Robert Wooster Stallman (essay date 1945)

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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)

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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...

(This entire section contains 804 words.)

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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 fly equates seriatim with the Boss, Woodifield, Macey, the dead son, and even the new-furnished office of the Boss; indeed with everything at all handy. Here indeed is God's plenty. The result surely is that the symbolism cancels itself out. At the end moreover we are told summarily that, after all, the fly is not the Boss. Well, then, just what is the fly?

The answer, I believe, is both different from such whirling alternatives and at once more significant and poignant. When the fly entered the story, it began to represent to Katherine Mansfield a true image of her own fate. The fly is Katherine Mansfield herself. During her last years of life K. M. struggled constantly, bravely, and vainly (like the fly) against the tuberculosis which was beating her, blow by blow, into the grave. In “The Fly” the Boss becomes a heavy-handed, unmeaning instrument which destroys the fly, fight for life as it may; he becomes, on K. M.'s level, the inexorable and equally unmeaning illness which is destroying her, fight for life as she may. Like the Boss, the tuberculosis which killed her is blind, callous, and persistent. As the Boss slays the fly, without malice, so does her illness slay her. Both fly and K. M. fight painfully for life. Both lose.

This explication is not visionary. It is supported by two witnesses. First is the evidence of Mrs. Thomas Moult, friend and confidante of K. M. (For the warmth of their friendship, see as an example The Letters of Katherine Mansfield, 1929, 11, 428). On the basis of Mrs. Moult's contemporary correspondence and conversation with K. M., Mrs. Moult has stated to the undersigned that she considers “The Fly” a completely personal story. For K. M. herself, Mrs. Moult said, it had two facets: (1) K. M. is the fly, beaten in her struggle with tuberculosis by a careless, blind fate; (2) K. M. realized, as she wrote, that she too would soon be forgotten, slain by her disease.

Another witness establishes reasonable certainty of this view. That is the very circumstances surrounding the writing of “The Fly” They are as follows: In the words of Frank Swinnerton, K. M. “had always been delicate … in 1917 she caught a chill which led to tuberculosis … the two constant features of her pilgrimages were increasing illness and unfailing bravery” (The Georgian Scene, 1934, p. 249). In late 1921 and early 1922 the disease became rapacious. On February 1, 1922, K. M. confided to her Journal: “Here I try and fail, and the fact of consciousness makes each separate failure very important.” Two weeks later, on February 13, she added: “Felt ill all day. Feeling of violent confusion in my body and head. I feel more ill now than ever, so it seems. … The worst of it is I have again lost hope. I don't, I can't believe this will change.” (Journal, II, 229; 234.)

On February 14, K. M. wrote to Dorothy Brett: “I can do nothing but get up and lie down … I must begin work. Seven stories sit on the doorstep. One has a foot inside. It is called “The Fly” (Letters, 1929, II, 446). Under such circumstance was this story written, for as she wrote to Miss Brett twelve days later: “I have just finished a queer story called ‘The Fly.’ About a fly that falls into an inkpot and a Bank Manager” (Letters, II, 459). Significantly “The Fly” is the only one of those projected seven stories she wrote, and her writing career came to a complete halt within a few months. The fly struggled, but was killed; so too the spirit of K. M. She died in 1923.

These parallels are too immediate to be disregarded. So too is another. Lover of Shakespeare as she was, in this story of a fly K. M. must surely have had in mind his strikingly similar image. As flies to wanton boys—she is repeating with special meaning to herself—are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport.

Thomas Bledsoe (essay date 1947)

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SOURCE: “Mansfield's ‘The Fly,’” in The Explicator, Vol. 5, No. 7, May, 1947, item 53.

[In the following essay, Bledsoe dismisses the interpretations of the story offered the critics Stallman and Jacobs, and concludes that “The Fly” is really about the selfishness and cruelty of mankind.]

I believe that Katherine Mansfield's “The Fly” can be explained without recourse either to a devious symbolism (EXP., April, 1945, III, 49) or to biographical reference (EXP., Feb., 1947, V, 32). Though the former was provocative and the latter cogent, the writers of both seem to me to have missed the woods for the trees. They agree that this is a story of the conquest of time over grief, which it is not; they are therefore inevitably led into irreconcilable conflicts of symbols and significances.

While the boss toys with the fly he escapes his grief. But it is not time that cures him, nor does time release the fly from its suffering. The boss murders the fly with wanton and amicable cruelty, the same tender cruelty he shows toward Woodifield, the cruelty with which an inexorable fate has already broken his own life and his son's.

The fly is Katherine Mansfield; but the boss, and Woodifield, and the son are also flies. The whole movement of the story explicates a central theme: “As flies to wanton boys, so are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport.” The tragic irony of “The Fly” is the murderous finality with which other lives are wrecked by powers indifferent to any sorrows but their own. The boss's grief is important only because it absorbs him. To escape it he plays a game of benevolent cruelty, whose end is not to murder but to divert. His pleasure with old Woodifield is sadistic. The sick man's feebleness cheers him; to display the newly furnished office (another diversion) to this broken down hack is comforting, and he gives him a drink, cheerfully indifferent to the old man's health. When the ritual of self-indulgent grief no longer suffices to lay the sorrow Woodifield has unwittingly aroused, he discovers the struggling fly. He accords it the same godlike malice. He admires the fly but he needs diversion; he murders it. The katharsis is a movement of subconscious revulsion, but it is quickly gone. Sport has been good. The boss has forgotten his grief.

Only so viewed is the story an organic whole. Now the long scene with old Woodifield is not merely an elaborate device to introduce the boss's grief, but an integral part of the development of the theme. The boss's bland callousness toward Woodifield is matched by the cheerful indifference with which the old man rambles on toward the boss's innermost grief; while he raises the specter of the boss's bereavement, Woodifield meditates pleasantly about the wide walks of the cemetery (safe for stumbling old feet), and cackles over his daughter's misadventures at the inn. Even the son, in whose last picture the boss sees a strange withdrawal, reflects this eternal selfishness. The game with the fly repeats it: the boss must kill the fly because only killing can show the wantonness of indifferent selfishness. In this brief act the horror which overhangs the whole story becomes explicit.

The world of “The Fly” is one of intermingled and unending cruelties, of monstrous and indifferent egotisms. It is filled with the sheer cruelty of existence, the inevitable savagery which the boss, Woodifield, the son, Katherine Mansfield, and we ourselves alike suffer under and practice. The symbolism of “The Fly” is elaborate but in no wise contradictory. Within the framework of a beautifully planned story, it is a magnificent commentary on the final selfishness of living.

Celeste Turner Wright (essay date 1955)

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SOURCE: “Genesis of a Short Story,” in Philological Quarterly, Vol. 34, No. 1, January, 1955, pp. 91-6.

[In the following essay, Wright calls upon to Mansfield's letters and journals to strengthen her assertion that the fly is a symbol for the author herself while the boss represents her father.]

On January 11, 1918, after a wartime train trip to the South of France for her health, Katherine Mansfield wrote her husband, John Middleton Murry, that she felt “like a fly who has been dropped into the milk-jug and fished out again, but is still too milky and drowned to start cleaning up yet.”1 As early as 1913 her story “Violet”2 had idealized a “tender and brooding woman” lifting a small green fly from a milk glass and talking about Saint Francis. These passages prefigure one of her best-known stories, “The Fly,” wherein the Boss rescues a fly from the inkwell but then, as it dries itself, floods it with blot after blot until it drowns. Often, with Katherine Mansfield, an image or a character known chiefly through one story will prove to be recurrent in her writings and to be rooted deep in her emotional history. Her Journal, Scrapbook, and Letters afford remarkable glimpses of the connection between literature and life; the gain to our knowledge of the creative imagination is considerable. With the appearance, in 1951, of her intimate Letters to John Middleton Murry, it has become possible to trace the genesis of the fly, the Boss, and the symbolism of the story, which were vitally important to her.

“The Fly” was not written until 1922. One might say that Katherine made a long preliminary study of flies. From the South of France on February 1, 1918, trying to ignore her tuberculosis, she wrote Murry that “three tiny flies” had just performed a dance in her room. At this time she was strenuously composing Bliss and other stories, though a hemorrhage warned her that her condition was serious. By March 13 she had recovered sufficiently to observe her fellow-boarders, a widower with four little boys in mourning, like “flies that had dropped into milk. There was a tiny girl, too, but she was not fished out again soon enough, and she died.” These are forerunners of the “tiny boy” who appeared, three years later, in “The Voyage”—in black with a white shawl, “like a baby fly that had fallen into the cream.”

In her Journal for December 31, 1918, after the first terrible year of tuberculosis, Katherine entered into a fly's feeling with the completeness of her master Chekhov:

Oh, the times when she had walked upside down on the ceiling, … floated on a lake of light … And God looked upon the fly fallen into the jug of milk and saw that it was good. And the smallest Cherubim and Seraphim of all, who delight in misfortune, struck their silver harps and shrilled: “How is the fly fallen, fallen!”

Long before—in February, 1914, when Katherine and Murry could not earn a living in Paris—the Journal had sighed: “It is as though God opened his hand and let you dance on it a little, and then shut it … so tight that you could not even cry.” Here God behaves like the Boss in “The Fly”; and Katherine is the insect, hopeful but gradually vanquished.

The identification of herself with the defeated fly seems natural considering her efforts, from 1917 to her death in 1923, to regain her health. Always, just as her lungs seemed to improve (the fly cleaning up), down swooped neuritis, influenza, or pneumonia. And always she was harassed by poverty: her rich father's allowance to this black sheep was frugal, initially one hundred pounds a year; and illness is expensive.

By May 31, 1919, the Journal reveals, Katherine was again briefly happy, back home amid “divine” English weather. She praised God. When a fly dropped by mistake into a magnolia blossom, she remembered the Biblical prophet caught up to Heaven in a chariot; her joy in her work, that day, made such a journey seem “positively nothing.” She and the fly had cosmic dignity. On June 21 she jokingly described her husband as “inclined to jump into the milk-jug to rescue the fly.”3

In Italy next fall she often wrote to him about the flies that infested her villa. On October 11 she offered to publish a column “about things like flies.” On the twenty-third she inquired in doggerel whether God had created those pests and whether they would be spry in eternity. On November 1 she described two of them walking near a rain- (or tear-) spotted manuscript entitled “Eternity” and near a pair of “abhorrèd shears.” On the fifteenth a fly committed suicide by rushing “bang into the fire.” Two days later, seated by that hearth, Katherine wrote Murry abjectly, “I feel such a fly beside you.”

If “The Fly” were not assigned by her Journal to February 20, 1922, one would date it from that tedious autumn at the casetta. On November 30, 1919, she apologized to Murry for being a burden, but blamed the “Boss Omnipotent who's been so horrid.” Next day she was stricken with chills and fever; recovering, on December 3, she again felt “a bit like a fly who is just out of the milk jug.” On January 21, 1920, transported from the chilly casetta to comfort, she felt as though she had “been through some awful deathly strain, and just survived—been rescued from drowning or something like that.” In the street (according to her Scrapbook,4 that same month) sailors with bundles reminded her of flies carrying their eggs. (She must have meant ants.) Her long narrative “At the Bay” (1921) compares a bookkeeper to a prisoner who must pass the time by observing flies—an office setting, as in the story that was to come.

But not until February, 1922, less than a year before her death, did she actually produce “The Fly.” What with rigorous medical treatment, it was “a hard moment for work”; she “hated writing” that story.5 The reason may lie in the identity of the Boss. He tortures—unwittingly—a plucky insect. He represents Fate, like the “wanton boys” in King Lear, killing flies for sport, or like Hardy's President of the Immortals, ending His sport with Tess. A letter6 specifies, however, that this particular Boss is a “Bank Manager.” According to one biography,7 the Boss is partly the London manager of the Bank of New Zealand, who paid Katherine her allowance. Far more relevant is the fact that her father, Mr. Beauchamp (later Sir Harold), was chairman of that same bank at the home office in Wellington.

Katherine's feelings toward her father were mixed. He visited Europe in 1919. From Italy on October 20, at the time flies were so numerous, she wrote Murry that Father had been ill and would come no further than Nice or Cannes—“guaranteed infection proof. I shall go on writing to him, however, for my reasons.” This seems to imply that Mr. Beauchamp, ever fanatical about his health, would not visit his consumptive daughter and that she resented her dependence on so unfeeling a parent. When, on November 12, he did turn up at her casetta, with two friends, she found him “wonderfully dear,” but could not resist adding to Murry, “I fed them and Pa left me five 3 Castles cigarettes!!!”

In 1911 she had called her father “the richest man in New Zealand, and the meanest.”8 How stingy she thought him is evident from the portraits, all closely similar, in several stories of childhood: fathers to whom it is “agony” to give away an apple (“The Apple-Tree”)9 or a handful of cherries (“Prelude”) or to buy little girls' dresses (“New Dresses”); fathers who grudge their daughters a few shillings, but who expect to be lauded as kind, generous, and overworked (“Susannah”). As in “The Little Girl” also, and “At the Bay,” these men are loud-voiced and ill-mannered; they expect to be waited upon; their families dread them. They are self-made men, glorying in money. They cherish their health. Although easily hurt, they ignore the feelings of others. Withal they are simple, sentimental, and well-meaning.

The Boss in “The Fly” is a smug materialist, indistinguishable from these portraits. He is proud of his health and bullies his underlings. He pities himself because the war has taken his son and heir. Katherine's only brother, Leslie, was killed in 1915; the Armistice found her brooding over a “wretched little picture” (mental) of his grave.10 The Boss hears a description of the military cemetery, then shuts himself up to beweep that death, now six years in the past. The fly, falling into the inkwell, distracts his attention. After first rescuing the insect, then drowning it by degrees and throwing it into the wastebasket, he cannot remember what he is there to think about. He has had his emotional catharsis.

To Katherine, at heart a terrified child, the Boss might well represent not only a selfish father, withholding the money she needed for her medical expenses, but a cruel Jehovah. At the casetta she had ambiguously blamed “the Boss Omnipotent who's been so horrid.” On October 20, 1919, in the letter predicting to Murry that her father would not visit her, she had exclaimed, “The spot in the child's lung—what a wicked, wicked God!” Unlike a recent critic,11 she would not have been confused by the symbolism in “The Fly,” by the fact that the Boss (Jehovah), who destroys the fly (Katherine), has himself been a victim of fate in losing his boy. Both God and her father had given an only-begotten son; neither, it seemed to her, had learned from that sorrow to be merciful.

But the Boss in “The Fly” is not wicked. Like the father in all the other portraits, he is only self-absorbed; from his youth up he has focused on financial ambition. He drops ink on the fly experimentally, to see how much misfortune it can bear; he admires its pluck in cleaning its wings; its death plunges him into “grinding” wretchedness. On November 24, 1919, a few months after her mother's death, Katherine had written Murry: “Of course he has money, but it makes no difference to him. He falls into absolute pits of depression and loneliness and ‘wanting Mother’.” She pitied her father then, and she makes us pity the Boss. In 1922, when she wrote “The Fly,” she was nearing her own death. Solitude and illness had deepened her compassion. She may have realized, too, that her father's pride must have been tortured by the scandals of her youth. At twenty, having left home in defiance of her parents, she had married, deserted her husband, and had a still-born child by another man. At twenty-three she had begun living with Mr. Murry, whom she did not marry until six years later. Was it unnatural that her Victorian father should sometimes have resented the black sheep?

Throughout the last months of 1922, her records show a striving for self-purification. Her Scrapbook12 affirms regarding “The Sheridans,” which was to portray her family, “It must be written with love—real love.” But that story remains unfinished; she died at the beginning of the new year.


  1. Katherine Mansfield's Letters to John Middleton Murry 1913-1922 (New York, 1951) contains all the letters to Murry cited, by date, in this essay. Her works are published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

  2. The Short Stories of Katherine Mansfield (New York, 1950) contains all stories mentioned in this essay except “The Apple-Tree.”

  3. Journal of Katherine Mansfield, ed. J. Middleton Murry (New York, 1946), p. 125; cf. The Letters of Katherine Mansfield, ed. Murry (New York, 1929), I, 206.

  4. The Scrapbook of Katherine Mansfield, ed. J. Middleton Murry (New York, 1940), p. 153.

  5. Letters (1929), II, 447, 473.

  6. Letters, II, 449.

  7. Ruth Elvish Mantz and J. Middleton Murry, The Life of Katherine Mansfield (London, 1933), p. 315.

  8. Antony Alpers, Katherine Mansfield: A Biography (New York, 1953), p. 145.

  9. Scrapbook, p. 31.

  10. Letters, I, 195.

  11. Sylvia Berkman, Katherine Mansfield: A Critical Study (New Haven, 1951), p. 195.

  12. Scrapbook, p. 256.

Thomas J. Assad (essay date 1955)

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SOURCE: “Mansfield's ‘The Fly,’” in The Explicator, Vol. 14, No. 2, November, 1955, item 10.

[In the following essay, Assad argues that the central meaning of “The Fly” is clearly expressed in the line from the story that reads,“we cling to our last pleasures as the tree clings to its last leaves.”]

Various interpretations enrich our reading of Katherine Mansfield's masterful short story. Robert Wooster Stallman's interpretation of the fly as symbolizing and not symbolizing the Boss is ingenious and engaging (EXP., April, 1945, III, 49); Willis D. Jacobs' biographical interpretation of the fly as Katherine Mansfield struggling and succumbing to tuberculosis increases the pathos of the story (EXP., Feb., 1947, V, 32); Thomas A. Bledsoe's interpretation of the fly episode as dramatizing the theme “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport” sets us upon the basic level of a philosophy of life itself (EXP., May, 1947, V, 53); and Celeste Turner Wright's recent explication of the story as another of Mansfield's portrayals of the “strenuous business man” representing in this story both God and father neatly fits “The Fly” into Mansfield's life and work (EXP., Feb., 1954, XII, 27). I offer the following explication with diffidence because it flows from no keen awareness of complicated symbolism, no intimate knowledge of Katherine Mansfield's life, no formal training in the psychological phenomena of escapism and sadism, and no premise established in Mansfield's other stories.

Let us begin by considering the effect of the fly episode on the Boss himself. While the fly successfully clung to life “he felt a real admiration for the fly's courage”; but at its death “such a grinding feeling of wretchedness seized him that he felt positively frightened.” Now what frightened him? Obviously it was not the death of a fly, and we are given no other palpable detail which might produce this feeling of wretchedness and fright. Then of course the Boss was frightened by a thought suggested by the struggle and final surrender of the fly. That thought which produces wretchedness and fright must be important; but a few moments later, after he had called to Macy to “look sharp” and to bring in a new blotter, the Boss couldn't remember what it was he was thinking about. Being the Boss again had made him forget. A powerful occupation to make him forget within seconds such a terrifying thought!

