The Fly Themes
The main theme in “The Fly” is death.
- Death: The boss and Woodifield have both lost their sons in the war, and the boss feels that he himself died along with his son. At the end of the story, the boss tortures a fly to death in order to forget his loss.
“The Fly” is a story of death. It begins with a meeting of two men who have lost sons in the war, and it ends with the death of a fly. In a deeper sense, however, there are six deaths indicated in the story.
When the boss first looks at old Woodifield, he sees a man who appears to be totally different from him. Woodifield is retired. He is dominated by his wife and daughters, who keep him in the house every day except Tuesday, when they dress him up and send him out to visit his friends. His passive, infantile life causes the boss to think of him as a baby. He is useful as someone to impress and to patronize. The boss enjoys offering him whiskey, which Woodifield’s women deny him; thus, the boss can assert his own power, which elevates him above the rules of Woodifield’s own bosses. Even Woodifield’s forgetfulness suggests the decline he has suffered since his stroke. Clearly Woodifield is on the downhill road toward death; yet the fact that he could not remember the girls’ visit to his son’s grave suggests a second death, the death of his son’s memory in his own mind.
On the surface, the boss is very different from Woodifield. He is healthy and active. He dominates Macey, his messenger, as a master would a dog. However, he thinks that his life ended six years ago, when the son for whom he intended the business was killed in the war. In response to his son’s death, the boss himself has died, or so he thinks.
However, now, six years later, he finds himself staring at an unfamiliar photograph, which does not seem to look like his son; worse, he finds himself tormenting a fly rather than grieving; and finally, he forgets why he feels so miserable. If his son has been alive in his memory, he is now unfamiliar and unremembered, and in a sense, dead. Furthermore, if the boss loved only the son who always agreed with him, both father and son died a long time ago. All that is left is the boss’s self-pity. His inability to feel for the son, hard as he may try, is like his inability to feel for the fly. Healthy, prosperous, domineering, the boss is, however, dead to feeling, and perhaps he has always been too self-centered to feel anything for others.
A fifth death is the death-in-life to which the boss has reduced his messenger, Macey, who is referred to throughout the story as a dog rather than a man. Macey, too, is old. His boss’s attitude toward him is reflected in the thought that everyone, even Macey, liked the son. If Macey has learned to survive by doglike obedience, perhaps, Mansfield implies, Macey and the boss’s other subordinates were counterfeiting their admiration of the son, whom the boss remembers as always having been pleasant but who evidently looks like quite another person in his photograph. At any rate, Macey must have died as a human being at some time in the past, when he became the boss’s faithful dog.
Finally, there is the death that gives the title to the story, that of the fly. Godlike, the boss first rescues the fly, then tests it repeatedly, cheering it on, sadistically applying a fresh ink drop just when the fly has survived the last, and finally deliberately putting what he knows will be the killing drop on the fly.
In “The Fly,” perhaps the most pessimistic of Katherine Mansfield’s stories, death conquers all. It may be death to feeling or death to memory; it may be death-in-life through self-love or through self-abnegation; it may be the death of will; finally, it will certainly be literal death, as it has been experienced by the two sons and by the fly.