Who are the main characters in "The Fly" by Katherine Mansfield?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The main characters in "The Fly" by Katherine Mansfield are "the boss" and old Mr. Woodifield.

This particular story of Mansfield's is considered by many literary critics as her darkest story because it is a tale of internal crisis as well as a criticism of sending young men off to war. In this story, the fly which represents death plays a symbolic role.

The plot revolves around the visit to a friend by old Woodifield, whose name suggests the Battle of the Argonne Forest, a major battle of the First World War which lasted from September 1918, until the Armistice of 11 November 1918. In this battle, many American and European soldiers were killed because of their lack of skill and military experience. Among those who have died in this war are the sons of both Woodifield and his friend, known as "the boss." The boss, who intended for his son to take over his business, keeps a photograph of his son taken six years ago on his desk. 

After the boss gives the shaky Woodifield a drink of whiskey, he is able to remember what it is that he wishes to tell the boss:

"I thought you'd like to know. The girls [his daughters] were in Belgium last week having a look at poor Reggie's grave, and they happened to come across your boy's. They're quite near each other, it seems."

This news jars the boss into the reality of his boy's death. No longer does the son seem to his father as the young man who lies "unchanged, unblemished in his uniform, asleep for ever." With this image shattered, the boss sits benumbed at his desk after Woodifield departs. He decides to look at his son's photograph, but "[I]t was cold, even stern-looking," and not as he wants to remember his boy.

Dead to any emotion, the boss toys with the life of a fly who has fallen by chance into his ink pot. After putting the fly on his blotting paper, he is impressed with the fly's ability to clean the ink from itself. So, the boss cruelly replaces it in the ink pot more times so that he can watch it revive, but it finally becomes too weakened, and it dies. When this happens, "such a grinding feeling of wretchedness seized him that he felt positively frightened."

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

"The Fly" by Katherine Mansfield has two main characters and one minor character. Unless of course you include the fly!

First, we are introduced to Woodifield, who is constantly referred to as old, yet treated the opposite. His wife and daughter don't let him out of the house since his stroke, and when they do, he is only allowed out once per week, and they get him ready as if he were a child. Even the man he is visiting, known only as "The Boss", keeps referring to him as a baby. Remember, the drink he offers Woodifield "...wouldn't hurt a child..." (Mansfield). Woodifield is described as old, frail and treated as a baby.

The Boss, who is actually older than Woodifield, is still thriving in the workplace, but suffering from a serious case of denial. His son died in the war, and he has not dealt with this loss. He built the empire of his business planning on leaving it to his son, but now has nobody to carry on his legacy. He changed everything in his office in a recent renovation except the photograph of his son, and when he looks at it he can't even recognize his son in that image. He is obviously rattled when Woodifield brings up the fact that his wife saw the Boss' son's grave.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
Soaring plane image

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial