Analysis of Katherine Mansfield’s The Fly

One of the most anthologized of Katherine Mansfield’s short stories, along with “The Garden-Party,” “The Fly” was published in the Nation in 1922. Conscious of its appeal to perceptive readers, Mansfield avoided the publication of this story in a magazine, unlike others at that time that were intended just for money. She wrote it while she was staying in Paris undergoing Dr. Manhoukin’s new treatment for tuberculosis, and it is considered “her own little masterpiece” and “one of her principal achievements” (Alpers 258, 356). Like other Mansfield stories (“The Child-Who-Was-Tired” is the clearest example), “The Fly” has been seen as drawing on Chekhov, particularly on his story “Small Fry,” in which an abused clerk, who is writing a letter to his hated superior, crushes a cockroach and tosses it into the flame of the lamp.

“The Fly” is the story of old Woodifield and his boss, who is never referred to by his name. The former worked for the latter until a heart attack forced him to retire prematurely. Since then, every Tuesday he visits the boss. This Tuesday is different because old Woodifield mentions that his daughters have recently visited the graves of his son and the boss’s son, both of whom died in World War I. This stirs the superior’s sorrow, for he has not overcome the loss of his only child. He feels the urge to be alone and expels Woodifield from his office. Suddenly, a fly falls into the inkpot. After playing with it, the boss finally drowns the fly and is grasped by a profound fear of death, which is the only facet of his life that he cannot control.

This story has aroused endless academic explanations. Some, like Cherry A. Hankin (245–246), find autobiographical connections, in which the boss stands for Mansfield’s father (Harold Beauchamp, a bank director) and the dead son for Mansfield’s brother Leslie (killed in the war six years previously, as in the story). Others, like Ken Arvidson (217), find in this narrative Mansfield’s ultimate perception of the artist as an impersonal entity who kills sentimentalism, like a god who controls everything, but is vulnerable to death. In any case, this story reflects the importance of cyclical time and its connection with senility and the loss of power. Woodifield’s premature retirement has involved his seclusion in the house with his wife and daughters, a domestic realm and private sphere, away from the external, masculine space of work, that forces him to live in a cyclical and repetitive time. In turn, the boss, although older than Woodifield, still remains in the public eye almost like a scarecrow; his senility is observed in his circular perception of time, always coming back to the moment when he lost his only son. It is a story of self-deception, narrated from the point of view of the boss.

Alpers, Antony. The Life of Katherine Mansfi eld. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980.
Arvidson, Ken. “Dancing on the Hand of God: Katherine Mansfield’s Religious Sensibility.” In The Critical Response to Katherine Mansfield, edited by Jan Pilditch, 211–218. Connecticut and London: Greenwood Press, 1996.
Hankin, Cherry A. Katherine Mansfield and Her Confessional Stories. London and Basingstoke: MacMillan, 1983.
Tate, Trudi. Men, Women and the Great War: An Anthology. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995.

Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story

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