“The Fly,” set about six years after World War I, opens with a man named Woodifield who returns to a London office for his weekly social visit with his former employer, the boss. During the visit, Woodifield—an elderly, frail, and forgetful man—becomes increasingly frustrated that he cannot remember a key detail he wants to share with the boss. Mansfield plays Woodifield’s infirmity against the boss’s youthful vigor as he commands attention in the office. However, after Woodifield finally remembers what he wanted to say—that their sons’ graves are near each other—the boss increasingly appears to be a vulnerable individual who also struggles with memory loss. As the story unfolds, Mansfield suggests that the boss and Woodifield intentionally and subconsciously use forgetfulness to cope with the deaths of their sons at war—a tactic that is ultimately unsatisfying for the both of them.
Intentional forgetfulness and avoidance allows the boss to largely escape the emotional burden of his son’s death. The boss attempts to control the grief of remembering his son; although he’s kept a portrait of his son in his office for the past six years, the boss steers other people away from addressing his son’s death in order to remember on his terms only. For instance, when pointing out significant furnishings in the office on one of their Tuesday get-togethers, the boss “did not draw old Woodifield’s attention to the photograph over the table of a grave-looking boy in uniform.” Later, the boss’s sudden horror at killing a fly—thereby recognizing the cruel realities of his son’s death—produces an almost deliberate experience of amnesia. After Woodifield makes a well-meaning but unwelcome comment about their sons’ deaths, the boss tortures a fly to death and disposes of its body in a wastepaper basket, upon which “such a grinding feeling of wretchedness seized him that he felt positively frightened.” He rings for Macey, the clerk, to bring him fresh blotting paper to remove all evidence of drowning the fly in ink on his desk. Immediately after this instruction, the boss nervously mops himself with his handkerchief and “fell to wondering what it was he had been thinking about before. What was it?” It is unclear whether he feigns forgetfulness or is truly at a loss to remember that he was just thinking about his son’s death; regardless, this moment allows the boss to sidestep his grief.
Woodifield and the boss’s struggles with memory loss show that life without memory—even painful memories—is empty and unsatisfying. The story opens with Woodifield’s failure to remember something he wanted to tell the boss (that their sons’ graves are near each other) and closes with the boss’s lapse of memory as he forgets what was just troubling him (thoughts about his late son). This mirroring effect sets up the idea that both men’s forgetfulness is a means of escaping the horror of their sons’ deaths. Woodifield’s limited memory, resulting from a stroke (perhaps induced by his son Reggie’s untimely death), makes him feel trapped at home where his wife and daughters fuss over him and dictate his day-to-day life. Because of his memory loss, Woodifield also loses his independence and connection with the outside world, which leads to an unsatisfying existence. The story’s concluding lines relate the boss’s own sudden amnesia. The boss tries to recall the reason for his anxiety previous to instructing Macey to bring fresh blotting paper to his office, but it turns out that “for the life of him he could not remember.” The statement poses a bigger question for readers: what is life without memory? For the boss, life becomes insubstantial without meaningful memories of his son. He attempts to fill this void by placing superficial value on his business success and his material possessions (which he points out proudly to visitors), simultaneously keeping grief at arm’s length.
In “The Fly,” Mansfield calls attention to functioning memory as a crucial foundation for a meaningful life. The boss’s and Woodifield’s avoidance of painful memories alongside genuine forgetfulness protects them from the overwhelming grief of their sons’ unnatural deaths, but simultaneously empties their lives of meaning and satisfaction. Particularly leaning on the boss’s failures of memory after killing the titular fly, Mansfield ultimately suggests that it is worth dealing with painful memories in order to lead a fulfilling life.
Memory Quotes in The Fly
“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 […].
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 ….
“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.