Significance of the Fly Episode
There are three parts in Katherine Mansfield’s short story “The Fly”. Of these the fly episode is the most important and signally contributes to the revealing of the boss’s character. Before we critically discuss its importance let us reproduce in brief the fly episode in the paragraph that follows.
Without the knowledge of the boss the fly fell into his broad inkpot when he flicked the Financial Times with a paper-knife. His attention was drawn to it after Woodifield’s departure when his mind was full of reminiscences about his son who had been killed in the war. The fly was desperately trying to get out of the inkpot but fell back again into it as its sides were wet and slippery. It began to swim in the ink. The boss took up a pen, picked the fly out of the ink, and shook it on to a piece of blotting-paper. It lay still for a moment; then it began the immense task of cleaning the ink from its wings. When it succeeded in doing so and was about to take off, a peculiar and perverse idea suddenly took hold of him. He plunged his pen back into the ink and caused a drop to fall on its body. The fly could hardly understand why the boss did it. Absolutely stunned, it was afraid to move because of what would happen next. After a pause, however, it began the task of cleaning once again from the beginning but more slowly and painfully. The boss admired its courage. But just when the fly had again finished its laborious task, he filled his pen with ink and again let fall a drop of ink on its new-cleaned body. A painful moment of suspense passed and the boss was glad to see the stirring of its legs. Once again the fly began to clean itself though with clear signs of weakness and timidness. The boss decided to drop a blob of ink on it for another time and no more after that. As per his decision he let fall another drop on it when it finished its cleaning, and the fly lay in the ink and did not stir. All his words of encouragement were in vain. The fly was dead. The fly episode, thus, shows the fly’s struggle for survival, though its courage and stamina were unable to save it in the end.
The fly episode first reminds us of what Gloucester has said in Shakespeare’s King Lear (IV. i. 39-40) :
“As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods;
They kill us for their sport.”
It plain English the extract means that the gods, in the same way as boys thoughtlessly or whimsically kill flies, kill human beings for their amusement. In other words, man ever falls a victim to indifferent fate. In Katherine Mansfield’s short story “The Fly” the roles are slightly changed: here it is a man who kills a fly. Here the boss assumes the role of the gods or fate and the fly that of man. Again, initially the boss did not remain indifferent to the fly. On the other hand, he picked it up from the ink to save it from danger. He also used words of encouragement to it, praised its courage, and even had the brilliant idea of breathing on it to accelerate the drying process. Nevertheless it cannot be denied that he is solely responsible for the death of the fly. Whether it was done for sport or otherwise we shall soon see.
The fly episode acquaints us to some extent with the boss’s philosophy or attitude to life. He was not a believer in taking things as they were; on the other hand, he believed in struggle. The right way to tackle things, according to him, was to show courage in the face of difficulty and danger. The right spirit, he believed, lay in stamina, in courage, and in never losing hope. It was for this that he praised much the ‘plucky’ fly. One flaw in his attitude to life is that he remained oblivious of the fact that courage and stamina came to nothing before a relentless, dogged, and more powerful enemy
The fly episode is in a sense related to the boss’s reminiscing about his son. When old Woodifield implanted into his mind the idea of his son’s death the boss thought that he would get as before some relief from his sorrow after a violent fit of weeping. Unfortunately no tears came out as a result of which his mind was full of bitterness and resentment against those that had killed his young son in the war. When the boss was in a confused and unrelieved state and when his mind was occupied with anger and grudge he suddenly came across the fly that had fallen into the inkpot. The rational part of his self urged him to save the poor insect and he did so by picking it out of the ink. But the passionate and animal part soon overmastered his rationality and humanity, and gripped by violent urges he carried on his cruel experiment that soon brought about its end. The fly episode thus, lays bare the underlying cause that led the boss to treat the insect in the way he did.
Finally, the fly episode is a revealer of the boss’s character. It shows how he succumbed from his role of a giver of life to that of a taker of life. It helps to unravel some deep layers of his self. At first we take him to be a fun-loving, amusing man who had a deep zest for life despite his age. He also notes his somewhat reserved and authoritative attitude. Next we pity him because of his deep sense of sorrow and boss for the boy who died much before his full flowering.
Then our view about him suddenly takes an ugly turn when we see him madly and cruelly experimenting with a little harmless insect like the fly. Any sensible, any man of minimum intelligence, not to say of an aged man like him, would understand how fatal the dropping of ink on a fly would be if the practice is carried on a number of times. Yet our boss continued this cruel and senseless practice that ultimately brought about the death of the fly. Whatever underlying and deep psychological reason might lie behind his act we cannot exonerate the gravity of his sin. His alternate encouragement to the fly and dropping of ink seem to us nothing but a cruel joke and reveal his perverse, sadistic and retaliatory nature.
This later acquaintance with his nature also helps us to understand why he liked his elegantly furnished office to be particularly admired by his friend Woodifield and why ‘it gave him a feeling of deep, solid satisfaction to be planted there in the midst of it in full view of that frail old figure in the muffler. Proud of his health and wealth, the boss got pleasure earlier by establishing his superiority and mastery over one who was physically ruined and materially unsuccessful. Now he got a kind of perverse pleasure by inflicting torture upon an insect that is small and helpless. But here his pleasure was not an unmixed blessing; it was followed by positive fear and terrible wretchedness.
The fly episode, thus, contains a moral lesson: it shows how punishment recoils upon the punisher.
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