What does the fly represent in "The Fly" by Katherine Mansfield?

In "The Fly" by Katherine Mansfield, the fly might represent the experience of soldiers during World War I or the experience of grief.

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"The Fly" is a short story written by Katherine Mansfield about a man grieving for his son who died in combat during World War I. As a business owner, the old man took great pride in the fact that his son, a promising young man, would one day follow in his footsteps and take over the company. With his son's untimely death, the old man feels a lack of purpose and great sorrow for what he has lost.

After his son is brought up in a conversation, the man asks for some privacy and begins to think about his son's death. However, he becomes confused when he cannot feel the grief as intensely as he used to.

At this moment, the man notices a fly in his inkpot that is trying to escape. He saves the fly, which then begins to clean its wings and legs from the ink. Admiring the fly's efforts to survive and recover from his bad luck, the old man dips his pen in the ink and covers the fly with some more ink. Again, the fly cleans itself and recovers.

The man does this multiple times, testing the perseverance and courage of the fly with an air of cruelty. However, with its fourth attempt, the fly fails to survive and lies dead on the desk. Afterward, the man nonchalantly discards its body in a waste paper basket and continues with his day.

On the one hand, the fly in this story represents the suffering of soldiers during World War I. The fly's struggle to get out of the inkpot is emphasized and gives the creature a human quality. This can be connected to the deaths of the old man's son, as well as Woodfield's son. The following passage encourages us to feel sympathy towards the fly, who is personified:

At that moment the boss noticed that a fly had fallen into his broad inkpot, and was trying feebly but desperately to clamber out again. Help! Help! said those struggling legs. But the sides of the inkpot were wet and slippery; it fell back again and began to swim.

The man's indifferent reaction to the death of the fly might be a comment about the general desensitization to death after an event like World War I. During this time, many people had lost a loved one in the war, which normalized the tragic deaths of young men.

Additionally, the death of the fly (caused by the cruelty of the old man) might symbolize the incompetence of war leaders during World War I and the avoidable deaths that resulted from this. The man has complete control over the life of the fly, but his incompetence and cruel attitude led to its needless death. This can be compared to the war leaders of World War I, who were accused of treating the men like "cannon fodder."

The fly had survived its first encounter with the ink, but after being repeatedly submerged, it couldn't survive, which can be compared to the fact that during World War I, men who survived in battle were forced to return and fight again. As these men fought in so many battles, their chances of death increased dramatically.

Interestingly, despite his indifference towards the fly's death, the man does have a feeling of disturbance, which is described as a "grinding feeling of wretchedness." This indicates that, even on a subconscious level, the man understood the connection between the fly and his son, or at least the cruelty in his own actions.

Finally, we can also interpret the fly and his struggle as representing the experience of grief. The fly is submerged repeatedly in the ink and is forced to recover each time, which reflects the experience of the old man himself, who must repeatedly face the tragic loss of his son. Like the fly, the boss is seemingly drowning in his feelings of loss and grief, feeling that he will never truly recover from his loss.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on

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