Write about the symbolic significance of the ‘Fly -episode’ in the short story ‘The Fly.’ by Katherine Mansfield

Literature Slider

          Write about the symbolic significance of the ‘Fly -episode’ in the short story “The Fly.’

In the Twentieth Century, in literary expression, symbolism has a poignant importance. Although, exemplified in French Literature, symbolism has got a new psycho-analytical twist in Modern Literature. “The Fly,” as a short story brings forth this psycho-analytic feature of modernism. The thematic conception is entangled with the Shakespearian version regarding the stand of human existence with Himalayan adversities as uttered by Gloucester in King Lear –
“As flies to wanton boys, are we to the Gods
They kill us for their sports.”

In the context of this valiant short story, this theory is illustrated by the parallelism between the Boss, a heartbroken fellow due to the untimely loss of his only son in the First World War, and a mere Fly which has fallen in the ink pot. In the instance of the Fly, the Boss wants to test the tenacity of life and the value of the struggle. This struggle is against heavy odds. To the Fly, it is the slippery surface of the ink pot, to the Boss, it is his adverse circumstances, the nonfulfillment of his cherished desire that one day he will discharge the responsibility of his business upon the shoulder of his son. The death of the Fly, under the pressure of situations when the Boss repeatably drops the ink on its wing, symbolically suggests that the struggle is a futile exercise. ‘Character is destiny’ is the ultimatum of life. The fly in this short story is equipped with versatile and diversified symbolic significance. Its versatility is evident in the fact that it represents universally the helpless state of mankind in the hand of destiny, directed by the Almighty. On another level of interpretation, the Fly stands for the Boss’s son. But on a more acute level, there is a symbolic balance sheet between the Boss and the Fly. The diversified nature of the symbolism is prominent because this episode brings forth the cosmic tragedy of human existence. The two prominent characters, the Boss and Mr. Woodifield are helpless. Mr. Woodifield is in the level of physic because he has already suffered a stroke and is buoyed up at his house by his daughters. The Boss, on the other hand, is mentally paralyzed after the unexpected demise of his only son. It is this struggle of the Boss to withstand, to overcome the situation which has been effectively communicated by the symbolic conduciveness of the mere Fly. The parallelism of the Boss and Mr. Woodifield on one hand with the interrelation of the Fly reminds the Shakespearian version of King Lear, where the King and Gloucester are paralyzed by the unseen blow of cruel destiny. The fly is demolished by the Boss. Similarly, the Boss and Mr. Woodifield are destroyed by the wheel of fire of unseen destiny. This conception of the enforcing role of destiny to bring tragedy in the life of the Boss is symbolically expressed by the reference to the fly. In Shakespeare’s King Lear, the conception has the following verification-
“You do me wrong to take me out o’ the grave:
Thou art a soul in bliss: but I am bound Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears
Do scald like molten lead.”

The fly has fallen at a very crucial phase in Boss’s ‘stream of consciousness’ within the ink pot. The Boss currently is fully absorbed by the thought of his greatest shock in life, the pathos of his soul is surfaced by the reference of Mr. Woodifield about the grave of his son in Belgium. The fly, in apparent level, is representing and reminding the Boss about his son’s brave fighting on the battlefield. The Boss has given the drops of ink thrice upon the wing of the fly. In the same way, his son has resisted two death blows in the battle, but on the third time he expired. The struggle of the little fly reminds Boss about his son’s struggle for survival and his own effort to forget the loss and to concentrate on what remains. The tenacity of the fly has got the word of appreciation, the pat of adoration on the part of the Boss. It is shown by the following remark-
“That was the way to tackle things that
was the right spirit. Never say die;
It was only a question of…”

On another level of interpretation, the condition of the fly is like the condition of the Boss. Both are wretched and broken. The fly is physical and the Boss is psychological. What the Fly in the hand of the Boss, is the same as the Boss himself to God. Almighty is testing how far the Boss can carry out the di buckle of his life. The Boss is very honest and sincere in respect of forgetting the greatest tragedy of his life. By means of interior decoration with costly furniture his play-boy-like attitude, by the influence of luxurious drink, the protagonist of this short story is making efforts to forget the past still pricks. His prick is getting impish pleasure by torturing the poor fly. The theory ‘survival of the fittest’ is neither applicable to the fly, nor to the Boss. The fly already expires under the circumstance of the Boss’s frequent experiments with the drops of ink. The Boss will also get the symbolic assurance that all his efforts will be ineffectual. It is this feeling of surrendering to the oceanic pressure of the psychological adversities, that the Boss has become frightened. It is reflected by the conclusive opinion of Katherine Mansfield- “But such a grinding feeling of wretchedness seized him that he felt positively frightened.” The fly is trying to clean the ink from its body like a ‘minute cat.’ The same sort of minuteness is found in the boss’s attempts to forget the sorrows, and the past and to meditate over the present.

The struggle of the fly is in a broader sense, a symbolic representation of man’s fight against fate which has the sole determination to destroy the individual like the fly, every individual is also struggling to overcome the burden of opposition. But ultimately, they succumb to the weight of adversities. When an individual feels himself to be cozy and at ease, destiny gives a cruel blow. It is true to the case of Boss, to the case of his son, as well as to the case of every sensitive individual. The fly wants to live by struggling. A man also wants to survive to quench his thirst for life. This philosophy is boldly revealed in Tennyson’s Ulysses –
“…I cannot rest from travel
I will drink life to the lees.”

But every individual fails because of unseen machinery; produced and directed by the Almighty. The fly’s failure to survive, symbolically reveals man’s failure in life. The tenacity and determination of the fly to defeat the odds, on a symbolic level, denote man’s incessant fight against the opposition of fate. The glory lies in struggle although the result is pre-planned. The fly is adorable because it has the spirit to try till the end. The fly’s struggle is exclusively resembling with the nature of man- “It succeeded at last, and sitting down it began like a minute cat to clean its face.” But the success is momentary, the surrender is universal. The fly dies despite its boldness, only because nothing is likely to happen or nothing has happened. The failure of the fly is alike to the failure of the Boss, or mankind as a whole.
The conception of ‘nothingness’ is reflected with another artistic modulation in “The Fly.” It is not a flat replacement for the Shakespearian conception of ‘nothingness’ as found in ‘King Lear.’ Nothing comes out of nothing. The fly fights to clean the ink with its active effort by two legs. But nothing is the result in the end. The Boss has built the monument of dream about his son, and his business, but nothing is the result. The sensitive man weaves the mansion of expectations, but nothing is the outcome. The ‘Fly- episode’ symbolically delivers this aspect of nothingness.

Thus, the ‘Fly -episode’ has versatility and roundaboutness so far, the cosmic tragedy of man’s life is to be considered. The fly indirectly provokes the ultimate truth, the conflict between struggle and success.
1. Hanson, C., Kimber, G., & Martin, T. (2016). Katherine Mansfield and psychology. Edinburgh University Press.
2. Gusteren, J. van. (1990). Katherine Mansfield and Literary impressionism. Rodopi.

Leave A Response