“The Fly” Katherine Mansfield
The following entry represents criticism concerning Mansfield's short story, “The Fly.” See also, Katherine Mansfield Criticism and "The Garden Party" Criticism.
This disturbing tale has been the subject of considerable, often heated, critical debate, and there is little consensus on either the story's meaning or literary merit. The events surround a boss who is reminded of his son's death during a visit from an old friend. The man then rescues and causes the death of a common housefly. The story's simple action, which is understated but offers a telling description of character and place, is marked by a lack of humor and compassion. The story also makes a fascinating study of a psychological crisis that afflicts a man almost completely lacking in self-awareness. The story has elements found in many of Mansfield's other works, including the use of epiphany as the focal point of the narrative; greater concern with internal crisis than external crisis of plot; and use of symbolic patterning, with key ideas and images repeated to suggest the complexity of characters' motives and situations. Interpretations of the work abound, and is often interpreted as the author's autobiographical statement in her final months of life and how she viewed herself as a helpless victim of dark and unknown forces. The story also is a critique of war and patriarchy, as well as a metaphysical exploration of humans' place in the world. All interpretations, however, seem to concur that “The Fly” is perhaps the darkest and most haunting treatment of human corruption in Mansfield's literary oeuvre, as well as and one of the starkest expressions of post-World War I existential helplessness and despair.
Plot and Major Characters
The story begins with a retired man, old Mr. Woodifield, making his weekly visit to the office where he worked before suffering a stroke. Woodifield has made a habit of returning to visit his old boss on Tuesday afternoons—the only day of the week his wife and girls allow him out of the house. The boss, five years older, is stout and fit, a stark contrast to his enfeebled former employee. It does a man good, Woodifield thinks, to see the boss going so strong. Woodifield admires the office and the boss explains, as he has done for several weeks now, that he has done it up lately. He points to the new carpet, new furniture, and new electric heating. Woodifield notices that the boss does not point to the photograph of a grave-looking boy in uniform. The photograph is not new; it has been there for the past six years.
As the two men enjoy their surroundings and each other's company, Woodifield says he cannot recall something he wanted to tell the boss. The boss feels sorry for the old man, thinking he is obviously “on his last pins.” He encourages Woodifield to drink some of his excellent whisky to restore his memory, even if it is against doctor's orders. As they enjoy their drinks, Woodifield suddenly remembers what he had meant to tell the boss. His daughters had recently been in Belgium where they visited their brother Reggie's gravesite. They noticed while there that the boss's son's gravesite was nearby. Both plots, the girls reported, were well cared for, and the gravesites were in a beautiful place, with broad paths and flowers growing on all the plots. The boss is visibly upset and distracted as Woodifield gives him the details. Woodifield asks if the boss has been there; the boss says he has not. Woodifield carries on about how expensive the jam was at the hotel where his girls stayed, but the boss responds without listening and hurries to end the conversation. He shows Woodifield out.
The boss stares blankly for a time, then orders his clerk to make sure he remains undisturbed for a half hour. He closes his office door, slumps into his chair, and covers his face with his hands. Woodifield's announcement had come as a shock; when he talked of his son's grave it was as though the earth...
(The entire section is 2,014 words.)