Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Mr. Woodifield is the first character introduced in the story. He is described as a “frail old figure.” He sits in the office of his old friend, known as “the boss,” and peers at him “as a baby peers out of its pram.” This simile may mean that Mr. Woodifield is slightly senile. Mr. Woodifield is presented as passive and pitiable when readers are told that his wife and daughters keep him “boxed up in the house” most days, except for Tuesdays, when he is “dressed and brushed and allowed” to visit the city for a day. Woodifield appears to admire the boss greatly: he is described later in the story as “peering up at the boss wonderingly.”
Mr. Woodifield is also a significant character in the story because of his importance in the volta, which is the point at which the story shifts dramatically. Mr. Woodifield begins talking about his and the boss’s dead sons. When the boss is reminded of his son, the tone of the story changes dramatically. The story shifts from an amiable conversation between two old friends to one man’s painful emotional turmoil.
At the beginning of the story, “the boss” is introduced as a contented, authoritative, and successful figure. The fact that he is only ever referred to as “the boss” immediately helps to convey this impression, as does his physical description. He is described as “stout, rosy . . . and still going strong.” This impression of contentment, authority, and success is emphasized by the adoration of his friend, Mr. Woodifield.
The boss is also portrayed as a kind, sympathetic character. Indeed, when he notices that Mr. Woodifield is trembling and struggling to locate a memory, he thinks to himself, “Poor old chap.” “Feeling kindly,” he offers his friend a glass of whiskey.
However, after the boss is reminded of his dead son, his character changes dramatically. He becomes emotionally unstable, frightened, and, significantly, cruel. The boss stares at nothing and insists that he will, for the next thirty minutes, see “nobody at all.” He buries his face in his hands and tries, unsuccessfully, to weep.
Without his son, the boss feels that his life has been robbed of its purpose. He had “slaved, denied himself, kept going” over the course of many years for the benefit of his son, hoping that his son would one day “step into his shoes.” Now that his son is dead, the years of hard work feel wasted and pointless. The boss is left “a broken man . . . his life in ruins.”
At the end of the story, the boss notices a fly struggling in a pot of ink. When the fly manages to escape and clean the ink from its body, the boss decides to cover it in another “great heavy blot.” He does this twice more, ultimately killing the fly. The boss’s cruelty here stands in stark contrast to the pity he showed to his friend earlier in the story. His cruelty seems strange, but it appears to be a product of his grief and an indication of how emotionally numb he has become since the death of his son.
After killing the fly, the boss is described as experiencing “a grinding feeling of wretchedness” and feeling “positively frightened.” He is perhaps frightened by his own cruelty and emotional numbness, and he perhaps feels wretched because nothing can heal the wound left by his son’s death. Despite his cruelty to the fly, the reader likely feels tremendous pity for the boss. He has clearly been devastated by the death...
(This entire section contains 968 words.)
of his son, and, given that his son died six years ago, this devastation seems to be irreversible.
The Boss’s Son
When readers are told that the boss’s son is buried in Belgium, in a cemetery “as neat as a garden” with “flowers growing on all the graves,” they can infer that the boss’s son was a soldier who died serving his country. The boss’s son’s death seems all the more tragic when he is described as having been such a popular, likable, promising young man. He had been working in his father’s business, “learning the ropes for a year before the war,” and he had “taken to it marvellously.”
Although the son’s death is tragic, the focus of the story is very much on the parents who lose their children in wars. The function of the boss’s son in this story is to help convey how emotionally devastating the loss of children can be to parents.
The eponymous fly is only introduced at the end of the story, but it is nevertheless one of the most important characters in the story. The fly is a victim of the boss’s cruelty and the means by which Mansfield demonstrates the boss’s emotional numbness.
The fly is also a symbol of persistence and courage and of the futility of death. The boss thinks of the fly as “a plucky little devil” and professes “a real admiration for the fly’s courage.” Indeed, the fly never gives up and keeps climbing out of the ink and cleaning itself time after time. By continually covering the fly in drops of ink, the boss seems to be testing its limits of courage and persistence. In doing so, the boss is perhaps trying to work out whether he himself can survive—or continue surviving—on just courage and persistence. In this sense, the fly comes to represent the boss and his struggles.
The fly is also, arguably, a symbol of the futility of death. Its death occurs for no reason other than the boss’s cruelty. In the same way, the death of the boss’s son likely appears to the boss as futile.