The Spider and the Fly: An Introduction
Do you listen to your ‘spider sense’? That tingling instinct warning you when something doesn’t seem quite right. It’s a feeling not easily explained, but worth regarding. Especially in a world where not everything is what it looks like. More often than not, ignoring those stay-safe instincts and good common sense doesn’t end well.
Now just because this is a dark topic, doesn’t mean that our approach has to be dark too. There’s a lot of interesting work in the form of satires, black comedies, observational comedies and other genres that allow us to look at serious things in life through not-so-serious eyes. Humour used like this is like bitter medicine taken with sugar – helps things go down easier. Today’s piece, ‘The Spider and the Fly’ is a funny little serious piece in this vein. The poem takes us through a spider’s ultimately successful attempts in enticing a fly into its web. Now, if only that fly would have kept listening to her ‘spider sense’…
Written by Mary Howitt in the 19th century, The Spider and the Fly is a cautionary fable that falls in this dark humour category. As most fables go, it anthropomorphizes characters to convey moral lessons. Anthropomorphism means to endow a non-human character with human traits and behaviours. For example, throughout the poem, we see the spider’s web described with features as in a normal human house. We see a pantry, bed, mirror, stairs and so on. These human touches also serve as metaphors giving the poem an absurd relatability that makes its moral lesson more memorable.
The poem syntax itself isn’t all too complicated. It follows a strict aabbcc scheme where the couplets (2 line verses) rhyme. Since it was tailored keeping children in mind, a lot of focus is put on visual imagery and easy sounds. Here are a few examples of the techniques we see used to this effect:
Repetition: Where words are repeated together. It is used extensively throughout the poem for emphasis and drama.
Line 5: “O no, no!”
Line 30: “Come hither, hither, pretty fly…”
Lines 36-37: Thinking only of her brilliant eyes, and green and purple hue;
Thinking only of her crested head — poor foolish thing!
Alliteration: Repetition of initial consonant sounds.
Line 7: soaring up so high (‘s’ sound or sibilance)
Line 19: You’re witty and you’re wise! (‘w’ sound)
Consonance: Repetition of similar consonant sounds in neighbouring words.
Line 16: “I’m sure you’re very welcome; will you please to take a slice?” (‘v/w’ sound)
Line 42: idle, silly, flattering talk (‘l’ sound)
Assonance: Repetition of similar vowel sounds.
The Spider and the Fly: stanza wise analysis
Will you walk into my parlor?” said the spider to the fly;
“’Tis the prettiest little parlor that ever you did spy.
The way into my parlor is up a winding stair,
And I have many pretty things to show when you are there.”
Thus begins the spider’s pursuit of the fly – with a charming invitation into his home. Yet this sociable chat is edged with a sense of mistrust, a sense of danger that comes with these two characters, the spider and the fly, being natural predator and prey.
Pay close attention to the spider’s words. The spider describes his parlour as the ‘prettiest little parlor that ever you did spy’. The act of spying is to watch something secretly. We share secrets and confidences with our close ones. Inviting the fly to spy into his abode, the spider is trying to send the message that he considers the fly to be close. See how the spider portrays his home as a mysterious wonderful place. More details are added to arouse the fly’s curiosity. The parlour may be reached through a ‘winding stair’ and it is filled with ‘many pretty things’.
“O 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.”
Thankfully, the fly wisely sees through the spider’s deviousness. She knows that those who go through the ‘winding stair’ into his home never come out. It implies she is aware that the spider has eaten his previous guests. This is one extended invitation she shouldn’t be accepting. She clearly declines, telling the spider that to ask her into his home is ‘in vain’ – or useless.
“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.”
The spider has been keeping a close eye on the fly. He tries a different tactic for his next move. This time the spider feigns concern.
Posing as a sympathizer, the spider pretends to fret over how tired the fly must be (I’m sure you must be weary, dear) after what he feels is a day of intense flying. He goes so far as to personally offer her a respite from the day’s activities. The cunning villain also adds a subtle dose of flattery. ‘Soaring up so high’ is how he describes the fly’s flight. He hopes the fly will lower her guard if she feels that she has a kindly shoulder to lean on.
