The Fly, Katherine Mansfield
“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.
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.
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.
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 is, ironically then, at once both boss and fly. How cleverly Mansfield inverts her symbol!
He is the boss of the fly Woodifield, whose wife keeps him “boxed up in the house [like a fly] every day of the week except Tuesday.” On Tuesday he is brushed off (like a fly) “and allowed to cut back to the City for the day.” On this Tuesday he visits the Boss, who is shocked (as a fly is shocked at a drop of ink) by old Woodifield's remark about the boy's grave. The remark—it causes the Boss “a quiver of his eyelids” (a quiver, so to speak, of his fly-wings)—reverses the relationship between the fly Woodifield and the Boss.
The Boss, like the Fly, conquers the first drop of ink—the grief he suffers...
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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 Canon. Of a number of possibilities, declares this maxim of psychology, first choose the simplest. Once introduced into the story, the fly may well have become a symbol. But a symbol of what? EXP., III, 49 rapidly affirms that the fly equates seriatim with the Boss, Woodifield, Macey, the dead son, and even the new-furnished office of the Boss; indeed with everything at all handy. Here indeed is God's plenty. The result surely is that the symbolism cancels itself out. At the end moreover we are told summarily that, after all, the fly is not the Boss. Well, then, just what is the fly?
The answer, I believe, is both different from such whirling alternatives and at once more significant and poignant. When the fly entered...
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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 of the conquest of time over grief, which it is not; they are therefore inevitably led into irreconcilable conflicts of symbols and significances.
While the boss toys with the fly he escapes his grief. But it is not time that cures him, nor does time release the fly from its suffering. The boss murders the fly with wanton and amicable cruelty, the same tender cruelty he shows toward Woodifield, the cruelty with which an inexorable fate has already broken his own life and his son's.
The fly is Katherine Mansfield; but the boss, and Woodifield, and the son are also flies. The whole movement of the story explicates a central theme: “As flies to wanton boys, so are we to the gods; they kill us for their...
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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 idealized a “tender and brooding woman” lifting a small green fly from a milk glass and talking about Saint Francis. These passages prefigure one of her best-known stories, “The Fly,” wherein the Boss rescues a fly from the inkwell but then, as it dries itself, floods it with blot after blot until it drowns. Often, with Katherine Mansfield, an image or a character known chiefly through one story will prove to be recurrent in her writings and to be rooted deep in her emotional history. Her Journal, Scrapbook, and Letters afford remarkable glimpses of the connection between literature and life; the gain to our knowledge of the creative imagination is considerable. With the appearance, in 1951, of her intimate Letters...
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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 tuberculosis increases the pathos of the story (EXP., Feb., 1947, V, 32); Thomas A. Bledsoe's interpretation of the fly episode as dramatizing the theme “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport” sets us upon the basic level of a philosophy of life itself (EXP., May, 1947, V, 53); and Celeste Turner Wright's recent explication of the story as another of Mansfield's portrayals of the “strenuous business man” representing in this story both God and father neatly fits “The Fly” into Mansfield's life and work (EXP., Feb., 1954, XII, 27). I offer the following explication with diffidence because it flows from no keen awareness of complicated symbolism, no intimate knowledge of...
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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) biographically interpreting, to see the fly as K. M. herself (Jacobs, EXP., Feb. 1947, v, 32; Bledsoe, EXP., May, 1947, v, 53; Wright, EXP., Feb., 1954, XII, 27). The latest interpreter (Assad, EXP., Nov., 1955, XIV, 10) begs the question about the fly's equivalence, to the detriment of his theory about the story's meaning. If we understand aright the fly's symbolic relation in the story, Miss Berkman's complaint about the confusion in the symbol may be seen to be unjustified, and the inadequacies of the other interpretations become clear.
The fly is not to be equated with any person, but with the boss' grief. The theme of the story is that “Time and Life Conquer Grief.” Old Woodifield...
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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 predominant theme: death, its inevitability, and man's resistance to it. The most significant single sentence in the story occurs in the opening paragraph: “All the same, we cling to our last pleasures as the tree clings to its last leaves.” Frequent references, oblique or direct, to the natural antagonism between life and death support this view; and the theme is equally apparent in the two parts of the story.
As old Woodifield visits the boss, we know both that Woodifield is rapidly approaching death and that he is aware of it. To him retirement is a form of death; being “boxed up in the house” is a form of death; being kept “boxed up” by “the wife and the girls” is a form of death. On Tuesdays he is...
