boss feels sorry for the old man, thinking he is obviously “on his last pins.” He encourages Woodifield to drink some of his excellent whisky to restore his memory, even if it is against doctor's orders. As they enjoy their drinks, Woodifield suddenly remembers what he had meant to tell the boss. His daughters had recently been in Belgium where they visited their brother Reggie's gravesite. They noticed while there that the boss's son's gravesite was nearby. Both plots, the girls reported, were well cared for, and the gravesites were in a beautiful place, with broad paths and flowers growing on all the plots. The boss is visibly upset and distracted as Woodifield gives him the details. Woodifield asks if the boss has been there; the boss says he has not. Woodifield carries on about how expensive the jam was at the hotel where his girls stayed, but the boss responds without listening and hurries to end the conversation. He shows Woodifield out.

The boss stares blankly for a time, then orders his clerk to make sure he remains undisturbed for a half hour. He closes his office door, slumps into his chair, and covers his face with his hands. Woodifield's announcement had come as a shock; when he talked of his son's grave it was as though the earth opened up and he saw his boy lying in the earth with Woodifield's girls staring down at him. During the previous six years he only thought of his boy, lying unchanged and unblemished in his uniform. He groans “My son!” but no tears come. In the first months and years after his son's death, he had only to say those words and he would begin weeping violently. He was sure that the passage of time would make no difference in the intensity of his emotion. Other men might live their loss down, but he would not. How could he? This was his only son, whom he had worked for, who was to have taken over his business, whom everyone loved. He was the only thing that gave meaning to the boss's life. Six years earlier he had received the telegram announcing his son was dead, leaving him a broken man.

Six years following his son's death, he is unable to weep and doesn't understand what is wrong. He decides to get up and look at the boy's photograph. At that moment, he notices a fly has fallen into his inkpot, struggling to get free. The boss lifts the fly out of the inkpot with his pen and shakes it on some blotting paper, then watches as it begins to clean itself. The boss imagines that the fly must be joyful knowing it has narrowly escaped death. The boss then has an idea, and plunges his pen back into the pot and drops a blot of ink on the fly. The fly seems stunned, but eventually begins to clean itself again. The boss admires the creature's fighting spirit, but then drops a second blot of ink. He is relieved when the fly again makes the effort to clean itself. He decides he will drop just one more blot of ink on the fly. But after a third inkdrop, the fly does not stir. The boss tries to move it with his pen, telling it to “look sharp” but to no avail; it is dead.

The boss lifts the corpse of the fly and throws it into the waste-paper. He feels wretched and frightened. He barks an order to his clerk to bring him fresh blotting paper, and to “look sharp” about it. Then he tries to recall what he was thinking about before the fly died and cannot.

Major Themes

Mansfield never explained exactly what she meant “The Fly” to signify, and the story has spawned a variety of interpretations. It is frequently seen as an indictment of the brutal horror of World War I, along with the hopelessness and despair left in its wake. Many scholars have remarked that the timetable that the story sets for the death of the two sons coincides with the 1915 death of Mansfield's brother, a victim of wartime fighting. The war dead, it is claimed, are likened to flies and innocently slaughtered by cruel forces over which they have no control. Some critics have pointed to references Mansfield made in her journals and letters about flies to show that the fly represents herself, struggling to fight the ravages of her tuberculosis, only to be crushed in the end by a selfish and cruel father much like the boss in her story. Other critics have resisted such autobiographical interpretations, insisting they detract from a more universally compelling existential message concerning the inevitability of death and man's unwillingness to accept this truth. These scholars see the story as essentially about the boss's brief realization of his own pitiful ambitions and mortality before he subconsciously tries to suppress this horrible knowledge.

Much attention has been paid to the central character of the boss. He has been seen as a symbol of malignant forces that are base and motiveless, a representative of the generation that sent its sons to their slaughter in a cruel war, and a god-like figure who, in the words of King Lear, toys with the lives of human beings for sport. Most critics agree that the reader's early good impression of the boss is continually undermined as the story unfolds. In the end, some have claimed, he can be viewed as a sadomasochist who likely cowed his son as he does Woodifield and his clerk. He is a bully who torments the fly for boyish pleasure, and his sense of loss is no more than self-pity. However, some commentators claim that the boss should not be viewed as an unsympathetic character, but simply as a man whose experiments on a common housefly are manifestations of an unconscious metaphysical questioning about the meaning of life. The answer comes to him briefly, but he becomes frightened and quickly pushes it out of his mind. Other critics have seen the boss as a man coming to terms with his own selfishness and heartlessness, who recognizes briefly that his grief for his son has been based on a kind of self-deception. As a result, when the fly dies the boss suffers a spiritual death.

