In The Fly, why has Mansfield left the protagonist unnamed?

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skyey-i | (Level 3) Assistant Educator

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Leaving a character nameless may serve several purposes. It may be done to build up an air of mystery and enigma and intensify the suspense element. It could also be to use a character as a symbolic representation for a particular virtue or trait or a class of people. If the character is taken from the author’s personal life, he or she may like to conceal their identities by not naming them.  In The Fly, it’s Mansfield’s deliberate strategy to keep his protagonist unnamed.

The Boss in The Fly is a character that evokes mixed response from a reader. He wins our sympathy instantly as his grief is immense and irreversible.  At the same time, readers do detest him for his merciless killing of a little fly that tries really hard to escape its death.  

He can be seen as a metaphor – a metaphor of any human being in general who is helpless before forces of nature or as a metaphor of those fathers who lived to see their sons slaughtered like insignificant flies in the world wars.

The Boss represents millions of fathers who had to live with the insufferable wound of their sons’ deaths in the world wars. He admits that life had been meaningless to him since his only son’s death in the First World War. Thus The Boss’s grief explains the suffering of all those uncountable fathers who had to take their sons to graveyard. Thus by not naming the central character who had lost his only son, Mansfield is able to widen the ambit of her story by instantly including the likes of The Boss . In this way, The Boss becomes a universal symbol for all the parents whom wars bereave of their sons in wars. This explanation particularly works if you have a sympathetic opinion for The Boss.

The deliberate omission of the name of the protagonist is equally significant as the careful choice of the word used in its place - the word ‘boss.’ Instead of using a proper name, Mansfield uses a common noun to refer to her protagonist. This isn’t without any reason. The word boss is often associated with qualities such as unquestioned power, supremacy, ego, self-aggrandizement, self-pride and arrogance.

We find that the boss inheres most of these qualities. Despite his loss of his son, he’s still very much attached to his material possession. He takes pride in showcasing his material wealth to his old friend, Mr Woodifield. It gives him great satisfaction when he shows Mr Woodifield his “New carpet,” “New furniture” and “Electric heating.”  What startles a reader most about him is his merciless killing of a fly. He plays God when at first he saves the helpless fly out of an ink bottle and then suspends ink drops one after another upon it until it dies.  

Thus, the choice of word “boss” helps to create a more precise and unforgettable image of the central character in this story. It justifies the ruthlessness that is displayed by him towards the end. By not naming him and using the word boss instead, his inherent disturbing traits are instantly conveyed. This elevates his form and role from actual to metaphorical.

Besides, the boss in the story can be seen as a manifestation of Mansfield’s father, Harold Beauchamp. In her real life, she had found her father to be “cruel’, “unbearable” and interfering.  By not naming the protagonist and instead calling  him the boss, Mansfield may be trying to conceal the identity of her father as the boss but at the same time she is revealing his cruelty and insensitivity.

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