The Fly by Katherine Mansfield

In The Fly by Katherine Mansfield we have the theme of control, ignorance, sacrifice, responsibility and war. Taken from her The Doves’ Nest and Other Stories collection the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and after reading the story the reader realises that Mansfield may be using the setting of the story (the Boss’ office) to explore the theme of control. The reader is aware that Woodifield has told the boss that the office is ‘very snug.’ Also we are aware that the office has been newly decorated on the boss’ instructions. This may be important as it suggests that the boss is in control of his environment (the office). The reader also senses that the boss, while dropping the ink from the pen onto the fly is exerting a level of control. At first he places one or two drops of ink on the fly before eventually adding some more. At all times he appears to be in control. It is also noticeable that he orders Macey not to disturb him, again this would further suggest that the boss is in control. It is possible that by highlighting the fact that the boss is in control of his environment (and others) that Mansfield is not only showing the reader who (literally) is boss but she may also be likening the actions of the boss to those of the old generals who were responsible for trying to control and plan the outcome of World War I.

There is also some symbolism in the story which may be important. The fly can be seen to symbolise the young men who were sent to fight in the war and who like the fly died. The pen that the boss uses to drop the ink on the fly may also have some symbolic significance. It is possible that just as the boss uses the pen to drop the ink on the fly and finally kills it, likewise Mansfield may be suggesting that the continued signing of orders by generals during the war resulted not in any great advancement but rather in the slaughter of so many young men. Woodifield’s remark that ‘there is miles of it,’ when describing the graves of his and the boss’ son in Belgium may also have some symbolic importance as by including this remark in the story Mansfield may be highlighting to the reader the large volume of deaths that occurred during World War I. It may also be important that while the boss is looking at the photograph of his son he thinks that his son’s expression is ‘cold, even stern-looking.’ It is possible that Mansfield is suggesting that even though the boss’ son is dead, should he be alive he may look at his father in a different light, particularly if the reader accepts that the boss may be symbolism for the old generals of World War I.

It may also be important that despite the boss feeling sorrow about the loss of his son, later in the story when he begins to experiment with the fly, he easily forgets him. It is possible that Mansfield is suggesting that just as the boss has forgotten about his son, likewise a generation of older men (generals) after World War I may have forgotten about the sacrifices that the young men who fought in the war made in order for others to be able to live their lives in freedom. If anything the reader finds it difficult to sympathise with the boss mainly because he appears to be more focused on the success of his business (and his newly decorated office) than on the fact that he has lost a son during the war. There is a sense that the boss remains ignorant of the sacrifices that both his son and Woodifield’s son have made. Even though the boss appears to show regret and sorrow over his son’s death the reader can’t be certain that the boss is lamenting the loss of his son or the fact that there is nobody to continue his legacy.

It is also interesting that both Woodifield and the boss are at various stages of the story described as being old. This may be important as it is possible that Mansfield is suggesting that after World War I all that remained were old men, the young men who fought in the war having given their lives for their country. It may also be important that Mansfield attributes no wisdom to either man. Woodifield is compared to a baby at the beginning of the story and similarly the boss with his repetitive experiments on the fly, which the reader is aware results in the fly dying, does not come across (at least not to the reader) as being someone who is particularly clever. If anything he appears to be more child-like with his continued experimenting with the fly. This may be the point that Mansfield is attempting to make. Just as Woodifield and the boss don’t appear to be bestowed with any wisdom, Mansfield may also be suggesting that the old generals who sent the young men to fight in World War I likewise have no wisdom.

The end of the story is also interesting as there is a sense that the boss has learnt nothing from his experiment with the fly. This may be the point that Mansfield is trying to make. She may be suggesting that just as the boss has learnt nothing, neither has any of the men (generals) who were responsible for sending so many young men to their death in World War I. The fact that the boss cannot remember that he was thinking about his son, after finally killing the fly, further suggests that the boss (and the generals) have learnt nothing from their actions. Mansfield may also be suggesting, particularly when the boss throws the fly into the waste-paper basket that likewise the generals are also disregarding (without any thought) the lives of the young men that they have sent to war and if anything they will continue to send young men to war while sitting comfortably (and in control) in their offices, just like the boss.