Critics have also remarked on the story's multi-layered symbolism. The vigorous boss is at first seen in contrast to doddering old Woodifield, but by the end of the story both men have forgotten about their son's deaths. Woodifield, in his dotage, is likened to a baby, and the boss to a greedy boy; both men are immature and lacking in real strength. Neither of them visits his son's grave because of their respective weaknesses, but while the frailty of Woodifield is immediately apparent, the deficiency of the powerful boss is revealed to be far more disturbing. The fly seems to be a symbol for, among other things, the men under the boss's control. The boss treats the fly condescendingly and benevolently as he does Woodifield who is “on his last pins.” He also demands that the fly “look sharp,” the same order he gives his clerk. This leads us to wonder if his son did not suffer the same unthinking treatment at the hands of his father, and if the boss's grief is in fact genuine.

Critical Reception

Mansfield wrote the “The Fly” in Paris in 1922 while undergoing X-ray treatment for tuberculosis, and it is clear from her letters and journals that she was not wholly pleased with it. It is likely that she was hard-pressed for money to pay for her medical treatment at the time, and was working under the additional pressures of market requirements and publication deadlines. In a response to her friend William Gerhardi, who had confessed to her that he disliked the piece, Mansfield herself admitted that she “hated” writing the story.

Mansfield died less than a year following the story's publication and did not witness the intense critical and popular interest in “The Fly.” After its initial magazine publication in 1922, the story appeared in the highly regarded, posthumously published collection, The Dove's Nest and then again in successive volumes of Mansfield's works. The work began to receive serious critical treatment beginning in 1945, when a series of short articles in The Explicator sought to uncover the symbolic meanings and thematic concerns hidden in the deceptively simply tale. A 1962 essay by F. W. Bateson and B. Shahevitch in Essays in Criticism, remarking on Mansfield's use of realism to make the setting of the story authentic so as to draw readers in to the narrative, spawned a series of responses complaining that the complexity of the piece had been overlooked with this assessment. Later commentators took their cue from Bateson's and Shahevitch's critics and have tried to understand why the story has elicited such a range of interpretations. Ironically, most critics acknowledge that “The Fly” is not one of Mansfield's strongest works, and some have even suggested that it is the story's flaws that make it an interesting subject of scrutiny. However, the work continues to enjoy a reputation as one of Mansfield's most famous stories, and is regarded as a fine example of the complexity of method that is the author's great contribution to the short story form.

Criticism

Robert Wooster Stallman (essay date 1945)

SOURCE: “Mansfield's ‘The Fly,’” in The Explicator, Vol. 3, No. 6, April, 1945, item 49.

[In the following essay, Stallman contends that the theme of Mansfield's “The Fly” is that time overcomes all grief.]

The experiment with the Fly by the Boss, so named because he appears to be the boss of his little world and of the little life of the Fly who has fallen into his inkpot, the boss as well over his employees Woodifield and Macey and over his dead son (all are as flies to him), dramatizes both the plot (the conflict between time and grief) and the theme (time conquers grief). At the first stage of the experiment the Boss is to be equated with the Fly. He...

(The entire section is 560 words.)

Wills D. Jacobs (essay date 1947)

SOURCE: “Mansfield's ‘The Fly,’” in The Explicator, Vol. 5, No. 4, February, 1947, item 32.

[In the following essay, Jacobs maintains that the fly is a symbol for Mansfield, who at the time of the story's writing was a woman slowly dying of tuberculosis.]

The interpretation of Katherine Mansfield's “The Fly” in EXP. III, Apr., 1945, 49, is at once ingenious and recherché. That the surface theme of the story is the conquest of time over grief—that in time even a slight distraction can banish the truest emotion from the mind—is certain enough. But in its explanation of the fly itself that previous account violates a wise rule known as Morgan's...

(The entire section is 804 words.)

Thomas Bledsoe (essay date 1947)

SOURCE: “Mansfield's ‘The Fly,’” in The Explicator, Vol. 5, No. 7, May, 1947, item 53.

