What is the central theme of "The Fly"?

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One theme of this story addresses how desperate we are to maintain some semblance of control. The boss feels in control of the conversation with Woodifield, congratulating himself on his relative youthfulness despite the fact that he is actually older than his visitor, and he feels a "deep, solid satisfaction."...

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One theme of this story addresses how desperate we are to maintain some semblance of control. The boss feels in control of the conversation with Woodifield, congratulating himself on his relative youthfulness despite the fact that he is actually older than his visitor, and he feels a "deep, solid satisfaction." Woodifield compliments the boss's office, the carpet, the electric heating, and the boss feels "exultant." He ordered all these changes himself. The boss even trots out his best whisky—to impress his visitor and control the interaction.

However, once Woodifield brings up their dead sons, something changes. Woodifield leaves shortly thereafter and "the boss stayed, staring at nothing." Then he attempts to cry—he "arranged to weep"—but finds he cannot. This, he cannot control. "It had been a terrible shock to him when old Woodifield sprang that remark upon him about the boy's grave." The boss's mental image of his son's grave is changed by the details Woodifield shares. He considers how he had "slaved, denied himself, kept going all those years" because he always planned for his son to succeed him in the business. "But all that was over and done with as though it never had been." He can recall the telegram that informed him that his son had been killed in the war: "He had left the office a broken man, with his life in ruins." Despite his best-laid plans and despite his son's promise and potential, the boss could not retain control, and everything fell to pieces.

In the end, he can control the fly's death. He tortures the tiny creature, simultaneously impressed by its perseverance and attracted to the fact that he has the power to make it grow weaker and more feeble. The boss could not control his son's life or his son's death, but he can control this fly's life and death. In doing so, he seems to feel as though he regains some measure of control, but then he realizes how fleeting and empty this feeling is—"a grinding feeling of wretchedness"—as it does not bring his son back. Ultimately, he can control very little, and this is a horribly uncomfortable feeling.

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The central theme of this short story is death, and how it conquers all. Death is shown through the visit of Woodifield to his old friend, the boss, who have both suffered loss through the death of their sons in the war. However, at the same time, this overt reference to death is not the only way in which this theme is demonstrated. Woodifield shows through the way that his life is dominated by his daughters that he is living a kind of living death, where he is stripped of any decision-making powers himself, not even able to have a whiskey when he wants. In the same way, his struggle to remember that his daughters visited his son's grave shows that the memory Woodifield has of his son is dying as well. This is echoed in the difficulties of the boss to remember what his son looked like, and also the way in which he is demonstrates not only a lack of feeling towards his son and his son's memory, but also all of those around him. This is evinced through his treatment of Macey, who is presented as being more a dog than a servant, and also, ultimately, his treatment towards the fly. The way in which the boss torments and tortures the poor fly until it dies signifies the supremacy of death in this short story:

The last blot fell on the soaked blotting-paper, and the draggled fly lay in it and did not stir. The black legs were stuck to the body; the front legs were not to be seen.

Death rules supreme, whether it is physical death or the death of a memory or something else. Note that the boss experiences a "grinding feeling of wretchedness" when he contemplates the body of the fly, signifying his own sadness and terrible realisation of the supremacy of death. The tragedy is that this is not enough to shock him out of his living death, and to start making the most of the life that he has. It is also not enough for him to start treating those around him in a way that helps them to enjoy life either. 

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