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Last Updated on July 18, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 986

Approaching Mortality and Death as Motifs: The motifs of mortality and death are woven throughout “The Fly.” These motifs become most apparent when the boss teases and kills the fly at the end of the story. This act seems to echo the death of the boss’s son during World War...

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Approaching Mortality and Death as Motifs: The motifs of mortality and death are woven throughout “The Fly.” These motifs become most apparent when the boss teases and kills the fly at the end of the story. This act seems to echo the death of the boss’s son during World War I. The boss’s callous treatment of the fly and his subsequent forgetfulness over his son’s death also point to the psychological effects of bereavement. The motif surfaces more subtly through Mr. Woodifield, who, having already suffered a stroke, is approaching the end of his life. He underscores this fact by comparing his diminished state to the boss’s vitality. 

  • For discussion: Mr. Woodifield and the boss both lose a son in the war. How do the two men cope with these deaths? How do they manage their grief?
  • For discussion: Mr. Woodifield is in a state of physical decline. How do Mr. Woodifield, Mr. Woodifield’s family, and the boss address his failing health? What strategies do they use to manage the situation?
  • For discussion: Describe the boss’s interactions with the fly. How do the boss’s attitudes and emotions develop over the course of the interaction?
  • For discussion: What themes does the story develop on the topic of death? What does the boss’s character reveal about the nature of bereavement?

Understanding Symbols in the Story: Mansfield employed symbolism in much of her fiction. The fly—and the boss’s role in determining its fate—are much-debated symbols in the story. Some critics see their interaction as a direct microcosm for the events of World War I, while others read the boss as a survivor who has been disillusioned by the human propensity for violence. Make sure students are clear on the definition of symbolism, and ask them to consider their own interpretation of symbols in the story.

  • For discussion: What physical objects are important in the story? Ask students to consider whether or not the boss’s office furniture, the boss’s pen, and the boss’s blotter have symbolic resonance in the story.
  • For discussion: What does the fly symbolize? Consider the fly as a stand-in for a human whose destiny is outside their control. How might the fly represent individuals involved in World War I?
  • For discussion: To what extent is the boss a symbolic character? Who might he represent within the context of World War I?
  • For discussion: What themes are revealed through the use of symbols in “The Fly”?

Studying how Figurative Language Develops Themes: Mansfield makes frequent use of figurative language, often to bolster the thematic undercurrents of the story. In the opening paragraph of “The Fly,” she writes that “we cling to our last pleasures as the tree clings to its last leaves.” The narrator describes the boss’s new office, noting “the massive bookcase and the table with legs like twisted treacle,” and the electric heating that has “five transparent, pearly sausages glowing so softly in the tilted copper pan.” In a particularly memorable metaphor, the fly cleans itself by rubbing “a leg along a wing as the stone goes over and under the scythe.”

  • For discussion: Find examples of figurative language within the short story. How does the figurative language develop the story’s themes? 
  • For discussion: Mansfield describes the electric heater as looking like sausages, and the table legs as looking like treacle tarts. What do these foods connote in the context of the story?
  • For discussion: Ask students to envision the motion of running a stone over and under a scythe. What connotations and meanings does this metaphor bring to the story?


Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching "The Fly"

The Story is Very Short: Given its brevity, “The Fly” demands that readers think inferentially to understand the context, characterization, and themes developed in the story.

  • What to do: Read the entire story, or critical portions, aloud with students. Model your process of thinking and interpreting for students.
  • What to do: Use the story as an opportunity to teach students how to analyze details, figurative language, and symbols.

The Historical Context Is Important: While students may glean a great deal from “The Fly” without attending to its historical context, they will miss the full picture. The story reflects the state of British culture in the wake of World War I. Thus, students who grasp the scale and significance of the war will be better equipped to understand the world in which Mansfield’s story takes place.

  • What to do: Before assigning “The Fly” to your students, present the essential facts of World War I and discuss the war’s devastating effects on Great Britain.


Alternative Approaches to Teaching "The Fly"

While the main ideas, character development, and discussion questions above are typically the focal points of units involving this text, the following suggestions represent alternative readings that may enrich your students’ experience and understanding of the text.

Focus on Mr. Woodifield and the boss as character foils. As the two most prominent characters, these two men have a lot in common. Both are elderly men; both lost sons in the war. What are the key differences between the two characters? How do these differences develop themes in the text?

Focus on critical interpretations of the story. Critics have argued over the significance of the symbols in “The Fly” for decades. Provide students with excerpts of these interpretations, and ask them to critique the writers’ analyses. Then, ask them to develop their own critical interpretations of the story.

Focus on the elements of the short story form. Short stories are often interpreted using the following format: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution. How can these narrative elements be applied to a reading of “The Fly”? What conflicts are developed in the rising action? What is the climax? How is the boss different when the story reaches its resolution?

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