[In the following essay, Bledsoe dismisses the interpretations of the story offered the critics Stallman and Jacobs, and concludes that “The Fly” is really about the selfishness and cruelty of mankind.]

I believe that Katherine Mansfield's “The Fly” can be explained without recourse either to a devious symbolism (EXP., April, 1945, III, 49) or to biographical reference (EXP., Feb., 1947, V, 32). Though the former was provocative and the latter cogent, the writers of both seem to me to have missed the woods for the trees. They agree that this is a story...

(The entire section is 609 words.)

Celeste Turner Wright (essay date 1955)

SOURCE: “Genesis of a Short Story,” in Philological Quarterly, Vol. 34, No. 1, January, 1955, pp. 91-6.

[In the following essay, Wright calls upon to Mansfield's letters and journals to strengthen her assertion that the fly is a symbol for the author herself while the boss represents her father.]

On January 11, 1918, after a wartime train trip to the South of France for her health, Katherine Mansfield wrote her husband, John Middleton Murry, that she felt “like a fly who has been dropped into the milk-jug and fished out again, but is still too milky and drowned to start cleaning up yet.”1 As early as 1913 her story “Violet”2 had...

(The entire section is 1970 words.)

Thomas J. Assad (essay date 1955)

SOURCE: “Mansfield's ‘The Fly,’” in The Explicator, Vol. 14, No. 2, November, 1955, item 10.

[In the following essay, Assad argues that the central meaning of “The Fly” is clearly expressed in the line from the story that reads,“we cling to our last pleasures as the tree clings to its last leaves.”]

Various interpretations enrich our reading of Katherine Mansfield's masterful short story. Robert Wooster Stallman's interpretation of the fly as symbolizing and not symbolizing the Boss is ingenious and engaging (EXP., April, 1945, III, 49); Willis D. Jacobs' biographical interpretation of the fly as Katherine Mansfield struggling and succumbing to...

(The entire section is 819 words.)

Stanley B. Greenfield (essay date 1958)

SOURCE: “Mansfield's ‘The Fly,’” in The Explicator, Vol. 17, No. 1, October, 1958, item 2.

[In the following essay, Greenfield observes that the death of the fly represents the end of the boss's grief, the thing that had made him distinct from other men and nations who have moved beyond personal sadness and forgotten the cruelty of World War I.]

The difficulties Miss Mansfield's excellent story “The Fly” have occasioned interpreters stem from their eagerness to make one of two obvious equations: (1) within the story itself, to see the fly symbolizing the boss (Stallman, EXP., April, 1945, III, 49; Berkman, K. M.: A Critical Study, p. 195); (2)...

(The entire section is 839 words.)

Pauline P. Bell (essay date 1960)

SOURCE: “Mansfield's ‘The Fly’,” in The Explicator, Vol. 19, No. 3, December, 1960, item 20.

[In the following essay, Bell argues that Mansfield's “The Fly” is a story about the inevitability of death and humans' retreat from that realization.]

It seems to me that there is room for one more explication of Katherine Mansfield's short story “The Fly”—an explication in which the fly is the fly, the boss is the boss, and Woodifield is Woodifield. (For previous discussions in The Explicator, see the note by Stanley B. Greenfield, Oct., 1958, XVII, 2, and references given therein.)

“The Fly” seems to me to be unified by one...

(The entire section is 1102 words.)

Clinton W. Oleson and J. D. Thomas (essay date 1961)

SOURCE: “‘The Fly’ Rescued” and “The Anatomy of a Fly” in College English, Vol. 22, No. 8, May, 1961, pp. 585-86.

[In the following two-part essay, Oleson takes issue with Thomas's interpretations of the symbolism in “The Fly”; Thomas replies to Oleson's criticism and offers direction for further criticism of the story.]

In “Symbol and Parallelism in ‘The Fly’” (College English, Jan. 1961), J. D. Thomas suggests that the fly in Katherine Mansfield's story represents “a life force—or The Life Force—fighting with instinctive courage for survival, until finally done to death by human perversity” and that the ink with which the fly is...

(The entire section is 1056 words.)

F. W. Bateson and B. Shahevitch (essay date 1962)

SOURCE: “Katherine Mansfield's ‘The Fly’: A Critical Exercise,” in Essays in Criticism, Vol. 12, No. 1, January, 1962, pp. 39-53.