Cite Post
McManus, Dermot. "The Fly by Katherine Mansfield." The Sitting Bee. The Sitting Bee, 9 May. 2015. Web.


  • I would also suggest that the way he exerts control over the fly, almost sadistic, that it represents the future had his son returned. Then he would have experienced a death, only slower, in working under him. But, most likely, the returned son would have nothing to do with the older generation’s goals and ideas.

  • Vivid and comprehensive explanation.

  • Hmm. Gotta play devil’s advocate here. I think the boss has two aspects to him. He has expressed deep grief in the past, but cannot now. He cannot weep on command. I think this may be because he has cried himself out. He pronounced himself unable to heal, but has in fact healed, because six years have passed and he’s learned to focus on other things. So, I see some room here for the reader to have sympathy for the boss.

    On the other hand, the boss is sadistic in his treatment of the fly. The ink is a symbol perhaps of the terrible weapons of WWI, especially gas. He also cannot comprehend the change in his son’s expression from the remembered conviviality to the photographed sternness. So, as the writer above says, the boss becomes a stand-in for the generals who really don’t understand the value of the lives they put in harm’s way. The boss is also a control freak. No argument there.

    As with many well-written stories, there is room for multiple interpretations.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      You’ve got a good idea. I would also agree that a well-written story can have many different interpretations. That’s what makes for a good story.

  • I‘m surprised nobody mentions the symbolic quality of blotting paper, ‚Löschpapier‘ in German. ‚To blot out‘ has some very unwholesome equivabents in German – not only ‚auslöschen‘ – which is bad enough really.

    It‘s amazing how skillful we are blotting out bad experiences and guilt feelings – new furniture and a tumbler full of good Whisky can help. Must help.

    The boss seems to be shaken in the end, about to be losing his focus. Control. But, note the symbolic quality of it, he asks for more blotting paper. That should do the trick.
    All your comments are very meaningful and helpful, of course. Thank you.


    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for that excellent insight Gerhard. I had been trying to figure out the significance of the blotting paper.

    • The symbolic significance of the blotting-paper is really a worth-thinking thing. And yet, I haven’t figure it out neither. Hoping to be get inspired by further thinking and others’ comments.

  • A great story by Katherine and a great analysis of the story as well. Great work done

  • Maybe the ink drops falling on The Fly symbolized the Bullets fired during WWI, the pen may symbolize the terrible weapons used, the Red Carpet may represent the bloodshed in WWI and the term “There’s miles of it” may represent the extent to which life was lost during it.

  • Thanks Dermot… is really very helpful specially for student….I felt slightly complicated while our ma’am was thought…but now I’m clear about this interpretation.

  • If the Ink-pot symbolizes the mundane world, the ink within it symbolizes sorrow, The Fly as the helpless fellow like Boss who has been controlled and punished by destiny, and Mr Woodifield symbolizing destiny.

    The death of the Fly compels us to think that the Fly died because of sheer exhaustion and likewise the Boss will meet the same fate and die of exhaustion as people like Woodifield will keep on pouring the ink of sorrow on him, this statement is further vindicated by the use of word Corpse instead of Caracas (dead body of animal) .

    Shakespeare aptly puts it in Gloucester Statement in King Lear
    As fly to wanton boys
    are we to the Gods
    They killed us for their sports.

  • Quite a nice platform for discussion and enhancement of knowledge

  • Also note that dying like flies mean dying in large numbers in a short time interval.

    The men in the story are old, they have short memory, they do not learn from their experiences, mainly because they seem emotionally shallow.

    The women in the story are those who visit the boys, but they do not seem to display more emotional depth: they love the flowers over miles of graves, but they quarrel over the prize of a pot of jam (?!).

    These boys really seem to have died for nothing.

  • Thank u author. I got a lot to learn from the post.

  • As coming across many interpretations of the story I find why not consider the fly as the boss. All the ink poured over fly symbolizes the grief and sorrows the boss has been suffering since death of his son. The ultimate dead of the fly due to the overpowering of the ink indicates the overpowering of grief in boss’s life that he too is death from inside and feels no sorrow no happiness and is feeling neutral now. And that’s the reason that he can easily forget about the death fly and move on as if nothing happened. The sufferings and struggles made him tough and he feels nothing and that’s why he couldn’t cry too.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *