The Fly

by

Katherine Mansfield

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The Fly Symbol Icon

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

The The Fly quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Fly. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Consequences of War Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Vintage edition of The Fly published in 1956.
The Fly Quotes

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.

Related Characters: The Boss, Woodifield, The Boss’s Son
Related Symbols: The Fly
Page Number: 347
Explanation and Analysis:

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 ….

Related Characters: The Boss, Woodifield, The Boss’s Son
Related Symbols: The Fly
Page Number: 347
Explanation and Analysis:

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.

Related Characters: The Boss, Woodifield, The Boss’s Son, Macey
Related Symbols: The Fly
Page Number: 348
Explanation and Analysis:

“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.

Related Characters: The Boss (speaker), Woodifield, The Boss’s Son, Macey
Related Symbols: The Fly
Page Number: 348
Explanation and Analysis:
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The Fly Symbol Timeline in The Fly

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Fly appears in The Fly. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
The Fly
Consequences of War Theme Icon
Memory Theme Icon
A fly drowning in the boss’s inkpot suddenly draws his attention away from memories of his son.... (full context)
Consequences of War Theme Icon
Performances of Masculinity Theme Icon
However, before the fly can take to the air, an idea strikes the boss to test the fly’s response... (full context)
Consequences of War Theme Icon
Performances of Masculinity Theme Icon
Upon the fly’s second moment of freedom, the boss quickly refills his pen and drips another blot of... (full context)
Consequences of War Theme Icon
Performances of Masculinity Theme Icon
Memory Theme Icon
The boss disposes of the fly’s body in a waste paper basket, upon which he experiences “such a grinding feeling of... (full context)