In literature, an antagonist is the opposite or rival of the main character, who is called the protagonist. An antagonist is often, but not always, a villain, and at the very least, an antagonist opposes or challenges the protagonist in some way.
The antagonist in Katherine Mansfield’s story “The Fly” seems to shift as the story progresses. If we identify the boss as the protagonist, the main character, we might see Mr. Woodifield as an antagonist, at least in a way. When Mr. Woodifield mentions that his daughters have visited Belgium and seen the graves of both Reggie Woodifield and the boss’s son, he inadvertently brings on a new wave of grief in the boss and forces the boss to confront his current feelings about his son’s death. This certainly isn’t villainous behavior, but it does stand as a challenge, and it shocks the boss.
As the story continues, we might see the boss’s grief as something of an impersonal antagonist, or it may be more accurate to say that the change in the boss’s grief challenges him. Normally, the boss would weep at the mere mention of his son, yet he finds that this time he cannot. He also cannot account for the change, and it makes him uncomfortable because he is used to finding relief in his tears. This time he does not cry, and this bothers him tremendously.
To distract himself, the boss looks at a fly that is struggling in his inkwell. We might identify the fly as the story’s third antagonist, although the little creature is quite helpless in the boss’s hands. The boss fishes the fly out of the inkwell and sets it on the blotter. Then he watches the fly clean itself. The boss then drops several blobs of ink onto the fly, one after another. At first the fly continues to clean itself, but each time, its struggle becomes greater. The last time, the fly dies. The boss seems to find a symbol in this fly, perhaps of his son, struggling and dying in the war, and perhaps also of himself, struggling to go on after his son’s death. The fly, in its mute actions, challenges him to think about things he would rather not face, so in this way, it becomes an antagonist. Yet in another way, we might consider the boss the antagonist of the fly.