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Robert Wooster Stallman (essay date 1945)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Mansfield's ‘The Fly,’” in The Explicator, Vol. 3, No. 6, April, 1945, item 49.

[In the following essay, Stallman contends that the theme of Mansfield's “The Fly” is that time overcomes all grief.]

The experiment with the Fly by the Boss, so named because he appears to be the boss of his little world and of the little life of the Fly who has fallen into his inkpot, the boss as well over his employees Woodifield and Macey and over his dead son (all are as flies to him), dramatizes both the plot (the conflict between time and grief) and the theme (time conquers grief). At the first stage of the experiment the Boss is to be equated with the Fly. He is, ironically then, at once both boss and fly. How cleverly Mansfield inverts her symbol!

He is the boss of the fly Woodifield, whose wife keeps him “boxed up in the house [like a fly] every day of the week except Tuesday.” On Tuesday he is brushed off (like a fly) “and allowed to cut back to the City for the day.” On this Tuesday he visits the Boss, who is shocked (as a fly is shocked at a drop of ink) by old Woodifield's remark about the boy's grave. The remark—it causes the Boss “a quiver of his eyelids” (a quiver, so to speak, of his fly-wings)—reverses the relationship between the fly Woodifield and the Boss.

The Boss, like the Fly, conquers the first drop of ink—the grief he suffers “when Macey handed him the telegram that brought the whole place crashing about his head.” Both survive, survive the danger of being drowned in grief. The “new-cleaned body” of the Fly, “ready for life again,” compares with the new-furnished office of the Boss. … For the second time the Fly survives his grief. But the Fly and the Boss can no longer be equated. This second stage in the experiment reveals the disparity between them: the Fly survives his grief, but the Boss no longer has any grief to conquer—his sensibility for grief … has been blotted up by Time.

“He wanted, he intended, he had arranged to weep. …” But no tears came. Time's blotting-pad has soaked up the last tear he will ever shed. “Time, he had declared then [when first he lost his boy], he had told everybody, could make no difference. Other men perhaps might recover, might live their loss down, but not he. How was it possible?” Time makes it possible—inevitable—that man does not succumb to his grief but, to the contrary, recovers from it. “How quickly time passed! It might have happened yesterday.” So short a time for grieving. “But all that [his grief] was over and done with as though it had never been.” Now pride, not grief, is his only emotion. … For the Boss to survive his grief and for the Fly to succumb to his suffering, “it was only a question of …” [time]. The third and final drop of ink marks out the difference between them. The Fly dies—dies from too much grief. So the Boss, who in the beginning seemed to be a fly, is not a fly after all. … The discovery holds a double irony: he is neither fly nor boss. Time, in the form of the blotting-paper brought in by Macey, is the boss.

Wills D. Jacobs (essay date 1947)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Mansfield's ‘The Fly,’” in The Explicator, Vol. 5, No. 4, February, 1947, item 32.

[In the following essay, Jacobs maintains that the fly is a symbol for Mansfield, who at the time of the story's writing was a woman slowly dying of tuberculosis.]

The interpretation of Katherine Mansfield's “The Fly” in EXP. III, Apr., 1945, 49, is at once ingenious and recherché. That the surface theme of the story is the conquest of time over grief—that in time even a slight distraction can banish the truest emotion from the mind—is certain enough. But in its explanation of the fly itself that previous account violates a wise rule known as Morgan's Canon. Of a number of possibilities, declares this maxim of psychology, first choose the simplest. Once introduced into the story, the fly may well have become a symbol. But a symbol of what? EXP. , III, 49 rapidly affirms that...

(The entire section is 32,419 words.)