The Fly by Katherine Mansfield. Reading Response

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I chose to read this text as I knew Katherine Mansfield was a very famous author and I had heard great things about this particular text of hers.“The Fly”, by Katherine Mansfield, is a short story which can be understood best as social criticism of the British elders and military at the time of WW1. “The Fly” is centred on the time of WW1. There were elements in this text that makes it apparent when Mansfield writes about the “grave looking boy in uniform”, the ink and blotting paper and the light bulbs that looked like ‘pearly sausages’. This text points up the wastefulness of war through the killing of a fly.

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Something that I found interesting was the use of the fly as a symbol to the young men who went to war not knowing the horrors that awaited them. I first was given a glimpse of the meaning of this symbol when Mansfield writes, “The horrible danger was over; it had escaped; it was ready for life again”. This line in the text relates to the point that, no young men who are sent off to the war believe that they are going to die. Just the fly escapes one close encounter with death only to find itself doused with one blot of ink, then another, and another, and another. Many of the young soldiers in World War One were thrust forward into battle again and again until they, like the fly, were killed. As the fly is the boss’s plaything, and his little game, the soldiers were little more than pawns in a game of deadly chess conducted by officers who knew nothing of what it was truly like in the thick of the war zone. While reading this text I was effected on how privileged we are in New Zealand that we aren’t forced to go to war like they were in WW1. Young men were rounded up and sent on ships to a foreign land to fight for their country, not knowing about the turmoil that awaited them. In this day and age we are a lot more knowledgeable about war and the possibility of dying which goes with it. Although war is still going on in this modern age the difference in death toll is humongous. An example of the huge difference is that during World War 1 700,000 British soldiers were killed compared to a reduced amount of 454 during the war with Afghanistan. This difference is because in this modern age we are protected by human rights and we as humans can make our own decisions as to our pathway in life, which these soldier didn’t have. Katherine Mansfield is pointing up to us readers careful we need to be in life with our decision making. One wrong decision like going to the war or something with danger assigned to it could end our life or leave us with defects. This made me realise the importance of decision making as Grantland Rice says that “A wise man makes his own decisions, an ignorant man follows the public opinion”.

This shows how easy we can be ignorant and follow the opinion of others and not make our own decisions regarding what we believe in a value. Another aspect of this text which amazed me was that the boss keeps a photographic portrait of his son dressed in his army uniform in his office, despite the fact that he does not particularly like it. I became aware of this when Mansfield writes “He (the boss) decided to get up and have a look at the boy’s photograph. But it wasn’t his favourite photograph of his; the expression was unnatural. It was cold, even stern-looking. The boy had never looked like that”. He could have surely picked a better photograph to decorate his office wall if he really wanted to remind himself of the way his son was. This photograph seems to be there in order to properly influence him to mourn when he ‘arranges’ to do so, as well as to exhibit his xenophobia. It also allows him to preserve the image of his son as a soldier unblemished by warfare. The truth of his son’s wartime death, which was likely very gruesome and agonising, is something he refuses to acknowledge, as indicated by when Mansfield writes, “Although over six years had passed away, the boss never thought of the boy except as lying unchanged, unblemished in his uniform, asleep for ever”. The boss hadn’t gone to his son’s grave site in Belgium as doing so would shatter the image in his mind of his son being the type of valiant soldier popularised in wartime propaganda. This can relate to society as many young men in this modern era go to war not properly realising the risks and dangers that come with it. Most young men that go to war take it as something heroic and patriotic.

In this short story the Boss obviously doesn’t like remembering his son drying in the war showing the effect a war time death can have on family and friends. This made me think about all the families during World War 2 that lost loved ones due fighting in the war and how it would have effected them. This made me think of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s quote, “War is young men drying and old men talking”. During the 2nd World War there were a lot of young men pushed to the front line while older men stayed back safe and made the decisions. Katherine Mansfield is trying to portray to us readers the dangers of war and the effect a death can have on family and friends. Especially the effect the death of a son in war can effect parents, like the Boss in this short story. They can try and put the death out of their mind to try and forget about it happening, but the reality sadly never goes away.In this short story Katherine Mansfield uses symbolism by using a fly to show how young men went to war not knowing the horrors that awaited them. This highlighted the fact how young were rounded up during World War 1 and sent to fight for their country, without being able to make their own decisions. This made me feel thankful for the human rights that are in place in this modern age that give us young men the right to make our own decisions and not become forced to go to war. Katherine Manfeild also used the situation of the Boss having a photograph of his son but not particularly liking it. This shows the effect a war time death can have on parents, family and friends. This enforced the point that we need to be careful as to the decisions that we make in life and how one wrong one could put us in danger of potentially losing our lives or effecting us in a way we can’t change.

Works cited

  1. Brown, M. (2008). Katherine Mansfield: The woman and the writer. Edinburgh University Press.
  2. Caird, C. (2016). Writing the Great War: Fictional discourses of war from Galsworthy to Barker. Routledge.
  3. Fussell, P. (1975). The Great War and Modern Memory. Oxford University Press.
  4. Hynes, S. (1990). A War Imagined: The First World War and English Culture. University of Georgia Press.
  5. Johnson, V. (1999). Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life. Random House.
  6. Kershner, R. (2002). Civilization and its discontents: A reading of Katherine Mansfield's "The Fly". Studies in Short Fiction, 39(4), 379-392.
  7. Mansfield, K. (1922). The fly. In Bliss and Other Stories. Constable.
  8. Pearson, R. (2018). Katherine Mansfield and war. Edinburgh University Press.
  9. Poulaki, M. (2010). Katherine Mansfield's modernist aesthetics: At the intersection of Impressionism and Freudianism. Bloomsbury Publishing.
  10. Smith, A. (1993). Katherine Mansfield: A literary life. Macmillan International Higher Education.

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