The Boss in Katherine Mansfield's "The Fly"

Updated on December 9, 2017
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Poet, blogger, college professor, literature, and film enthusiast. Excited about critical and creative writing. Pursuing a Ph.D. in English.

The development of short stories as a genre can be seen as a new way of negotiating with the newly understood complex fields of modern and post modern human experiences. From this perspective, Katherine Mansfield’s “The Fly” may be seen as both a suspended moment within a spacio-temporal context as well as a boundless expanse of human existence. The characters, despite being very few in number, are richly drawn. The Boss is no exception.

The Boss vs Woodifield

What strikes the readers at the very beginning is the namelessness of the Boss. This becomes more and more disturbing when the readers try to think about the possible reasons. At the very onset, the central character is seen to engage himself in a struggle, to fit himself in a structure, of a conventional boss of an enterprise who is in control of his own as well as other people’s lives. He might be successful in fooling Woodifield (“It did one good to see him”), but the readers are not to be deceived so easily. The deliberate eagerness to show off his renovated chamber, or a surprise in the form of a “nutty” whiskey, is juxtaposed to his conscious reluctance to discuss about his son, framed in the photograph. This tendency to fortify himself against emotional intruders is totally upset with the old man’s remark about the boy’s grave: “It was exactly as though the earth had opened and he had seen the boy lying there with Woodifield’s girl staring down at him.”

The Boss: Portrayal of Denial

It might be from a sense of superiority that he can not accept such uniformity of human destiny beyond death. We see in him a constant state of denial. Equally disturbing is the way in which he makes a conscious preparation to mourn his son’s death over again with deliberate weeping. The failure to do so becomes, as James Joyce would have called it, a moment of epiphany. The moment of motionless contemplation extends in a flashback to construct a roadmap for the readers into the Boss’s mindscape. The fly episode becomes a correlative of the complex maze inside the Boss’s mind.

Short stories can be like photographs, catching people at some moment in their lives and trapping the memory for ever . There they are, smiling or frowning, looking sad, happy, serious, surprised ... And behind those smiles and those frowns lie all the experience of life, the fears and delights, the hopes and the dreams.

— Katherine Mansfield

The Fly Episode: Key to the Boss's Mind

His initial desire to torture the fly, followed swiftly by an equally intense desire to support it and relieve it of its misery, could be a result of his duality in accepting his son’s death. A child can understand this as a simple proposition—the fly was suffering in ink, his son had suffered in the murky trenches; the son had died, so the fly should also die. Following such a line of logic, the desire to save the fly may be seen as an urgency in the Boss to control at least one destiny. His words transform into a feverish chanting: “…that was the way to tackle thing… never say die”. On the other hand, his ingrained feeling of superiority made him unwilling to allow the fly any privilege that was denied to his son. What appears as cruelty on his part could have been a result of his failure to stabilize his mind about suffering, destiny and death.

Leslie Heron Beauchamp (1894-1915), brother of Katherine Mansfield, in the uniform of the South Lancashire Regiment.  There is a clear echo of her brother's sufferings in the trenches in the story "The Fly"
Leslie Heron Beauchamp (1894-1915), brother of Katherine Mansfield, in the uniform of the South Lancashire Regiment. There is a clear echo of her brother's sufferings in the trenches in the story "The Fly" | Source

From Particular to Universal

The “grinding feeling of wretchedness”, transforming into fear, triggered in his mind an almost deliberate amnesia. This is the moment when the father in him breaks through the bounds of his external persona to appeal to every father of all times. This is where the particular becomes the universal, the limited becomes the boundless and we understand the true significance of his namelessness.

This universality is something which links the boss to Shakespeare’s King Lear on one hand and to the mother in Tennyson’s “Home They Brought Her Warrior Dead” on the other. The most unique thing about the character of the boss is that Katherine Mansfield makes the readers relate to Gloucester’s words in King Lear:

"As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport”.

The questions raised by the father of the five-year-old girl in “Pearl”, or the words uttered by Maurya in Synge’s Riders to the Sea, reiterate in the actions of the Boss. The egoism in his initial high-handed attitude shown to Woodifield transforms into a humble surrender and an awareness of his barrenness, through a potent handling of parallelism and contrast. Ironically, despite his deliberate urge to establish his superiority, the boss becomes one with his aged subordinate. The story begins with Woodifield’s forgetting. It ends with the Boss’s failure to remember.

The Boss: Portrait of Modern Man's Despair

Within a brief span, we come to a full circle sans pity sans fear, experiencing a catharsis that leaves a mark in our memories. The Boss becomes a universal figure of despair who has no refuge but in forgetfulness. For him, even the memory of his encounter with a petty fly needs to be flipped off into a waste-paper basket. He becomes the microcosm of a generation which was left to mourn the onslaught of the all-pervasive World Wars. His plight is not just the suffering but the futility to eradicate suffering in others. The boss is a sum total of the post-modern man’s sense of denial and despair, which sees every bit of action as a reinforced reminder of his worthlessness.

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