And how temptingly he offers his prospect of a little rest like offering water to a thirsty traveller. A cosy little bed, with light sheets to rest on. A quiet place, with pretty curtains drawn around to make it cool and dark. To an exhausted person, this would be a bliss. The perfect atmosphere to ‘snugly tuck’ in. This means to ensure a comfortable snooze, by securing the bedsheets closely around oneself.
Interestingly, the ‘fine and thin’ sheets bring to mind the fine silk of a cobweb. If the spider tucks the fly into this bed, she could find herself in permanent slumber.
“O no, no,” said the little fly, “for I’ve often heard it said,
They never, never wake again, who sleep upon your bed.”
Then again, perhaps the spider tried too hard when he proposed to personally tuck the fly in. Weary or not, the fly is still alert to the perils of falling for the spider’s flattery. She turns him down on his own offer, remarking that everyone knows of the spider’s ill repute as a host. As she hears, no one who goes for a sleepover at the spider’s, ever wakes up again. Her refusal is not just based on her own observations now.
This time, she is even more firm. In addition to her “O no, no!” note her repetition of ‘never’ for emphasis- “They never, never wake again, who sleep upon your bed.”
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?”
Still the spider perseveres. Now he tries to manipulate the fly into feeling guilty for not accepting his many gestures of friendship.
“Dear friend, what shall I do…? Here’s the catch though- the spider is eager to prove his friendship – but is still on his terms. At the end of the day, he’s using guilt as another roundabout way to get the fly into his home. “I have within my pantry good store of all that’s nice”– These constant invitations to see or sample something or another in his house is almost a pitiful refrain. He is desperate and at his wit’s end (or so it seems) on how to gain the fly’s trust.
“O no, no,” said the little fly, “kind sir, that cannot be;
I’ve heard what’s in your pantry, and I do not wish to see.”
It’s commendable the way the fly fights politeness with politeness. She addresses the spider as ‘Kind sir’ – a dainty reply to his ‘Dear friend’. It shows that while the fly shows courtesy to the spider, she is not keen on him as a friend and will still keep her distance. The fly then proceeds to firmly turn down his invitation and tactfully alludes that she already knows what’s in the spider’s pantry (his past victims) and is not interested in knowing more.
“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 step in one moment, dear, you shall behold yourself.”
Vanity is the spider’s choice weapon now. He heaps flattery on the fly. In praising her wit and wisdom, the spider sends the message that he acknowledges that the fly is a smart cookie. This well-placed compliment could have lulled her into a false sense of security, for the fly could assume that she was smart enough to see through the spider’s evil plans. And the enemy himself admitting this – heady praise indeed!
Immediately after, the spider begins to praise her loveliness – those gauzy wings and brilliant eyes. The spider speaks as if the fly does not realize her own beauty. He wants to show her how lovely she is. Again an invitation, to see herself in the looking glass. One moment is all he asks of her, one moment is all he needs.
It’s something to note that until now, the spider used to ask for the fly’s consideration – Will you walk into my parlor? Will you rest upon my little bed? Will you please to take a slice? But this time he’s not asking. His temptation takes the form of a suggestion. It’s almost as if there is a strategy to these tactics he uses.
“I thank you, gentle sir,” she said, “for what you’re pleased to say,
And bidding you good-morning now, I’ll call another day.”
You sense the change in tone. From the earlier unhesitating “O no, no!” our little fly doesn’t seem too vehement in her refusal now. True, she hasn’t accepted the spider’s invite; we could even say she is stalling. After all, the fly still hasn’t specified when she will visit the spider. But while she hasn’t said yes, she hasn’t given an outright ‘no’ like she used to earlier either.
This hesitation from the fly and not an outright falling for the spider’s flattery is an insight into the poet’s understanding of the human psyche. Very rarely do people change their stances/opinions suddenly unless something drastic occurs. This juncture is also a kind of watershed moment where the reader senses that the fly may actually be warming up to the spider. It also creates suspense – will the fly fall for the spider or will she stand by her better instincts?
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 wove a subtle web, in a little corner sly,
And set his table ready to dine upon the fly.
