The Fly by Katherine Mansfield: Summary & Analysis

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  • 0:04 The Fly: Background
  • 1:11 Synopsis
  • 2:23 Symbolism
  • 3:22 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ginna Wilkerson

Ginna earned M.Ed. degrees in Curriculum and Development and Mental Health Counseling, followed by a Ph.D. in English. She has over 30 years of teaching experience.

Katherine Mansfield's short story 'The Fly' is a social commentary conveyed in an allegorical and symbolic manner. In this lesson, we'll review the story's plot and analyze its underlying meaning.

The Fly: Background

When you first read 'The Fly', a short story by Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923), it may seem like a simple, straight-forward narrative about a man killing an annoying fly. But what if your teacher told you that you missed something? Maybe he or she told you that there's an underlying meaning to the story. There definitely is, but you need to understand the context of when the story was written and why in order to see the symbolism.

Mansfield's story is an allegory, or a literary, visual, or other work with a metaphorical, moral, political, or social meaning. One of the most famous examples of an allegorical tale is Edmund Spenser's The Fairy Queene, an epic poem first published in 1590. He details all the ups and downs of Queen Elizabeth I and her court, while making allegorical references to virtue, and the religious and political issues of the time.

Katherine Mansfield's 'The Fly' is no different in its attempts to create allegories. Let's first take a look at the plot of 'The Fly' and then let's analyze it to discover these allegories.


To understand 'The Fly,' readers need to approach it in the context of World War I. The character, Mr. Woodifield, is talking to his friend, referred to in the story as 'the boss,' a wealthy man whose son who died in the war. Woodifield is struggling to remember the reason why he came to talk with the boss, which he seems to remember after he drinks the fine whiskey he's offered. He then mentions his own deceased son and that of the boss.

When Woodifield departs, leaving the boss to contemplate his dead son, the fly of the title finally enters the story. After the fly gets stuck in an ink pot on his desk, the boss helps the creature out, noticing how it dries itself. However, once the fly has recovered, the boss drops a blob of ink on it. After admiring the fly's courage, he drops another blob of ink on the insect. The boss watches the fly dry itself again, although with less vigor than it did the first time. By the third drop of ink, the fly has been severely weakened, and dies.

The boss throws away the fly and blotting paper. The incident leaves him feeling disturbed, but he can't quite make the connection between the dead fly and the memory of his dead son.

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