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The fly that the boss so imperiously slaughters at the end of this short story cements the central theme of the story that is death and its inevitability. Critics note that in this story Mansfield presents the reader with a number of deaths, that are either literal or metaphorical. Mr. Woodifield is shown to experience a kind of death as he lets his womenfolk dominate him and he is only able to lead an unsatisfactory life. The boss himself recognises that he has experienced a kind of death at the death of his son six years ago. Although the boss is still alive, and very different from Mr. Woodifield, he is shown as experiencing a kind of death-in-life, as shown through his struggle to recognise his son's picture and in the death of his emotions.
The death of the fly that the boss perpetrates is therefore a symbol of how death conquers all. As the boss, god-like, waits for the fly to survive one ink drop before adding another until finally it is vanquished and dies, the tragedy of human life is acted out for the reader. Note how this struggle is acted out:
The little beggar seemed absolutely cowed, stunned, and afriad to move because of what would happen next. But then, as if painfully, it dragged itself forward. The front legs waved, caught hold, and, more slowly this time, the task began from the beginning.
Just as the fly has to struggle to escape the ink but eventually succumbs, so humans have to struggle to fight the vicissitudes of life before they eventually succumb. Death governs all and is triumphant. The image of the fly makes this one of Mansfield's most pessimistic stories in its presentation of the human condition.
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