In “The Fly,” Mansfield typically uses a minimal amount of action in order to reveal human emotions. The real drama of the story involves a dialogue between two men, a direction to a messenger, a soliloquy, the torture and death of a fly, and another direction to the messenger. Throughout the story, the point of view is that of the boss as he moves from self-satisfaction to inability to feel to preoccupied torture to misery. Because the boss, in contrast to Mansfield’s sensitive protagonists, is essentially self-centered, however, the revelation in the story must come to the observant reader, rather than to the protagonist himself.
It is the reader, not the protagonist, who will notice the various parallels that are carefully built into the design of the story. The boss does not notice that he and Woodifield are alike in managing to forget the deaths of their sons. Nor does he realize that Woodifield’s stroke and his own life’s end, when his son died, have both been followed by a rebirth, by the capacity for pleasure, whether in a day out or in showing off the new furniture.
It is also the reader, not the protagonist, who sees that the fly itself has symbolic significance. Much as the boss may pity himself, in that he has lost the son whom he was shaping to follow him, he does not admit any feelings of identity with anyone or anything—not with Macey, not with Woodifield, certainly not with the fly he kills. However, the fly can be interpreted to represent every human being, including the insensitive boss. Just as the boss puts drop after drop on the fly, whatever powers there be put burden after burden on humanity, whether through nature, through war, through a hierarchical social and economic structure, or through the human need to dominate another creature. The pattern of human life is like the brief ordeal of the fly, which staggers, hopes, and rises, growing weaker each time, until at last it is conquered by death.
If Mansfield’s symbolism in this story is directed toward the observant reader, rather than toward the insensitive protagonist, her language reflects the nature of the boss. There are no incomplete sentences, no fragments of thought, such as are found in Mansfield’s indecisive characters. In his conversation with Woodifield, the boss observes himself bending to his inferior: winking, joking, and generously offering the whiskey. Even in his thoughts, the boss moves logically, as if he were arguing a case with the gods. It is only when he begins to torture the fly that he becomes oblivious to himself, so involved is he in the kind of action that has made and kept him “the boss.” Even after the fly’s death, when he feels miserable, he does not drift into half-sentences but gives Macey an order. Only three sentences before the end of the story is there a momentary hesitation in the style, when the boss realizes that he has forgotten something. Even then, though, he acts, he wipes his neck, and the final ironic line—“For the life of him he could not remember”—is in a style as self-assured as his whole life.