But being the boss has become his whole life; indeed, “the Boss” is his only name. Our introduction to him takes place in his office where he is deriving extreme pleasure from playing the boss before Woodifield. Woodifield himself, we are explicitly informed, is clinging to his last pleasures on Tuesdays, and on this Tuesday he is clinging to the pleasure of this particular visit. “His talk was over; it was time for him to be off. But he did not want to go.” Was it the pleasure from the whiskey which reminded him of his warm feeling concerning the well-kept graves of the sons? Perhaps he is clinging to his former pleasure of fatherhood. At any rate, we now learn that the Boss's life formerly consisted not merely of the office, but of the office and his only son—together. The business “had no other meaning if it was not for the boy.” This was his great pleasure, a double-handled one, and the Boss's reminiscences give us specific instances of it. He tried to cling to it through grief: “He wanted, he intended, he had arranged to weep. …” But time had overcome grief, or at least its obvious manifestations, and he could no longer cling to his son-office dream in that way. The episode of the fly brings this to his consciousness. He was frightened because the inevitable failure of the fly to cling to life, the only pleasure it could know (“Now one could imagine that the little front legs rubbed against each other lightly, joyfully. The horrible danger was over; it had escaped; it was ready for life again.”), flashed before his mind the picture of himself clinging to his pleasure, and inevitably losing his hold as he had already done when he could not weep. This is what terrified him; he thought his grasp on his last pleasure was gone.

But was it? Unconsciously he was clinging fast to his dream's other handle: the office and, more specifically, being the boss. And when he called to Macy to “look sharp” he was no longer painfully aware that he had lost it.

Katherine Mansfield, it seems, has built a superb structure upon the theme which she explicitly reveals in the very first paragraph: “All the same, we cling to our last pleasures as the tree clings to its last leaves.” A clear understanding of this theme, I think, enables us to appreciate more fully the enriching interpretations which have been offered—which suggest points of analogy beyond the obvious ones of tenacity and unconsciousness.

Stanley B. Greenfield (essay date 1958)

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SOURCE: “Mansfield's ‘The Fly,’” in The Explicator, Vol. 17, No. 1, October, 1958, item 2.

[In the following essay, Greenfield observes that the death of the fly represents the end of the boss's grief, the thing that had made him distinct from other men and nations who have moved beyond personal sadness and forgotten the cruelty of World War I.]

The difficulties Miss Mansfield's excellent story “The Fly” have occasioned interpreters stem from their eagerness to make one of two obvious equations: (1) within the story itself, to see the fly symbolizing the boss (Stallman, EXP., April, 1945, III, 49; Berkman, K. M.: A Critical Study, p. 195); (2) biographically interpreting, to see the fly as K. M. herself (Jacobs, EXP., Feb. 1947, v, 32; Bledsoe, EXP., May, 1947, v, 53; Wright, EXP., Feb., 1954, XII, 27). The latest interpreter (Assad, EXP., Nov., 1955, XIV, 10) begs the question about the fly's equivalence, to the detriment of his theory about the story's meaning. If we understand aright the fly's symbolic relation in the story, Miss Berkman's complaint about the confusion in the symbol may be seen to be unjustified, and the inadequacies of the other interpretations become clear.

The fly is not to be equated with any person, but with the boss' grief. The theme of the story is that “Time and Life Conquer Grief.” Old Woodifield points the way. Although he has had a stroke, presumably the result of the shock of losing his son in the war, he has so far forgotten his grief that he cannot remember, until stimulated by the boss' whiskey, what he had wanted to tell his friend: that his girls had seen the boss' son's grave on a recent visit to Belgium. Furthermore, he is easily distracted from the subject of the graves by his indignation over the price of the pot of jam (a foreshadowing of the boss' distraction from his grief by the equally insignificant, at one level of meaning, fly in the inkwell). One may notice, too—wheels within wheels—that the Belgians had forgotten their grief and sentiment about the horrors of the war: “They think because we're over there having a look round us we're ready to pay anything.”

The boss, however, had vowed that his grief would never fade: “Time, he had declared then, … could make no difference. Other men, perhaps, might recover, might live their loss down, but not he.” And he has tried to keep his grief alive. But we see at the beginning of the story that he has, all unknowingly, been living down his loss: he is hale, hearty, fat, though five years older than Woodifield; he takes pride in his new office furnishings and in his whiskey; he has to arrange to weep. (That Miss Mansfield chose an unsympathetic character for her central figure—a character whose real love for his son, dead or alive, may even be doubted—does not show that she was interested in the “flies to wanton boys” theme; it shows, rather, her artistic wisdom in correlating an unpleasant theme about the nature of reality with somewhat unpleasant and laughable characters—even Woodifield and old Macey are “dog-eared.”) This moment, when Woodifield leaves him, after jarring his memory about his dead son, is the critical one. He cannot weep, and his distraction from his effort to do so by the fly is the final blow to his attempt to be different from other men. The fly's successive weakening struggles to free itself from the ink parallel the boss' past efforts to keep his grief alive. Each time is more difficult than the last for the fly, and has been more difficult for the boss. (It is interesting to note the imagery describing the fly's cleansing process: “Over and under, over and under, went a leg along a wing, as the stone goes over and under the scythe;” and “it began, like a minute cat, to clean its face.” Both the scythe and the cat have long associations with time and life.) Appropriately enough, with the death of the fly comes the death of the boss' grief. Now he is like other men, like Woodifield, like the Belgians; he cannot, like Woodifield in the office, even recall what he had been thinking about: “For the life [italics mine] of him he could not remember.” The play on the word “life” in the last sentence is Miss Mansfield's supreme achievement in this story. Time and life are too much for any man; life courses through the veins willy-nilly, and the past and its grief must yield place to present prides and joys. The boss' wretchedness when he kills the fly is his subconscious awareness that the life in him has killed his sorrow, even as the drops of ink-time have ended the fly's struggles. And his resumption of his bossing ways with Macey is the full resurgence of that life.

If one must see an autobiographical implication in the story, surely it is K. M.'s fear that when she had ceased to be, in the course of time and life she would, inevitably, lie ungrieved.

Pauline P. Bell (essay date 1960)

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SOURCE: “Mansfield's ‘The Fly’,” in The Explicator, Vol. 19, No. 3, December, 1960, item 20.

[In the following essay, Bell argues that Mansfield's “The Fly” is a story about the inevitability of death and humans' retreat from that realization.]

It seems to me that there is room for one more explication of Katherine Mansfield's short story “The Fly”—an explication in which the fly is the fly, the boss is the boss, and Woodifield is Woodifield. (For previous discussions in The Explicator, see the note by Stanley B. Greenfield, Oct., 1958, XVII, 2, and references given therein.)

“The Fly” seems to me to be unified by one predominant theme: death, its inevitability, and man's resistance to it. The most significant single sentence in the story occurs in the opening paragraph: “All the same, we cling to our last pleasures as the tree clings to its last leaves.” Frequent references, oblique or direct, to the natural antagonism between life and death support this view; and the theme is equally apparent in the two parts of the story.

As old Woodifield visits the boss, we know both that Woodifield is rapidly approaching death and that he is aware of it. To him retirement is a form of death; being “boxed up in the house” is a form of death; being kept “boxed up” by “the wife and the girls” is a form of death. On Tuesdays he is “allowed” to “cut back to the City.” He hesitates before the word “… stroke.” He is astonished when the boss offers him whiskey. He gives due credit to a cemetery which is neat, well-kept, and spacious, but he turns with genuine relief to a livelier subject.

The conditions of Woodifield's old age have required of him that he face the thought of the imminence of death. The boss, on the contrary, has not been so required. Still active and successful, he has been able, though not entirely without effort, to avoid the thought. In Woodifield's presence he meaningfully flips The Financial Times with the paper knife; he also calls attention—again—to the newly furnished office. And to both men the office is significant. When Woodifield returns to it, he re-affiliates, however briefly, with life. We are told that he feels wistful and admiring and “snug.” While here, he feels protected against death. To the boss also the office is symbolic of security and of life. The furnishings are new, bright, colorful, solid, massive. “It gave him a feeling of deep, solid satisfaction” to be there; but this feeling of satisfaction is little more than a bolstered self-assurance, and it is not without reason that he avoids calling attention to the photograph of his son who has been dead for six years.

Most significant of all is the disparity in the two men's ages, a disparity which each man turns, oddly, to his own advantage. The tottering Woodifield is comforted to see a man who is five years older than he and who is yet “still going strong, still at the helm.” The boss in turn, looking upon “the frail old figure in the muffler,” is also comforted, feeling superior. The boss shows an obvious, almost gloating, pride not only in his office and in his success but also in his good health and even in his ability to drink whiskey and drink it straight. On the whole, he is feeling wonderfully indestructible until Woodifield destroys the feeling by mentioning the boy's grave. The “grave” is a shock to the boss. “For various reasons” he has never seen it, and for the past six years he has never thought of his son “except as lying unchanged, unblemished,” but now he is compelled to think of the ugliness, the disfiguration, and the finality of death. The boss's inability to weep has less to do with the natural diminution of grief than with the augmentation of fear—fear of his own death. This feeling is newly overt and puzzling, and when he does not feel the grief which he has “arranged” to feel, he deliberately looks upon the boy's photograph in an effort to induce it. After all, grief, among other things, has served him well for six years. But the expression in the photograph is “unnatural” (as in death), “cold” (as in death), and he can no longer take refuge in weeping.

In the second part of the story, the experiment with the fly is based upon the boss's desperate hypothesis that death is not inevitable. In this experiment, the boss is exploratory after the manner of a man seeking truth but not wanton after the manner of a small boy inflicting unnecessary cruelty. The fly must be tested to the utmost or the experiment will be invalidated; yet the boss hopes that the fly can be so tested and still live. It should be noted that the boss's first impulse is to help the fly (“The boss took up a pen, picked the fly out of the ink”); that at least twice during the experiment he encourages the fly in its effort to resist death; that he feels genuine admiration for the fly (“He's a plucky little devil … That was the right spirit. Never say die.” And “Never say die” is what the boss also has been saying); that he feels relief when the fly revives; and that even when the fly seems to be dead, the boss still prods, hoping that it will live (“Come on,” said the boss. “Look sharp”). But the fly can no longer “look sharp.” “Nothing happened or was likely to happen. The fly was dead.” It is at this point that the boss—goaded both by Woodifield's reference to the grave and by the incident of the fly—faces for the first time the personal truth of the inevitability of death and he is therefore seized with “such a grinding feeling of wretchedness” that he feels “positively frightened.” If the boss can no longer remember “what he had been thinking about before,” it is because the moment of revelation and of terror has been too great. And there is no catharsis. There is only a retreat from the fear of death and a return to the hope of life.

The concept of death is too great to be maintained in the mind, nor is there good reason to maintain it. To confront the truth of it is a good thing, but the truth of its inevitability is scarcely a beacon to live by; and if man would live, he must do as the boss does—call for some “fresh blotting paper” and get on about his business.

Clinton W. Oleson and J. D. Thomas (essay date 1961)

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SOURCE: “‘The Fly’ Rescued” and “The Anatomy of a Fly” in College English, Vol. 22, No. 8, May, 1961, pp. 585-86.

[In the following two-part essay, Oleson takes issue with Thomas's interpretations of the symbolism in “The Fly”; Thomas replies to Oleson's criticism and offers direction for further criticism of the story.]

In “Symbol and Parallelism in ‘The Fly’” (College English, Jan. 1961), J. D. Thomas suggests that the fly in Katherine Mansfield's story represents “a life force—or The Life Force—fighting with instinctive courage for survival, until finally done to death by human perversity” and that the ink with which the fly is destroyed stands for a particular kind of grief identified with Woodifield and equated with a “black Slough of Despond” (p. 261). The fly episode and Mr. Woodifield's visit, taken together, dramatize the boss's rejection of suicide and escape from despondency (p. 262).

Such an interpretation seems to me to do little justice to the story. A brief re-examination of it will show, I believe, that it should be read as the depiction of the boss's escape from facing the reality of death and the sterility of his own existence.

Six year's prior to the time of the action of the story, Woodifield had been forced into retirement by a “stroke” apparently induced by his reaction to the death of his son. Inadequate though his initial reaction may have been, his present state is superior to that of the boss, who had suffered a similar loss at the same time. Far from being in any “Slough of Despond,” Woodifield fully accepts the death of his son. Thus, he speaks naturally of his daughters' recent trip to Belgium where they had visited “poor Reggie's grave” and had come across the grave of the boss's son in the same cemetery.

The boss, who has been condescendingly pointing out to Woodifield the splendors of his office, is completely disconcerted by Woodifield's reference to his son's grave which, “for various reasons,” he had never visited. He is in a state of panic until Woodifield leaves. Then, having “arranged to weep” for half an hour, he falls to reminiscing. Woodifield's words had shocked him, because he had refused to think of his son “except as lying unchanged, unblemished in his uniform, asleep forever.” He tries to weep but finds that he cannot, though he had once, characteristically, “told everybody” that time could make no difference. Sacrificing himself to his business could not make sense, he had felt, “without the promise forever before him of the boy's stepping into his shoes and carrying on where he left off.” But the reader, having previously seen his great satisfaction with himself and his riches, knows that his life had not been significantly altered. Except for an occasional half hour of sentimental self-indulgence (“And what congratulations he had received as the boy's father!”), he had gone on eagerly with business as usual. Refusing to think of his son as dead, he had not been forced either to give up the rat race or invent a new justification for it.

While he is still perplexed at “not feeling as he wanted to feel,” the boss is again confronted with death—this time in the form of the fly which had fallen into his inkpot. Having rescued the fly, he finds himself engrossed in its struggle back to life. The fly's recovery (its refusal to die) is so agreeable to him that he puts it to the test several times by shaking drops of ink on it. Each time it recovers, he feels a “rush of relief.” When, at last, the fly dies, he is overcome by “such a grinding feeling of wretchedness” that he is “positively frightened.” He has, that is, recognized for an instant the fact of death. Frightened by his glimpse of the truth, he hastily calls in his messenger and in a moment has recovered-recovered so fully, in fact, that he is unable to recall what it was he had been thinking about before.

The boss has not, as Mr. Thomas suggests, been “saved” from suicide or despondency. He has not been seriously tempted by either. He has, however, succeeded in evading once more a full recognition of the terrible reality of death and the meaninglessness of his own existence.

I am less disposed to comment on Professor Oleson's welcome critique than on my own article, which was an experiment (and should have been more clearly so indicated) in dealing radically with the imputation that certain elements of “The Fly” are discordant. I made three working assumptions: (1) that every part is consistent with every other in all possible connections; (2) that Mr. Woodifield bears a significant relation to the boss; (3) that the episode of the fly at the end of the story has a direct bearing upon the decline of the boss's morbid grief for his son.

The story is a study in life and death. I stand upon my interpretation of “old Woodifield” as an image of Death-in-Life and of the fly as an image of the Life Force, to which I will add that the boss figures as a Death-Giver. On the strength of my third—actually the weakest—working assumption, I asserted what I will no longer defend: that the dark patches of ink are “perfectly obvious” symbols of the boss's grief. If that is (or were) the true reading, we surely could view the boss as having tried—successfully or abortively, depending on how the clean blotting-paper of the last paragraph is taken—to bring metaphorical death upon himself by a drench of contrived grief. Katherine Mansfield, however, deals little in the “perfectly obvious.”

“The Fly” has been read in various ways and will be read in others. Nevertheless, remembering Mr. Woodifield's feeble appreciation of the straight rows of graves in Flanders Fields mingled with his querulous objections to the price of Belgian jam, I am more than dubious of Professor Oleson's judgment that “his present state is superior to that of the boss.” If he is not (or no longer) in the Slough of Despond, it is because he has floundered into a more frightful Valley of Shadow. In this brief note I can offer only one other hint for future readers: Professor Oleson and I would both have done better to have looked more closely at the “old dog” Macey.

F. W. Bateson and B. Shahevitch (essay date 1962)

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SOURCE: “Katherine Mansfield's ‘The Fly’: A Critical Exercise,” in Essays in Criticism, Vol. 12, No. 1, January, 1962, pp. 39-53.

[In the following essay, Bateson and Shahevitch discuss how Mansfield makes extraordinary use of literary realism to create a tale that ends in the reader's moral condemnation of the protagonist.]

“The Fly” is probably the shortest good short story in modern English. Its two thousand words therefore permit, indeed encourage, the kind of close analysis that has been so successful in our time with lyric poetry but that is impossibly cumbrous or misleadingly incomplete when applied to the novel or the conte. The object of this exercise is to demonstrate that, granted the difference of genres, exactly the same critical procedure is in order for realistic fiction as for a poem. …

“The Fly” assumes in its readers a readiness to accept and respond to two parallel series of symbolic conventions: (i) those constituting the English language as it was spoken and written in the first quarter of the twentieth century, (ii) those constituting the realistic narrative in prose of the same period. That this story is written in modern English is immediately apparent, and the initial display of irrelevant descriptive detail is an equally clear signal to the critical reader that the narrative genre to be employed here is realism. Why Woodifield (dozens of other surnames would have done just as well)? Why a green armchair (rather than light brown, purple, dark brown, etc.)? Why the cut back to the City on Tuesdays (rather than Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays or Fridays)?

That the critical reader does not in fact ask such questions is because of his familiarity already with the realistic formula. The particular suspension of disbelief that realism demands is an acquiescence in the author's limited omniscience provided his external setting ‘looks’ historically authentic. The reader must be able to say, ‘On the evidence provided, which seems adequate, this series of events could have taken place in real life as I know it.’

It follows that to look for allegorical symbols in “The Fly” is to accuse Katherine Mansfield of a breach of her chosen convention. Specifically “The Fly” is not a beast-fable, like Blake's poem with the same title in Songs of Experience. In this story the confrontation of the boss with the fly is only subjectively anthropomorphic. It is the boss who attributes human courage—and the human necessity to suffer pain under torture—to the fly. The boss's corrupt imagination has blown this fly up into the semblance of a human being, but objectively, as the reader knows, the fly is just an ordinary house-fly. Some earlier critics of “The Fly” have gone astray by ignoring the story's technical limitations, and various abstract ‘themes’ have been read into it, like ‘time’, ‘cruelty’ and ‘life’.1 Middleton Murry's own comment—‘the profound and ineradicable impression made upon her by the War … found perfect utterance in the last year of her life in the story “The Fly”’2—may have encouraged such misinterpretations. It is certainly tempting to relate the story to Katherine Mansfield's tuberculosis and to her dislike of her father, who was a New Zealand banker. But such elements are of the nature of ‘sources'. No doubt without them the story could not have been begun, but they are not inside the story. The realistic convention is resistant both to abstractions and to strict autobiography. The story must appear to tell itself; it must be the sort of concrete human situation that might have happened just so. And once the reader begins to detect the intrusion of abstract concepts or moral attitudes, such as the hatred of war, or alternatively of obviously autobiographical episodes, his confidence in the writer's omniscience will be weakened. An unnecessary strain is being put on the realistic suspension of disbelief.

