Katherine Mansfield’s ‘The Fly’ is a perfect example of modern short story built upon existential dilemma. Here the crisis or dilemma centres on the theme of death. To be precise, the death of the two sopns of Woodifield and the boss, coming in the wake of the First World War. It is purposely constructed in a way that Mansfield brings only two characters, and since it's a short story, Mansfield hardly delves into their individualities. On the other hand, to serve the purpose of short story, the author intends to use them in a specific way that brings into focus the context of the human situation. Considerede in this light, Mr. Woodifield and his boss are both foils.
Woodifield's first remark about the boss is significant - "Y'are very snug in here". What he suggests is that the boss is very comfortable, nestled complacently in his self-created business firm which is to him his existential identity. But what is more significant is that the boss is happy and accepts existence and worldly possession as the only truth. His smugness springs from his absolute certitude almost like "certain certainties as T.S. Eliot hits off about the modern man in Preludes.
At the outset he turns out to be a typically shabby clerk who temporarily forgets the purpose of his visit. But Mansfield is spinning behind this apparent diffidence something else, which is nothing short of a grim irony. Mansfield so manipulates Woodifield that he is able to shake the fool's paradise in his existence that the boss flaunts. The wine offered by the boss to Woodifield works out as a subtle irony by reviving in the latter a much needed self-reliance so that he eventually remembers the purpose of his visit. He has come to inform his boss about the fine maintenance of the graveyard in Belgium where their sons lie buried. This reminder, which is solely due to the wine served by the boss, turns out to be the undoing of the Burgeois consciousness in the boss, turning him now into a bag of nerves.
Woodifield, on the other hand, is at last in his own elements. Now we find him to be steady, easy, casual and moderately complacent. He accepts in good humour the fate of his son as well as the boss', the ultimate reality and the unchangeable truth of death. His description of the graveyard bears the testimony of composure to mind. A little later, Woodifield shifts to the subject of his daughters’ stay in Belgium, talking about the daily casual little follies of life. Mansfield's own comment also shows his restored confidence -
"Then the old man brightened wonderfully"
All this is meant to denote how Woodifield accepts both life and death in their essential spirit. As it turns out, he is a normal man, although his appearance is calculated to shock the boss as an agent of faith and to make him ultimately accept his son's death just as he himself has done. The irony here is that though initially Woodifield appears almost as a non-entity to the boss, he eventually becomes the cause of his psychic breakdown.
"This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang, but with a whimper."
-T. S. Eliot [Hollow Man]