Katherine Mansfield’s short story ‘The Fly’ is a social commentary conveyed in an allegorical and symbolic manner. In this lesson, we’ll review the story’s plot and analyze its underlying meaning.

The Fly: Background

When you first read ‘The Fly’, a short story by Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923), it may seem like a simple, straight-forward narrative about a man killing an annoying fly. But what if your teacher told you that you missed something? Maybe he or she told you that there’s an underlying meaning to the story. There definitely is, but you need to understand the context of when the story was written and why in order to see the symbolism.

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Mansfield’s story is an allegory, or a literary, visual, or other work with a metaphorical, moral, political, or social meaning. One of the most famous examples of an allegorical tale is Edmund Spenser’s The Fairy Queene, an epic poem first published in 1590. He details all the ups and downs of Queen Elizabeth I and her court, while making allegorical references to virtue, and the religious and political issues of the time.

Katherine Mansfield’s ‘The Fly’ is no different in its attempts to create allegories. Let’s first take a look at the plot of ‘The Fly’ and then let’s analyze it to discover these allegories.

Synopsis

To understand ‘The Fly,’ readers need to approach it in the context of World War I. The character, Mr. Woodifield, is talking to his friend, referred to in the story as ‘the boss,’ a wealthy man whose son who died in the war. Woodifield is struggling to remember the reason why he came to talk with the boss, which he seems to remember after he drinks the fine whiskey he’s offered. He then mentions his own deceased son and that of the boss.

When Woodifield departs, leaving the boss to contemplate his dead son, the fly of the title finally enters the story. After the fly gets stuck in an ink pot on his desk, the boss helps the creature out, noticing how it dries itself. However, once the fly has recovered, the boss drops a blob of ink on it. After admiring the fly’s courage, he drops another blob of ink on the insect. The boss watches the fly dry itself again, although with less vigor than it did the first time. By the third drop of ink, the fly has been severely weakened, and dies.

The boss throws away the fly and blotting paper. The incident leaves him feeling disturbed, but he can’t quite make the connection between the dead fly and the memory of his dead son.

Symbolism

Once you’ve identified the symbolic action in ‘The Fly,’ its meaning becomes quite clear. The fly represents the hapless young men sent into the battlefield without understanding what they were fighting for except in the most simplistic way. They had no idea that ‘Fight for England’ meant fighting dirt, starvation, sadness, and death in the trenches and being controlled by unseen forces. No matter the obstacles, they persisted in their fight to survive, just like the fly.

So, who is the boss in the story? Well, the boss represents the older generation of Englishmen and other foreign leaders who sent their sons and nephews into war without warning them of the consequences. It’s difficult to mourn the loss of a family member when you know that you’re actually a part of the war machine. This seems to be how the boss in ‘The Fly’ is trapped; he and his colleagues had no way to foresee how devastating World War I would be to the European economy and development.

Lesson Summary

‘The Fly’, a short story written by Katherine Mansfield is an allegory for the tragedy of World War I. An allegory is a literary, visual, or other work with a metaphorical, moral, political, or social meaning.

The boss in ‘The Fly’ represents the older generation of leaders who sent their boys to fight in World War I without understanding the consequences. Although he admires the fly’s courage and resilience, he continues to drop ink on it until it dies.

The hapless fly represents the boys who marched off to war with the best of intentions, but very little knowledge of the unseen dangers. And while the boss feels disturbed after he disposes of the fly, he can’t quite make the connection between what happened to the insect and what happened to his son.