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The Spider and the Fly by Mary Botham Howitt | Summary and Analysis

The Spider and The Fly Summary

The Spider and the Fly : The poem

          The  Spider and the Fly is a cautionary fable that highlights the disastrous consequences of flattery  on gullible and naïve minds. Originally meant as a lesson for children, The Spider and the Fly has gained universal popularity due to its continued relevance to this period. The figure of the spider is used to shed some light on the actions and the underlying intention of various manipulative elements within our society. It also demonstrates how vanity and pride can have a crippling effect on the workings of an otherwise discerning mind.

The poem features a spider who attempts to trap a fly through flattery and deception. After exhausting various devices to coax the fly into entering his web, the spider lavishes flattery upon the fly who ends up getting trapped in the spider’s web. Curiosity might have killed the cat but it is flattery which finishes off the fly.

The spider initially tries to tickle the fly’s  curiosity by describing the sights  in his ‘parlour’. He then offers a resting place for the “weary” fly, followed by an offer of  delicious food. Ultimately, it is the lethal dose of praise and flattery which kills the winged narcissist.

 

 

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Summary and Analysis of The spider and the fly

 

The Spider and the Fly : Summary and Analysis

 

Stanza 1

 “Will you walk into my parlor?” said the spider to the fly;

 “Tis the prettiest little parlour that ever you did spy

The way into my parlor is up a winding stair

And I have many pretty things to show you when you are there.”

 “Oh no, no” said the little fly “to ask me is in vain,

for who goes up your winding stair can ne’er come down again.”

This poem by Howitt is brought to life through the witty dialogues of its chief characters. The different natures and motives of the characters and the results arising from the exchange of their viewpoints makes this poem a lively and memorable piece of work. In this regard, a sound understanding of the characters, the nature of their interaction and the underlying mechanism of such interaction is fundamental in analyzing the poem.

The poem opens with a seemingly  harmless request by the spider who asks the fly to “walk into” his “parlour“.  One very important aspect to notice about the spider is his masterful use of language. He presents the offer in the most innocuous manner, as if he is really asking  the fly to  take a stroll in his “parlour”. Highly euphemistic in nature, the word “parlour” is used to replace the word “web“, thus removing any sign of danger which may tip off the fly. He follows up the offer by subtly furnishing the details of the  nature of the place  (parlour),  the direction to the parlour ( up a winding stair) and then reinforces the offer  by saying that it has many “pretty things“. In short, he sneakily suggests the fly to act upon the offer and highlights the fine points of that offer so as to remove any suspicion about the subtle suggestion he’s just made.  The spider is a smart devil.

The spider appeals to the fly’s curiosity and sense of sight in the first stanza by tempting him with the pretty sights of the parlour. However, the spider has toiled in vain. The fly sees through the ploy of this scheming arthropod politely declines the offer. Thank you very much.

Notice how the fly taps into the spider’s vocabulary  while phrasing her reply. In the first stanza, the fly takes the word “winding stairs”  initially used by the spider while politely declining the offer :

Spider : The way into my parlor is up a winding stair

Fly : “Oh no, no” said the little fly “to ask me is in vain,

for who goes up your winding stair can ne’er come down again.”

We see her do  this  in every stanza until the final stanza where is she unwittingly  gives in to the spider’s request.

 

Stanza 2

“I’m sure you must be weary, dear, with  soaring up so high;

Will you rest upon my little bed?” said  the spider to the fly

“There are pretty curtains drawn around, the sheets are fine and thin,

And if you like to rest awhile, I’ll snugly tuck you in .”

“O no, no” said the little fly, “for I’ve often heard it said,

They never, never wake again, who sleep upon your bed”.

The spider now assumes familiarity and attempts to endear himself to the fly. Notice the first stanza began with a question. The second stanza makes an assumption  prior to asking the question. The spider surely is experimenting by weaving  different patterns of word-webs.

The assumption “I am sure you must be weary” is followed by the intimate “dear“. The fly though, is more wary than weary. She sees through his plan and is quick to write off this proposal as well.

Notice  the spider’s use of “curtains”  and “sheets” to remove any hint of a dangerous web. The same strategy is visible in his use of the adjective “little” while describing his ‘bed‘. The use of the term ‘littleevokes a sense of daintiness  which perfectly suits  the dimensions of the fly and hardly  comes off as malevolent.  The spider is very skillful at dropping the words which do not produce the desired effect on the listener  and using the words that do. The spider’s repeated use of the word “dear”  in this stanza and the ones that follow can be seen as similar attempt on   his part. By endearing himself to the fly , the spider assumes intimacy in this stanza to lull the fly’s  caution to sleep. He takes it to such dramatic heights that he almost sounds like a caring parent putting a child to sleep:

“And if you like to rest awhile,  I will snugly tuck  you in.”

