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Twentieth Century Fiction
Prof. Avishek Parui
Department of Humanities and Social Science
Indian Institute of Technology, Madras

Lecture – 05
The Fly – Part 2


So, hello and welcome to this NPTEL course entitled Twentieth Century Fiction, where we were looking at Katherine Mansfield’s short story, ‘The Fly’. So, we already had some lectures on this. So, we will just continue from where we left off last time. So, we see how this story is obviously, very modernist in terms of looking at memory, in terms of looking at trauma and streams of consciousness, but also equally this is a story about masculinity and masculinity crisis post First World War, something which we have seen already in Mrs. Dalloway and also to a lesser extent in Eliot’s early poetry. Now, well the three obvious in the story is how there is an allegorical quality about the characterization.
So, the boss and the boss’s son are very allegorically representative of certain kinds of masculinity; the boss being that of robust domineering, hegemonic masculinity, socially, prestigious you know and lots of money, healthy robust, etcetera. Whereas, the son is someone who is supposed to step into that same shoe and we see how the First World War, which can also be seen as a masculinist event or masculinist expansionist event of greed and territorialization. Ironically, the First World War actually interrupts this masculinity narrative in his sense of killing the son.
So, the boss’s son has been killed in the war and we see how that interrupts the entire narrative in the story and contrasted with the boss we have someone like Mister Woodifield who was obviously, very senile, very fragile and who represents a very enormous disembodied kind of masculinity, enervated, exhausted, etcetera. and the exhaustion and enervation are quite obvious in Woodifield’s characterization and we see how he seemed to have moved on from the point of trauma. I mean he too had lost a son in the war. Son is called Reggie, and we see how his wife Gertrude and his daughters had been to Belgium, to take a look at his son’s grave, and he was not there in Belgium.
So, you know he represents in a whole story of visiting the son’s grave, in a second hand information way, to the boss and we saw how the entire metaphor the entire rhetoric the entire vocabulary in terms of how Woodifield describes his son’s grave is very touristy kind of vocabulary; very touristy kind of rhetoric. It is not really the rhetoric of a grieving father or a mourning father and you know instead it is the rhetoric of a visitor, a tourist. He goes and looks at the gaze is very touristy and the gaze is important over here, because he goes and he describes he has not been that, but he describes how the paths are nice and broad. How the graveyard was beautiful looked after.
Then he talks about the price of jam in the hotels, etcetera, and how the entire hotel industry is blossoming around this trauma tourism as it were, but what obviously, gets or does not get highlighted or rather what is an inconspicuous, what is a conspicuous absence in Woodifield’s description is any real sentiment for a son’s loss and conspicuous absence is very important thing in Mansfield’s fiction, because it is a very as you can see from the story it is a very economic kind of expression, has an economy of expression, it is very minimalist, very sparse in terms of how it is represented and you know there is a lot of things packed into it say conspicuous absence becomes a very important point.
So, for instance there is no mention at all about the boss’s wife or the son’s mother, it would happen to be the boss’s wife. So, the mother is conspicuously absent in the story. There is no mother figure at all. It is entirely about the boss and his heir, the son and how he is heirless now, because son has been killed in the war. So, this very masculinist kind of universe is something which is obviously, parodied and critiqued by Mansfield. This is very scathing feminist critique on the First World War and only women we get to know over here are Woodifield’s wife and daughter.
So, when we see how post First World War, they seem to have more agency over Woodifield, I mean they seem to decide when he is released to a city, they seem to decide to dress him up, to brush him and release him to the city just so he can go and visit his old friends and also they are the ones who travel to Belgium to take a look at her son’s grave and not Woodifield. Woodifield is just repeating what he heard from the woman back to the post.
We see how at the beginning of the story how the boss had draped almost violently decided or tried or orchestrate or engineer this entire architecture of newness around them right.
Everything is new; the carpet is new; the heating is new; the bookcases are new, etcetera, but amidst all this newness there is a spectral photograph of the boy something which is quite old and almost six years old and obviously, we know now that the photograph of the boy is exactly what holds the key to the boss’s trauma.
Now, before I move on to the next section where Woodifield has left the room and the boss was you know had been patronizing in the beginning, poured in whiskey, had sort of a very sexist comment on woman’s lack of understanding. So, all that hegemonic masculinity bits were all covered and marked embodied.
Now, the moment the grave of the boss’s son was mentioned, the moment the grave of Woodifield’s son was mentioned that is the moment when the boss’s masculinity is so shaken up a little bit, because we see now that he does not really have a male heir to carry on his kingdom per say right. So, this heirlessness is something which is becoming obviously, part of the loss the sense of existential loss, the boss suffers now.
