Katherine Mansfield presents numerous consequences of war in “The Fly,” especially touching on loss, grief and change as resulting experiences. In 1922, when Katherine Mansfield wrote the story, Britain was recovering from its involvement in the brutal horrors of World War I. The narrative itself takes place in a London office about six years after the war, where the unnamed protagonist, the boss, speaks with his former employee, the elderly Mr. Woodifield. Both men lost their sons in combat, and Woodifield’s reference to their sons’ well-kept graves forces the boss to grapple with the painful repercussions of the war six years later. The theme of warfare and its lasting repercussions impacts Mansfield’s narrative at personal and societal levels: the boss’s memory of his deceased son highlights his anxieties around business succession and mortality, while also commenting on Britain’s transformed gender dynamics in post-World War I Britain and critiquing national authorities’ decisions to send their youth into armed conflict.
The brutalities of World War I intrude into the boss’s orderly London office through multiple channels, including a physical photograph, vividly haunting memories, and Mansfield’s use of militaristic language. In this way, Mansfield presents the effects of war as being inescapable, even six years later. A photograph in the office of “a grave-looking boy in uniform standing in one of those spectral photographers’ parks with photographers’ storm-clouds behind him” sharply reminds the boss of his familial loss. The photograph’s physical materiality contrasts with the son’s absence, signaled by ghostly adjectives such as “spectral” and “grave-looking.” The aftermath of war also intrudes into the boss’s professional life through Woodifield’s unexpected declaration that his daughters “were in Belgium last week having a look at poor Reggie’s grave, and they happened to come across your boy’s. They’re quite near each other, it seems.” This well-meaning comment triggers a landslide of memories for the boss, who isolates himself in his workspace to reflect on his grief during the months and years following his son’s death. Mansfield also signals the lasting impact of warfare through the militant language peppered throughout the story, which suggests that the effects of the war are inescapable for both the reader and the boss. Office phrases such as “charged her” and “dodged in and out of his cubbyhole” are suggestive of soldiers’ movements in the field. The boss “at the helm” of his business issuing directives to his staff (and snapping at them to “look sharp about it”) evokes naval military leadership. The boss also describes terrible news as “crashing about his head,” gesturing to the unpredictable risk and chaos of warfare. Mansfield also references the violent capabilities of a sword or bayonet when the boss kills a fly in his office with a letter opener: the boss “flipped the Financial Times with a paper knife,” “cocked an eye,” “plunged his pen back into the ink” and “lifted the corpse [of the fly] on the end of the paper-knife and flung it into the waste-paper basket,” as if it were a casualty of war.
The boss’s anxieties regarding his business’s legacy and his own mortality demonstrate impacts of war at a personal level. In losing his only son to war, the boss also loses the heir to his business. The boss claims that his son and the assured succession of his business were the precious driving forces in his life. The boss’s encounters with death (as he reflects on his son before torturing a fly in his office) cause him to experience a “grinding feeling of wretchedness.” Realities of the casualties of war and bodily decomposition also disturb his psyche. The thought of Woodifield’s daughters peering down into his son’s grave is particularly painful for the boss; imagining the grave from Woodifield’s daughters’ perspective somehow makes the boss confront the morbid reality of his son’s state, overriding previous sugar-coated sentiments of his son lying “unblemished” and peacefully “asleep forever.” The boss’s discomfort furthermore highlights his deep anxieties surrounding mortality and impermanence.
The boss’s personal struggles with his legacy and mortality, alongside his cruel treatment of a fly that happens to fall into his inkpot, also point more broadly to the devastating consequences of war at a societal level. The boss’s drowning of a 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” suggests the enormity of Britain’s terrible loss of its sons. The fly’s drawn-out suffering additionally speaks to the lasting psychological consequences of warfare for survivors and their loved ones. Many war veterans suffer psychological responses to their experiences of intense traumatic events, the most common of which is now defined as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (a term that became widely used after the Vietnam War). The fly’s ongoing encounters with intense distress parallels soldiers’ experiences of the stressful conditions of war, followed by psychological responses that society struggled to understand after World War I. Woodifield’s deteriorating mental and physical health, perhaps a response to his son’s death, further echoes this issue of trauma. Meanwhile, Britain’s post-World War I workforce dynamics shifted, as a generation of missing male youth disturbed traditional gender roles. Female control of the infirm Woodifield’s daily schedule signifies these changes. Mansfield also challenges patriarchal authority through the boss’s and Woodifield’s physical and mental frailties. Mansfield characterizes Woodifield as a trembling, dim-eyed, shrunken man with a “chill old brain” who regularly experiences memory loss. By the story’s conclusion, she comparably describes the boss as nervous and sweating at his own memory’s failures.
“The Fly” can therefore be read as a moralistic story that questions the ethics of warfare at personal and societal levels. Mansfield exposes the cruelties and brutalities of war on its participants, through a focus on the consequences back home where personal grief and a crisis of gender identities threaten to overwhelm social order. Mansfield injects warfare into a London office to perhaps suggest that war is a type of business transaction. She thereby critiques national authorities’ seemingly callous decisions to involve their citizens in armed conflict.
Consequences of War ThemeTracker
Consequences of War Quotes in The Fly
So there sat old Woodifield, smoking a cigar and staring almost greedily at the boss, who rolled in his office chair, stout, rosy, five years older than he, and still going strong, still at the helm. It did one good to see him.
“It’s whiskey, ain’t it?” he piped feebly. The boss turned the bottle and lovingly showed him the label. Whiskey it was. “D’you know,” said he, peering up at the boss wonderingly, “they wont let me touch it at home.” And he looked as though he was going to cry. “Ah, that’s where we know a bit more than the ladies,” cried the boss […].
The door shut, the firm heavy steps recrossed the bright carpet, the fat body plumped down in the spring chair, and leaning forward, the boss covered his face with his hands. He wanted, he intended, he had arranged to weep….
His boy was an only son. Ever since his birth the boss had worked at building up this business for him; it had no other meaning if it was not for the boy. Life itself had come to have no other meaning. How on earth could he have slaved, denied himself, kept going all those years without the promise for ever before him of the boy’s stepping into his shoes and carrying on where he left off?
Six years ago, six years…. How quickly time passed! It might have happened yesterday. The boss took his hands from his face; he was puzzled. Something seemed to be wrong with him. He wasn’t feeling as he wanted to feel. He decided to get up and have a look at the boy’s photograph. But it wasn’t a favourite photograph of his; the expression was unnatural. It was cold, even stern-looking. The boy had never looked like that.
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.