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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 destroyed stands for a particular kind of grief identified with Woodifield and equated with a “black Slough of Despond” (p. 261). The fly episode and Mr. Woodifield's visit, taken together, dramatize the boss's rejection of suicide and escape from despondency (p. 262).
Such an interpretation seems to me to do little justice to the story. A brief re-examination of it will show, I believe, that it should be read as the depiction of the boss's escape from facing the reality of death and the sterility of his own existence.
Six year's prior to the time of the action of the story, Woodifield had been forced into retirement by a “stroke” apparently induced by his reaction to the death of his son....
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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 of this exercise is to demonstrate that, granted the difference of genres, exactly the same critical procedure is in order for realistic fiction as for a poem. …
“The Fly” assumes in its readers a readiness to accept and respond to two parallel series of symbolic conventions: (i) those constituting the English language as it was spoken and written in the first quarter of the twentieth century, (ii) those constituting the realistic narrative in prose of the same period. That this story is written in modern English is immediately apparent, and the initial display of irrelevant descriptive detail is an equally clear signal to the critical reader that the narrative genre to be employed here is realism. Why...
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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 deep as it would have been with a poem, for the story would have stood up to the closest analysis.
The account in the article of the requirements of the realistic convention, of how Katherine Mansfield enlarges the convention by linguistic modes and devices, of how the semblance of narrative conceals the anatomy of drama, of the interplay of similitude and dissimilitude, is excellent. Nor would it be easy to formulate a more concise and exact description of how ‘realistic’ statements may come to acquire the stature of generality than this: ‘The repetition of any phrase or construction will give it, if repeated often enough, a new semantic dimension. A similar process occurs if some parallelism establishes...
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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 of the artist's method while casting so little light upon her effects:
Early in the story we had quite liked the boss, then we discovered that we detested him and now we can merely despise him.
This is a lamentably naïve conclusion. But then throughout the exercise the implication is that the story's value derives from the surprise that has been sprung upon us. Surely Katherine Mansfield and all writers of comparable imaginative sympathy are concerned rather to surprise their characters. The authors of the exercise are content to accept the story as static—i.e. the story merely reveals ‘the essential boss as he really is all the time’ (p....
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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 to break down the reader's disbelief in the actuality of the events narrated? The trivia work because, in the words of Leslie Stephen on Defoe, a master of the trick, ‘surely no one could refuse to honour such a moderate draft upon his imagination’. This is not to deny that this may be one function of realistic detail, but to accept it as the whole function would, as my quotation from Stephen suggests, put Defoe's manufactured trivia at the centre of realism and not Homer and Tolstoy.
Moreover if we accept that the ‘green armchair’ of Katherine Mansfield is ‘green’ mainly for this purpose (and not because of that heightened vitality, that sheer delight in the phenomenal world of Homer and Tolstoy) it then...
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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 ‘a critical exercise’—not a model critical essay. We weren't entering into competition with Dr. Johnson on Shakespeare or Matthew Arnold on Wordsworth. An ‘exercise’ makes no claims to originality or profundity; what it does is to apply to a particular problem, as scrupulously as possible, whatever tools and techniques happen to be appropriate and available. We assembled, as we thought, the tools and techniques that are required for the interpretation of a short story and proceeded to show how they can be used: how any fool can use them.
The initial premise was that a short story's technical organisation is likely to be much the same as a poem's. Both poem and story are statements about human...
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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 something that happened or was when we were alive. … Supposing I were to die as I sit at this table, playing with my Indian paper-knife, what would be the difference? No difference. Then why don't I commit suicide? Because I feel I have a duty to perform to the lovely time when we were both alive. I want to write about it, and he wanted me to.1
When her mother died in 1919, she described her banker-father's reaction thus: “Of course he has money, but it makes no difference to him. He falls into absolute pits of depression and loneliness.”2 Then, in February, 1922, six years after the death of her brother, Katherine Mansfield wrote “The Fly”; she was prematurely exhausted...
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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 son. He does not intend to kill the fly; he only admires its courage and its ability to free itself of ink. After the fly's fourth soaking, he does not see that the fly has suffered all that it can, and he encourages it with: “Come on. … Look sharp.” “And look sharp about it,” he says again, this time to Macey, his office messenger. Macey pads “in and out of his cubbyhole like a dog that expects to be taken for a run.” Again, the boss shows the same indifference to how much another can endure when he gives old Woodifield a drink, not allowed him after his stroke. His giving Woodifield the whiskey is the same as his dropping the blots of ink on the fly. Possibly Woodifield's stroke was caused by his having been given more work...