Now, what this story does and I have an article which I am happy to upload in the course of this particular NPTEL course on Twentieth Century Fiction. I have a published article on this particular story that I am happy to share in the platform that we have, but in that article and also elsewhere and also here, I would like to make the argument that there is a very perverse equation over here between masculinity and trauma or traumatophilia or hysteria to some extent.
Now, hysteria as some of you would know had traditionally been medicalized as a female malady, something which happens only to women, because it is part of the woman’s body and the man, the male body can never be hysteric. Now obviously, that all changed with the First World War, because post First World War we had something called a shell shock which is something which anticipated what we now called PTSD or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, where we have this very muscular strong, manly men coming back from the trenches shivering, like children shivering, like quote unquote women.
So, suddenly it was very spectacularly evident that men could also be nervous, men could also be hysteric. Obviously, hysteria had been always historically medicalized as a female disease the female malady. So, new name had to be given to this male condition and a new name for a time was shell shock and then later on of course, it became more classified medically and military medicine we know now as, PTSD. Now, interestingly in this particular story what we get to see in a moment we will see, how the boss basically congratulates himself on his masculinity by retaining in his mind, the original moment of trauma the original experience of trauma. In other words, he always wants to feel exactly the same way as he felt six years ago, when the first news of his son’s death came to him right.
So, that was a big moment for him and his loss in his mind is bigger than anyone else’s loss right and that sense of superiority that sense of entitlement to one’s trauma is very perverse thing, but it is exactly what happens over here. So, he has a sense of entitlement to this trauma and at one point he will say he will think and it will be told to us that other men might live the loss on; other men might move on; other men might just make peace for that, but he the boss could never do it, because his son is dead and that is a very-very special kind of tragedy. So, we can see how the equation between trauma and masculinity gets established in the story in a very-very complex psychological manner okay.
So, we see at this point where the Woodifield is about to leave, leave the boss’s office and as the boss is seeing him out, he came around his desk and this should be on the screen. He came around by his desk, following the shuffling footsteps to the door, and saw the old fellow out. Woodifield was gone. For a long moment the boss stayed, staring at nothing.
So, again we can say this is probably staring at nothingness, which is staring back at him right. Staring at nothing, while the grey-haired office messenger, watching him, dodged in and out of his cubby-hole like a dog that expects to be taken for a run. So, again look at the you know animal metaphors used over here, the infantilized metaphors, animal metaphors all be used very-very interestingly right. So, and then he says: I will see nobody for half an hour, Macey,’ said the boss. Nobody at all.
So, we see how even the office messenger has a name Macey, but the boss and the son do not have a name at all. So, again this is part of the allegorical quality about this characterization over here. ‘Very good, sir.’

So, Macey is obviously, her job is to say yes to whatever the boss says. The door shut, the firm heavy footsteps, the firm heavy steps recrossed the bright carpet, the fat body plumped down in the spring chair, and leaning forward, the boss covered his face with his hands. He wanted, he intended, he had arranged to weep. So, the last bit is interesting over here because we can see how the boss is making this entire ritual about weeping. He is going back to his office, his fat body is plumped down a spring chair and he is covering his face with his hands and we are told that he wanted, he intended, he had arranged to weep.
So, the entire idea of weeping, the entire hysteria of mourning becomes a masculinist activity over here which is a subversion in some sense of the stereotypical understanding of mourning and hysteria, but the interesting thing is the boss here, wants the appropriate, the sentiment of mourning and add that to his masculinity and he wants to appropriate a sentiment of hysteria and add that to his masculinity right.
So, the whole idea of equating masculinity and trauma becomes interesting and we see over here, how we are told that he wanted, he intended, he had arranged to weep. So, weeping obviously, becomes a ritual, a part of the ritual or fall out of the ritual. So, he had intended he had arranged to weep and he better start weeping now. So, that becomes part of the masculinist, almost muscular control or motor control over his own senses.
So, he intends to have he wants to have entire ownership or absolute ownership of his motor mechanisms including weeping. It had been a terrible shock. We get this back story now a little bit. It had been a terrible shock to him when old Woodifield’s sprang that remark upon him 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 girls staring down at him. Again, this becomes almost like a Medusa stare where the woman looks at the man and turns them into stones. He is literally a stone, he is literally a tombstone now and in some of his dreams or nightmares or visions the boss thinks his bravest son is opening up and his son is inside the grave lying unblemished forever.