The irrelevance of allegorical interpretations in this case can be clarified by contrasting the proverb, an even shorter narrative genre, with the realistic short story. The concrete details in a proverb are all functional. Nobody wants to know what kind of stone it is that gathers no moss, or that is thrown by the inhabitants of glasshouses. The exact size, colour, weight and shape of the respective stones are irrelevant, because a proverb demands immediate implicit conceptualisation (‘Restlessness is unprofitable’, ‘Guilty parties should not accuse others of guilt’); it is in fact allegory in capsule form. But in a realistic short story the particularity is a large part of the meaning. Suppress Mr. Woodifield's name, the colour of the armchair, the day of the week allotted to his City visits, and the convention collapses. They are indispensable signals from author to reader; they also assume a common interest and confidence in the concrete detail of the phenomenal world. (We are on Dr. Johnson's side against Berkeley in the matter of the stone.)

But “The Fly” is something more than narrative imbedded in slice-of-life realism. Some sort of general statement about modern life is implicit in it. How has Katherine Mansfield managed to evade the limitations of the realistic convention? How can a value-judgement emerge at all from what appears to be a temporal sequence of particularities? These are the essential questions the critic must ask.

One answer, an important critical one, is that the medium of a narrative sequence is language, and that it is always possible to exploit the generality inherent in both vocabulary and grammar so that a value-judgement emerges. This is just what Katherine Mansfield does, but discreetly, tactfully. A simple linguistic device is to use descriptive epithets to hint at a generalisation. Thus at the beginning of “The Fly” the boss is ‘stout’ and ‘rosy’. In combination with the snug’ office to which Woodifield pays a tribute twice in the first two paragraphs, the epithets produce an impression of luxuriant good health, of self-indulgence perhaps, though at this stage in the story the indulgence is not apparently censured in any overt way. Later, in the mounting tension of the passage when the boss, having sent Woodfield on his way, returns to the office, he treads with ‘firm heavy steps'. These, especially in contrast to Woodifield's ‘shuffling footsteps', loom rather ominously. The boss who ‘plumps’ down in the spring-chair is no longer merely stout, he has become ‘fat’. Still later, when he suddenly ‘has an idea’ and plunges his pen into the ink, before we quite know what he is up to we get a premonition of it as he leans his ‘thick’ wrist on the blotting paper. The harmless stout and rosy figure has turned out to be physically coarse, even brutal.

Similarly we get an inkling of the boss's character from the colouring of the verbs long before we are introduced to the decisive situation. When he is still ‘stout and rosy’, he ‘rolls’ in his chair. Soon he ‘flips’ his Financial Times—a slightly arrogant gesture. By this time he is ‘planted’ there, ‘in full view of that frail old figure’, and the adjective qualifying his satisfaction is ‘solid’. Later on we suddenly see him ‘swooping’ across for two tumblers (‘Coming down with the rush of a bird of prey … making a sudden attack’, Oxford Dictionary).

The adjectives and verbs serve to ‘place’ Woodifield too, who never speaks but ‘pipes’ (three times) or ‘quavers’. He does not look, he ‘peers’. The wife and girls keep him ‘boxed up’ in his home. On Tuesdays, he did not dress but was ‘dressed and brushed’ and then ‘allowed’ to go to town—all images reinforcing the simile in which he is originally introduced, that of a baby in a pram.

But the crucial linguistic device in “The Fly” is the protagonist's anonymity. He is always referred to as ‘the boss’, twenty-five times to be precise, or approximately once every eighty words. The word is etymologically an Americanism (adopted from the Dutch baas = master in the beginning of the nineteenth century), which passed into British English about the middle of that century and had certainly lost all its foreignness by 1922. The dictionary meaning then as now is ‘a master, a business manager, anyone who has a right to give orders'. The word has still an unpleasantly vulgar connotation, which is perhaps heightened by its use in U.S. political jargon, where ‘boss’ means the ‘dictator of a party organisation’. Used with a capital it turns into a particular, not a general, word, in fact, from a common noun into a proper noun, thus making the connotation depend on what we know of the person so named. Thus ‘Boss’ may often have a kindly ring. But in “The Fly” Katherine Mansfield persists in spelling the word with a minuscule, that is, as a common noun, at the same time refusing to alternate it with any synonym or other appellation. She even refuses to let us know what the boss's actual name is. ‘Mr. Woodifield’, ‘Gertrude’ Woodifield, ‘Macey’, but the ‘hero's’ names (and his son's) are resolutely excluded. Katherine Mansfield cannot, of course, altogether prevent the process by which a common noun becomes a proper noun, but she does her best to keep in the reader's mind the more general significance of the word. Each time we read it, the general somewhat repugnant idea of the term is again imprinted in our consciousness, even after it has almost become a proper name. The boss, clear-cut individual as he is in the realistic narrative, is nominally an allegorical figure simply by virtue of the word's insistent repetition.

The other linguistic device deserves notice. This is Katherine Mansfield's habit here of allowing direct description to merge into reported speech. Here are a few examples: ‘His talk was over; it was time for him to be off. But he did not want to go. Since he had retired. …’ Up to this point the description is in straightforward narrative prose, but in ‘since his … stroke’ the short break which the three dots denote—so expressive of the reluctance of a sick man to call his complaint by its frightening real name—turns author's statement into semi-direct speech. The reluctance is now Woodifield's, not the narrator's.

A few lines later an inversion occurs. ‘Though what he did there, the wife and girls couldn't imagine’ may still be taken as objective statement with emphasis causing the object-clause to be put first. But the following clause, ‘Make a nuisance of himself they supposed’ has the full effect of direct speech. Again the object-clause is given first, but the main clause does not seem to be the author speaking; it is as if between concealed quotation marks, a comment really spoken in the first person instead of the apparent third person.

A little later the boss's ‘he explained, as he had explained for the past—how many?—weeks’ seems to be another bit of direct speech that is masquerading as narrative statement. In a story within the realistic convention the author is supposed to know all about how often one of the characters did this or that. The slight uncertainty here, the momentary ignorance—perhaps only half genuine—belongs to everyday speech. The boss, not the author, is speaking.

Again in ‘How on earth could he have slaved, denied himself, kept going all those years without the promise, for ever before him, of the boy's stepping into his shoes and carrying on where he left off?’ the complete sentence in the form of a question is not introduced by any main clause, nor is it in quotation marks. But can it in fact be anything but a question asked by the boss himself?

This mixing of direct statement with indirect or concealed dialogue is used all through the story—by interpolating exclamation in otherwise regular narrative, by putting complete sentences in the form of questions not introduced by main clauses yet impossible to be taken otherwise than as questions asked by the characters, by breaks in the line, and by inversions of a colloquial nature. The result is that we have very little regular narrative. Instead, in a frame of thin lines of this quasi-narrative, which could almost be spoken by a chorus, we have the effect of drama. In this setting the repeated recurrence of the two words ‘the boss’ has the impersonality of a stage-direction, a datum, as it were, outside the narrative. It reiterates so as to become an alternative title to the story: ‘The Fly [Boss]: a Short Story’.

The point at which a linguistic device, either of vocabulary (‘the boss') or syntax (the indirect speech), becomes a rhetorical figure should not be detectable in realistic fiction. The reader has suspended his disbelief on condition that the naturalistic particularities are maintained, as they certainly are in “The Fly”. What could be more reassuringly particular than the story's penultimate sentence? ‘He took out his handkerchief and passed it inside his collar.’ But in some of the devices here analysed language has unquestionably become rhetoric. The repetition of any phrase or construction will give it, if repeated often enough, a new semantic dimension. A similar process occurs if some parallelism establishes itself between the separate episodes in a narrative or drama. Gradually an unstated final gesture with the handkerchief, which he passes inside his stiff collar to cool and dry the hot sticky skin, ‘places’ him with superb economy and precision. The intensity of the battle the mighty boss has waged with the minute fly has left him physically exhausted, mere weak brutal oblivious flesh.

In terms of plot, then, though there is dramatic progress (shifts in the reader's sympathies, a mounting intensity, a transition from the near-comic to the near-tragic), there is also dramatic repetition. The episodes combine similitude with dissimilitude in a kind of extended metaphor. If the Woodifield episode is called Act I, the re-enactment of the son's death Act II, and the murder of the fly Act III, then the parallelism works out as follows:

(i) in each of the three acts the boss holds the centre of the stage, and the three subsidiary characters' dramatic function is to throw light on him as the protagonist;

(ii) in Act I Woodifield's feebleness illumines the boss's image of himself as a man of affairs, in Act II it is the boss's image of himself as father that is illumined, in Act III the image is of the boss as animal-lover;

(iii) in each act the boss's image of his own altruism is found to be contradicted by his actions;

(iv) the cumulative effect of the parallelisms is to superimpose on the boss's image of himself in Act I the self-images of Acts II and III, but the image of the hospitable man of the world is blurred by that of the proud heartbroken father and the cheerer-on of flies in difficulties (the images do not cohere);

(v) contrasting with this blur is the clear-cut outline that emerges from the superimpositions of the essential boss as he really is all the time—an ordinary decent human being irretrievably demoralised by the power that corrupts.

A final critical corollary remains to be drawn. Katherine Mansfield's realism has begun with a tactful introduction of the story's setting. The reader, encouraged by the apparent authenticity of the details, tends unconsciously to identify himself with the dramatis personae, as though they were being presented by living actors in a West End theatre. They—that is, Katherine Mansfield's accounts of her characters—accept identification. Under the make-up and the costume a living heart is beating, but it is the actor's heart—in the case of a realistic short story, the reader's heart—not the persona's. The authenticity is confirmed, re-created, guaranteed, by the reader. But the judgement that he passes on these impersonations of his, who are technically the characters of the story, is the author's contribution, not the reader's, because the reader is not aware that a moral attitude is gradually forming itself within his consciousness. The test of the good short story is therefore the degree of the reader's surprise when he discovers in himself the judgements that have been forced upon him. But the surprise has also to be followed by conviction. This is what the particular words and the particular word-orders must mean; this is what the significance of the dramatic episodes in their sequence of parallelisms must add up to.

It will be remembered that Dr. Johnson's discussion of poetic wit proposed a similar criterion: a good poem is ‘at once natural and new’, because what it is saying, ‘though not obvious, … is acknowledged to be just’.


  1. Brief critiques of ‘The Fly’ have appeared in The Explicator (April 1945, Feb. 1947, May 1947, Feb. 1954, Nov. 1955, Oct. 1958).

  2. Journal of Katherine Mansfield, 1954 ed., p. 107.

R. A. Jolly (essay date 1962)

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SOURCE: “Katherine Mansfield's ‘The Fly,’” in Essays in Criticism, Vol. 12, No. 3, July, 1962, pp. 335-38.

[In the following essay, a response to F. W Bateson's and B. Shahevitch's 1961 essay on “The Fly,” Jolly argues that the story contains many more layers of meaning than those critics had observed, most importantly that the boss's predicament is really our own.]

If the object of the article on “The Fly” was simply to demonstrate that ‘exactly the same critical procedure is in order for realistic fiction as for a poem’, then the exercise was successful. It is disappointing, however, that the critical procedure was not carried either as far or as deep as it would have been with a poem, for the story would have stood up to the closest analysis.

The account in the article of the requirements of the realistic convention, of how Katherine Mansfield enlarges the convention by linguistic modes and devices, of how the semblance of narrative conceals the anatomy of drama, of the interplay of similitude and dissimilitude, is excellent. Nor would it be easy to formulate a more concise and exact description of how ‘realistic’ statements may come to acquire the stature of generality than this: ‘The repetition of any phrase or construction will give it, if repeated often enough, a new semantic dimension. A similar process occurs if some parallelism establishes itself between the separate episodes in a narrative or drama. Gradually an unstated generality superimposes itself on the sequence of particulars. A narrative pattern emerges.’

Since the approach is so faultless—a correct address, an elegant swing, how comes it that the shot itself is so sadly fooled We are told that as the blobs of ink fall, the reader's attitude changes from ‘considerable sympathy to total antipathy’, and we are asked to find that the conclusion of the story enshrines the moral value of ‘an ordinary decent human being irretrievably demoralised by the power that corrupts'. In my view, this account is wholly inadequate to explain the peculiar power of the story.

I think it is true to say that to quite a large extent the effect of the story—its ‘meaning’, if you like—depends upon the reader's reaction to the boss. But I find that everywhere that reaction is more complex, more qualified, less easily determined, than can be summed up in the words ‘considerable sympathy’, ‘total antipathy’, ‘irretrievably demoralised’. In the first section, for example, we see the boss bonhomous, free and easy, generous. Yet our sympathies are attracted not to him, but to Mr. Woodifield. In fact, there is nothing in the first section to suggest that the story is to be a story about the boss rather than a story about Mr. Woodifield. There is so much build-up of Mr. Woodifield that, if this were a realistic story pure and simple, it would be a fault of disproportion. The importance of that build-up I will return to later, but I do not think it would be disputed that it is the figure of Mr. Woodifield, frail, childish, ‘boxed-up’, dominated, ‘done for’ as the boss might say, that gets home to the reader. We are ‘for’ Mr. Woodifield, and ‘against’ the boss, not unattractive as the latter is, Mr. Woodifield in fact is ‘the fly’ of the first section—not, of course, allegorically, but by virtue of the ‘similitudes’ of his situation with that of the fly.

In the second section, with Mr. Woodifield gone, our sympathy flows towards the boss, although again it is strongly qualified. Just as the boss boasts in his generosity in the first section—‘Ah, that's where we know a bit more than the ladies'—so he wears his grief like a boast. ‘He wanted, he intended, he had arranged to weep.’ This sentence can only be the narrator's. The intonation of it is different from anything else in the story, and its powerful bathos is infused with ironic comment.

In the third section, when our overt sympathies flow strongly away from the boss, paradoxically our inner sympathy, our human understanding of him, broadens in his favour. ‘The boss felt a rush of relief.’ That is the narrator commenting and the relief is genuine. He speaks to the fly tenderly! The epithet is again the narrator's and the tenderness is genuine. And compare our reaction to ‘You artful little b …’ with our reaction to ‘Ah, that's where we know a bit more than the ladies'. The idiom is the same, early twentieth century colloquial, and there is the same underlying coarseness of grain, the same moral obtuseness, but, humanly speaking. ‘You artful little b …’ is genuine, warm, ‘tender’ as the narrator says.

The flow of sympathy towards and away from the boss is, therefore, more complex than can be summed up in a terse moral judgment. This brings me to the bare economy of the final paragraph of the story, on which all depends and where the real difficulties of understanding commence. First let me consider a general pattern in each of the sections which has a powerful bearing on the attitudes the last paragraph evokes. In the first section, it is the boss's kindly generosity in producing his whisky for Mr. Woodifield that leads the latter to remember to tell him about his son's grave. ‘Only a quiver of his eyelids showed that he had heard.’ In the second section, the love, affection, and pride he feels for his boy ends in Macey and the formal telegram and the Woodifield girls looking down on the uniformed figure in the grave. In the third section, the loving care he devotes to the fly, his effort to build up its ‘Never say die’ spirit ends in the sprawled corpse on the blotting paper. The similarity of the pattern is clear—an ironic frustration. This ironic frustration even finds explicit expression in the second section—‘He wasn't feeling as he wanted to feel’.

This mood of ironic frustration colours the emotional attitude of the reader towards the boss in the last paragraph, colours it so as to tone down the feeling of overt condemnation which is, of course, also present. But the parallelisms in the final section go even further. ‘Look sharp’ he says to Macey, the dog in the cubby-hole, another ‘fly’, and that remark picks up the ‘Look sharp’ he had uttered to the dead fly a few moments past. ‘He took out his handkerchief and passed it under his collar’. This recalls the same gesture in the first section when he wiped his moustaches after gulping the whisky. And he wears a collar and is perhaps, he too, a dog in a cubby-hole. And the wiping parallels also, the steady wiping of the fly as it laboured to clean itself. So perhaps the boss too is a fly.

But most important of all, of course, is the fact that the boss could no longer remember what it was he had been thinking of. Katherine Mansfield caught from—or shared with—Chekhov, his sense of the sheer oddity of homo sapiens, his sense of the inconsequence of the human mind, as well as of the wryness of life. This oddness is here in the end of the story. Of course, the main overt meaning of his inability to remember is to bring home the fact that his grief for his son is no longer a genuine grief, but the ironic comedy is there. Here is a man dwelling on his grief for his dead son, he is diverted from that by the struggles of a fly in an inkpot, and following upon that inconsequence cannot remember what he was thinking about. The sense of oddness is by no means confined to the end of the story. Mr. Woodifield is an odd figure, he gets an odd pleasure out of the fact that the paths of the cemetery are ‘broad’, and he switches oddly from talk of the dead boy to the fact that his daughters were cheated over the price of a pot of jam. The oddness continues throughout the story. ‘He wanted, he intended, he had arranged to weep.’ The boss is at his most kind when he is most cruel, and the whole of the fly episode has the same overtone—a ‘boss’ diverting himself with a fly.

The failure to remember is, however, also the most important parallelism in the whole story. For it brings us back to what started the little drama on its course—Mr. Woodifield struggling to remember what he had to tell the boss. This sardonic reversal of the roles is of the essence of the story. But as well as being a reversal it is a similitude, it puts the boss on a par with Mr. Woodifield, just as ‘boxed up’, just as dominated, just as frail. And in that context our sympathy is with the boss, for his predicament is our predicament. ‘Y’are very snug in here’ pipes Mr. Woodifield as the story opens and the rest of the story is a demonstration of how very wrong Mr. Woodifield was.

What I am attempting to establish is that in this story, as in a good lyrical poem, there are several layers of meaning, some explicit, some implicit, and some meanings in logical contradiction of other meanings. The meaning of the story is a compound of these separate and sometimes contradictory meaning At the overt level we read the story as that of a man ‘irretrievably demoralised’. But the power of the story derives from the fact that it draws upon other levels of meaning which speak to us not of the boss but of our predicament. ‘It is the blight man was born for, It is Margaret you mourn for.’

R. A. Copland (essay date 1962)

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SOURCE: “Katherine Mansfield's ‘The Fly,’” in Essays in Criticism, Vol. 12, No. 3, July, 1962, pp. 338-41.

[In the following essay, a response to F. W. Bateson's and B. Shahevitch's 1961 essay on “The Fly,” Copland complains that those critics miss the basic point the story, which he says is “less about a man's personality than about a man's crisis.”]

It was disappointing to discover that Mr. Bateson and Mr. Shahevitch had applied but not really employed their valuable techniques in criticising Katherine Mansfield's short story “The Fly” (Essays in Criticism, January 1962). It seems a pity that the authors' method should reveal so much of the artist's method while casting so little light upon her effects:

Early in the story we had quite liked the boss, then we discovered that we detested him and now we can merely despise him.

This is a lamentably naïve conclusion. But then throughout the exercise the implication is that the story's value derives from the surprise that has been sprung upon us. Surely Katherine Mansfield and all writers of comparable imaginative sympathy are concerned rather to surprise their characters. The authors of the exercise are content to accept the story as static—i.e. the story merely reveals ‘the essential boss as he really is all the time’ (p. 52). I would say at once that if this were so the value of the story would be greatly reduced—almost to a point indeed where their critical industry was unwarranted.

