The Fly


Katherine Mansfield

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The Fly Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Katherine Mansfield's The Fly. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Katherine Mansfield

Kathleen Mansfield was born to a prosperous English family of five children in colonial New Zealand, in 1888. She was an imaginative child who experienced a somewhat disruptive youth due to the social change occurring in her hometown of Wellington. In 1903, Mansfield and her two sisters moved to attend a prestigious girls’ school in London, where she eagerly pursued music and literature. It was during these years that she fostered a deep love for Oscar Wilde. Returning home in 1906, Mansfield felt deep dissatisfaction with provincial New Zealand society, and begged to depart for England again; her parents granted her wish in 1908. Despite becoming an accomplished cellist, Mansfield abandoned music to pursue literary success. She spent her adult life moving between Britain, Germany, France and New Zealand, producing experimental, deeply psychological literature that became a hallmark of the modernist period. Modernist contemporaries influencing Mansfield’s writing included Anton Chekov, Virginia Woolf, D. H. Lawrence and James Joyce. Throughout her lifetime Mansfield undertook numerous unconventional relationships, and married her editor John Middleton Murry after ten years of periodically dating, taking the name Kathleen Mansfield Murry. Although she died prematurely to tuberculosis at age 34, Mansfield’s literary output was significant, and she achieved a reputation as a pioneer of the modernist short story. She produced a prolific number of works during the final years of her life, and it was her husband who posthumously published many of her pieces. Mansfield’s writing was particularly influenced by her New Zealand upbringing, her flouting of social conventions, and the premature death of her brother in World War I.
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Historical Context of The Fly

“The Fly” is set in London, England in the years following World War I, which spanned from 1914 to 1918. While Britain was dealing with social upheavals and severe economic losses following World War I, Mansfield was grappling with the devastating loss of her beloved brother. Leslie Heron Beauchamp died in a training accident in 1915 shortly after he deployed for France. In the midst of her grief, Mansfield met with further adversity when she contracted tuberculosis in 1917, a disease she would die from six years later. In “The Fly” Mansfield directly explores the aftermath of warfare at both a personal and national level.

Other Books Related to The Fly

A number of acclaimed European modernist authors influenced Katherine Mansfield’s writing.  She interacted with many of her contemporaries in person, most notably her volatile friendships with Virginia Woolf and D. H. Lawrence. The impact of Anton Chekov as a literary mentor is also significant; Mansfield greatly developed as writer after reading his translated works during her time in Bavaria. Like her modernist contemporaries, Mansfield’s work is characterized by an intellectual and subtle exploration of the human psychology. “The Fly” expresses complex intertextuality due to specific literary influences and authorial biographical references. The short story demonstrates striking similarities to Chekhov’s “Small Fry,” in which a brooding clerk incinerates a cockroach in a candle much the same as Mansfield’s character the boss tortures and kills a fly. The plight of Mansfield’s titular fly is also closely linked to William Shakespeare’s King Lear, where Gloucester laments “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; They kill us for their sport.” William Blake’s “The Fly” offers a similar thematic connection: “For I dance, And drink, and sing, Till some blind hand Shall brush my wing.” In “The Fly,” the boss draws parallels to some of Mansfield’s characters from her other works, including the stern, patriarchal figures of Andreas Binzer in “A Birthday,” Stanley Burnell in “Prelude,” and the father in “The Little Girl.” All are traditionally masculine characters likely based on Mansfield’s domineering father, Harold Beauchamp. Finally, it is evident that Mansfield’s short stories “The Fly” and “Six Years After” and her poem “To L.H.B (1894-1915)” were created in response to her brother’s premature death during World War I.
Key Facts about The Fly
  • Full Title: “The Fly”
  • When Written: 1922
  • Where Written: Paris, France
  • When Published: 1922 (first published in The Nation and Athenaeum, reprinted in the 1923 collection The Doves Nest and Other Stories)
  • Literary Period: Modernism
  • Genre: Short story
  • Setting: A London office, some time after the end of World War I
  • Climax: Upon killing a fly in his office, the boss experiences a moment of crushing misery that frightens him.
  • Antagonist: War and death
  • Point of View: Third person

Extra Credit for The Fly

Nonconformity. Katherine Mansfield was a woman who defied early twentieth-century social norms, including her her unconventional romantic relationships and her sympathy for the plight of indigenous Māori in New Zealand.

Imitative art. The tremendous influence of Anton Chekov on Mansfield’s literary success is an ongoing controversy due to the extreme similarities between many of their works. The narrative, thematic and stylistic echoes of Chekov’s “Small Fry” in Mansfield’s “The Fly” is one such example of uncanny resemblances between the authors’ works.