Katherine Mansfield’s short story The Fly has a touching theme of a father’s profound sorrow for the untimely death of his only son, on whom he had much reliance. The boss, the hero of the story, is the bereaved father whose only son was killed on the front some six years back. The deep pang of his parental heart is roused by his associate Mr. Woodifield who visits him and speaks of the well-preserved grave of his son in Belgium. The story centers around the sad feeling of the bereaved father at the revival of the old sorrow, that remains so strong underneath and makes him so restless.
Katherine Mansfield’s story is brief. There is not much action. The whole interest lies in the psychology of the hero after his old grief is pricked. The character of the hero, the boss, is revealed in this psychology, which actually forms the basic interest of the story.
Of course, Mansfield has well represented certain external features of her hero. She has well emphasized his wealth, reputation, culture, and refinement. He is quite prosperous and influential and has fine tastes and decent manners. He is old but strong and active enough to remain still at the helm of his prosperous business. He lives in sufficient comforts, with amenities, and is rather proud of his costly and cosy arrangements. He is also perfectly hospitable and polite. He is kind and gentle to Mr. Woodifield who is much below him in position and personality, and he offers him royal wine.
Indeed, Mansfield presents in her hero the portrait of a strong, sound, and natural man. He is a man of dignity and personality, and remains ever restrained and reticent in conduct and talk. In this respect, he stands as a sharp contrast to Mr. Woodifield who is rather over-frank and garrulous. Indeed, the boss appears to be a fine, dignified gentleman.
But nothing of all these elements constitutes the essence of the character of Katherine Mansfield’s hero. What stands out prominently in the story is the father in him. The storyteller’s main purpose is to focus his character as a father who has lost his only son on the front. The story reveals his great affection for his son and his grave affliction at his untimely death. The son died six years before, but his memory is never dead to him. Time, known as the great healer of human sorrow, is found powerless in his case-“Other men perhaps might recover, might live their loss down, but not he.” His son was all to him and ‘even since his birth’ he ‘had worked at building up this business for him.’ Life seems to have no meaning, no purpose to him, without his son. So he cannot forget him and his sad parting from him. That matter happened six years ago, but it seems to be a matter of yesterday only. Sorrow for his dead son sits too deep in his heart, aches him constantly. This is the portrait of the father in the boss- a loving, sorrowing father whose life has become empty, without the son on whom he reposed so much.
Of course, the boss, Mrs. Mansfield’s hero, appears rather cruel towards the end of the story in his dealing with the little fly. He causes ultimately the death of this little creature, which apparently is an act of utter cruelty. But here, again, his fatherly feeling predominates. His sorrow for the loss of his only son is staggering and makes him feel too much the blow of his cruel destiny. He is exasperated in a state of desperation and places himself in the role of destiny to see how far struggle and forbearance can go. He plays cruelly with the fly, as the unkind destiny, and thereby he expresses and perceives what is deeply sad and sorrowful in his own life. The death of the fly is painful to him. ‘A grinding feeling of wretchedness possesses him.’ He sees his own helplessness in the helpless death of the little fly. His sorrow sits deeper and he feels positively frightened. His killing of the fly is no deliberate act of cruelty. It is merely a repercussion of the dreadful sorrow that sucks deep into his fatherly heart and haunts him constantly.
The boss is, indeed, no callous, cold-blooded criminal. His cruel dealing with the little fly is definitely quite unbecoming of his age and position. This does not seem to have, too, any reason or purpose. Yet, he is involved in such an act with maddening cruelty. Herein lies his intricate psychology. Lost utterly in distress and desperation, he has recourse to an act that he does not possibly understand. And so when the fly lies dead, he comes to his sense and becomes thoroughly frightened. He can no more bear the situation and wonders what this is all and does not remember his doing at all.