To become more precise I would point out that the authors are patient in their examination of Mansfield's ‘mixing of direct statement with indirect or concealed dialogue’. They do not examine the effect of this device which is to efface the narrator-reader relationship and to lure all awareness into direct sympathy with the characters. For this reason the ‘mixing’ is begun even before the point at which the authors first notice it: It was time to be off … the wife and the girls kept him boxed up … to cut back to the City. All these are slang expressions reported from the consciousness of Woodifield; and they have the intention and the effect of characterising him. (He is rather common—he speaks of ‘the wife’.) Again, nothing could be clearer than the fact that the following sentence is also ‘reported’: Though what he did there the wife and girls couldn't imagine. The words, inversion and all, are a faithful transcription of these women's talk, characterising them and sketching, with all the economy that the short story imposes, the relationships at Woodifield's home. (The ‘couldn't’ should have convinced the authors in their strange hesitation. Mansfield's ‘straightforward narrative prose’ uses ‘did not’ and ‘was not’ soon afterwards.) But the point I am at is that this ‘mixing’ is done to involve the reader with the characters as closely as possible so that when the crisis arrives, the management of which is Mansfield's supreme achievement, the reader will still be sympathetically involved. The authors of the exercise have noticed the device without being engaged by it. So they miss the crisis.

The boss is the sorry ‘hero’ of this story and his ‘grinding and frightening feeling of wretchedness' had set in long before the fly's death. Not to perceive that the idea of inking the fly in the first place was a direct, dictated result of this feeling is to suppose that Mansfield calmly broke the back of her own story. The fly-baiting is vastly more than a device of character-exposure. It is a triumphant device by which a psychological and emotional crisis is explained. The story is less about a man's personality than about a man's crisis. The deterioration from ‘plump’ and ‘rosy’ to ‘fat’ and ‘thick’ which the authors properly note is, like all but the barest structural forms of the story, reported out of the character and his plight. ‘He wasn't feeling as he wanted to feel.’

Mansfield shows a man sheltering behind certain complacencies, a man spoken of ironically as the boss simply because he is conscious of his emotional security. Under the assault of fate he has built himself a respectable refuge, like Dorrit in the Marshalsea. Like Dorrit he has arrived at a point where ‘he was proud of his room; he liked to have it admired’. In his security he is rather arrogant and patronising. His emotional self-esteem is maintained upon the conviction that his grief for the dead son is deep and perpetual. ‘Other men perhaps might recover, might live their loss down, not he.’ Our attitude towards him at this stage is one of disliking.

When old Woodifield blunders abruptly against this supposed emotional foundation the boss hastily and confidently prepares for a shock to the whole structure. Nothing happens, until bewilderment itself produces a shock more shattering. The boss's grief, he himself suspects in anguish, has succumbed, has refused to rally. Obsessed with this cruel possibility he tests, relieves and expresses his plight by re-enacting the cruelty upon the fly. He watches its behaviour. ‘What would it make of that?’ The boss in the fear and frustration of his own predicament has become a wanton boy. He watches the fly, and it confirms his loss, and dies. He has passed around by passing on his pain. He calls sternly for fresh blotting paper to conceal the scape-goat act; he resumes his air of security. But he is not the same man. We shall not find this man by skipping back over the peripeteia.

Mansfield's penultimate sentence is not meant to be ‘reassuringly particular’, a seemingly random mention of fact for purposes of ‘realistic fiction’. ‘He took out his handkerchief and passed it inside his collar.’ Indeed he did. He had just been obliged hastily to rebuild the whole edifice of his self-esteem. If ‘Katherine Mansfield leaves [a] question unanswered, almost unasked’, it has little to do with ‘moral nihilism’, but is all to do with how the boss will manage now with only the grief of the loss of grief.

As a good story it gives off a wide radiation of relevance which the critics have not failed to notice. But simply as a story its high value lies in its power not merely to surprise but to terrify, not merely to expose but to involve; and in its dynamic, tragic movement.

E. B. Greenwood (essay date 1962)

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SOURCE: “Katherine Mansfield's ‘The Fly,’” in Essays in Criticism, Vol. 12, No. 3, July, 1962, pp. 341-47.

[In the following response to F. W. Bateson's and B. Shahevitch's 1961 essay on “The Fly,” Greenwood attacks those critics' conclusions about Mansfield's use of the realistic literary genre and rejects their portrayal of the boss as morally unsympathetic; the point of the story, Greenwood argues, is that the boss is asking a metaphysical question about the meaning of life in an arbitrary and tormented world.]

What is ‘realism’? Surely not, as Bateson and Shahevitch suggest, just a trick whereby descriptive trivia are incorporated in a story to break down the reader's disbelief in the actuality of the events narrated? The trivia work because, in the words of Leslie Stephen on Defoe, a master of the trick, ‘surely no one could refuse to honour such a moderate draft upon his imagination’. This is not to deny that this may be one function of realistic detail, but to accept it as the whole function would, as my quotation from Stephen suggests, put Defoe's manufactured trivia at the centre of realism and not Homer and Tolstoy.

Moreover if we accept that the ‘green armchair’ of Katherine Mansfield is ‘green’ mainly for this purpose (and not because of that heightened vitality, that sheer delight in the phenomenal world of Homer and Tolstoy) it then becomes self-contradictory to suggest (as in the contrast drawn between the realistic short story and the proverb) that the detail is somehow ‘unfunctional’. The detail's function is to make the representation ‘actual’. Not that I accept that this is the function of most of the detail in Katherine Mansfield's short story. Slender as the work is, she is closer to Homer and Tolstoy than to Defoe. Most of the detail (as I hope to show) is ‘poetic’ in function. We must be told about the furniture of the boss's office not to trick us into accepting the rest of the story (for example, the inner drama of the boss's grief) as ‘actual’, but because the office furniture is an important adjunct to the boss. It is part of the padding with which he conceals his ‘real’ self (the self revealed when he torments the fly) from his fellow-men. It is as much an adjunct to him as Karenin's ‘well-arranged writing appliances’ (Anna Karenina, III, xiv) are to Karenin. The appliances give Karenin pleasure because in handling them (and the administrative sphere they govern) he is ‘in control’ in a way he cannot be in his private life. Similarly the boss is ‘in control’ in his office. He ‘liked to have it admired’ because it exemplified his worldly success. It was his ‘front’ to the world.

If this aspect of the story is to be classified rhetorically it should be classified as metonymy or synecdoche, the describing of a thing by its adjuncts or the exemplification of the whole by the part, both very important devices in prose fiction, as Wellek and Warren suggest in their Theory of Literature. The descriptions of the Maison Vauquer at the opening of Old Goriot, of the drawing room of Sobakevich in chapter five of Gogol's Dead Souls (a drawing room where ‘everything was solid, unwieldy in the highest degree, and had some sort of strange resemblance to the master of the house himself’), and of the ‘bran-new’ furniture of the Veneerings in chapter two of Our Mutual Friend and the ponderous furniture of the Podsnaps in chapter eleven of the same book, are not there to trick the reader into accepting the author's ‘limited omniscience’ but as metonymy, characterising a person by his belongings or surroundings. The implication is: ‘show me what you have and I will tell you what you are’.

So when Bateson and Shahevitch ask ‘How has Katherine Mansfield managed to evade the limitations of the realistic convention? How can a value judgment emerge at all from what appears to be a temporal sequence of particularities?’ they give the game away. They lay bare their prejudice against the realistic convention. They imply that various rhetorical devices (descriptive epithets, anaphora, etc.) enable the author to achieve the passage from the particular to the general which, as Aristotle said, makes poetry more ‘philosophical’ than history. But if, as they themselves argue, and as, I agree, we must accept, ‘realism’ is a convention like any other why must it be the only one which is a drag, which prevents Pegasus from leaving the ground? For Aristotle's account was not, of course, complete. We now see that poetry and prose fiction involve not simply the universal but the concrete universal. The ‘realistic convention’ is one means of presenting that element of the concrete, the particular, the perceptual, necessary for this. But it is just as ‘poetic’ as any other convention.

The authors, then, rightly see realism as a convention, but, pleased at their sophistication in refusing to be taken in by this particular gambit (perhaps because one peculiarity of the ‘realistic convention’ is that it pretends to have done away with convention) they think that in doing so they have ‘exposed’ realism. This is a dangerous fallacy which underlies many current critiques of ‘realism’, for example Professor Wellek's in Neophilologus for January 1961. It arises from an assumption that realism confuses fiction and fact and, therefore, is not art. But this is to confuse ‘realism’ and ‘naturalism’. It is certainly inapplicable to such a realist as Tolstoy who is surely a test case here. Tolstoy's ‘realism’ is, in fact, the opposite of ‘realism’ in the scholastic sense of the word. It is, rather, ‘plastic nominalism’. It assumes that all perception is a kind of feigning (distortion by self-interest—Jacques Rivière's ideas on hypocrisy being a part of consciousness are a striking parallel) and that words are ‘labels’ which we frequently manipulate to veil rather than reveal reality. Because the literary artist is disinterested and his medium is words he can go behind the feigning of ordinary self-interested perception and reveal ‘the object as, in itself, it really is', the noumenon as opposed to the phenomenon. This is true realism. Far from adding ‘superfluous details', it strips away the veils, as the artist Mikhaylov in part five of Anna Karenina strips them away, to reveal the essential. It is literally dis-illusionment.

To return to “The Fly”. Here we have the surprising spectacle of a highly sophisticated technique of reading coupled with a judgment of the reader's response which seems to me both crude and downright mistaken. To take the crudity first. ‘As the three blobs of ink fall the reader's attitude changes from considerable sympathy to total antipathy.’ Such a sentence only illustrates that our techniques for grappling with rhetoric are far more precise than our techniques for dealing with the ‘affective’ elements of art. Surely there is no such locatable peripeteia in the reader's attitude as is suggested? The reader doesn't at this point look back and see ‘how ambiguous the boss's earlier words and actions were’. A reader who is engaged by a subtle piece of writing has no such simple chain of response. In this particular story Katherine Mansfield has left enough ‘signs’ (to borrow the vocabulary of semasiology) earlier to show that the boss had many unsympathetic sides. Even the supposedly ‘irrelevant’ detail of the office furniture is, as I have tried to show, such a sign. But it is with absolute astonishment that one reads that by the end of the story ‘we can merely despise’ the boss. If this is the judgment Katherine Mansfield's skill has ‘forced upon’ these particular readers then either that skill was faulty or they are wrong, and I think the latter is true. Surely the reader is, if anything, more sympathetic to the boss at this particular point in the story than ever? Surely the essence of the story (and here in its modest way it exemplifies the ‘poetic realism’ I associate with Tolstoy) is the essentially Tolstoyan idea that in his solitary contemplation of the fly's struggles the boss has revealed himself as a human being, a mortal soul, a ‘creature’, and not as a well-muffled lay-figure, a respected successful business man, the ‘conventional’ role he has chosen to play in life. In short, the veils have been stripped away.

It is characteristic of realism (Madame Bovary is a good example) to let the reader see the action through the perspective of one of the dramatis personae while at the same time indicating that that perspective is itself a limited one. The boss kills the fly slowly for a variety of reasons and in killing it he neither alienates the reader's sympathy (as Bateson and Shahevitch seem to imply) nor wins it. The reader's attitude, for a complex of reasons, remains ambiguous. To begin with, a fly, as such, is not, to most of us, an important creature. In fact many would regard killing one as a public duty for hygienic reasons. But the fly's plucky efforts (for the reader shares the boss's consciousness of them at this point) win some sympathy for it and distaste for the boss. At the same time, however, the reader is aware that the boss, in tormenting it, is not merely a ‘wanton boy’. His actions are a cover for something more. They mask a metaphysical question. It is Katherine Mansfield's triumph that she can manipulate her chosen convention so that she can present us with a successful businessman who wouldn't know what the word ‘metaphysics’ meant, and if he did would dismiss the subject as unprofitable, asking a metaphysical question, without her putting any strain on our credulity.

I suggest, indeed, that one of the functions of ‘realistic’ art is to bring both dramatis personae and readers in an essentially positivist and anti-metaphysical world to a point where they are faced with metaphysical questions not in the abstract, but as ‘proved on the pulses'. Think of Levin in Anna Karenina. The boss, of course, doesn't ask the fly anything verbally. He asks his question by his action. His action—quite convincing on a literal-realist level—is symbolic action.

The question the boss is asking of the fly is the fundamental metaphysical question (the one the logical positivists and empiricists tell us is meaningless) namely, ‘what is the meaning and purpose of life?’ What is my evidence for this? The boss, we are told, had built up his business because of his boy. The business had no other meaning apart from the boy. ‘Life itself had come to have no other meaning’. Woodifield's chance remark on his daughter's having discovered the boy's grave in Belgium and on the exterior attitude of the Belgians where he is buried—‘trading on our feelings'—has set off a delayed action access of real grief as opposed to the rather fake feelings he had experienced on first hearing the news of his son's death. The present grief is ‘authentic’ in the ‘existentialist’ sense. The boss, vulgar businessman as he is, could now say with Hamlet:

‘But I have that within which passeth show;
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.’

In tormenting the fly the boss is asking it, as it were, ‘well, what is the meaning of life, where do you get the strength to struggle on when blow after blow descends upon you apparently meaninglessly?’ It is this fact, above all, which means that the reader's sympathy is not alienated from the boss when he torments the fly, but is, on the contrary, at its highest pitch then. The boss is doing to the fly, as it were, what destiny has done to him in meaninglessly taking his son (who had given his life meaning) away from him. ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods’ is, as Bateson and Shahevitch suggest, unavoidably in the background, but they miss the point. The boss is shown primarily in the role of sufferer not tormentor. He undergoes not sadistic delight when he torments the fly, but anguish, for it is only an ostensibly meaningless action. It has, in fact, a metaphysical motive.

If the boss is brought face to face with ‘moral nihilism’, it is not the nihilism of his own nature, but the nihilism of a meaningless universe. The meaninglessness is demonstrated by the fly's vain struggles and death, as it was demonstrated by his son's death and his own struggles with his grief. But I said earlier that the answer was existential and ambiguous. The fly's struggles do, in fact, give an answer, and it is the only answer possible in a world which has rejected both metaphysics and the Christian scheme, namely the answer that there is no answer, that life only has the meaning man chooses to give it, that the struggle must continue for its own sake. Life is a donnée, given on the condition that every moment is a struggle in which it is conquered anew. Such ‘immanentism’ is the only answer in a world which has lost the sense of the ‘transcendent’. However,

human kind
Cannot bear very much reality,

and this story provides us with an instance which gives the generalisation substance. For a moment the veils have been stripped and the boss has seen the truth. But he cannot go on living with an awareness of that truth in the front of his mind. He is no Goethe, he is simply ‘the boss'. In order to live he must live entirely on the plane of ‘the boss'. Consequently, after giving new orders to Macey and wiping inside his collar, he settles down to his old routine. He could not remember ‘what he had been thinking about before’. This could either mean before he started to torment the fly, in which case it would be referring to his authentic feeling of grief at Woodifield's chance remark, or immediately before, in which case it would refer to what he was thinking when he tormented the fly, a thought not formulated, as we have seen, but symbolically acted. In any case the fact remains that the boss has to repress any suggestion of ‘the depths’ and to resume life entirely at the routine level. In a sense the boss obeys the fly's precepts as acted out for him. He goes on living in the only way he knows how, namely as ‘the boss'. But, of course, in doing so he is being false to that deeper awareness of reality he has only just experienced. He is denying an authentic part of his being (indeed, the only authentic part, the story implies) and because he does so the ‘play of energy’ which his life exhibits cannot equal that exhibited by the poor tormented fly.

F. W. Bateson (essay date 1962)

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SOURCE: “A Sort of Answer,” in Essays in Criticism, Vol. 12, No. 3, July, 1962, pp. 347-51.

[In the following response to the critics E. B. Greenwood, R. A. Copland, and R. W. Jolly, Bateson reasserts his claim that the realistic devices Mansfield uses to describe the character of the boss make him not only unsympathetic but a symbol of the very “society which destroyed itself, and a million innocent victims with it, between 1914 and 1918.”]

Our three critics have raised so many points—several of them, I agree, eminently sensible ones—that I shall not attempt to answer them all here and now. What we set out to provide, as we made clear in our sub-title, was ‘a critical exercise’—not a model critical essay. We weren't entering into competition with Dr. Johnson on Shakespeare or Matthew Arnold on Wordsworth. An ‘exercise’ makes no claims to originality or profundity; what it does is to apply to a particular problem, as scrupulously as possible, whatever tools and techniques happen to be appropriate and available. We assembled, as we thought, the tools and techniques that are required for the interpretation of a short story and proceeded to show how they can be used: how any fool can use them.

The initial premise was that a short story's technical organisation is likely to be much the same as a poem's. Both poem and story are statements about human nature, ‘criticisms of life’; they are both intended to survive the immediate context of their origins; both therefore distort normal speech in one way or another so as to achieve such a degree of memorability. The poet uses metre, poetic diction, figures of speech, ‘topoi’, etc.; the short-story-writer does not seem to, or only to a limited extent. What then are realistic prose fiction's equivalents of metre, etc.? The question is surely one that deserves an answer, though our critics are curiously shy when it comes to formulating it. Well, a large part of the answer, I still insist, is the plethora of concrete detail (the convention of phenomenal particularity). If “The Fly” had been a poem it would almost certainly have been without the great, green leather armchair and most of the rest of Katherine Mansfield's descriptive detail. One has only to look at Blake's ‘The Fly’ to see that a minutely described background is not in the least necessary in a poem. A poem's metre and diction give it a dimension of its own and so immediately detach it from common speech. The signals are peremptory and continuous. ‘This is art’, they say, ‘not life’—or at any rate life with a difference.

The short story has also to detach itself from life—from the mere anecdote on the one hand and the historical report on the other. A realistic story like “The Fly” achieves its detachment by being more ‘real’, with an appearance of greater physical density and continuity, than reality itself. The story-writer ‘knows’ things that even the most conscientious contemporary observer or historical researcher could not possibly know. Mr. Greenwood would like to persuade us that the greenness of the boss's armchair (and similar minutiae) (a) makes it all more actual, and (b) expresses Katherine Mansfield's ‘heightened vitality’. It can't very well do both, though (actuality is what is registered by normal perception, a heightened awareness is by definition supranormal). Does it in fact do either? The actual effect of calling attention to the armchair's greenness is to discourage the reader from trying to visualise the colour of the rest of the furniture; later the ‘bright red carpet with a pattern of large white rings’ has a similar blurring effect on the wallpaper, curtains, etc. The boss's office, in our minds' eyes, is made up of vivid spots, like the electric heater, presumably dimly surrounded by the appurtenances we would expect to find in such a room in real life. Whatever is described, then, tends to be more actual than actuality, and what is not described—even though ‘implicitly’ there (for example, the office window)—is much less actual than actuality. It is a significant fact that the respective whereabouts of the armchair, the desk, the table and the door in relation to each other are quite impossible to calculate. Mr. Greenwood may prefer to call this non-spatial notation of physical appearances a ‘heightened vitality’. What it amounts to, however, in stricter terms is a symbolic convention—the realistic convention (‘vitality’ = life; ‘heightened’ = distorted).