[In the following essay, Bateson and Shahevitch discuss how Mansfield makes extraordinary use of literary realism to create a tale that ends in the reader's moral condemnation of the protagonist.]

“The Fly” is probably the shortest good short story in modern English. Its two thousand words therefore permit, indeed encourage, the kind of close analysis that has been so successful in our time with lyric poetry but that is impossibly cumbrous or misleadingly incomplete when applied to the novel or the conte. The object...

(The entire section is 2779 words.)

R. A. Jolly (essay date 1962)

SOURCE: “Katherine Mansfield's ‘The Fly,’” in Essays in Criticism, Vol. 12, No. 3, July, 1962, pp. 335-38.

[In the following essay, a response to F. W Bateson's and B. Shahevitch's 1961 essay on “The Fly,” Jolly argues that the story contains many more layers of meaning than those critics had observed, most importantly that the boss's predicament is really our own.]

If the object of the article on “The Fly” was simply to demonstrate that ‘exactly the same critical procedure is in order for realistic fiction as for a poem’, then the exercise was successful. It is disappointing, however, that the critical procedure was not carried either as far or as...

(The entire section is 1624 words.)

R. A. Copland (essay date 1962)

SOURCE: “Katherine Mansfield's ‘The Fly,’” in Essays in Criticism, Vol. 12, No. 3, July, 1962, pp. 338-41.

[In the following essay, a response to F. W. Bateson's and B. Shahevitch's 1961 essay on “The Fly,” Copland complains that those critics miss the basic point the story, which he says is “less about a man's personality than about a man's crisis.”]

It was disappointing to discover that Mr. Bateson and Mr. Shahevitch had applied but not really employed their valuable techniques in criticising Katherine Mansfield's short story “The Fly” (Essays in Criticism, January 1962). It seems a pity that the authors' method should reveal so much...

(The entire section is 1050 words.)

E. B. Greenwood (essay date 1962)

SOURCE: “Katherine Mansfield's ‘The Fly,’” in Essays in Criticism, Vol. 12, No. 3, July, 1962, pp. 341-47.

[In the following response to F. W. Bateson's and B. Shahevitch's 1961 essay on “The Fly,” Greenwood attacks those critics' conclusions about Mansfield's use of the realistic literary genre and rejects their portrayal of the boss as morally unsympathetic; the point of the story, Greenwood argues, is that the boss is asking a metaphysical question about the meaning of life in an arbitrary and tormented world.]

What is ‘realism’? Surely not, as Bateson and Shahevitch suggest, just a trick whereby descriptive trivia are incorporated in a story...

(The entire section is 2456 words.)

F. W. Bateson (essay date 1962)

SOURCE: “A Sort of Answer,” in Essays in Criticism, Vol. 12, No. 3, July, 1962, pp. 347-51.

[In the following response to the critics E. B. Greenwood, R. A. Copland, and R. W. Jolly, Bateson reasserts his claim that the realistic devices Mansfield uses to describe the character of the boss make him not only unsympathetic but a symbol of the very “society which destroyed itself, and a million innocent victims with it, between 1914 and 1918.”]

Our three critics have raised so many points—several of them, I agree, eminently sensible ones—that I shall not attempt to answer them all here and now. What we set out to provide, as we made clear in our sub-title, was...

(The entire section is 1664 words.)

John T. Hagopian (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: “Capturing Mansfield's ‘Fly,’” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 9, No. 4, Winter, 1963-1964, pp. 385-90.

[In the following essay, Hagopian rejects biographical interpretations of “The Fly” as limiting the story's universally compelling message of death and loss.]

Late in 1915 when Katherine Mansfield received the news that her brother had been killed fighting in France, she wrote in her journal:

The present and the future mean nothing to me. I am no longer “curious” about people; I do not wish to go anywhere; and the only possible value that anything can have for me is that it should put me in mind of...

(The entire section is 2905 words.)

J. Rea (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: “Mansfield's ‘The Fly,’” in The Explicator, Vol. 23, No. 9, May, 1965, item 68.

[In the following essay, Rea concludes that “The Fly” is the story of a selfish man who pushes everyone and everything—except himself—to their breaking point.]

