On a Tuesday in an office in “the City,” the boss and his former employee Mr. Woodifield are midway through conversation. “Old Woodifield” is seated in an immense armchair, looking out “as a baby peers out of its pram” to the boss who is confidently lounging at his desk. Woodifield, who retired after a stroke, knows he should head home to his well-meaning but domineering wife and daughters, who keep him “boxed up in the house every day of the week except Tuesday.” However, he is greatly enjoying his weekly social visit with the boss, so he stays put in the office. Smoking a cigar, Woodifield comments on the office’s comfortable décor, and admires the youthful vigor of the boss who is five years his senior.
The story begins in medias res, launching the reader into the middle of a conversation between Woodifield and the boss. Woodifield immediately appears to be a vulnerable elderly man whose physical ailments leave him at the mercy of his family’s direction. The comparison of Woodifield peering out from a large armchair like a baby in a pram suggests he has lapsed into a second infancy. The narrator plays Woodifield’s infirmity against the boss’s youthful strength. Woodifield’s esteem for the boss sets up the boss as a visually powerful and authoritative character.
The boss, idly flipping through the Financial Times, affirms Woodifield’s comments about the plush office, smug at the attention—“he liked to have it admired, especially by old Woodifield.” Due to Woodifield’s failing memory, the boss once more points out new furnishings as he has in previous weekly visits. Highlights include new fittings such as the “bright red carpet with a pattern of large white rings,” “massive bookcase,” “table with legs like twisted treacle,” and “electric heating” that is gently cooking “transparent, pearly sausages” that sit “glowing” in the office. However, the boss refrains from drawing Woodifield’s attention to a photograph of the “grave-looking boy in uniform” that sits on the office table, unmoved for six years.
An earlier mention of “the City,” coupled with the boss reading the Financial Times (a London newspaper) in this passage, suggests that the men are located in London. It seems the boss enjoys the resulting power he bears over the vulnerable and increasingly forgetful Woodifield. Each week, the boss highlights the grand new furnishings in his office that symbolize luxury and wealth. Mansfield employs adjectives such as “translucent,” “pearly” and “glowing” to elevate office objects as possessing precious worth. The boss gains great satisfaction from this weekly ritual, as it highlights his success and superior social status. During this passage, Mansfield piques reader curiosity by referring to a boy’s photograph that the boss purposefully passes over during his description of office décor.
Woodifield grows frustrated that he cannot recall a detail he greatly wants to share with the boss, becoming dim-eyed and trembling as he struggles to remember. Feeling generous, the boss offers Woodifield a bit of whiskey, procuring the liquor and glasses from locked desk drawer. Woodifield is shocked at the sight of the whiskey, and admits sadly to the boss that his wife and daughters “won’t let me touch it home.” The boss insists that he and Woodifield “know a bit more than the ladies,” and encourages Woodifield drink it down without water, quickly throwing back his own glass.
The narrator again emphasizes Woodifield’s forgetfulness and physical vulnerabilities, making the boss seem all the more energetic and powerful in comparison. The boss offers him whiskey, an apparent act of kindness that also affords the boss superiority and control as he provides a rare treat that he usually reserves for personal use. The boss further reveals his desire to demonstrate power and superiority over others when he condescendingly remarks that Woodifield’s wife and daughters lack understanding about the effects of whiskey for Woodifield.
After a sip of whiskey, Woodifield suddenly remembers the detail he wanted to share with the boss: while visiting their brother Reggie’s grave in Belgium, Woodifield’s daughters came across the boss’s son’s grave. The boss sits still, making no reply to this revelation. Woodifield describes the well-kept graves, and then asks the boss for confirmation that he has not yet been to Belgium to visit his son’s gravesite. The boss affirms that he has not made the trip “for various reasons.” Woodifield then begins to ramble as he makes note of the outrageous price of a pot of jam at his daughters’ hotel in Belgium, and how his daughter Gertrude stole the pot in order to “teach ‘em a lesson. Quite right, too; it’s trading on our feelings.” As Woodifield finishes this rant, the boss escorts him out of the office.
A combination of clues suggests that the story takes place a few years after World War I, including the 1922 publication date, the fact that Woodifield is awed by sausages and whiskey as rare food and drink, and now Woodifield’s unexpected reference to Reggie’s and the boss’s son’s graves in Belgium. The boss’s inability to dominate conversation as before suggests Woodifield’s reference to his dead son deeply affects him. Woodifield’s dialogue, meanwhile, evokes notions of female strength, as his daughter Gertrude stole a jam pot from her Belgium hotel to resist the hotel taking advantage of mourning tourists.
After Woodifield leaves, the boss stands for a long moment, staring at nothing. Macey, the elderly office clerk, watches the motionless boss while himself “dodg[ing] in and out of his cubby-hole like a dog that expects to be taken for a run.” Declaring that he is not to be disturbed for the next half hour, the boss locks himself in his office. He sinks into his chair, covering his face with his hands and intending to weep for his son. The thought of Woodifield’s daughters peering down into his son’s grave is unsettling, and he compares the realities of his son’s remains to his previous longstanding notion of his child “lying unchanged, unblemished in his uniform, asleep forever.” The boss groans, but does not cry. He reflects on his violent weeping in previous years, when he had confidently declared that time would not soften the painful sting of grief.
The boss is so shocked by Woodifield’s remarks about their sons’ graves that he momentarily loses his vigor and confident air. Meanwhile, Macey anxiously looks on at his boss’s abnormal behavior; the narrator likens Macey to a “dog” waiting for daily exercise, which suggests the boss’s total dominance over his employees. In this way, Mansfield signals that power is a self-serving tool for the boss to gain social status and avoid confronting his son’s death. In addition, the boss feels uneasy when he imagines his son’s grave from Woodifield’s daughters’ perspective. The physical realities of a grave overrides his previous sentiments of his son lying “unblemished” and peacefully “asleep forever.” The boss’s discomfort with this reality perhaps suggests that he is anxious about his own mortality.