Let me make the point as simply as possible. Suppose Mr. Greenwood were to pick up a torn piece of paper which read ‘Y’are very snug in here’, piped old Mr. Woodifield …’, would he not recognise at once that this was a fragment of a modern short story or novel? And similarly, if what he had read had been ‘Once upon a time there were three brothers …’, would he have been in any doubt that this was the beginning of a fairy story (or something pretending to be a fairy story)? The specificity of realism is different in kind from, though it can be combined with, such narrative properties as Karenin's ‘writing appliances'. The boss's armchair is no doubt a ‘property’ in this sense, a functional consequence of the plot and the characterisation; it is the addition of greenness to the chair, a non-functional detail, that is the mark of the realistic convention. The story is full, of course, of such irrelevant specificity. Thus the son stands in his photograph ‘in one of those spectral photographers’ parks with photographers' storm clouds behind him’. Is any narrative purpose served by the park and the clouds? Their equivalents would certainly not be present in a fairy tale. Or consider the boss's inkpot. The inkpot itself is an obviously necessary narrative property, but why need it be ‘broken’? A reader unfamiliar with the realistic convention might reasonably complain that this detail is out of character. The boss, who is so proud of his recently re-decorated office, would be most unlikely to go on using a broken inkpot. It might also be objected that Woodifield's muffler, the electric heater's being full on, and the boss's reference to the cold outside all point to its being winter—and there are no flies in the English winter.

Since, however, such irrelevancies and defects of verisimilitude are not felt as such in the reading (the story would clearly be poorer without them), the function of the descriptive minutiae must be presumed to be rhetorical. Rhetoric is the art of persuasion by non-logical methods. The simile is a rhetorical figure that will persuade the sympathetic audience that A is ‘really’ like B. The realistic details of narrative are persuasive in much the same way; they persuade us that the world of the story (A), ‘fiction’ by definition, is ‘really’ the world of every-day social reality. And so their function is to inject via the consistency and the causal sequences of normal experience an element of concors to the discordia (‘what comes next?’) which lies at every narrative centre. To say this is surely not, as Mr. Greenwood seems to think, to be beastly to Homer and Tolstoy. A realistic novel is no more ‘real’ in the ordinary sense of the word than a historical novel is ‘history’. In the final analysis they are both, like the poem or the play, rhetorical artifacts. If Tolstoy comes into our argument at all, it would only be for us to regret those half-baked ruminations on the nature of the historical process which he interspersed in War and Peace.

What, then, is the critical moral? If, as I have argued, a non-narrative sensuous specificity is the literary convention or rhetorical figure par excellence that distinguishes the realistic novel or short story from other modes of literary fiction, the future performer of such a critical exercise as ours on “The Fly” will surely be well advised to pay even more attention than we did to details like the greenness of chairs. They are crucial clues the literary detective ought to assemble and ponder on. I particularly commend to him the tone of voice, explicit or implicit, in which the narrator introduces his apparently irrelevant physical detail. It is Katherine Mansfield's tone of voice—detached and disgusted—that makes me sceptical of our critics' suggestion that the boss becomes more sympathetic at the end of “The Fly”. The final non-narrative detail (‘He took out his handkerchief and passed it inside his collar’) has, for me, great negative rhetorical force—as of Gulliver observing a Maid of Honour in Brobdingnag. The object under our observation (the boss) is the same, but the scale has suddenly changed. And here the transition from psychological generality (the boss's failure of memory) to this physical specificity is unmotivated as well as being unprepared. Why should the boss sweat if it is winter? The detail convinces (succeeds rhetorically), however, precisely because it is more ‘real’ (more particularised)—and incidentally more unpleasant—than the reality of which the reader is normally conscious. No doubt it is also in character, a reaction logically deducible at this stage of the story from what we already know about the boss, but to restrict its interpretation to the psychological level is to deny to realism—unjustifiably, as I hold—the semantic subtleties that poetry has always exploited.

Mr. Greenwood's ‘metaphysical’ interpretation is contradicted, for me, by Katherine Mansfield's consistently flat and sardonic tone of voice. The boss, as she presents him to us, is simply not capable of asking himself ‘What is the meaning and purpose of life?’ In the moral, intellectual and aesthetic mess that now constitutes his life—the appalling vulgarity of the office furniture complements the coarseness of the man's gestures and his horrible faux bonhomme colloquialisms—the boss is surely meant to reflect the father-bullied, family-business-dominated society which destroyed itself, and a million innocent victims with it, between 1914 and 1918. After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Katherine Mansfield, according to Middleton Murry, did not forgive.

John T. Hagopian (essay date 1963)

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SOURCE: “Capturing Mansfield's ‘Fly,’” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 9, No. 4, Winter, 1963-1964, pp. 385-90.

[In the following essay, Hagopian rejects biographical interpretations of “The Fly” as limiting the story's universally compelling message of death and loss.]

Late in 1915 when Katherine Mansfield received the news that her brother had been killed fighting in France, she wrote in her journal:

The present and the future mean nothing to me. I am no longer “curious” about people; I do not wish to go anywhere; and the only possible value that anything can have for me is that it should put me in mind of something that happened or was when we were alive. … Supposing I were to die as I sit at this table, playing with my Indian paper-knife, what would be the difference? No difference. Then why don't I commit suicide? Because I feel I have a duty to perform to the lovely time when we were both alive. I want to write about it, and he wanted me to.1

When her mother died in 1919, she described her banker-father's reaction thus: “Of course he has money, but it makes no difference to him. He falls into absolute pits of depression and loneliness.”2 Then, in February, 1922, six years after the death of her brother, Katherine Mansfield wrote “The Fly”; she was prematurely exhausted by disease, neglected by her indifferent father, and in the last year of her life. The autobiographical sources are obvious.

Yet if there ever was a case where biographical details failed—and even obscured—attempts to explicate a work of fiction, this is it. Although “The Fly” is generally praised, frequently anthologized, and even listed by Elizabeth Bowen among the author's dozen masterpieces, a critical guerilla warfare has been going on over the symbolism of the story and its meaning. After earlier critics had attempted to establish certain apparent equations as fly-boss and fly-Katherine Mansfield, Sylvia Berkman unequivocally declared the story to be a failure on the ground that “the central symbolism is confused.” The boss, she says, obviously equals a “capricious and impersonal” God-figure in his treatment of the fly, and she cites the lines from King Lear which Katherine Mansfield had read only a few weeks before writing the story: “As flies to wanton boys, are we the gods. They kill us for their sport.” But, says Miss Berkman, as the boss “has himself received the blows of this superior power through the death of his only son in the war,” the allegorical equation seems blurred.3 However, Celeste Turner Wright, after tracing in Katherine Mansfield's letters, journals, and scrapbooks a lifetime of references to herself as a fly and nothing that in one of her letters she had specifically identified the boss as a “Bank Manager,” asserts that the author of this story “would not have been confused by the symbolism … by the fact that the boss (Jehovah), who destroys the fly (Katherine), has himself been the victim of fate in losing his boy. Both God and her father had given an only-begotten son; neither, it seemed to her, had learned from that sorrow to be merciful.”4

More recently, Stanley B. Greenfield has countered with the view that “the fly is not to be equated with any person, but with the boss's grief. The theme of the story is that “Time and Life Conquer Grief.” Therefore, “the boss's wretchedness when he kills the fly is his subconscious awareness that the life in him has killed his sorrow, even as the drops of ink-time have ended the fly's struggles.”5 But Clinton W. Olesen believes that the boss has never experienced any genuine sorrow to be conquered by time and life. “Except for an occasional half-hour of sentimental self-indulgence … he had gone on eagerly with business as usual, refusing to think of his son as dead.” And from Olesen's point of view, the story “should be read as the depiction of the boss's escape from facing the reality of death and the sterility of his own existence.”6

It would seem, as is so often hearteningly the case, that the critical history of “The Fly” has brought us closer and closer to a proper reading. In the light of all this commentary, a re-examination might lead us further toward a definitive interpretation. The tightly-structured rendering of a critical hour in the life of the boss can be divided into two main parts, each of which has two sub-divisions, with the whole embodying a pendulum swing of time from the present into the past and back into the present again:

I. During Woodifield's stay in the office, there is

(a) a conversation about the snugness, furnishings, and good whisky—the Present, and

(b) when Woodifield remembers, a report of his daughters' visit to the military cemetery in Belgium where they had discovered the grave of the boss's son—the Past.

II. After Woodifield leaves,

(a) the boss reminisces over his son and recalls his inconsolable grief upon hearing of his son's death—the Past,

but he is distracted by a fly in the inkwell and conducts a microcosmic experiment with life and death—the Present.

Subtle parallelisms of characterization, gesture, and symbolic detail link all parts of the story together into a single, seamless whole. Woodifield serves not only to provoke a shock of recognition in the boss by forcing him to realize for the first time that his son is really dead and in his grave (“Although over six years had passed away, the boss never thought of the boy except as lying unchanged, unblemished in his uniform, asleep forever”), but also to define by contrast the boss's character.

Six years before, upon hearing of the death of his son Reggie, old Woodifield had apparently suffered a stroke, causing his retirement and premature lapse into the childhood of senility. Now his wife and daughters keep him “boxed up” at home, except on Tuesdays when they dress and brush him and permit him to go to the City to make a “nuisance of himself to his friends.” His is the sterile existence. Despite the fact that he is five years younger than the boss, he is old and feeble, his hands shake, and his “chill brain” must be warmed into memory with alcohol. He has never been able to visit his son's grave, and with the passage of time has become reconciled to death and thinks of it with images of order and beauty: “… all as neat as a garden. Flowers growing on all the graves. Nice broad paths.” He can quite casually turn from it to considerations of low finance and express indignation that the Belgian hotel charged his daughters ten francs for a pot of jam.

On the other hand, the boss had contained his first response to his son's death within the conventional clichés of grief (“nothing short of a violent fit of weeping could relieve him. Time … could make no difference”) and after six years was “stout, rosy, … and still going strong.” A power in high finance, he deftly flips the pages of The Financial Times with a paper-knife and takes a “deep solid satisfaction” in displaying the new furnishings of his snug office. He has never chosen to visit his son's grave, and his terrible shock upon hearing of it is not at all mitigated by the image of a well-kept cemetery. Until the episode with the fly, he can control his memory, can avoid or face his son's photograph at will, and is confident that he can arrange a conventional half-hour of weeping.

The story reaches its crises with two significant attempts at memory. In the beginning, old Woodifield “on his last pins” quavers with pleasure at being able to remember his son's grave; but at the end of the story, the boss “for the life of him … could not remember.” In the beginning the boss, after tossing off a generous finger of whisky, “pulled out his handkerchief [and] hastily wiped his moustaches; after the episode with the fly, “he took out his handkerchief and passed it inside his collar.” What precisely happened between these two gestures, and what is the emotional and symbolic significance of these events? The boss has ironically been rewarded for his patronizing kindness to Woodifield by having the irresponsible, senile old fellow strike him on his most vulnerable psychic wound: “It was exactly as though the earth had opened and he had seen the boy lying there with Woodifield's girls staring down at him.” Now he can no longer hide the fact of his son's death behind the conventional masks of grief; no longer can the windy suspiration of forced breath and the fruitful river in the eye denote him truly. “Something seemed to be wrong with him. He wasn't feeling as he wanted to feel.” For six years he had looked at the photograph of the “grave-looking boy in uniform standing in one of those spectral photographer's parks with photographer's storm-clouds behind him” and had not faced the reality of his death. He had remembered only “his bright, natural self, with the right word for everybody, with that boyish look and his habit of saying, ‘Simply splendid!’” But now the boss observes that the expression in the photograph, taken after his son had been in the war and had seen death, “was unnatural. It was cold, even stern-looking.” It was no longer the image of a boy who could say “Simply splendid” to life.

The internal emotional struggle provoked by this insight is magnificently embodied in the episode of the fly. The most important thing to observe here is that the boss does not want the fly to die! He does not want to confront the ugly fact of death, which here—in contrast with the pleasant cemetery-garden described by old Woodifield—is expressed in the ugly and messy image of “The dark patch that oozed round” the fly. In a sense, the fly in the ink-pot is an analogue of the boss's son in his grave. After the boss has rescued the fly from the ink-pot, its cleansing process is rendered in terms of two opposed similes: a leg went along a wing “as the stone goes over and under the scythe,” and the fly cleaned its face “like a minute cat.” The scythe evokes the grim reaper Death, while the traditional nine lives of a cat evoke Survival. When the fly first recovers, the boss is delighted; he observes “that the little front legs rubbed against each other lightly, joyfully … it had escaped; it was ready for life again.” [Contemplating the senility of old Woodifield in Part I, the boss had observed, “we cling to our last pleasures as the tree clings to its last leaves”—just as here the fly clings to its last vestiges of life.] The boss then performs his desperate experiment on Death and Survival. “What would it make of that?” he asks himself as he sends a great blob of ink down on the fly. The second recovery arouses the boss's admiration: “That was the way to tackle things; that was the right spirit. Never say die.” The boss sends down another dark drop—“What about it this time?”—and feels a rush of relief when survival again proves possible. But the last drop kills the fly; it no longer responds as old Macey does to the boss's command, “Look sharp!” and he flings its ugly “corpse” into a waste-basket grave.

In his experiment with the fly the boss tests the image of death that old Woodifield had tendered him, and upon discovering that death is an inescapable fact “such a grinding feeling of wretchedness seized him that he felt positively frightened.” Although Woodifield can now bear the tamed image of his son's death, the boss simply cannot: “For the life of him he could not remember … what it was he had been thinking about before.” His final amnesia is desperately self-protective, and it brings his experience to a sympathetically-drawn and poignant close.

Most critics have assumed that the boss is the cruel and unsympathetic man that Katherine Mansfield considered her own father to be. Celeste Turner Wright is perhaps the most generous: “The boss in “The Fly” is not wicked. Like the father in all the other portraits, he is only self-absorbed; from his youth up he has focused on financial ambition.” But if one limits oneself strictly to the evidence of the story, even this description seems more negative than is warranted by the facts. Sympathy for the underdog might lead some readers to resent the boss's self-satisfaction and patronizing air to old Woodifield, but it should be noted that both men derive a certain satisfaction from their relationship, and that even though the boss engages in it for selfish reasons he extends every courtesy to his old friend in making his Tuesday visit pleasurable. The boss wants Woodifield warm and comfortable, just as later he wants the fly to dry its wings and survive. And even though it is obvious that the two men are not equals, the boss creates an atmosphere of good-fellowship: “Ah, that's where we know a bit more than the ladies.” When Woodifield insensitively blunders into a discussion of the grave of the boss's son, the boss controls himself and responds with only a “quiver of the eyelids.”

It is only when the boss deliberately prepares to weep that we can legitimately begin to suspect that he may be an unsympathetic character. The clichés about his having built up the business only for the sake of his son may strike some readers as false or hypocritical, but there is no objective evidence that he did not actually feel that way at the time. Only three elements of the narrative show the boss in a possibly unsympathetic light: (1) the inconsistency between his “deep, solid satisfaction” with his present affluence and his earlier insistence that his business “had no other meaning if it was not for the boy. Life itself had come to have no other meaning.” But surely his earlier exaggerated sense of loss was by no means unusual and does not necessarily suggest that he is a hypocrite. On the other hand, even though his outward circumstances might suggest that he has recovered, his inner shock makes it clear that even old Woodifield's emotional recovery has been more complete than his. (2) The boss's experiment with the fly may strike some readers as revealing a streak of gratuitous cruelty in him, but this is clearly a unique occasion explained by the symbolic significance of the fly in this specific context. It is especially important to observe that he is neither a “wanton boy” carelessly destroying the fly for sport, nor one of the gods grandly exerting his power with full knowledge of and indifference toward the consequences. The Lear citation is absolutely misleading. The boss is obviously seeking to discover or confirm some knowledge—and in doing so is fearful of the consequences of that knowledge. When the experiment is completed, he is deeply shaken and so unable to bear the implications of the fly's death that he drives the new knowledge deep into his subconscious. (3) The boss's abruptness in ordering the old dog Macey to “look sharp” about bringing some fresh blotting paper at the close of the story may appear to be an expression of arrogance, but again there is no evidence that it is habitual, and the emotional crisis through which the boss has just passed makes it not only understandable, but perhaps even poignant, for him to gruffly exert some little control over the forces of life. In fact, it is safe to assume that he will now no longer be able hypocritically to enjoy the fruits of his business and that his new knowledge will fester in his subconscious mind making the rest of his life miserable. Only a heavy weight of extra-textual evidence would definitely tip the scales against the boss. Within the story he is neither a monster nor a saint—merely a poor suffering mortal, whose wealth and social power cannot protect him from the anguish of loss through death.

Despite the obvious autobiographical sources, to link the meaning of the story to Katherine Mansfield's private life or to other stories is to deny that she has created a self-sufficient work of art. In any conflict between intrinsic and extrinsic interpretations that equally exhaust the details of a story, it is the latter that must yield. Katherine Mansfield was not an allegorist, and although she drew upon her own life experiences for the material of her fiction she transfigured them into art. “The Fly” is an embodiment in language of an emotionally-charged, powerfully poignant human experience; it is perceivable as an entity in itself and not as an equation with something else. It is, as Elizabeth Bowen observed, a masterpiece and deserves to rank with the finest inter-war fiction in England.


  1. As quoted by Elizabeth Bowen in her Introduction to Katherine Mansfield's 34 Short Stories (London, 1957), pp. 21-22. I have not cited page references to the text of “The Fly” because the story is rather short and available in a wide variety of sources.

  2. J. Middleton Murry, ed., The Letters of Katherine Mansfield (New York, 1929), I, 265.

  3. Katherine Mansfield: A Critical Study (London, 1952), p. 195.

  4. “Genesis of a Short Story,” Philological Quarterly, XXXIV (January, 1955), 95.

  5. Explicator, XVII (1958), item 2.

  6. “‘The Fly’ Rescued,” College English, XXII (May, 1961), 585.

J. Rea (essay date 1965)

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SOURCE: “Mansfield's ‘The Fly,’” in The Explicator, Vol. 23, No. 9, May, 1965, item 68.

[In the following essay, Rea concludes that “The Fly” is the story of a selfish man who pushes everyone and everything—except himself—to their breaking point.]