The chief characteristic of the boss in Katherine Mansfield's “The Fly” (see EXP., April, 1945, III, 49; Feb., 1947, v, 32; May, 1947, v, 33; Feb., 1954, XII, 27; Nov., 1955, XIV, 10; Oct., 1958, XVII, 2; and Dec., 1960, XIX, 20) is, I think, his inability to recognize that others have a breaking point. This is shown in his attitude toward the fly, toward Macey, toward Mr. Woodifield, and toward his...

(The entire section is 660 words.)

Ted E. Boyle (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: “The Death of the Boss: Another Look at Katherine Mansfield's ‘The Fly,’” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 11, No. 2, Summer, 1965, pp. 183-85.

[In the following essay, Boyle claims that the symbolism in “The Fly” is intended to emphasize the spiritual death of the boss.]

John V. Hagopian's recent article on “The Fly” indeed seems a more reasoned and logical explication than those made by earlier critics.1 Professor Hagopian's assertion, however, that the boss is an almost wholly sympathetic character and that the story concerns the boss's imperfect realization of the inescapable fact of death elicits some argument. It is also...

(The entire section is 1398 words.)

Mary Rohrberger (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: “Katherine Mansfield: ‘The Fly,’” in Hawthorne and the Modern Short Story, Mouton and Company, 1966, pp. 68-74.

[In the following excerpt, Rohrberger claims that all the characters in the story are themselves symbolically flies, each acted upon by a cruel controlling force.]

“The Fly” was published in 1923 in The Dove's Nest, Katherine Mansfield's last published volume, Sylvia Berkman, in her critical study of Mansfield, says that the central symbolism in “The Fly” is confused:

Obviously the boss stands for a superior controlling power—God, destiny, or fate—which in capricious and impersonal...

(The entire section is 2232 words.)

Paulette Michel-Michot (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: “Katherine Mansfield's ‘The Fly’: An Attempt to Capture the Boss,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 11, No. 1, Winter, 1974, pp. 85-92.

[In the following essay, Michel-Michot declares that “The Fly” is a story about self-discovery and the resulting terror that forces a man to try to forget the awful truths he has learned about himself.]

No other story of Katherine Mansfield has prompted such a critical controversy.1 Many critics have proposed interesting interpretations; yet the more one reads of the criticism, the more one realises that the answer to the problem the story raises is not in fact found in just one or another sentence,...

(The entire section is 3934 words.)

Atul Chandra Chatterjee (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: “1918-23; The Final Phase,” in The Art of Katherine Mansfield, S. Chand & Company, 1980, pp. 234-321.

[In the following excerpt from his full-length study of Katherine Mansfield, Chatterjee calls “The Fly” a “baffling riddle that lends itself to many conflicting, and, sometimes, fanciful interpretations.”]

This much-explicated1 story is deservedly famous. It was completed on 20th February, 1922 and published in ‘The Nation’ on 18th March in the same year. Exceptionally short in length, it tells by implication much more than what it states explicitly. The result is not only an extraordinary depth and suggestiveness but also a...

(The entire section is 893 words.)

Clare Hanson and Andrew Gurr (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: “The Stories 1921-22: Sierre and Paris,” Katherine Mansfield, St. Martin's Press, 1981, pp. 95-135.

[In the following excerpt from their full-length study of Katherine Mansfield, Hanson and Gurr suggest that the reason “The Fly” has elicited so much critical attention is that the symbolism of the story is flawed and invites conflicting interpretations.]

“The Fly” was written in February 1922, while Katherine Mansfield was undergoing X-ray treatment in Paris. It was a story which she ‘hated writing’, though it is one which has produced a wealth of critical commentary, most notably in a series of articles in Essays in Criticism in 1962 and...

(The entire section is 1173 words.)

Con Coroneos (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “Flies and Violets in Katherine Mansfield,” in Women's Fiction and the Great War, edited by Suzanne Raitt and Trudi Tate, Clarendon Press, 1997, pp. 197-218.

[In the following essay, Coroneos discusses elements of sadism and ambiguity in “The Fly,” and concludes that this is a war story that encourages the reader to “participate in the spectacle of suffering without the anxiety of guilt.”]

In Mansfield's second war story, “The Fly” … old Woodifield has been visiting the boss, a successful businessman running an unspecified business.1 The boss is the older man but, unlike Woodifield, blooming with health and success. Where mirabelle...

(The entire section is 1892 words.)