The boss recalls how ever since his son’s birth, the boss had built up a successful business so that his son—his “only son”—could one day take over. After all, the business and life itself “had no other meaning if it was not for the boy.” Before the war, the boss took great pride in his son’s apprenticeship at his company, where the boy was competent and popular with all the staff. However, everything changed when, six years ago, a telegram arrived informing the boss of his son’s death at war. The boss had left work “a broken man, with his life in ruins.”
Despite opening in medias res, Mansfield is gradually filling in narrative detail through dialogue and memories.The boss’s memory of his deceased son reveals his hopes for business as well as family succession. Despite the boss professing his total commitment to his son and subsequent life-shattering devastation at his loss, his thoughts do not match up with his actions—readers view the boss taking great pride in his life due to his business success and superior social standing. Interestingly, the boss only acknowledges his son’s role in the business and his premature death. It seems that the boss commits to a performance of traditional masculine leadership, as to consider more affectionate family bonds goes against societal expectation and could be deemed weak and effeminate.
Reflecting on how quickly the six years have passed, the boss is dismayed by his current inability to grieve for his son. The boss feels that something is “wrong with him,” because he isn’t feeling the way he thinks he should. Gazing at the photograph of his son, the boss becomes further unsettled by the “unnatural,” “cold” expression on his son’s face.
Dismayed by his lack of outward mourning, the boss tries to prompt an emotional connection by viewing his son’s paragraph. However, the boss is increasingly disconcerted by the strangeness of his son’s expression. Mansfield represents memory as strange and unreliable, as readers wonder if the boss has forgotten his son’s features or if he is seeing the photo in a new light.
A fly drowning in the boss’s inkpot suddenly draws his attention away from memories of his son. The boss watches the fly slips back down the sides of the inkpot each time it tries to escape: “Help! Help! Said those struggling legs.” Using a pen to rescue the fly, the boss shakes it onto a piece of blotting paper and watches it diligently clean the ink from its wings and face. The boss imagines that the fly’s movements are now “joyful,” as “the horrible danger was over; it had escaped; it was ready for life again.”
The drowning fly is the story’s key symbol, and sharply pulls the boss’s attention away from dwelling on memories of his son. The narrator and the boss’s personification of the fly—giving it human-like qualities as it cries for help and experiences emotions while it suffers trauma—serves to highlight the dangers and consequences of warfare. The boss demonstrates compassion and a generosity of spirit as he rescues the fly and shares in its salvation.
However, before the fly can take to the air, an idea strikes the boss to test the fly’s response to further adversity by engulfing it in a blot of ink. The boss is eager to note that “the little beggar seemed absolutely cowed, stunned, and afraid to move because of what would happen next.” After its momentary terror, the fly slowly begins to pull itself out of the ink. The boss is impressed by the fly’s “never say die” attitude in dragging itself through the laborious task of re-cleaning itself: “He’s a plucky little devil, thought the boss, and he felt a real admiration for the fly’s courage.”
In his sharp pivot to purposefully torturing the fly, the boss demonstrates the sadism and cruelties of war. The boss feels admiration at the fly’s ongoing bravery and judges that it demonstrates the right way to handle adversity—unemotionally and dutifully, with a “never say die” attitude. In this moment, it almost sounds like the boss is thinking about his son at war rather than a mere fly on his desk. Additionally, the boss once more shows his elitist superiority and classist attitudes when he discredits the fly as a “little beggar.”
Upon the fly’s second moment of freedom, the boss quickly refills his pen and drips another blot of ink on his victim. The boss feels “a rush of relief” when, after a great pause, the fly once more begins waving its legs to clean itself. He has “the brilliant notion” to breathe on the fly to help it dry out. As the fly finishes re-cleaning itself, the boss recognizes that the fly is now growing “timid and weak,” and decides to submerge it in ink just one last time. This time, the drowned fly “lay in it [the ink] and did not stir.” Despite the boss’s prodding it with his pen and barking command to “Look sharp!” the fly remains lifeless with its back legs splayed against its body and the front legs “not to be seen.”
Mansfield morally undermines the boss’s character as he continues to torture the fly. It’s also important that the boss acknowledges the fly’s increasing weakness but, instead of stopping the torture altogether, decides that this fourth drop of ink will be the last—but this is the drop that kills the fly. As the fly struggles, the boss barks at it to “Look sharp!” in yet another moment that reveals the boss’s authoritative and controlling character. Through his interactions with the fly, the boss develops traditionally masculine traits of callousness, stoicism, and emotional restraint. The fly’s faltering at each drowning foreshadows the boss’s own wretched feelings at the story’s conclusion.
The boss disposes of the fly’s body in a waste paper basket, upon which he experiences “such a grinding feeling of wretchedness” that he becomes frightened. Quickly ringing a bell for his clerk, the boss demands that Macey bring him fresh blotting paper and “look sharp about it.” When the “old dog pad[s] away,” the boss struggles to remember what he was thinking about prior to ringing for Macey, and anxiously mops at his collar with a handkerchief—"For the life of him he could not remember.”
The boss’s sudden horror having killed and disposed of the dead fly—and thereby accepting the harsh realities of his son’s death—brings about an almost intentional occurrence of amnesia. The boss distracts himself from grief as he issues Macey with crisp directives, again likening his employee to a submissive dog. Immediately afterwards, “for the life of him” the boss cannot recall his previous anxieties, suggesting memory is intrinsically tied to human life and meaning. At the story’s conclusion, Mansfield likens the boss to Woodifield by describing the boss as nervously sweating at his own memory’s failures.