So, there is no degeneration whatever, but Woodifield’s daughters and wife are staring at him. It is really freezing Medusa kind of a stare that a woman gives to the man over here and that in a sense is an experience of emasculation for the boss as well as for the son who is dead now right. So, the son is immobile, almost stuck in the coffin, he does not know where to go, does not know what to do and the woman are staring at him as if you know they are turning him into a stone further right. So, for it was strange. Almost six years have passed away, the boss never thought of the boy, except as lying unchanged.
So, in the boss’s mind, the boy had always remained unchanged. You know six years ago whatever he looked like, whatever he seemed like that is exactly the way he has stayed in boss’s imagination okay. Unblemished in his uniform, asleep forever. “My son!” groaned the boss. But no tears came yet. In the past, in the in the first months and even years after the boy’s death, he had only to say those words to be overcome by such a grief that nothing short of a violent fit of weeping could relieve him.
So, this is a point in the story where we begin to get a sense of the boss’s hubris. You know what a hubris is. Hubris is false pride. It is something which we had borrowed from the Greek tragedies, something which is there in almost all tragic heroes, the otherwise impeccable, the otherwise, perfect otherwise very-very good and caring except the fact that they have hubris to think too highly of themselves, that the vanity overshoots, eclipses the good work that they do.
So, you know and the boss over here obviously, will exhibit hubris, you know he would tell himself that his son was the only son. So, everyone else might be moving on, but he does not want to move on he cannot move on, because you know his son is the only son. So, whenever we see how he also taught himself in his mind that he can control his emotions, he can control his crying at will right.
So, I can cry anytime I want to again I can emote anytime I want to as far as my son’s death is concerned and remembering that is concerned, and this is a hubristic statement that he had made earlier to people. Time, he had declared then, he had told everybody, could make no difference. Other men might perhaps might recover, might live the loss down, but not he.
So, again this is a classic hubris statement where he says I defy time, I challenge time to dry up my weep and this exactly is what happened in the story just becomes almost a revenge of time in some sense, but the boss at this point at least wants to enact you know some kind of revenge on time where he tells time openly that you know other men might have looked down, but no matter how much time goes away I am going to be stuck to this mourning figure forever right.
So, I will be the perfect mourner as the time could make no difference. Other men perhaps might recover, might live the loss down, but not he. So, again this hubristic understanding of himself becomes interesting over here, other men might live the loss, so other men may move on, but not he, not me. I lost my only son except as if he was the only father with an only son in the entire Europe, in the entire world fighting the First World War okay.
Other men might live the loss down might recover might live the loss down, but not he. How was it possible? His boy was an only son. So, it is almost as if no one else had an only son who got killed in the war, but again look at the very myopic parochial and also quite entitled view of the boss, only son. Ever since his birth the boss had worked as building up his business for him; it had no other meaning if it was not for the boy. Life itself had come to have no other meaning.
How on earth could he have slaved, denied himself, kept going all these years without the promise forever before him of the boy stepping into his shoes and carrying on where he left off? So, again look at the conspicuous absence of the woman figure over here. The conspicuous absence of boss’s wife or the son’s mother over here.
So, everything is projected through the boss, everything is focalized to the boss, obviously, that is critiqued by Mansfield in a very-very subtle and scathing manner, but what he is saying, what the boss is thinking over here is you know the entire life of the boss had been to prepare something which the person like him same gene, same blood, same body, will step in and carry on and hopefully at some point his son will also emerge and it will give him this kingdom.
So, it becomes constant and endless chain process and endlessness is exactly what is interrupted by the death of his son and that is something which we will come back to later okay. So, he was a very promising son, he was beginning to flower as an employee, as a boss, as someone who is devastating and ruthless and cunning in business which is exactly what the boss is, but then all that has come to an end, because of one incident and again look at the way how this incident has been narrated to us. And that promise had been so near been fulfilled. The boy had come in office learning the ropes for a year before the war.
So, the boy who had come to the office, learning about the trade you know getting accustomed to the trade for almost one year before joining office. Every morning they had started off together; that had come back by the same train.
So, the boss and the son they would go out together, you know the boss would go to his cabin and the son would go to the site perhaps and then he would do some very-very menial jobs which is going to please the boss quite well right.
So, we are told that you know every time they used to go out together, come back together and this entire narrative of intimacy between the boss and the son is interesting, because again the other parent is absent, the other the spouse is absent and the mother figure, the wife figure is entirely absent.
We are not even told if she is alive or dead, it is that sense of absence which is there, which is articulated over here. And what congratulations he had received as a boy’s father! No wonder; he had taken to it marvelously. As to his popularity with the staff, every man jack of them down to old Macey could not make enough of the boy. And he was not in the least spoilt. No, he was just say his bright natural self, with the right words for everybody, with that boyish look and the habit of saying, ‘Simply splendid!’