After all that talk of the fly being witty and wise, we now see what the spider actually thinks of the fly – he calls her ‘silly’. Like so many others he has lured before, he is confident that she has predictably fallen for his honey tongued scheme. Up until now, just like the fly, we had our suspicions – the fly’s discomfort, her observations on the guests that never return, the rumours about the spider, the spider’s continuous wheedling to come to his home. But it is at this point in the poem, that the spider’s evil intent becomes clear.
While we may still be guessing as to whether the fly will stay away, the spider seems to be in no doubt of the outcome (For well he knew the silly fly would soon be back again). You can literally see him gloating. He weaves a web not easily noticeable (a subtle web) – ready to trap the fly. His devious plan comes to light as he sets his table for the fly – not as his guest to dine with, but as his feast to dine on.
Then he came out to his door again, and merrily did sing
“Come hither, hither, pretty fly, with the 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.”
‘Come hither, hither, pretty fly,’ the spider calls out eagerly. Feeling like he has baited his prey, the spider rapidly reels the fly in with vivid flattery. The ‘robes of green and purple’ refer to the colour of the fly’s body, the ‘crest’ or crown likely the fly’s antenna. ‘Gauzy wings’ have now become ‘pearl and silver wing’; ‘brilliant eyes’ are now ‘eyes like diamond bright’. More exquisite detail follows – in fact, you’ll be hard pressed to find a fly described so tantalizingly anywhere else.
Note the use of simile here. The poet likens the fly’s bright eyes to diamonds, against the spider’s dull eyes which are compared to lead. The spider is self-depreciating so as to highlight the fly’s beauty.
Alas, alas! how very soon this silly little fly,
Hearing his wily flattering words, came slowly flitting by.
‘Alas, Alas!’ – The poetic lament for ‘Oh no!’ is uttered! With these words, one can only foresee doom for the fly. What’s even more vexing is that the fly was actually a wise creature at the beginning. But as the poet says Alas! – Vanity will be her downfall and she becomes silly and foolish. Lured in by the spider’s devious sweet talk – his ‘wily, flattering words’– the fly sets aside her sensible self. Yet, there’s still a part of her that is wary of how safe the situation is. We see her ‘slowly flitting by ’– guardedly testing the waters as she comes closer to the spider’s home.
With buzzing wings she hung aloft, then near and nearer drew
Thinking only of her brilliant eyes, and green and purple hue;
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!
Our worst fears are realized. Mesmerized by thoughts of her reflection, she gradually approaches the spider’s web. Unheeding her instincts, the fly hardly offers any resistance. Note the lines where the poet repeatedly stresses how the fly is ‘thinking only of her…’ Clearly engrossed in her own beauty, the fly is impervious to the danger she is in.
This was the moment the spider had been building up so long for. Quickly, he pounces on her – ‘fiercely held her fast’. Now deadly and focused on his goal, the spider wastes no time. The home that he had so charmingly described before reveals its deadly designs. As the poem rapidly takes us through the spider’s winding stair, his dismal den, his little parlour; our foreboding is realized and we know there is a grisly end for the poor fly. For just like she remarked once of the others before her, ‘she ne’er came out again!’
Consider the portion ‘at last’. It is an example of enjambment and is the only such line that occurs in the poem. Enjambment is a poem composition technique where a verse breaks midway to continue as the next line of verse. So you see the ‘at last‘ portions serves a dual purpose. It can be read as a common part of 2 sentences in this case:
- …poor foolish thing! At last — The fly finally fell victim to the spider.
- At last, Up jumped the cunning spider — The spider finally achieved his goal.
And now, dear little children, who may this story read,
To idle, silly, flattering words, I pray you ne’er give heed;
Unto an evil counselor close heart, and ear, and eye,
And take a lesson from this tale of the Spider and the Fly.
There’s a change in the narration style of the poem as the poet ends her tale. She breaks off from the storytelling mode and directly addresses her audience, offering up a warning or moral to conclude the poem.
‘Take a lesson from the Spider and the Fly’, the poet counsels. Be distrustful of useless, sweet talk that is insincere. Not all praise or advice is genuine, therefore you must be careful of who you listen to. ‘Unto an evil counselor close heart, and ear, and eye’ – For that matter, the poet would rather like us not coming into contact at all with sweet tongued people with not-so-sweet intentions.