Katherine Mansfield’s short story The Fly is not merely a good short story-one of the fifteen finest short stories ever written-, but also possesses a significantly short title. Apparently, the title may look rather detached from the main theme of the story, which is a father’s grave bereavement, but it is actually indicative of the spirit in which the tragedy of the hero is conceived by the authoress.
Katherine Mansfield’s The Fly, despite its brief size and simple diction, is a quite sophisticated short story. A probe is made here not into the external world of action, but into the internal working of human thought. The story has immense psychological intricacy as well as interest, and Mrs. Mansfield
is found to have made a broad voyage into the dark recesses of human mind to bring out its subconscious currents and cross-currents. Viewed from this angle, the story may well be characterized as belonging to the stream-of-consciousness novel, that is a more sophisticated form of the psychological novel. The title of the story has much significance, no doubt indirectly, in the revelation of the psychology, rather the hero’s psychology, which forms the core of the tragedy of the story.
The story actually reveals the sorrow of a man, the boss, who is strong, prosperous, with a fine taste for the art of a decent living. His only son is dead, killed in the war. Amid the sense of his vanity about his office and comfort enjoyed there, the father in him was deeply in distress. He had the sad reminiscence of his only son who had been lost at the prime of his career in action. While talking quite patronizingly with his old associate Mr. Woodifield, a feeble, talkative fellow, the boss had a certain shock, caused by the latter’s reference to his son’s well-kept grave in Belgium. Overwhelmed with his old sorrow, newly roused, he began to perceive in his mind’s eye, his boy, his only son lying within his grave in a foreign land.
Lost in the reminiscences of his dear dead son, the boss felt wretched and wished to weep in loneliness. Such a state of the hero’s mind is the prelude
to the episode of the fly which forms the title of the story.
Towards the conclusion of the story, the fly episode is actually introduced, and this forms, as stated, the title of the story. The effect of the fly episode, of course, is controversial, but the psychological note of the modern story is well supplied by it. The episode shows how the fly tried to escape to life, but, being prevented by the boss several times, it ultimately lay dead. The conduct of the boss here might appear quite queer and rather cruel, but this has some deeper significance. The writer’s actual purpose here is to reveal something quite meaningful about man’s realization of his own pitiful destiny and his utterly helpless suffering under its pressure
In fact, the fly episode serves to reveal the state of mind which tries to revive against misfortune and mishap. The bereaved father tried to heal the deep wound caused in his mind but could not. The apparent repose of his mind was disturbed, rather stirred, by some unexpected incident, by the casual utterance of Mr. Woodifield. The agonized memory was brought back. The long-forgotten grief was turned active and made him restless. The mind of the boss might appear to have reached apparently a state of tranquility, but that was vexed and disturbed by Mr. Woodifield’s reference to the grave of his son. The concealed sorrow gushed out, like the hidden spring, and the wound, that had not been healed yet, began to ache him once again. His mind was lost once again in the painful memory of that which could never be brought back. This agonizing state is found to have a natural manifestation in the fly episode in which the boss was involved soon after.
Indeed, the fly episode, apparently simple, has a deeper implication and indicates symbolically man’s helpless effort against the reverses of fortune. The bereaved father, the boss, assumes almost the role of fate to play with the fly to test its power of endurance to struggle against misfortune. He is found to foil, like a cruel fate, the effort of the fly to survive in the struggle of life. The tragic death of the fly, indeed, symbolizes the tragic helplessness of man in his struggle against fate. The importance of the episode lies not much in the external matter but rather in the internal flow of mind, the symbolical suggestion of human helplessness. Herein lies the clue of the title.
The fly episode forms really an essential element in the story of the boss, of his sorrow and suffering for his dead son. It serves to generate both the tragic note and the psychological probe which forms the main impressiveness of the story. This episode is really relevant to the understanding of the inner meaning of the story, rigid enough, as well as human psychology, under the pressure of some grave disaster. In this context, the selection of The Fly as the title of the story is certainly appropriate and meaningful.
Also read: Significance of Woodifieled episode in “The Fly”