The chief characteristic of the boss in Katherine Mansfield's “The Fly” (see EXP., April, 1945, III, 49; Feb., 1947, v, 32; May, 1947, v, 33; Feb., 1954, XII, 27; Nov., 1955, XIV, 10; Oct., 1958, XVII, 2; and Dec., 1960, XIX, 20) is, I think, his inability to recognize that others have a breaking point. This is shown in his attitude toward the fly, toward Macey, toward Mr. Woodifield, and toward his son. He does not intend to kill the fly; he only admires its courage and its ability to free itself of ink. After the fly's fourth soaking, he does not see that the fly has suffered all that it can, and he encourages it with: “Come on. … Look sharp.” “And look sharp about it,” he says again, this time to Macey, his office messenger. Macey pads “in and out of his cubbyhole like a dog that expects to be taken for a run.” Again, the boss shows the same indifference to how much another can endure when he gives old Woodifield a drink, not allowed him after his stroke. His giving Woodifield the whiskey is the same as his dropping the blots of ink on the fly. Possibly Woodifield's stroke was caused by his having been given more work than he could stand up to and not by Reggie's death. The boss is tender toward the old fellow, younger than he is, but he is also tender toward the fly. And the implication is that, had his son not been killed in the war, the boss could not have seen that the boy was expendable. In thinking of the year that “the boy had been in the office learning the ropes,” he remembers that “he had taken to it marvelously.” This “taken to it marvelously” has the same tender admiration and the same pushing to the breaking point as the phrase the boss uses for the fly: “plucky little devil.” The boy had had the habit of saying, “Simply splendid,” and he seems to have managed the office with as much spirit as the fly had in cleaning itself of ink. The boss's way of showing admiration for spirit is to overburden the body that holds the spirit. That the boss is thinking about how far he could have pushed his son is shown by his not being able to think of the boy except in connection with the business. The only relation the boss can have with others is to use them up in his service.

But the boss recognizes his own breaking point. He thinks he has pushed himself. “How on earth could he have slaved, denied himself, kept going all these years without the promise for ever before him of the boy's stepping into his shoes and carrying on where he left off?” He thinks it would take very little to break him. A dead fly (or is it the ruined blotting paper?) gives him “a feeling of wretchedness.” And it takes only the mention of his dead son's name to push him into violent fits of weeping. He thinks of himself as already broken, remembering that, when he got the telegram, “he had left the office a broken man with his life in ruins. … Time, he had declared then, he had told everybody, could make no difference. Other men perhaps might recover, might live their loss down, but not he.” But he is far from breaking. He is “stout and rosy.” He has new furniture, and from the “lately” in “I've had it done up lately,” one gathers that he buys new furniture for his office rather often. He sits there satisfied. “It gave him a feeling of deep, solid satisfaction to be planted there in the midst of it.” He pushes others around, but he does not push himself.

Ted E. Boyle (essay date 1965)

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SOURCE: “The Death of the Boss: Another Look at Katherine Mansfield's ‘The Fly,’” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 11, No. 2, Summer, 1965, pp. 183-85.

[In the following essay, Boyle claims that the symbolism in “The Fly” is intended to emphasize the spiritual death of the boss.]

John V. Hagopian's recent article on “The Fly” indeed seems a more reasoned and logical explication than those made by earlier critics.1 Professor Hagopian's assertion, however, that the boss is an almost wholly sympathetic character and that the story concerns the boss's imperfect realization of the inescapable fact of death elicits some argument. It is also questionable that the text of “The Fly” supports Hagopian's interpreting the fly as a symbol of “the boss's son in his grave.” Rather, a realization of the exact parallels between old Woodifield and the boss, and the exact parallels between the struggles of the fly and those of the boss indicate that “The Fly” deals with the spiritual death of the boss, with his substitution of things material for things human. Further, only when “The Fly” is read as the spiritual death of the boss can the story be fully liberated from the charge that its symbolism is vague and confused.

When Woodifield is ushered into the boss's office, the boss positively gloats as he points out to old Woodifield the “bright red carpet with a pattern of large white rings”; “the massive bookcase and the table with legs like twisted treacle”; and the new electric heating system, “the five transparent pearly sausages glowing so softly in the tilted copper pan.” When he offers Woodifield a drink, the boss is all too obviously pleased as he points out that the whiskey he offers came “from the cellars at Windsor Castle.” The crucial point in this early scene is that the boss enjoys these material comforts, these emblems of his successful business, for their own sake. Earlier, before the death of his son, the boss's business prestige and all its material accoutrements were important only as they related to the son: “Ever since his birth the boss had worked at building up this business for him; it had no other meaning if it was not for the boy. Life itself had come to have no other meaning. How on earth could he have slaved, denied himself, kept going all these years without the promise for ever before him of the boy's stepping into his shoes and carrying on where he left off?” The boss was not, of course, a materialistic monster while his son was alive, nor have we reason to believe he has become such now. Yet, the boss, while his son was alive, had obviously channeled his love for his son through things material. The boss apparently felt that the most effective way of showing his love was to build up the business for his son. Now that the son is dead, however, the boss's life literally ceases to have any spiritual meaning. He is a dead man, a man who has degenerated into ostentatious enjoyment of those same material things which he had previously employed to express his love for his son.

Old Woodifield's existence, as Professor Hagopian and other critics have pointed out, is clearly sterile. His wife and daughters keep him “boxed-up,” allowing him to leave the house only on Tuesdays, and his “frail old figure” and his befogged memory bespeak his role as a sort of walking dead man. The boss's physical appearance, of course, stands in striking contrast to that of Woodifield. The boss is stout and rosy, yet he, like Woodifield, is “boxed-up,” is spiritually dead in that only material things are any longer important to him. As Woodifield's talk of his dead son degenerates into petty observations concerning the exorbitant price his daughters had to pay for jam when they were in France visiting Reggie's grave, so the boss's memory of his dead son has degenerated into an almost effusive enjoyment of those material comforts which he had heretofore enjoyed only in conjunction with his love for his son. As Woodifield is “boxed-up” by his family as surely as if he were “boxed-up” in his coffin, so the boss is “boxed-up,” his spirit a prisoner of his materialism. “Y’are very snug in here,” Woodifield observes as he enters the boss's office. The boss is indeed “snug,” as snug as if he were in his grave.

The boss's experience with the fly would seem to further strengthen the notion that he is no longer spiritually alive, that his existence is as sterile as old Woodifield's. The struggles of the fly with the blots of ink, in fact, parallel the struggles of the boss with his grief for his son. The chief thing to observe here is that as long as the fly is affected by the blots of ink which drop on him, he is still alive, just as the boss is still spiritually alive as long as he is able to grieve for his son. When the last blot of ink falls on the fly and he does not respond, he is dead, just as a part of the boss is dead when he no longer responds to the mention of his dead son. In the first section of the story, Old Woodifield had mentioned the boss's son and the boss had expected to be overcome by grief. He obviously had been so overcome in the past six years. But now, he fails to respond to the stimulus for his grief: “‘My son!’ groaned the boss. But no tears came yet. In the past, in the first months and even years after the boy's death, he had only to say those words to be overcome by such grief that nothing short of a violent fit of weeping could relieve him.” Now, as the fly no longer responds to the blots of ink which fall on him, the boss no longer responds to the memory of his son: “Six years ago, six years … How quickly time passed! It might have happened yesterday. The boss took his hands from his face; he was puzzled. Something seemed to be wrong with him. He wasn't feeling as he wanted to feel.”

The boss is, in fact, so undisturbed by the memory of his son, the memory which had formerly sent him into spasms of grief, that he is distracted by a fly in his inkwell. After the boss has killed the fly, he is seized and frightened by a “grinding feeling of wretchedness.” This feeling of wretchedness has no relationship, however, to the boss's realization of the inescapable fact of his son's death. The feeling of wretchedness seems, rather, the boss's subconscious realization that a part of him has died. The love which the boss felt for his son was the sole substance of the boss's life as a truly human creature, a creature capable of love. During the six years after his son's death, the boss could substitute his grief for his son for his love for him. But grief is an imperfect substitute, and grief, even for men less materialistic than the boss, is healed by time. In the boss's case the healing effect of time is fatal.

When the fly dies, the boss quickly calls for some new blotting paper. Then he falls “to wondering what it was he had been thinking about before. What was it? It was … He took out his handkerchief and passed it inside his collar. For the life of him he could not remember.” If the boss were still to have the power to remember, and consequently the power to grieve, he would still be alive. He can neither remember nor grieve; he is, thus, spiritually dead.


  1. “Capturing Mansfield's Fly,” Modern Fiction Studies, IX (1964), 385-390. As Professor Hagopian notes, “guerilla warfare” has for some time raged over the interpretation of Miss Mansfield's story. See R. W. Stallman, Explicator, III (1945), item 49; Willis P. Jacobs, Explicator, V (1947), item 32; Thomas A. Bledsoe, Explicator, V (1947), item 53; Celeste Turner Wright, Explicator, XII (1954), item 27; Thomas Q. Assad, Explicator, XIV (1955), item 10; Stanley B. Greenfield, Explicator, XVII (1958), item 2; Celeste Turner Wright, “Genesis of a Short Story,” Philological Quarterly, XXXIV (1955), 91-96; Clinton W. Oleson, “The Fly Rescued,” College English, XXII (1961), 585; J. D. Thomas, “Symbol and Parallelism in ‘The Fly’,” College English, XXII (1961), 256-262; Sylvia Berkman, Katherine Mansfield: A Critical Study, (New Haven, 1951), p. 195.

Mary Rohrberger (essay date 1966)

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SOURCE: “Katherine Mansfield: ‘The Fly,’” in Hawthorne and the Modern Short Story, Mouton and Company, 1966, pp. 68-74.

[In the following excerpt, Rohrberger claims that all the characters in the story are themselves symbolically flies, each acted upon by a cruel controlling force.]

“The Fly” was published in 1923 in The Dove's Nest, Katherine Mansfield's last published volume, Sylvia Berkman, in her critical study of Mansfield, says that the central symbolism in “The Fly” is confused:

Obviously the boss stands for a superior controlling power—God, destiny, or fate—which in capricious and impersonal cruelty tortures the little creature struggling under this hand until it lies still in death. At the same time the boss is presented as one who has himself received the blows of this superior power through the death of his only son in the war. Thus the functional role which the boss plays in the story does not fuse with the symbolic role.1

It appears to me, however, that Professor Berkman fails to perceive the symbolic relationship between microcosm and macrocosm which makes the boss part in relation to whole and shows him acting both as father figure and God figure. In his symbolic role he may play as many parts as the symbol will extend to include, and the symbol will extend as far as the author sees relationships which it may encompass. Further, the central symbolism does not revolve around the boss as God, but rather about the boss as human, for the strongest symbolic identification is that of the boss with the fly, which is the symbol for all humanity.

Professor Berkman is surely right when she asserts that Katherine Mansfield must have had in mind two statements concerning the fly—one her own notation in her Journal and the other Shakespeare's well-known comment. Mansfield wrote:

Oh, the times when she had walked upside down on the ceiling, run up glittering panes, floated on a lake of light, flashed through a shining beam!

And God looked upon the fly fallen into the jug of milk and saw that it was good. And the smallest Cherubim and Seraphim of all, who delight in misfortune, struck their silver harps and shrilled: “How is the fly fallen, fallen!”2

Shakespeare's lines in King Lear are also significant: “As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods. / They kill us for their sport.” Pertinent, too, is Professor Berkman's interpretation of the meaning of the fly. “The insect”, she says, “is created in multitudes; he is born, exists for his little time, or is destroyed by any one of a thousand accidents. He is at the mercy of a capricious force that has brought him into being and determines his extinction.”3

On the surface level, the story recounts certain experiences which lead to the killing of a fly. A man, identified only as the boss, receives a visitor, Mr. Woodifield, an old man, nearing senility. Although five years older than his visitor, the boss is stout, rosy, and strong. As they sit and talk in the newly decorated office, the boss flips the pages of The Financial Times. He is proud and satisfied to be admired especially by Woodifield, who finally recalls that he has something to relate; but he cannot remember it. Feeling a kindly pity for the old man in front of him, the boss offers Woodifield whiskey. Woodifield is not allowed to drink, but the boss waves away objections. The drink warms the old man, and he remembers what he wanted to say—that his family had been in Belgium visiting his own son's grave, which lies close to that of the boss's son. Having said what he came to say, the old man chats on, but the boss does not hear. After Woodifield leaves, the boss closes the door and sits at his desk. “He wanted, he intended, he had arranged to weep.”4

In the past the boss had only to mention the name of his son and he would be overcome by violent weeping; but now, something is wrong; he is unable to weep. He looks at the boy's photograph and sees there a cold and stern-looking youth. The boy, he thinks, had never looked like that. At this moment he notices a fly.

The fly has fallen into an inkpot and is struggling to get out. The boss lifts the fly out to a blotter and watches as it begins the arduous process of wiping itself clean. When it is dry, the boss has an idea. He drops a blot of ink directly on the fly and then watches it begin the task again. He admires the fly's courage: “That was the way to tackle things; that was the right spirit. Never say die” (p. 210). The fly finishes again and the boss drops another drop of ink. Again the fly struggles to escape. The third blot of ink kills the fly. Lifting the corpse, the boss flings it into the waste-paper basket. A grinding feeling of wretchedness seizes him and he feels frightened. He calls to an employee for fresh blotting paper and then tries to recall what he had been thinking of before the episode with the fly. But he finds that he cannot remember.

The fly, as I have said, is the dominant symbol here. Its name titles the story; as symbol, its meaning encompasses all the characters in the story; the major episode in which it is concerned climaxes the story. The fly represents not only man's insignificance in relation to a controlling power, but also the highest aspirations and yearning of the human soul. “To fly” is to escape earth-bound reality and to soar through the heavens. To have dominion of the air is to be, like Daedalus and Icarus, as a god. But, as in the Icarus legend, “to fly” might mean to travel too near the sun and thus to fall; or, through pride, to aim too high and to be cast into hell. Surely Mansfield had this relation of ideas in mind when she wrote: “Oh, how is the fly fallen, fallen!” The biblical style and allusions of the passage suggest such a line from Isaiah: “How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning!” Such Biblical reference adds dimension and depth to the symbol. The fly represents man's aspirations as well as his temporal existence; it images his rise and fall. In this story the episode of the fly suggests the progression of man from birth to death. The fly's struggle to escape from the inkpot is a clear birth image; its battle against continuing adversity suggests man's progress through life; its death as a result of a capricious force suggests man's attitude toward his own mortality, where all his struggles lead to the grave.

The fly must be recognized as a symbol for all the characters in the story. The boss, the boss' son, and old Woodifield are flies in relation to a controlling force. Each has already come under the control of this force. The boss has lost a son; the son is killed in his youth; Woodifield has suffered a stroke which has brought him to premature senility.

The boss has seen his son in his own image: “Life itself had come to have no other meaning” (p. 209). The boy's promise had been near being fulfilled, but then he went to the war and was killed. The boss had his grief for six years. “Time he had declared … could make no difference. Other men perhaps might recover, might live their loss down, but not he. How was it possible?” (p. 209). But at the climactic moment, the boss is unable to weep. Even his sustaining grief has departed. He is left with nothing—not even memories: “He fell to wondering what it was he had been thinking about before. What was it? It was. … He took out his handkerchief and passed it inside his collar. For the life of him he could not remember” (p. 210).

The passage which I underline above is not simply an idiomatic expression, but it has meaning in literal terms. The boss, who had lived for his son, in finally recognizing the boy's death, is at the moment of his own symbolic death. He has attempted to create in his son the means of his own immortality; now, in recognizing the finality of the boy's death, the boss must recognize his own mortality. Unable to weep, the boss turns his attention to the struggling fly and, himself playing two roles in the symbolic drama, accomplishes the end of relieving his feelings. Playing the role of God or destiny, he blots out the life of the fly, as his son's life had been blotted out, as his own life is to come to an end.

But why does the boss at this time, after six years, come to recognize the finality of his son's death? Before Woodifield's visit he had never actually thought of the boy as being dead, but rather as “lying unchanged, unblemished in his uniform” (p. 209). His grief had been for one away but not destroyed. The answer to the question comes from a perception of the role played in the story by old Woodifield. Woodifield, too, is a fly. As a symbol of human mortality, he embodies the notion of birth and death. He appears as a baby in a pram; he is muffled like an infant in blankets. For six days of the week he is kept boxed up like a baby in a crib; but on one day he is dressed and brushed by his wife and daughters and allowed to go to town. But old Woodifield is also an aging man. He has had a stroke and has retired; he is old and frail. The care that he receives, the muffling, is not that accorded an infant beginning life but actually that of an old man nearing death; thus the image of the pram suggests both carriage and coffin, symbolizing at once birth and death.

The boss' actions toward the aged Woodifield are symbolically life-giving and life-taking. Feeling kindly toward Woodifield, he offers him whiskey, saying, “It wouldn't hurt a child” (p. 208). The offering of the bottle suggests feeding a baby, a life-sustaining action. The suggestion is enforced by the appearance of Woodifield, who looks as if he is going to cry when he mentions that the women will not allow him this kind of bottle. But the bottle here is not life-sustaining; having had a stroke, Woodifield is forbidden to drink whiskey. Thus the boss' actions suggest unreasoned and capricious playing with life. The symbolic action of giving the whiskey is, in effect, the same kind of action that the boss takes with the fly. Woodifield is no more capable of resisting the whiskey than the fly is of escaping the ink, for he has no will to resist. The dominant personality of the boss prevails.

He is given no other name. Thus Mansfield forces recognition of his symbolic role; he represents the controller—in relation to Woodifield, in relation to his son, whose life he has planned, in relation to the fly, whose life he takes away. The boss is proud of his possessions; he is proud to show off his newly decorated office, with his paper knife and his Financial Times, with his whiskey obtained from the cellars of Windsor Castle. But Woodifield's visit reminds the boss that he is not the ultimate controller. By mentioning the boss' son, who lies in a grave, Woodifield forces on the boss the realization of death and failure.

Old Woodifield has had a son, but now his son is dead, and Woodifield is close to death. The boss has had a son, and he has expected by means of his son to achieve his own immortality; but his son is dead, not “merely asleep”. There is no longer any escaping that, and, if his son is dead, his own aspirations will be unrealized. His own death is the incontestable reality he must face. But he does not give in to this idea without a struggle; his immediate feelings of anger and resentment cause him again to play the role of God—to give life and to take it away. With a pen he helps the fly to get out of the inkpot. With admiration he watches the fly struggle, for it is his own determination to live that he sees in the fly's efforts. At the moment of the fly's death the man must recognize that his own efforts, too, will eventually be blotted out. Despite his creations, his aspirations, and his struggles, death is his ultimate end.

It is necessary to recognize that man is both creator and destroyer. He is life-giver, but the concept of life embodies the concept of death. Man gives life, but in giving it, paradoxically, he takes it away; he is not only agent but victim of his own aspirations. The symbol of the fly encompasses both these concepts. The fly can run up glittering panes, float on a lake of light, flash through a shining beam, but in the end, “How is the fly fallen, fallen”.


  1. Katherine Mansfield: A Critical Study (1951), p. 195.

  2. Quoted in Berkman, p. 194.

  3. Berkman, p. 194.

  4. Oscar Cargill, et al., New Highways in College Composition, Second Edition (1955), p. 209. Citations are to this edition.

