Katherine Mansfield’s short story, The Fly has actually two characters the boss and Mr. Woodifield. The boss is the hero of the story, while Mr. Woodifield is his old friend and associate. Their intercourse and dialogue build up the materials of the story. There is much similarity between these two characters. Both of them are old men, although the boss is five years older than Mr. Woodifield. Both of them have to stand the bereavement of the loss of their only son on the front. Nevertheless, these two men are presented as utterly antithetical characters. In their physique, personality, position, nature, outlook and even feeling, they sharply differ from each other.
Of course, the boss stands head and shoulders above Mr. Woodifield. He is senior to him in age (‘five years older’). But he is superior to him in his bearing and function. He is a successful, prosperous businessman, and remains stout, rosy, strongly active at the helm of his business, even in his old age. But the case is different with Mr. Woodifield who is physically weak, rather infirm, and confined to a restricted life after the last stroke. He is allowed to come out only once a week to visit his old friends and associates.
Again, the boss lives in comfort, and is proud of his cosy arrangements and costly furnishment. But Woodifield has no personal capacity and stares ‘greedily’ at the boss and admires loudly his ‘new carpet’ and ‘new furniture’ and ‘electric heating’. He drinks voraciously the royal wine given by him. In fact, he looks quite pigmy by the side of the robust character of the boss. There seems hardly any analogy between the two here.
The boss is found to be sober and dignified in his talk. He is reserved and reticent, but perfectly polished and polite. He is a fine gentleman of dignity and personality. Mr. Woodifield is here quite opposite. He is too open, extremely garrulous, and has a touch of rusticity in his talk. He refers to the graves of the sons, but prattles sillily on the way the graves are kept or his daughters were cheated in the hotel.
In fact, the boss is quite deep and serious in his outlook and feeling. The shock of the death of his only son persists in him and pains him, despite his pelf and position. Time has not healed his wound in the least. He cannot recover to live his ‘loss down’, but finds life empty, meaningless without his only son. Mr. Woodifield, on the other hand, appears shallow and light. There is little of the seriousness of the boss in him. He has lost his only son, like the boss, but does not feel his own loss like him. He is more interested in superficial matters, and gives no expression to his own grave loss. He seems to have forgotten his dead son, but the boss can never forget what he has lost. Mr. Woodifield talks more, but feels little and understands little. But the boss’ feeling is too deep to be sounded, and the fly episode indicates how much he is possessed of sorrow for his dead son. Indeed, the boss has depth and dignity in his character, and these may well be contrasted with Mr. Woodifield’s superficiality and fickleness.
The boss is the tragic hero of the story, whereas Mr. Woodifield is only a foil to strike out the tragic element in his character. The former is definitely formidable, impressive, but the latter, frivolous and frail. The boss is actually a tragic figure, while Mr. Woodifield, somewhat clownish. The tragic aspect of the story is struck in the former, while what is comical and of low humour comes out in the latter’s talk and conduct. Of course, Woodifield is necessary to bring out what is serious and tragic in the boss.