Now, this bit is interesting, if you want to take a look at and those of you interested in research in masculinity, this is definitely a very key point. If you take a look at the rhetoric used in this particular point, simply splendid and not least be spoiled very industrious you know and very-very enterprising that is exactly the brand of masculinity created by the boy scout movements in Europe and America and other parts of England especially, in England and this brand of boy scout masculinity is exactly what informed the empire and the entire imperial expansion.
Now, the boy over here is obviously, part of the imperial expansionist program, because the boy is someone we do not quite know what the boss’s business is, but obviously, he seems to be quite ruthless in terms of his business enterprise. So, it could be something which is morally dubious, we do not quite know, but the whole point is the son was prepared was being groomed, was been trained to take over the kingdom from where the boss had left right and he seems to be this very boyish, enterprising, industrious kind of person who everyone likes.
So, he had this boyish look and he had this habit of saying simply splendid. So, everything was simply splendid to him, made it alliterate and again that becomes veryvery boyish, boy scout-ish kind of a movement, boy scout-ish kind of rhetoric, used by the boy over here.
So, we see how the entire construct of masculinity is applied over here. The boy is someone who is supposed to take over from the boss and how this entire takeover is supposed to take place in a very seamless way and the seamlessness is interrupted exactly by the First World War and this is what we are told. But all that was over and done with as though it never had been. So, in one flash for instance everything came to an end how.

So, the day had come when Macey had handed him the telegram that brought the whole place crashing about his head. ‘Deeply regret to inform you.’ And he had left the office a broken man, with his life in ruins. So, this is a very standard telegram sent out to all the you know parents who lost their sons in the war.
So, if you see movies of First World War, we find that as a long template which is being tapped over the typewriter; we regret to inform you and as a blank space to which in which the name is filled in and other biographical details are filled and whether the template is very standardized and that actually makes it very-very cold—the fact that the institution of military is letting you know that you have lost a dear one in the war and then the entire impersonal touch makes it even more menacing.
So, the rhetoric over here is quite impersonal in quality and that had obviously, fueled the boss’s trauma. So, deeply regret to inform you and he had left the office a broken man, his life in ruins. So, again if you take this point and go back to the beginning of the story find how the boss is trying to reconstruct himself.
So, he had been broken by the First World War, by the death of the son and now he is making an effort to reconstruct himself by getting more material markers—an electric heating, you know and different kinds of things right. Six years ago, six years. How quickly time passed! It might have happened yesterday. The boss took his hands on his face; he was puzzled. Something seemed to be wrong with him. He was not feeling as he wanted to feel. He decided to get up and have a look at the boy’s photograph. It was not a favorite photograph of his; the expression was unnatural. It was cold, even sternlooking. The boy had never looked like that.
So, again this is a moment of epiphany for the boss’s son, you know and the boss is obviously, looking at the boss’s son through a very focalized frame over here and a focalized frame is a photograph. Interestingly this is a photograph which is supposed to project a certain sentiment to the boss; he wants to cry, he wants to weep out his sorrow, he wants to weep out his mourning and he is looking at the photograph to get a trigger from which he is going to weep, but then he realizes this is not a good photograph of the son.
So, he needs a different photograph. So, it almost becomes something erotic in quality. I am looking at a photograph to have an erotic experience, this release that the boss talks about over here is obviously, there is a quasi-erotic quality by this release, because that also reestablishes his masculinity, because he know he thinks he is in complete control of everything around him and the sense of control gives him a sense of entitlement.
So, he needs to know everything he needs to have this entire knowledge of everything. So, that brand of masculinity which is all controlling all knowing all traveling that has just come to an end over here after the First World War and hence, we have Woodifield locked up in his house.
So, the all old travelling bit is completely gone, the daughter, the wife they all take over in terms of running the house hold and they only granted permission to come to the city every day except you know every Tuesday, every week right.
So, that becomes his only relief that he can look forward to right. So, the question of agency becomes important in this sense, because agency stereotypically has always been a manly enterprise, but post First World War we find how agency becomes more sort of inverted in quality. So, wife and the daughters who travel to Belgium, is they who report back about the jam, is they who haggle with the jam prices you know in the hotel rooms and like I said is they who gave a report to the trauma in terms of how the traumatic, the sites are kept now in terms of the buried soldiers right.