The fly sees through this trick yet again and latches on the spiders use of the word “bed” to decline the offer :

Spider :Will you rest upon my little bed?” said  the spider to the fly

Fly : They never, never wake again, who sleep upon your bed“.

 

Stanza 3

Said the cunning spider to the fly “Dear friend, what shall I do,

To prove  the warm affection I’ve always felt for you?

 I have within my pantry  good store of all that’s nice;

 I’m sure you’re very welcome, will you please to take a slice?”

“O no, no”  said little fly ” kind sir,  that cannot be;

I’ve heard what’s in your pantry, and I do not wish to see”

In the third stanza, the  spider  tries  to send the fly in a guilt-trip by suggesting that she is  unfeeling and unresponsive to the spider’s affections: to the extent of forcing him to  prove the warmth and affection he’s always felt for the fly. The  use of the word ‘always‘ builds on the spider’s assumed familiarity as seen in the second stanza .  Notice the effect of assonance which cloaks  the spider’s offer with sweet-sounding vowel sounds:

Said the cunning spider to the fly “Dear friend, what shall I do,

To prove  the warm affection I’ve always felt for you?

The spider then appeals to the fly’s sense of taste and uses food to tempt the fly in this particular stanza. However, the fly is quick to latch on to the word ‘parlor” and gives a fitting response. There’s no such thing as a free lunch. And the fly knows this. She declines a happy meal and saves herself form becoming a happy meal. So far, the spider isn’t lovin’ it at all.

 

Stanza 4

Sweet creature!” said the spider “You’re witty and you’re wise!

How  handsome are your gauzy wings, how

brilliant are  your eyes!

I have a little looking-glass upon my parlor shelf

If you’ll l step in one moment, dear,  you shall

 behold yourself!”

 “I thank gentle sir”  she said for what you’re pleased to say

And  bidding you good morning now, I’ll call another day

The fourth stanza is fraught with exclamation marks. And flattery. This stanza is  where the fly begins to falter, thanks to the spider’s unwarranted praise. The spider builds upon the fly’s previous comment and showers praise by calling her “witty and wise” with “gauzy wings and brilliant eyes“. He taps into the fly’s narcissism and tempts her to have a look at his own face in a little (again the use of this adjective) looking glass. Notice the spider’s language in the second line:

How  handsome are your gauzy wings,

 how brilliant are  your eyes!

The spider repeats the words ‘how‘ while emphasizing the beauty of the fly. And this isn’t coincidental. Rather, this stanza reveals the spider making full use of a rhetorical technique called anaphora.  Indiscriminately used  by figures ranging from the politicians to the preachers, anaphora utilizes the repetition of   words in quick succession at the beginning of a sentence so as to deny  the listener the time to think critically about what is being said. (It’s only natural that religion and politics is where this device is used the most). The glib spider is therefore actually using a tried and tested rhetorical device to lure the fly in. It isn’t the real  web which proves fatal for the fly. Rather, it is the carefully woven intangible, invisible web of words that kills the fly. The poor creature can’t see it coming because it can be seen in first place!

As mentioned earlier , the wily spider’s strategy follows a particular pattern: of dropping the techniques that do not work and sharpening the ones that do. This will become more evident in the next stanza where the spider dramatically heightens the  compliments about the fly’s fine features which she seemed to like in this stanza.

Here, one may carefully consider the spider’s promise that may serve as an entry point to an archetypal criticism of The Spider and the Fly :

I have a little looking-glass upon my parlor shelf

If you’ll l step in one moment, dear,  you shall

 behold yourself!”

Now, to behold is to see. To see is to know, visually. An interesting antecedent to the abovementioned lines can be seen in another old story :

You will not die”, the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes shall be opened,and you shall be like God, knowing good and evil”.

Of course, in this case we have Serpent (Satan) trying to seduce Eve into eating the fruit from the tree of knowledge which results in banishment of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. It is here where we can pin the poem’s subtitle when it was first published : The Spider and the Fly- A New version of an Old Story.

The reason why this poem is so familiar to us is because it is an archetypal story couched within the appearance of a children’s poem. The Spider is the archetypal figure of the Tempter and the Fly represents the unwary victim and we see this archetypal story abounding across various myths and cultures where the two figures can be substituted by others to reproduce what is essentially the same story, whether it be Satan and Eve, Zeus (in the form of a swan) and Leda, The Sirens and Odysseus, Mara and the Buddha…the list goes on.

