“The Fly’s” unnamed protagonist, the boss, commands respect and obedience from the story’s small cast of characters. Despite the loss of his only son (and heir to the company) to the recent World War I, the boss heads up a successful business in London and projects a traditionally masculine image of a family man and strong business leader of commendable character. By the story’s conclusion, however, Katherine Mansfield suggests that the boss is actually an objectionable individual driven by the desperate desire for power and masculine superiority. A sudden reminder of his late son destabilizes the boss’s behavior, leading him to sadistically torture the story’s titular fly in his office. This contrast between the boss’s initial and concluding characterizations—and the fact that a mention of his son spurs this dramatic shift—implies that the boss performs a masculine identity in order to avoid the extreme emotional toll of his son’s death.
Initially, the boss seems to be a family man and a strong, fair leader worthy of respect. The boss perceives himself as a superior man of action, likened to a ship’s captain “still going strong, still at the helm” of his company. Macey, the clerk, demonstrates the way the boss commands respect; he obliges the boss’s every request, respectfully referring to him as “sir.” The boss’s elderly former employee, Mr. Woodifield, also appears to greatly respect the boss and admire his strong leadership—especially considering the boss is five years his senior. The boss also has a portrait of his late son in his office, which has earned a spot on the table for six straight years, suggesting that the boss is a loyal and loving father.
However, as the story unfolds, the boss increasingly appears to be a hyper-masculine man whose power hinges on demonstrating his power and superiority to others. For instance, the boss constantly names his former employee “old Woodifield” despite Woodifield being five years younger than him. He also repeatedly refers to his current employee, Macey, as a “dog” who is eager to follow his master’s bidding. The boss even refers to a fly in his office as a “little beggar,” displaying classism in response to the fly’s call for help as it drowns in ink. The boss also revels in a ritualistic show of wealth to the elderly and forgetful Woodifield as a means to assert his superiority and power. Each week, the boss points out the changes in his office that symbolize luxury and power. New furnishings including the “massive bookcase,” “bright red carpet with a pattern of large white rings” and “table with legs like twisted treacle” are impressive in their grandeur. The boss boasts rare post-war food items such as sausages and whiskey, and Mansfield employs adjectives such as “pearly” and “glowing” to enrich office objects with treasure-like status. The boss enjoys showing off these treasures; he gains social standing by demonstrating wealth and providing rare goods to his chosen beneficiaries, consequently buying their loyalty, obedience, and respect.
Rather than resulting from strength of character, the boss puts on a performance of masculinity as a way to avoid his son’s death and regain control in his life. The boss’s constant verbal directives and physical control of all other characters demonstrates his desperate need to feel a sense of command. The boss refrains from sentimental thoughts about his son throughout the story, offering no detail about the boy except for his business apprenticeship and death at war. To consider more tender family bonds goes against traditional masculine expectations and could be deemed weak and effeminate. Furthermore, the boss desperately tries control all reminders of his son on his terms, which is why Woodifield’s remarks about their sons’ graves shocks him so greatly. At the startling reminder of his son’s death, the boss clears his calendar for half an hour, as “he wanted, he intended, he had arranged to weep….” The boss’s inability to weep—and demand for total privacy just in case he does cry—cleaves to the strong and unemotional image of masculinity. It allows the boss to remove himself from the intense feeling of his son’s loss, which appears to have not lessened with time. Instead of giving into sadness, the boss is compelled to establish absolute power over his immediate environment, even down to the minute detail of an insect (the titular fly) in his domain. In repeatedly dosing the fly in ink, the boss attempts to resume his performance of masculinity, where he is unemotional (he yells at the fly to “Stay sharp!” once it starts looking weak) and wholly superior and dominant (he has the power to decide if the fly lives or dies and ultimately kills it).
In “The Fly,” Mansfield thereby reveals the boss as a power-hungry individual who performs displays of masculine superiority. Mansfield forces the reader to consider the decidedly strong and unemotional masculinity that British society in 1922 expected of successful fathers and businessmen. The boss’s cruel torture of the fly exposes his weak character to readers. Readers can view this collapse of character as a direct result of war’s extreme trauma; Mansfield additionally reveals the impossibility of post-war society’s expectations of masculinity.
Performances of Masculinity ThemeTracker
Performances of Masculinity Quotes in The Fly
“Y’are very snug in here,” piped old Mr. Woodifield, and he peered out of the great, green-leather arm-chair by his friend the boss’s desk as a baby peers out of its pram.
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.
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.