Paulette Michel-Michot (essay date 1974)

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SOURCE: “Katherine Mansfield's ‘The Fly’: An Attempt to Capture the Boss,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 11, No. 1, Winter, 1974, pp. 85-92.

[In the following essay, Michel-Michot declares that “The Fly” is a story about self-discovery and the resulting terror that forces a man to try to forget the awful truths he has learned about himself.]

No other story of Katherine Mansfield has prompted such a critical controversy.1 Many critics have proposed interesting interpretations; yet the more one reads of the criticism, the more one realises that the answer to the problem the story raises is not in fact found in just one or another sentence, symbol or parallel inside or outside the story. Critics seem to have been obsessed by the necessity to equate the fly with either the boss, Woodifield, the boss's son, or the boss's grief. Though the story is called “The Fly” it is not mere accident that the only figure present throughout the story is that of the boss. Katherine Mansfield gradually defines him by presenting his responses and attitudes to people, objects, and to life in general in three successive situations, and it is through a net of contrasts and parallels that she establishes meaningful relations between the parts. Only through a close analysis of the story itself focusing on the function of each part in the whole may we hope to see the meaning finally emerge.

The story may be divided into three parts. First the boss is in his office with a friend and former employee or colleague, Woodifield, who, like the boss, lost his only son in the war. Then the boss is alone and thinks of his son. Finally the boss plays with a fly till he kills it; shocked and frightened by the sight of the dead fly—or what it may suggest to him—he resumes his work.

The two men are in the boss's office. Woodifield, who is five years younger than the boss, is called “old Woodifield”; he has an “old voice”, he “pipes feebly” and “faintly” (my italics). He had to retire because of a stroke and he appears as mentally and physically diminished. Since the boss is not given any name and his function is considered representative of the man himself, Woodifield's name at once strikes the reader and suggests the freshness and naturalness of things in the country (see also “he peered out of the … armchair … as a baby peers out of its pram”). Since he had a stroke Woodifield has been, like a flower withering in a vase, “boxed up at home” by his wife and daughters. Yet, once a week, he is allowed to break out and he is now visiting his friend: he sits and looks “admiringly” at the boss and his newly furnished office, smoking a cigar and enjoying the comfort of the room.

Compared with Woodifield the boss is “stout and rosy,” he looks and feels fit and is rather ostentatiously in full command of the situation, “rolling in his office chair.” He is proud of his office and of the latest improvements to it and has adopted a mechanical way of moving about in his office, thereby cutting himself off, or removing himself further, from nature. His whole attitude shows self-satisfaction at the comfort and success his business dealings have brought him: “he flipped the Financial Times with a paper-knife.” This paper-knife will reappear later when he throws the dead fly into the waste-paper basket. Surely, even at this stage, this gesture is a way of defining the boss and his eagerness to make money whatever the consequences of his business dealings. Though he may not be aware of it, the boss is not only proud of his new acquisitions but he imposes his crushing superiority (wealth and health) on his friend: “It gave him a feeling of deep, solid satisfaction to be planted there in the midst of it in full view of that frail old figure in the muffler” (my italics). The boss draws Woodifield's attention to all the external signs of comfort and wealth in the office, and it is significant that Katherine Mansfield should use derogatory terms when referring to these improvements (“the bright red carpet with a pattern of large white rings,” “the massive bookcase and the table with legs like twisted treacle,” the electric heating with its “five transparent, pearly sausages”); but there is one thing he does not mention—maybe because it is not new—the picture of a “grave-looking boy in uniform.” No doubt this strikes a grave-sounding note, something discordant, for the boy's look suggests depth and insight into things, which stands in sharp contrast with the self-complacent attitude of the boss, who sticks to the surface of things. This photograph, however, may represent the boss's sore place that he may want to keep secret either because it is an intimate part of himself or because he refuses to consider its implications and thus to face reality.

For the rest of Woodifield's visit, the boss is complacently showing off, yet also enjoying making Woodifield happy for a while. His attitude to the old man is here tempered by friendship, yet he tries to please Woodifield without showing any regard for his guest's health. Indeed, when Woodifield cannot remember what he wanted to tell the boss, the latter feels pity and offers him some whisky. This is for the boss another welcome opportunity to display his prosperity, and he pours a “generous finger” for Woodifield, who is forbidden to have any. Here the boss is proud of his physical condition and once more forces his superiority on Woodifield: “Don't put any water with it. It's sacrilege to tamper with stuff like this. Ah! He tossed off his, pulled out his handkerchief, hastily wiped his moustaches.” This gesture of pulling out his handkerchief will also recur at the end of the story with quite another meaning; but then, the ambiguity about the boss will have been partly resolved. The gesture here simply means contentment, self-satisfaction. For Woodifield, the whisky does its job nicely: “it warmed him: it crept into his chill old brain—he remembered.” So, here for the first time in the story the boss manipulates someone—in this case a friend—giving him some new life all the more precious compared with the deadening influence of the ladies at home, but regardless of the danger to his health.

Woodifield, having “warmed up,” is roused out of his passivity and tells his friend that his daughters have visited the grave of his son in Belgium and have also seen that of the boss's son. This comes as a shock to the boss but he is able to control his feelings: “only a quiver in his eyelids showed that he heard.” Woodifield speaks of the grave and of death as of a fact of life in the natural course of things. As Pauline Bell has suggested, Woodifield has assimilated the idea of death; the stroke, his retirement and, I would add, his close connection with nature suggested by his name, make him accept death as something natural. Moreover, he shows himself sensitive to the beauty of the cemetery, which suggests to him a well-kept garden with flowers and neat paths.

After the boss has acknowledged that he has never visited the grave of his son, Woodifield's poor mind jumps to something else, to another fact of life of which he strongly disapproves, i.e. the heartlessness of the Belgians who charged his daughters too high a price at the hotel: “It's trading on our feelings. … That's what it is.” This can't but ring a bell in the reader's mind, who definitely sees Woodifield as the boss's antagonist. The boss, whose peace has been disturbed, hardly pays attention to Woodifield's last words and sees him out.

In the first part the two characters are strongly differentiated, and the ambiguity of the boss's character is clearly established so that at the end of the first part the reader may wonder whether the boss's attitude is not intended to hide a deep wound caused by the death of his son. This possibility will be ruled out in the second part of the story. Here Katherine Mansfield gets closer to the boss's true nature, which is tempered this time not by ‘kindness’ to a friend but by “love” for his son. She presents him no longer face to face with a diminished adult who can be manipulated and with whom he can cheat, but face to face with himself.

While the boss, who has been shocked by Woodifield's mention of the grave, is “sitting at his desk staring at nothing,” we see Macey, the grey-haired office messenger, showing obedience and utter dependence on the boss: he is waiting for a sign from the master “like a dog that expects to be taken for a run.” The comparison, which brings out clearly the master's will power and the clerk's subordination, reminds us of the way the boss forced his superiority upon his friend. After he has told Macey that he does not want to see anybody for half an hour, the façade collapses and the reader feels inclined to sympathize with the suffering man. But while Katherine Mansfield maintains at surface level the ambiguity about the boss's real self by showing us his misery, she also takes us beyond appearances: “The door shut, the firm heavy steps recrossed the bright carpet, the fat body plumped down in the spring chair, and leaning forward, the boss covered his face with his hands. He wanted, he intended, he had arranged to weep. …” There is purposefulness in the “firm heavy steps” that echoes the “half hour” and announces “he wanted, he intended.”

The boss has prepared the scene for weeping. It is now clear that he is not a prey to emotion but that, through the ceremonial and ritual setting of the stage, he is kindling an emotion. He is not overcome by grief, but tries to revive it through an act of the will. When the boss remembers the past, we are first brought back to the shock—felt only through the quivering eyelids when Woodified mentioned the grave: “It was exactly as though the earth had opened and he had seen the boy lying there with Woodifield's girls staring down at him.—” then to what the shock means: we have seen the boss's limitations and his tendency to consider only one aspect of reality, now the other side flashes upon him as a revenge of life and the very word grave comes as a terrible shock for him. Indeed he had so far refused to consider the action of time on his son's corpse; he had always thought of him as “unchanged, unblemished in his uniform, asleep for ever.” He had also refused to see the “grave look” of his son on the photograph, and we learn at the end of this second part that he did not like it—“the expression was unnatural. It was cold, even stern-looking.” He much preferred the “boyish look” of his son who, before going to the war, had the pleasant habit of saying “simply splendid.” But surely when the picture was taken he was in uniform and had been confronted with the horrible side of life, outside the cosy world of prosperous family life, and he was no longer likely to consider life as “simply splendid.” The boss is frightened by the change operated by life on his son's expression, by the sudden vision of the action of time on the corpse, and he is shocked when he has to admit the action of time on his own grief: “‘My son’ groaned the boss. But no tears came. … He wasn't feeling as he wanted to feel.” We sympathize with his present suffering, i.e. the feel of not to feel anymore, but surely to feel is not a matter of the will but of the heart, of the sensibility, of which the boss has already been found lacking. The end of the original grief will be shown clearly to result from the nature of the original feeling. A look at the nature of both his grief and his love for his son will throw some light on Katherine Mansfield's intention beyond the surface level of arousing sympathy for the suffering boss.

At bottom it is the boss's sense of possessiveness that was affected, not his heart; what he cannot stand is resistance to his own will, the non-realization of his plans. His grief had not been an expression of the heart but an emotion mechanically generated by words. The boss was not overcome by grief at remembering anything about his son himself, at being confronted with a situation burdened with reminiscences of what his son actually was. On the contrary, in the past, he had only to say “‘My son!’ to be overcome by such grief that nothing short of a violent fit of weeping could relieve him.” Moreover he was proud of the external marks of suffering just as he has been of the external signs of his prosperity and success, and he used to declare everywhere that he was superior to the others in his suffering: “Time he had declared then, he had told everybody, could make no difference. Other men perhaps might recover, might live their loss down but not he.” His grief, however, has been overcome both by time and by its very nature, for the boss has been more concerned with appearances than with substance, with the will than with the heart, with himself than with his son's actual self. For what did the boss's son represent for him? He says himself that from the birth of the boy he has slaved and built up the business for him, but the boy did not exist outside the plans the boss made for him and was cherished by the boss as the continuation of himself; he was urged by “the promise for ever before him of the boy's stepping into his shoes and carrying on where he had left.” In the meantime he had trained the boy for his future career, but what he now remembers of that period is nothing personal to his son but simply mere facts that emphasize how firmly the boy had been tied to the boss, which we cannot help relating to Macey's dependence on the boss: “Every morning they had started off together; they had come back by the same train.” He was proud of his son not for any intrinsic quality but because he let himself be moulded by his father—“He had taken to it marvellously”—he fitted perfectly in the well-oiled mechanics of his father's business and found everything “simply splendid.” The nature of the boss's love once more reveals his own vanity and pride—“And what congratulations he had received as the boy's father!” Never in the boss's reminiscences does the boy appear as a free individual loved for what he actually is.

Now, given the quality and the nature of the boss's love, i.e. possessiveness, pride and concern with himself in the first place, and given the passage of time, it is scarcely surprising that his grief should have come to an end and his tears dried up; and when to revive it he decides to have a look at the photograph the trick does not work: the “stern-looking boy” is not the one that fitted into the system, not the one that would “flip the Financial Times with a paper-knife” or “trade on people's feelings.” So, when the boss wants to kindle his grief anew, he is confronted with and puzzled by what he has so far refused to see. The second part of the story is thus a further qualification of the boss's character achieved by defining the quality of his grief and of his love for his son. It is through a series of subtle parallelisms and contrasts that the author has directly associated the boy with Woodifield and Macey without depriving the suffering boss of our sympathy, for up to now he is not aware of the superior way in which he has always treated people.

The third part, the fly episode, begins when the boss is confronted with a problem that puzzles and shocks him, i.e. the end of his grief even when looking at the photograph. The reason for it is to be found in the boss's true nature, which is now laid bare unambiguously and of which the boss suddenly becomes aware.

In this part as in the two others, the boss is an agent. He first helps the fly out of the inkpot, i.e. gives it life again (just as by giving whisky to Woodifield he brought some warmth into his brain again and helped him to remember what he wanted to tell, and just as he gave life to his son). The fly cleaning itself on the blotting-paper clearly suggests a birth and afterwards the joy and expectations of youth facing life. Then the boss has an idea, which is to test the fly's resistance, and, again, K. Mansfield's intention is clear: through the use of adjectives she associates the “heavy blot” that finally kills the fly and the “thick wrist” that drops it with the heavy bullying force we have seen at work in the boss in the two preceding parts; here again she opposes it to the delicacy and sensitiveness suggested hereby the wings of the fly. Once more the boss is carried away by his own intention regardless of the effect it can finally have on the others, just as he did when he offered whisky to Woodifield or when he trained his son to his business exclusively, submitting them to his own crushing will power. He is engrossed in his experiment and certainly does not mean to harm anybody or to kill the fly: “He felt a real admiration for the fly's courage. That was the way to tackle things; that was the right spirit. Never say die; it was only a question of. …” What is the missing word? R. W. Stallman suggests time: “For the boss to survive his grief and for the fly to succumb to his suffering, ‘it was only a question of …’ (time)”2

This interpretation does not agree with the character of the speaker; the boss has not so far been presented as having any sort of insight into the situation. At this stage in the boss's mind it was for the fly only a question of … will, a faculty that he himself best exemplifies. After he has duly helped the fly to recover but has noticed that the burden was becoming too heavy for it, “he decided that this time should be the last. …” (my italics) He thought that through his will he was in full command of the situation. But this time was the last not because he stopped pestering the fly but because he had already killed it. His testing of the fly, the training of its courage had led to its death. The boss now appears crudely for what he actually is, self-absorbed and without any sort of regard for life itself, and his throwing the fly into the waste basket with the paper-knife links this killing with his attitude in business and consequently with his son. The “grinding feeling of wretchedness” that then seized him and made him feel “positively frightened” shows that he is now given a moment of insight, a moment of self-discovery: he is so frightened by what he discovers and what it implies as to his attitude to people and life in general and his behaviour in the present as well as in the past, that he is unable to stand the shock. Yet unlike Woodifield, who was wounded for life and keeps forgetting things, the boss recoils from the horror of his discovery: he resumes his office attitude, rings the bell for Macey and, by asking for some fresh blotting-paper, shows that for the sake of his inner balance he needs to forget everything about the “battle field,” the sensitive plate of his self-discovery. The fact that Macey is still called the “old dog” in the last paragraph shows that nothing has changed and that the boss needs to “forget what he had been thinking before. It was—he took out his handkerchief and passed it inside his collar. For the life of him he could not remember.”

The last paragraph rounds off the story beautifully for it links it up with the moment of self-satisfaction when the boss pulled out his handkerchief to wipe his moustaches. The gesture is almost the same, but the boss is now aware that he has just had a narrow escape. Now he has to reject reality, an inside reality, just as he had formerly rejected the disquieting idea of the grave, just as he had dismissed the expression of his “stern-looking” son as unnatural. Whereas Woodifield is overcome by reality and the hard facts of life, the boss keeps avoiding them, all the more so after his shocking glimpse that his self-centredness and will power were a life-killing force.

Here, as in many of her stories, Katherine Mansfield opposes the hard, the cruel, the possessive, the egotistical and the life-killers to the sensitive in a tightly-structured story rendering a critical hour in the life of the boss. The duality of K. Mansfield's world is worked out in this story round the pivot figure of the boss gradually revealed by means of parallelisms combined with contrasts in his behaviour with Woodifield, a friend; with Macey, an employee, with his son, and with the fly. The fly need not be equated with anybody or anything, it is rather a clarifying extrapolation. The function of the fly episode is simply to lay bare the real nature of the boss by showing him acting in a situation that, unlike the preceding ones, is deprived of affective or emotional connotations. The boss's attitude after the death of the fly throws new light on and enriches our understanding of the preceding episodes, for it is part of Katherine Mansfield's tour de force that throughout the story she keeps us interested in the boss in spite of his limitations and of the hints she gives us about his true nature: she only very gradually clears up the ambiguity about him by bringing out the ambivalence of his character, and only partly resolves it in the last paragraph, which accounts for the lasting fascination of the story.


  1. See Robert Wooster Stallman in The Explicator, 3 (April 1945), Item 49; Willis D. Jacobs in The Explicator, 5 (February 1947), Item 32; Thomas Bedsoe in The Explicator, 5 (May 1947), Item 53; Sylvia Berkman, Katherine Mansfield (1951); Celeste Turner Wright in Philological Quarterly, 34 (January 1955), 191-96; Thomas J. Assad in The Explicator, 14 (November 1955), Item 10; Stanley B. Greenfield in The Explicator, 17 (October 1958), Item 2; Pauline P. Bell in The Explicator, 19 (December 1960), Item 20; Clinton W. Oleson, “The Fly Rescued” College English, 22 (1961), 585-86; F. W. Bateson and B. Shakevitch, “Katherine Mansfield's ‘The Fly’: A Critical Exercise” in Essays in Criticism, 12 (1962), 39-53; R. A. Jolly, R. A. Copeland; E. B. Greenwood; and F. W. Bateson, “The Critical Forum: Katherine Mansfield's ‘The Fly’” in Essays in Criticism, 12 (1962), 335-51, 448-52; John V. Hagopian, “Capturing Mansfield's ‘Fly’” in Modern Fiction Studies (1963), pp. 385-90; Ted E. Boyle, “The Death of the Boss: Another Look at Katherine Mansfield's ‘The Fly,’” in Modern Fiction Studies (1965), pp. 183-85; J. Rea in The Explicator, 23 (May 1965), Item 68.

  2. R. W. Stallman in The Explicator, 3 (April 1949), Item 49.

Atul Chandra Chatterjee (essay date 1980)

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SOURCE: “1918-23; The Final Phase,” in The Art of Katherine Mansfield, S. Chand & Company, 1980, pp. 234-321.

[In the following excerpt from his full-length study of Katherine Mansfield, Chatterjee calls “The Fly” a “baffling riddle that lends itself to many conflicting, and, sometimes, fanciful interpretations.”]

This much-explicated1 story is deservedly famous. It was completed on 20th February, 1922 and published in ‘The Nation’ on 18th March in the same year. Exceptionally short in length, it tells by implication much more than what it states explicitly. The result is not only an extraordinary depth and suggestiveness but also a puzzling obscurity. For, with many of the suggestions left deliberately vague, the story becomes an enchanting, but baffling riddle which lends itself to many conflicting and, sometimes, fanciful interpretations.

A businessman confines himself in his office to think of his only son who was killed in the war six years ago, and of whom he has just been reminded by a long conversation with a retired friend who also is a bereaved father like him. He tries in vain to work up his emotions by recalling the details about his son's life and is perplexed to find that he has almost forgotten his sorrow. Then he finds a fly in his inkpot and idly takes it out. He puts it on to a piece of blotting paper and watches its frantic struggle to shake off the ink. But just as it shakes itself clean, he again drenches it in ink from his pen. The process is repeated several times until it finally dies. Then he flings the fly into the wastepaper basket. Just at that moment he is seized with a grinding feeling of wretchedness and is so frightened that he fails to recall what he had been thinking of.