Unlike the previous stanzas where the fly had detected and used the spider’s language  ( bed, little, parlour) while giving her response, she   isn’t able to do so in this particular stanza. Rather, she drops a huge hint that she isn’t totally averse to the spider’s offer by saying ” I will call another day “. The spider pounces upon the suggestion and uses it in the next stanza

 

Stanza 5

The spider turned him round about, and went into his den,

For well he knew the silly fly  would soon be back again:

So he would a subtle web, in a little corner sly,

 And set is table ready to dine upon the fly.

Then he came out to his door again, and merrily did sing

Come hither, hither,  pretty fly, with a pearl and silver wing

Your robes are green and purple; there’s a crest upon your head;

Your eyes are like the diamond bright, but mine are dull as lead.”

We now witness the spider’s strategy reach  its zenith. He has located the fly’s trigger button. Sure of the fly’s   return, he  retreats to his ‘den‘ to set the table for the next meal by weaving a ‘subtle’ web, quite like his subtle conversation. He applies the same technique that he found effective in the previous stanza but this time, he takes them to  dramatic heights. Instead of throwing compliments, he literally sings odes about the fly. The ‘gauzy wings‘ of the previous stanza is turned into “silver wings“. Similarly, the “brilliant eyes” of the previous stanza is said to be “like the diamond“. Similies are used to entice the fly. Comparison to pearl, silver  and diamond smack of luxury and objects of desire. The the colors green and purple  which forms the ‘robe‘ of the fly connote ideas of prosperity and royalty respectively. The last line cleverly employs the element of contrast through which the spider further increases the intensity of the spotlight on the fly’s finer features by dimming his own :

Your eyes are like the diamond bright, but mine are dull as lead.

It is worth noting that the adjectives “bright” and “dull” aren’t merely used to describe the physical features of the fly. The words are also associated with the mental faculties of being bright and being dull. This ties in the fact that the fly also loves being called “witty and wise”. By downplaying his own cleverness through an astute, virtually undetectable word-association, the spider is inflicting mental machinations on a subconscious level that the fly doesn’t even begin to recognize.

 

Stanza 6

Alas, alas! how  very soon this silly little fly,

 Hearing his wiley flattering words, came slowly

 flitting by

With buzzing wings she hung aloft,  then near and

nearer drew

Thinking only of her brilliant eyes, and green and

purple hues;

Thinking only of her crested head -poor foolish thing! At last

Up jumped the cunning spider, and fiercely held her fast.

 He dragged her up his winding stair,  into his dismal den;

Within his little parlor ; but she ne’er came out again!

The poor fly sadly succumbs to the   spider’s seduction. Flattery did what food, curiosity and other temptations could not. The fly hovers around the web and is drawn towards  it dangerously. The use of anaphora  to     brilliantly capture the fly’s state of mind is strongly felt :

Thinking only of her brilliant eyes, and green and

purple hues;

Thinking only of her crested head -poor foolish thing!

 

It is almost as if the fly is  hypnotized by the spider’s flattery. The fly throws caution to the winds and unlike in the previous stanza, her faculty of reason completely shuts down as she inches towards disaster. The spider then pounces and drags the fly to the den from which she is never to return again.

The seventh and the final stanza is didactic  in nature that  warns children to beware of flattery and unwanted praise heaped by the spiders of the real world who are on  a constant lookout for gullible flies . It warns little children to be  cautious of the wily predators found in real life by attributing a human-like quality to the spider and does a great service in doing so, for some humans are spiders too.

 

 

 

 

The Spider and the Fly : About the author

Born to a Quaker family in Gloucestershire in 1799,   was one of the most prolific female writers of the Victorian period. She wrote numerous short stories and poems amo ng which the ones written for children are popular to this day.

Homeschooled by her father, Howitt was encouraged to read and write  from a very young age. As a kid she  was attracted to and awed by nature and natural wonders. This deep impression on a young mind can be felt in much of her fiction. The austere Quaker upbringing wasn’t quite to the liking of young Mary and she married the writer William Howitt.

William Howitt  possessed great literary talent and theirs was  union of both hearts and minds, thanks to the shared love for literature and synergy  of their literary pursuits. The duo co-authored numerous books and the  The Howitts soon moved to London and the decision extended their list of literary friends and acquaintances that included Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Barrett Browning among others. Later,  Mary  visited Scandinavia and picked up Swedish and Danish. She also translated the earlier works of Hans Christian Andersen whose writings had a great impact on her and who later visited her house.

The brilliant use of fiction to demonstrate some  realities of the natural world so as to render it both enjoyable and understandable for children is a task no other Victorian writer has carried out as effectively as Howitt.

Howitt also vehemently championed the  suffrage cause. She converted to  Catholicism later in life and visited Rome where she died in  1888   due to bronchitis.

 

 


 

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