Introduction to The Fly

“The Fly” is a short story by Katherine Mansfield. It was first published in The Nation, a British political newspaper, in 1922. It was later included in a collection of Mansfield’s short stories titled The Doves’ Nest and Other Stories, which was published by Mansfield’s husband following her death in 1923.

Critics have never come to a firm consensus regarding the central meaning of “The Fly,” but it is commonly regarded as Mansfield’s grimmest work. The story relates a meeting between a businessman, referred to as "the boss," and his friend. The conversation stirs up thoughts of the boss's late son, who died in Word War I, and afterward he methodically kills a fly on his desk. The boss's cruel actions and philosophical ruminations on the pointlessness of life paint an unsettling picture of war and its consequences.

Mansfield was gravely ill with tuberculosis at the time that she wrote “The Fly," and the story’s pessimistic focus on death may indicate some of Mansfield’s fears about her declining health. The fly’s fruitless struggle to save itself also evokes the existential dread that plagued much of Europe in the aftermath of World War I. Many sons left for war and never returned, leaving their families, friends, and significant others to contend with the grief. In "The Fly," the boss faces a related but distinct struggle: an inability to feel grief for his son. Just as he can no longer conjure up grief, he is unable to feel pity for the wretched fly he is torturing, highlighting both the callousness of humans and the numbing powers of loss and despair.

A Brief Biography of Katherine Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield (1888–1923) lived an unorthodox life, especially for the Victorian era in which she lived. She was a writer from a young age, as well as an accomplished cellist. Born in New Zealand, she often felt disillusioned with the country's repression of the Maori people and portrayed Maori characters in a sympathetic light in her own stories. She later moved to England, where she met, married, and left her first husband in the span of three weeks. In her journals, she discussed sexual attraction to both men and women and documented romantic relationships with both.

Mansfield’s first short story collection was not as successful as she had hoped, so she wrote a much darker story, “The Woman at the Store,” which helped her achieve some success. It was not, however, until the end of her life that her writing won over critics and the public. Today her short stories—including ”Miss Brill,” “The Fly,” and “The Garden Party”—are considered classics of the form.

Frequently Asked Questions about The Fly

The Fly

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...

Latest answer posted April 15, 2021, 3:59 pm (UTC)

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The Fly

In Katherine Mansfield’s story “The Fly,” Mr. Woodifield is an older man who has retired from his work and has suffered a stroke. He mostly stays at home, where his wife and daughters care for him....

Latest answer posted April 15, 2021, 3:31 pm (UTC)

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The Fly

"The Fly" is the story of a man, known only as "the boss," who has been utterly devastated by the death of his son. The boss's son was killed in World War I. When he first found out about his son's...

Latest answer posted April 15, 2021, 12:15 pm (UTC)

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The Fly

About halfway through the story, Mr. Woodifield tells his friend, known as "the boss," that "the girls were in Belgium last week having a look at poor Reggie's grave." The "girls" that he refers to...

Latest answer posted April 15, 2021, 11:32 am (UTC)

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The Fly

At the beginning of the story we learn that Mr. Woodifield returns to the city, every Tuesday, to visit his friend, known only as "the boss." It is implied that they are friends by how they behave...

Latest answer posted April 15, 2021, 12:01 pm (UTC)

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The Fly

In Katherine Mansfield's short story "The Fly," Mr. Woodifield is a former clerk who used to work in the City ("the City" refers to the financial district of London rather than to the entire city)....

Latest answer posted April 14, 2021, 11:36 am (UTC)

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The Fly

When the boss sees the fly struggling to swim in the inkpot, he is at first sympathetic. The fly is described, seemingly from the boss's perspective, in the following passage: At that moment the...

Latest answer posted April 14, 2021, 12:57 pm (UTC)

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The Fly

The fly's appearance in this story is important because of the number of things that the fly and its death could be symbolic of. One thing to remember is that the fly's death was awful. The boss...

Latest answer posted April 14, 2021, 1:28 pm (UTC)

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The Fly

In Katherine Mansfield's story "The Fly," both Woodifield and the boss lost sons during World War I. The story takes place about six years after the war. Woodifield's daughters have gone to Belgium...

Latest answer posted April 14, 2021, 1:55 pm (UTC)

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The Fly

In the first sentence of "The Fly," Mr. Woodifield comments that the boss is very snug in his office. He goes on to repeat the word, saying, in a wistful and admiring voice, that the office is...

Latest answer posted April 14, 2021, 1:52 pm (UTC)

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The Fly

"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...

Latest answer posted April 12, 2021, 12:14 pm (UTC)

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The Fly

In Katherine Mansfield's story "The Fly," Macey is the boss's "grey-haired office messenger." He is an older man with a doglike attitude who seems to live to serve the boss in whatever way the...

Latest answer posted April 12, 2021, 4:37 pm (UTC)

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The Fly

At the beginning of the story, we are told that Mr. Woodfield has retired after having a stroke. Since he has had the stroke, his wife and daughters have "kept him boxed up in the house." The...

Latest answer posted April 13, 2021, 12:34 pm (UTC)

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The Fly

When the boss first found out about his son's death, it was via a telegram delivered to his office. His son was away, fighting in the war, and one day, the boss received a telegram that notified...

Latest answer posted April 13, 2021, 1:00 pm (UTC)

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The Fly

Both Mr. Woodifield and the boss lost their sons in the war. The sense of loss had to be immense for both men. No parent should ever be placed in a situation where he or she outlives their child....

Latest answer posted April 13, 2021, 5:45 pm (UTC)

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The Fly

In Katherine Mansfield's short story "The Fly," the reader is told that Mr. Woodifield used to work in "the City," the financial district of London. He has been forced into retirement by a stroke...

Latest answer posted April 12, 2021, 11:35 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

The Fly

In "The Fly," Mr. Woodifield is a former City clerk, meaning that he worked in some administrative capacity for a business in the financial district of London. At the time the story takes place, he...

Latest answer posted April 12, 2021, 11:48 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

The Fly

In "The Fly," Mansfield describes the boss's love for and pride in his only son. When he received a telegram telling him that the boy had been killed, "he had left the office a broken man, with his...

Latest answer posted April 12, 2021, 12:09 pm (UTC)

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The Fly

At the beginning of "The Fly," Mr. Woodifield is visiting his friend, "the boss," who runs a firm in the City of London. Woodifield is repeatedly described as old, but in fact, the boss is five...

Latest answer posted April 13, 2021, 11:22 am (UTC)

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The Fly

Mr. Woodifield appears in the first half of "The Fly," misdirecting the reader's attention, since he seems at first to be the protagonist. He gives the reader the opportunity to see the boss as he...

Latest answer posted April 13, 2021, 3:14 pm (UTC)

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Summary