The titular fly, struggling for survival before succumbing to death at the boss’s hand, is a symbol that offers multiple interpretations. The fly’s victimization—the boss renders it helpless by repeatedly submerging the fly in ink on his blotting paper—suggests the sadism and brutality of warfare. Mansfield’s personification of the fly with its “little front legs” “waving” in a “cry for help” represents the tragedy of Britain’s sacrifice to the horrors of World War I. The fly’s struggle for survival can be read as a symbol of the boss’s son and Woodifield’s son Reggie, who were both killed in World War I and now lie buried in Belgium. The fly’s symbolic ambiguity also opens up interpretations of the boss and Woodifield “drowning” in grief and incompetence following their sons’ deaths. The boss’s “grinding feeling of wretchedness” after he kills the fly perhaps signifies an older generation’s guilt at sending their sons to war; senior authorities committed Britain’s youth to battle using ink penned on documents, while similarly the boss uses ink to drown the fly. Mansfield furthermore depicts Woodifield as vulnerable stroke survivor who is dominated by his well-intentioned family—they control his daily movements in a similar manner to the boss’s control over the fly. At a broader societal level, the fly’s suffering and death can also symbolize the human condition, as all creatures must grapple with mortality. In particular, the boss, Woodifield and the boss’s clerk, Macey, are all aging men who are approaching the ends of their lives. At the time of writing “The Fly,” Mansfield was nearing death herself, suffering terribly from tuberculosis and fighting for life like the fly doused in ink.
The Fly Quotes in The Fly
At that moment the boss noticed that a fly had fallen into his broad inkpot, and was trying feebly but desperately to clamber out again. Help! Help! Said those struggling legs. But the sides of the inkpot were wet and slippery; it fell back again and began to swim.
He’s a plucky little devil, thought the boss, and he felt a real admiration for the fly’s courage. That was the way to tackle things; that was the right spirit. Never say die; it was only a question of ….
The boss lifted the corpse on the end of the paper-knife and flung it into the waste-paper basket. But such a grinding feeling of wretchedness seized him that he felt positively frightened. He started forward and pressed the bell for Macey.
“Bring me some fresh blotting paper,” he said sternly, “and look sharp about it.” And while the old dog padded away he fell to wondering what it was he had been thinking about before. What was it? It was…. He took out his handkerchief and passed it inside his collar. For the life of him he could not remember.