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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 questionable that the text of “The Fly” supports Hagopian's interpreting the fly as a symbol of “the boss's son in his grave.” Rather, a realization of the exact parallels between old Woodifield and the boss, and the exact parallels between the struggles of the fly and those of the boss indicate that “The Fly” deals with the spiritual death of the boss, with his substitution of things material for things human. Further, only when “The Fly” is read as the spiritual death of the boss can the story be fully liberated from the charge that its symbolism is vague and confused.
When Woodifield is ushered into the boss's office, the boss positively gloats as he points out to old Woodifield the “bright red carpet with a...
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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 cruelty tortures the little creature struggling under this hand until it lies still in death. At the same time the boss is presented as one who has himself received the blows of this superior power through the death of his only son in the war. Thus the functional role which the boss plays in the story does not fuse with the symbolic role.1
It appears to me, however, that Professor Berkman fails to perceive the symbolic relationship between microcosm and macrocosm which makes the boss part in relation to whole and shows him acting both as father figure and God figure. In his symbolic role he may play as many parts as the symbol will extend to include, and the symbol will extend as far as the author sees...
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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, symbol or parallel inside or outside the story. Critics seem to have been obsessed by the necessity to equate the fly with either the boss, Woodifield, the boss's son, or the boss's grief. Though the story is called “The Fly” it is not mere accident that the only figure present throughout the story is that of the boss. Katherine Mansfield gradually defines him by presenting his responses and attitudes to people, objects, and to life in general in three successive situations, and it is through a net of contrasts and parallels that she establishes meaningful relations between the parts. Only through a close analysis of the story itself focusing on the function of each part in the whole may we hope to see the meaning finally emerge....
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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 puzzling obscurity. For, with many of the suggestions left deliberately vague, the story becomes an enchanting, but baffling riddle which lends itself to many conflicting and, sometimes, fanciful interpretations.
A businessman confines himself in his office to think of his only son who was killed in the war six years ago, and of whom he has just been reminded by a long conversation with a retired friend who also is a bereaved father like him. He tries in vain to work up his emotions by recalling the details about his son's life and is perplexed to find that he has almost forgotten his sorrow. Then he finds a fly in his inkpot and idly takes it out. He puts it on to a piece of blotting paper and watches its frantic struggle to...
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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 Explicator rather earlier, in the 1940s. The Essays in Criticism series began with an article by F. W. Bateson and B. Shahevitch in which they argued that in “The Fly” Katherine Mansfield employed the techniques of narrative realism, using ‘irrelevant descriptive detail’ in order to make the external setting of the story seem ‘historically authentic’, thus causing the reader to suspend his disbelief and enter the world of the story. Examples of ‘irrelevant detail’ which they cited were the green chair on which Mr. Woodifield sits (why Mr. Woodifield?), and the minute description of the son's photograph.
In a reply, E. B. Greenwood refined on this idea in pointing out that such use...
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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 in “An Indiscreet Journey” helps forgetfulness, whisky in “The Fly” stirs the memory. Mr Woodifield, suitably primed, remembers a piece of news; he has been to France, and seen the war graves, nicely tended, of both his own son and the son of the boss. The boss just manages not to crumple at the unexpected news. Hastily getting rid of Woodifield, he sits down at his desk and prepares to weep in front of a large photograph of his boy. To his surprise, the tears do not come for the first time in six years. Just then he notices a fly has fallen into the inkpot. He rescues it, and it cleans itself. Just before it can fly away, the boss drops ink on it, and the process of cleaning begins again. The process is repeated twice more, until...
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Daly, Saralyn R. Katherine Mansfield, Revised Edition. (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994, 149 p.
Critical overview of the life and works of Katherine Mansfield; includes an analysis of “The Fly.”
Kobler, J. F. Katherine Mansfield: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1990, 172 p.
Detailed study of Mansfield's short stories, with brief analyses of individual tales.
Thomas, J. D. “Symbol and Parallelism in ‘The Fly,’” in College English 22, No. 4 (January, 1961): 256; 261-62.
Argues that the fly represents a life force, and that the conclusion of the story has to do with the boss overcoming his grief and motivations for suicide.
Additional coverage of Mansfield's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 104, 134; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 162; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors: Canadian; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-Studied Authors; Major 20th-Century Writers, Ed. 2; Short Story Criticism, Vols. 9, 23; and World Literature Criticism.
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