Symbolic Application of Language in The Fly

“The Fly” by Katherine Mansfield has been considered as one of the fifteen finest short stores ever written. Whether or not this is so it must surely the shortest of good stories. In the briefest possible space, an appropriate atmosphere of tender pathos has been built up. But its brevity is deceptive. There is far more in it to discuss than in many works ten times its length. The authoress banks on suggestive application of language rather than explicit statements. Mansfield achieves fame by raising short story to a new level of artistry and injecting into it a great psychological depth.

Two remarkable features of her technique pointed out by H. E. Bates in The Modern Short Story are that, influenced by Chekov, the Russian short story writer, she “ saw the possibilities of telling the story by what was left out as much as by what was left in, or alternately describing one set of events and consequences while really indicating another”; and secondly, “she delights in making her characters show their thoughts by a kind of mental soliloquy fluttering, gossipy, breathless with question and answer.

Michael Thorpe himself, the editor of Modern Prose, adds a third outstanding aspect of her method – which she shares, notably with D. H. Lawrence – is her sensuous aliveness by means of which she creates an intense atmosphere through clearly observed and suggestive details. Beginning from the title, the story is packed with suggestions. We are at once reminded of a Shakespearean statement in which we hear the pessimistic voice of old King Lear: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods/ They kill us for their sport”. The gods indeed kill men for their sport and fun and get some sadistic pleasure. And a few of them show courage and determination before they go down fighting.

The fly in the story symbolizes the unyielding spirit of man which withstands the onslaught of powerful adversaries. The boss stands for the wanton gods who are bent on destroying men for their sport. As the boss rescued the fly from the ink-pot, he “had an idea”, he was taken by a whim. The idea was to drag it into the arena of battle and put its life out. He dropped a blot of ink on it when it was “ready for life again”. It remained subdued under the drop of ink “afraid of what would happen next”. This feeling of insecurity suggests the boss’ fear of uncertainty regarding his son’s future.

The tenacious fly struggling for survival symbolizes the brave struggle of the boss’ son: he must have displayed before he fell. The link between the fly and the young boy – though not explicitly stated in the story – is implicitly suggested. That the boss places the fly and the son on equal footing becomes clear when he tenderly mutters to it, “You artful little b………….. ” ‘B’ stands for ‘boy’, his son, who looms larger in his mind. The boss enacts the dual role of destroyer and preserver because he finds a fundamental similarity between the fly and his son, the wanton gods and himself.

Symbolically interpreted, the story of the fly gains in tragic intensity. The son’s photograph kept for a long period on the boss’ table suggests a lot. The boss boastfully shows to Woodifield his “new furniture”, “news carpet”, “electric heating” but maintains practiced silence over the photo. This suggests the father’s desire to keep the memory of his son only to himself. He shudders to think the unblemished body of his son in uniform being exposed to the watchful gaze of others yet he finds the portrait far from satisfactory.

It is too stern and cold to be a true replica of his son. This suggests the boy’s figure has undergone an idealistic transformation in his mind. The storm clouds in the background are suggestive of the storm of grief brewing in him. A symbol is an object, character, or action that suggests meanings, associations, or emotions beyond what is characteristic of its nature or function. A symbols is like a diamond: compact, yet many faceted, throwing of light and picking up different colours as we turn it from side to side.

Authors are attracted to symbols because they convey a rich texture of meanings without the loss of compressions; they allow a writer to say – or suggest—much in a few words. Apparently insignificant articles assume importance in Mansfield’s hands. They are deeply suggestive. The paper-knife w may well illustrate this point. It appears twice in the story. In its first appearance, an indefinite article goes before it. With this paper-cutter the boss turns the pages of his Financial Times in a playful mood. Towards the end, the boss is shown lifting the fly’s corpse on it before it is finally thrown in the basket.

Thus with the same instrument the boss performs two acts of opposed characters, — one playful and the other murderous. This suggests the dual nature of the whimsical gods – their sportive spirit and their wantonly murderous intentions. Lastly a comment or two about the suggestively cryptic language used in the story. The incomplete sentence –“since his ……. stroke” – suggests the sudden break in the chin of thought. It invites guesswork on the part of a reader.

The jerky sentence with a few dots at the end – “He wanted, he intended, he had arranged to weep…………. Records the inability of the boss to burst out into tears: “Deeply regret to inform you………. ”is yet another instance which confirms the fact that “art lies in concealing art”. The half-uttered statement – “What was it? It was …….. ” – at the fag end of the story, may be treated as an internal monologue which is not explicit but deeply touching. One can increase the number of such occasions and moments where Mansfield has relied more upon implicit statements than upon flat comments and utterances. And these suggestive touches have added to the artistic finish of the narrative.