This is the story in a nutshell as it appears on the surface. But to get at its real meaning one has to probe deeper. In a moment of casual cruelty, the boss reveals unknowingly the devilish impulses that lie hidden under the conventional make-up of his socialized conscience. The unmasking makes patent the hollowness of his patterned attitudes and the falsity of the make-believes with which he deludes not only others but also himself. The story embodies the starkest view of human life. Men are but masquers, it seems to say, never to be taken at their face value, and their pious professions, even of the so-called “sacred” feelings like love and affection, are mere cant.

Another theme of the story connects it with “Six Years After”, an unfinished narrative written by Mansfield almost at the same time. The father in “Six Years After”, like the boss in “The Fly”, lost a son just ‘six years ago’. Like the latter, he too has almost forgotten the son in the bustle of life. Both the stories seem to say that the dead pass away forever and one can do nothing for them.2

It is probable that in writing “The Fly”, Katherine Mansfield was influenced by Tchehov's “Small Fry” which has some similarity with it. The discontented clerk in Tchehov's story crushes a cockroach to ease the gnawing at his heart. Like Katherine Mansfield, Tchehov also utilizes the moment of cruelty to probe below the surface and rake up the devils that lie there. But here the similarity ends.

Moreover, Katherine Mansfield's story is more complex of the two. It is packed with symbolism, the full meaning of which it is difficult to decipher. Many of the images can be interpreted in diverse ways. Take the central image of the fly, for example. Does it merely signify that man is at the mercy of a capricious force, that

‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods,
They kill us for their sport?’

Or does it also symbolise Katherine Mansfield's own losing struggle against adverse circumstances? Many things have been suggested by parallelism (that between Mr. Woodifield and the boss, for example), contrast and other technical devices, but these suggestions are fraught with such infinite possibilities that any attempt to interpret them in concrete terms must lead to controversial issues. We, therefore, refrain from dissecting the story any further. For it will not help in any way our appreciation of it. Already too many critics have tried to expound the story in their own way, but their hair-splitting analyses have only made confusion worse confounded.


  1. See Assad, Thomas J, “Mansfield's ‘The Fly”’, in the Explicator, November 1955; Bell, Pauline P., “Mansfield's ‘The Fly’” The Explicator, XIX, item 20, 1960; “Katherine Mansfield's ‘The Fly’, A Critical Exercise,” by W. Bateson and B. Shahevitch in Essays in Criticism, XII (Jan, 1962), pp 39-53, 335-51, 448-52; T. E. Boyle, “The Death of the Boss: Another look at “Katherine Mansfield's ‘The Fly’”, in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. XI, No. 2, Summer, 1965, pp. 183 to 185; “Capturing Mansfield's Fly, by Hagopian, John V, in Modern Fiction Studies, Winter, IX, pp. 385-389; J. D. Thomas, “Symbol and Parallelism in ‘The Fly’”, in College English, XXII, pp. 256-62; Wright Celeste Turner, “Genesis of a Short Story,’ in Philological Quarterly, January 1955, XXXIV, pp. 91-6; Wills, D. Jacobs, The Explicator, V, 1947, p. 32; Stanley B. Greenfield, in The Explicator, XVII, 1958, page 2; Robert W. Stallman, in The Explicator, III, 1945, p. 49.

  2. “Can one do nothing for the dead? And for a long time the answer had been—Nothing.” Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield, p. 469.

Clare Hanson and Andrew Gurr (essay date 1981)

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SOURCE: “The Stories 1921-22: Sierre and Paris,” Katherine Mansfield, St. Martin's Press, 1981, pp. 95-135.

[In the following excerpt from their full-length study of Katherine Mansfield, Hanson and Gurr suggest that the reason “The Fly” has elicited so much critical attention is that the symbolism of the story is flawed and invites conflicting interpretations.]

“The Fly” was written in February 1922, while Katherine Mansfield was undergoing X-ray treatment in Paris. It was a story which she ‘hated writing’, though it is one which has produced a wealth of critical commentary, most notably in a series of articles in Essays in Criticism in 1962 and The Explicator rather earlier, in the 1940s. The Essays in Criticism series began with an article by F. W. Bateson and B. Shahevitch in which they argued that in “The Fly” Katherine Mansfield employed the techniques of narrative realism, using ‘irrelevant descriptive detail’ in order to make the external setting of the story seem ‘historically authentic’, thus causing the reader to suspend his disbelief and enter the world of the story. Examples of ‘irrelevant detail’ which they cited were the green chair on which Mr. Woodifield sits (why Mr. Woodifield?), and the minute description of the son's photograph.

In a reply, E. B. Greenwood refined on this idea in pointing out that such use of detail could not always be called ‘irrelevant’. It might often function metonymically, as the boss's furniture does, standing in part for its owner and exhibiting some of his characteristics, in this case his materialism and love of display.

Later commentators on “The Fly” have concentrated more on the metaphysical implications of the story and its allegorical or symbolic aspects. Interpretations here have differed widely: the boss has been seen as a god-like figure; alternatively he has been called a fellow human for whom we feel sympathy as he encounters grief for the first time; or he is represented as a coarse and brutal representative of the generation which unthinkingly sent its sons to war.

There seem to be two main problems in criticism of “The Fly”. First, despite the numerous analyses of the story, the theoretical insights of critics like Greenwood have not been pursued or developed. So it is necessary at this point to affirm once again the complexity of Katherine Mansfield's fictional technique. As in all her stories, detail in “The Fly” almost invariably functions on both narrative and symbolic levels. Thus the description of the boss's furniture, which Bateson categorised as ‘irrelevant’ and Greenwood saw as metonymic, also works as part of the total symbolic structure of the story. The much debated ‘greenness’ of Woodifield's chair is in keeping with the natural and pastoral aspects of his character, which are set in opposition to the city—bound, mechanical qualities of the boss. The description of the son's photograph is also crucial for thematic development, for it images, as in “The Daughters of the Late Colonel” and “At the Bay”, ‘mechanical memory or memory by rote, which has long replaced natural memory or grief in the boss.

In “The Fly” the demands of symbolist patterning are crucial in shaping the distinctive form and texture of the narrative. Katherine Mansfield's method is essentially the same from “The Wind Blows” and The Aloe through to her last story, “The Canary”. But despite the inherent complexity of its method, “The Fly” seems finally to lack the fullness and richness of implication of her finest work. This might be called the second ‘problem’ for criticism. The story has attracted so much critical attention that it is assumed to be virtually her best work. It could however be argued that it is precisely because the story is flawed that it has provoked so many conflicting interpretations.

The flaw seems to lie in the rigidity of the story's shaping idea. Primarily it invites us to make a metaphysical equation between the boss as he toys with the life of the fly, and God or the gods, playing with the lives of human beings ‘for their sport’. The author would have expected us to have Gloucester's dictum in mind as we read, and even without this allusion we could hardly fail to appreciate the pointed juxtaposition of the three deaths in the story—that of the fly and those of the boss's and Woodifield's young sons. However, in the context of the story, the equation has a simplicity which verges on the crude. For it is not, as it is in King Lear, a moving but momentary interpretation of man's plight. The idea dominates the story and is not substantially modified or qualified by other events and images. Thus we miss in “The Fly” the rich suggestiveness which we find in other stories with a similar theme: for example, “The Garden Party”, with its shifting perspectives and changes of tone. The conflicting roles of the boss as both man and god, which have inspired so much comment, are a direct consequence of the idea's dominance over suggestive detail. The symbol of the fly is too inflexible for the developing purposes of the story.

In a sense “The Fly” is too consciously created, the product of what Katherine Mansfield herself called her regrettable tendency to ‘cleverness'. If this impression is correct, then “The Fly” can be related to other stories which she was writing at this time for The Sphere. Hard pressed for money to pay for her medical treatment, she wrote to Ida Baker of the necessary relation between ‘work’ and ‘wealth’ during this period in Paris. The stories written for The Sphere (for example, “Honeymoon” and “Taking the Veil”) reflect in differing degrees the strain of writing to market requirements and deadlines. However, in pointing to this element in “The Fly” one is not saying that it is a weak story, as some she wrote for The Sphere indubitably are. It is on the contrary a very powerful one, and some of its images are hauntingly suggestive, as, for example, the chilling parallel between the spectral park of the boy's photograph, and the park-like cemetery in which he now lies:

But he did not draw old Woodifield's attention to the photograph over the table of a grave-looking boy in uniform standing in one of those spectral photographers' parks with photographers' storm-clouds behind him. It was not new. It had been there for over six years. …

‘There's miles of it,’ quavered old Woodifield, ‘and it's all as neat as a garden. Flowers growing on all the graves. Nice broad paths.’ It was plain from his voice how much he liked a nice broad path.

It seems necessary to draw attention to the flaws in the story in order to correct a critical imbalance. Fortunately, there is an early precedent for critical reserve about it. When Katherine Mansfield wrote that she ‘hated’ writing it, she was replying to a letter from William Gerhardi in which he told her of his dislike of the story. She responded characteristically;

I am sorry that you did not like “The Fly” and glad that you told me.

Con Coroneos (essay date 1997)

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SOURCE: “Flies and Violets in Katherine Mansfield,” in Women's Fiction and the Great War, edited by Suzanne Raitt and Trudi Tate, Clarendon Press, 1997, pp. 197-218.

[In the following essay, Coroneos discusses elements of sadism and ambiguity in “The Fly,” and concludes that this is a war story that encourages the reader to “participate in the spectacle of suffering without the anxiety of guilt.”]

In Mansfield's second war story, “The Fly” … old Woodifield has been visiting the boss, a successful businessman running an unspecified business.1 The boss is the older man but, unlike Woodifield, blooming with health and success. Where mirabelle in “An Indiscreet Journey” helps forgetfulness, whisky in “The Fly” stirs the memory. Mr Woodifield, suitably primed, remembers a piece of news; he has been to France, and seen the war graves, nicely tended, of both his own son and the son of the boss. The boss just manages not to crumple at the unexpected news. Hastily getting rid of Woodifield, he sits down at his desk and prepares to weep in front of a large photograph of his boy. To his surprise, the tears do not come for the first time in six years. Just then he notices a fly has fallen into the inkpot. He rescues it, and it cleans itself. Just before it can fly away, the boss drops ink on it, and the process of cleaning begins again. The process is repeated twice more, until the boss decides it is the last time. The final ink-drop falls and the fly lies still. He carries ‘the little corpse’ on his pen to the bin. Refreshed and sitting down again, he cannot remember ‘for the life of him’ what it was that had been on his mind.

According to Middleton Murry, “The Fly” is the ‘perfect utterance’ of the ‘profound and ineradicable impression made upon [Mansfield] by the war’.2 Presumably what he means by this is that the story is a complex rendering of grief, memory, and loss, and this seems to be the sense in which the story is usually anthologized. But there is a quality to the story which sits uncomfortably with this reading. The cruelty of the boss's treatment of the fly involves a curious affection and sensuousness; he breathes on the fly tenderly to bring it back to life, and the tactile pleasure of struggling legs—which links with old Woodifield's pleasure in the whisky, and numerous other closely registered details of touch and taste—produces further cruelty. This combination of the sensual and the cruel has a history in Mansfield's work. Intimations of “The Fly” can be found in her early story “Violet” (1913). The narrator fantasizes about a day in the country with Katharine Tynan,3 drinking glasses of milk handed out by ‘a red-faced woman with an immensely fat apron’ and debating the ‘direct truth of proverbs'. The red-faced woman disapproves of ‘the one about a bird in the hand. I naturally prefer birds in bushes':

‘But,’ said Katharine Tynan, tender and brooding, as she lifted a little green fly from her milk glass, ‘but if you were Saint Francis, the bird would not mind being in your hand. It would prefer the white nest of your fingers to any bush.’4

Over the next nine years, there are numerous further references to flies in Mansfield's stories, letters, and journal.5 From 1918 the frequency of reference markedly increases, and several of them, grouped in mid-1919, are worth mentioning here. The first is an entry in her journal, suitably headed,

The Fly

December 31 4.45 p.m. Oh, the times when she had walked upside down on the ceiling, run up glittering panes, floated on a lake of light, flashed through a shining beam!

And God looked upon the fly fallen into the jug of milk and saw that it was good. And the smallest Cherubim and Seraphim of all, who delight in misfortune, struck their silver harps and shrilled: ‘How is the fly fallen, fallen!’6

The second:

A little fly has dropped by mistake into the huge sweet cup of magnolia. Isaiah (or was it Elisha) was caught up into Heaven in a chariot of fire once.7

And finally:

Dark Bogey [Murry] is a little inclined to jump into the milk jug to rescue the fly.8

In these examples, the idea of suffering is complex. The threat of death goes hand in hand with sweet, encompassing nourishment and the possibility of transcendence. To be rescued from this is to be restored to the human from the divine. The fly is both the miniaturization of suffering itself, and the self-image of the sufferer who longs to lose herself.

These images gain further resonance in the context of an extraordinary sequence in Mansfield's journal, dated 21 June 1919, in which she describes the action and symptoms of lice, the bedbug, ‘Hydatids’, ‘The Egyptian disease’, ‘Dysentery’ and ‘Hydrophobia’. She has been discussing these forms of illness with Dr. Sorapure, a consultant at Hampstead General Hospital, who she had begun seeing in November the previous year.9 Each of these forms of illness are evidently the product of knowledge coming about by virtue of the First World War. Thus Bateson saved lives in the Balkan War because he used himself as a guinea-pig, even letting his experimental lice feed off his own arm, and hydrophobia produces last stage symptoms of ‘gasping and groaning as in gas-poisoning’. But the fascination of the diseases seems to arise from the relation between dependence and independence, and outside and inside: of what she calls ‘the mysterious lives within lives'. In the first place, Mansfield is intrigued by the disintegration of her own body; she has been taught by Dr. Sorapure to identify the symptoms of dying, and is on the alert for Death in a way which recalls precisely the ambivalent relation of the literary gentleman to Life. In the second place, however, she dwells upon the element of parasitism with fascination; she is seduced by this relationship, and makes some surprising larger connections: ‘I had a sense of the larger breath, of the mysterious lives within lives, and the Egyptian parasite beginning its new cycle of being in a watersnail affected me like a great work of art. No, that's not what I mean. It made me feel how perfect the world is, with its worms and hooks and ova, how incredibly perfect.’ She remarks: ‘There is the sky and the sea and the shape of a lily, and there is all this other as well. The balance how perfect!’10

It is only a few months later that Mansfield condemns Woolf's artistic treachery as a ‘lie in the soul’, and it is difficult to imagine that her frame of mind had shifted substantially from the earlier comments. “The Fly”, however, develops what it means to have ‘a change of heart’, to remain loyal to art and to life, in an unexpected direction. The horizons of war and of art come together in the image of suffering as a longing for a kind of transcendent immersion. The action of the story depends, of course, upon resistance to such a longing—old Woodifield hanging on to life, the fly frantically cleaning its wings, the boss restored to vigour by finding himself incapable of grief. It refuses the indulgence of sweet suffering by returning to onion-life: the materialism of the boss's office with its sausage-like radiators, the rude health of the boss himself. This movement might thus suggest the saving movement of an act of writing which refuses, as Blanchot has it, the ‘temptation to melt into the fiction of the universe, and thereby become indifferent to the tormenting vicissitudes of the near at hand’.11

But the issue of healthy art is more complex than this. Part of the much-discussed ambiguity of “The Fly”12 arises from its ideological containment of actions which sit uneasily between sadism and sentimentality—the boss's forgetfulness of his dead son, the loss of grief, the pleasure in old Woodifield's decrepitude, and, most notably of course, the treatment of the fly. A point of comparison is provided by Virginia Woolf, who seems to have drawn on “The Fly” in at least two pieces of her own work: the story ‘The New Dress’ (1927) and the essay “The Death of the Moth” (1942). In the essay, a moth is dancing ever more stiffly along a window-ledge in the sun. The narrator reaches out a pencil to help but to no avail. The moth is dying naturally:

It was useless to try to do anything. One could only watch the extraordinary efforts made by those tiny legs against an oncoming doom which could, had it chosen, have submerged an entire city, nor merely a city, but masses of human beings; nothing, I knew, had any chance against death. Nevertheless after a pause of exhaustion the legs fluttered again. It was superb this last protest, and so frantic that he succeeded at last in righting himself. One's sympathies, of course, were all on the side of life.13

Woolf is too subtle to write ‘Life’ with a capital ‘L’ as Mansfield might have done; indeed, the close, sustained enjoyment of the pitiful struggle is sublimated into a paean to Death. This is not the way of Mansfield's response to the war. The element of sadism in “The Fly” excuses itself through the idea of a ‘truth to psychology’ which is historically part of Mansfield's aesthetic and can free the reader—especially the immediate post-war reader—to participate in the spectacle of suffering without the anxiety of guilt. More profoundly, for Mansfield the suffering is necessary to make the writing healthy. Her war story is a form of self-inoculation; it understands the boss's action as a saving brutalism, a health because of sickness, behind which is a version of Woolf's instinct of self-preservation: ‘if he's unwell then I'm not’.


  1. In a letter to Dorothy Brett, 26 Feb. 1922, Mansfield describes the boss as a ‘Bank Manager’. This detail has encouraged biographical readings (one of her father's positions was as bank manager) but it does not appear in the story. See Katherine Mansfield: Selected Letters, ed. Vincent O'Sullivan (Oxford, 1989), 248.

  2. Murry's commentary, in Journal, 107.

  3. Katharine Tynan (1861-1933), the Irish poet and novelist and leading member of the Celtic literary revival. Apart from volumes of tender poetry she wrote (after the date of Mansfield's story) two curious war novels, The Holy War (1916) and Herb O’Grace (1918).

  4. “Violet”, in Collected Stories, 584. In the story, the narrator meets an old friend called Violet who has a ‘secret’ she wishes to forget. She has been kissed by a man who is engaged to another.

  5. See Celeste Turner Wright, “Genesis of a Short Story,” Philological Quarterly, 34/1 (1955), 91-6.

  6. Journal, 153.

  7. Ibid. 161.

  8. Ibid. 170.

  9. For an account of Sorapure's treatment of Mansfield, see Tomalin, A Secret Life. In Ida Baker's The Memories of LM, she says that the MS of ‘The Daughters of the Colonel’ contained a dedication to Sorapure (128).

  10. Journal, 167-8.

  11. Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster, 75.

  12. Probably the fullest discussion of the story's difficulties takes the form of a debate in Essays in Criticism, 12 (1962), inaugurated as a ‘Critical Exercise’ in close reading by F. W. Bateson and B. Shahevitch which was then responded to in the Critical Forum section of the journal; see pp. 39-53, 339-51, and 449-52.

  13. Virginia Woolf, “The Death of the Moth”, in The Death of the Moth and Other Essays (London, 1942), 11.




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