So, that degree of mobility and agency is now conferred or now visible with a woman rather than the men. The men, obviously, senile and they are waiting to die. They are two grieving fathers and they obviously, quite they have nothing do forward to. The only thing they had to look forward to is the sons, that the creation of the sons in terms of being heirs to the kingdom, but that possibility is now permanently gone, it is precluded okay.
So, he is trying to take a look at the boy’s photograph and relieve himself by crying right. He is got his clothes off, he is looking at the photo and tries to relive himself through a very bodily functional way, but we are told that the you know the boss is unable to carry out, it is almost a performance anxiety about weeping.
So, again if we take a look at weeping, mourning, hysteric weeping, hysteric mourning, these are stereotypically speaking very-very feminine activities quote, unquote feminine whatever that means, but the boss is trying to appropriate those activities in terms of reestablishing his masculinity and therein lies a complication in this story right.
So, he is trying to look at the famous photograph of the boy that which that would help him to weep that would help them to gush out his pent-up emotions, but he cannot find anything at all okay. And then you know obviously, we are told that the expression was unnatural. It was cold, even stern looking right.
So, it was not really warm and the way the boss wanted it. At that moment the boss noticed that a fly had fallen into the broad ink pot. So, this is not a pointless story where a fly episode takes place, it is obviously, quite symbolic in quality as well right.
So, you see that fly fall into a black ink pot, and was trying feebly, but desperately to clamber out again. Help! Help! Said those struggling legs. So, again look at the way in which the entire insect is now magnified and right so, we can see the legs, we can see the front leg, we can see the back leg, we can see two wings. Everything can be seen in a very magnified way right.
So, that becomes an interesting way of representation. At that moment the boss noticed a fly. A fly had fallen into this his broad inkpot, it was trying feebly, but desperately to clamber out again. Help! Help! said those struggling legs. But the sides of the inkpot were wet and slippery; it fell back again and began to swim. So, it was becoming a bit of a Sisyphean enterprise right.
So, it is like the birth of Sisyphus, where you know you push a stone on top of a wall and then it the stone rolls on again you have to go to do it again and you are doomed to do it forever right. So, there is a Sisyphean quality about the fly over here, it has got a blot of ink falling over him, it is obviously, very injured, but he wants to get another chance he wants to leave this place as soon as possible. So, the fly obviously, is exhibiting the kind of masculinity, that a boss wanted his son to exhibit and the boss wanted himself to exhibit right.
So, you know so, it fell back again and began to swim. the boss took up a pen, picked the fly out of the ink, and shook it a little piece of blotting paper. So, he takes out the fly and puts in a blotting paper. For a fraction of a second it lay still on the dark patch that oozed round it. Then the front legs waved, took over, and pulling, and you know its small sodden body up, it began the immense task of cleaning the ink from his wings.
So, what happens is the boss rescues the fly here now but he also drops a blot of ink on her. So, now, obviously, she is very-very concerned, you know the fly becomes concerned and the fly tries to restart the entire process.
So, again this whole idea of restarting and returning to the point of action gives it a Sisyphean quality, it is like the fly’s doomed forever to keep restarting okay.
So, for a fraction of a second it lay still on the dark patch that oozed round it. Then her front legs waved, took hold, and, pulling the small sodden body up, it began the immense task of cleaning the he ink from its wing.
So, again you know it is trying to clear the wings on his ink, because it cannot fly with such heavy ink on it okay. Over and under, over and under, when a leg along a wing as the stone goes under the scythe, over and under the scythe. So, stones and scythe metaphor is interesting, because scythe has traditionally been seen as a vehicle of death right. So, if you find old medieval tragedies you find describe, they always come in with this sense of death and this whole idea of having this the scythe metaphor. The scythe metaphor is something which carries a sense of mortality to it in a very symbolic way right.
So, we know already if we read the metaphor close enough. We know already the fly is doomed into performing something that you know would lead to its ultimate demise. Then there was a pause, where the fly seeming to stand on tip of its toes, tried to expand first one wing and then the other. It succeeded at last, and, sitting down, it began, like a minute cat to clean its face.
So, again the fly had been careful with his wings and now, he feels he sits in front of the you know the entire magnification takes place over here and we find that how the fly is equated with a minute cat and not just that if you take a look at the description of fly, the legs, the you know the entire right leg, left leg thing as if as a human being has been shown a very graphic and magnified detail.
So, the magnification is interesting over here, they are looking at a fly who is almost big enough to be a minute cat. So, you know you can compare how big the fly is. It is obviously, very hyperbolic in quality.
And no one could imagine the little front legs rubbed against each other lightly, joyfully. The horrible danger was over; it had escaped; it was ready for life again right. So, but then just then the boss had an idea.