The poem, a fable, narrates an incident involving a spider and a fly. In order to entice the fly to enter its web so that it can eat it, the spider flatters the fly. The fly, knowing well the intentions of the spider, refuses the invitation. But ultimately , taken in by the spider’s sweet words, comes very close to the web and is caught and eaten. Thus, the poem cautions us against cunning flatterers.
About the Poet
Mary Botham Howitt (1799-1888) is an English writer who wrote on various subjects ranging from histories of America and Magic, stories and poems for children, novels, a two-volume autobiography, and translated works by Hans Christian Andersen. ‘The Spider and the Fly’, a tale in verse, is one of her most popular works even today. She is, and will be, remembered by this simple, tragic tale which has a clear message, relevant in our age. She started writing poetry at an early age.
Howitt received her early education by her very strict and austere father. She rebelled against his authority by marrying William Howitt in 1817. The couple moved to Heanor where they ran a pharmacy, but soon came to Nottingham where they lived for over twenty years. Howitt came into contact with many famous literary figures such as William and Dorothy Wordsworth, Charles Dickens and Alfred Tennyson. In her later years, she worked against slave trade.
Her way of writing made the style of children’s book easy to understand and more readable. Mary’s own tales for children became a hit. In 1839, Queen Victoria gave George Byng a copy of Mary’s book Hymns and Fireside Verses.
About the Poem
‘The Spider and the Fly’ is a simple but tragic tale with a clear message. It first appeared in Howitt’s collection of Sketches of Natural History (1834), a series of poems meant to tell children about the harsh realities of the natural world . It is a cautionary tale against the dangers of flattery often resorted to by the cunning, evil-minded persons. Flattery, it shows, can prove to be fatal at times.
The poem narrates a simple tale through conversation between the spider and the fly. The spider is hungry and wants to eat the fly. The fly knows the danger of entering the spider’s web. She knows that those who enter the web never come out. Even then she is tempted to come close to the web, and is caught by the spider and carried inside his web. The fly obviously gets eaten. How does the spider lure the fly? At first, the spider invites the fly to come up to his parlour (web). Then he convinces the fly that his bed is very comfortable for her to rest. Then he proclaims his affection for her and offers her many things. Finally, he flatters her by praising her wings and eyes. After flattery, he is sure that the fly will return, and she does return only to be caught.
The Cunning Spider : A spider lured a fly, that had happened to come up to his web, to come into his drawing room. In order to tempt the fly, it praised the room highly, saying that it was the prettiest room she had ever seen. He told her to come through the winding stair to his room. The room, he added cleverly , had many rare things for her to see.
The little fly who seemed to know the cunningness of the spider lost no time in declining the invitation. She said that she would not get tempted as she knew that whoever went there never came back again.
Unyielding Spider : The spider did not give up. He said that the fly must be tired for she had flown very high. He asked her to come to his room and rest in his little, comfortable bed. He said that there were beautiful curtains round the room. The bedsheets on the bed are quite fine and delicate. He added that if she wanted to rest in his room, he would himself put her down on the bed comfortably.
The fly again declined the spider’s offer, saying that she knew that those who ever slept there never got up again.
Words of Affection : The clever spider, then, called the fly his dear friend and asked her what he could do to prove his sincere love for her. He said that he had everything nice to eat in his store. She should come and take a slice or so.
The little fly respectfully turned down the invitation, saying that she knew very well what was in his store and she had no desire to have a look at the things in it.
Flattering Words : The spider called the fly a sweet creature who was both witty and wise. He exclaimed that her wings were silky and her eyes were shinning. He said that he had a small mirror on the shelf of his room. If the fly came into the room, she could herself see her own image.
The fly thanked him for what he said, and said that she would come some other day.
Spider’s Confidence : The spider turned round and came to his dirty cell. He knew well that the foolish fly would soon return. So he wove a web quickly and secretly in one corner of his cell. He got his table ready to dine upon the fly. Then he came out of his cell and began to sing happily. The song was addressed to the fly to come to him. He praised her by saying that she had pearl and silver wings, her robes were green and purple, and a crest was on her head. Her eyes were as bright as diamonds while his won were as dull as lead.
The Fatal Return of the Fly : The little foolish fly heard his clever, flattering words and soon flew back. With her fluttering wings she hung herself at the upward web. She went closer and closer, thinking of her brilliant eyes, green and purple colour and the crest of her head. Finally, the cunning spider jumped at her and held her firmly. Then he dragged her up to his winding stairs and then to his dark cell, from where she never came out again.
Moral : The little children , who may read this story , should pay no heed to useless, foolish, flattering words of a wicked counsellor. They should not be affected by such words and take a lesson from the story of the Spider and the Fly.
Stanza by Stanza Explanation
‘Will you ……….. again.’
The Spider invited the Fly to walk into his drawing room. He said that it was the prettiest room she had ever seen, and that the way to the room was through a winding stair. He added that he had many rare things to show her when she was there. The Fly declined the invitation emphatically, saying that it was useless to ask her to come as whoever went up his winding stair could never come down again.
‘I’m sure ………. upon your bed.’
The Spider said that he was sure the Fly must be tired from flying so high, and asked if she would like to rest on his bed in his room. There were pretty curtains round the room, and the sheets on the bed were really fine and delicate. The Spider added that if she wanted to rest for a while he would put her on the bed comfortably. The Fly again declined the invitation emphatically and said that she had often heard that those who slept upon his bed never woke up again.
‘Said the cunning ……… to see!”
The cunning Spider called the Fly his dear friend and asked her what he could do to prove the warm affection he had always felt for her. Then he said that there were many delicacies in his store to taste, and asked her to step in and had just a slice of anything she liked. The little Fly respectfully declined the invitation, saying that could not be as she had heard that what was there in his store and that she had no wish to see what he had there.
‘Sweet creature …….. another day.’
The Spider called the Fly sweet creature and praised her as being witty and wise. He flattered her saying that she had beautiful gauzy wings and her eyes were very bright. He said he had a small mirror on the shelf of his drawing room, and that if she stepped in for a while she would have a glimpse of herself. The fly politely and respectfully thanked him for what he was pleased to say, and bidding him good morning, said that she would come come other day.
‘The Spider ………. lead.’
The Spider turned round and went into his dark cell. He knew very well that the Fly would soon return. So he wove an intricate web quickly and secretly in one corner of his cell. He set his table ready to eat the fly. Then he came out of his door again, and began to sing a song in a cheerful tone : ‘Come here, pretty Fly, with pearl and silver wings. Your dress is green and purple. There is a crest (design) on your head. Your eyes are as bright as a diamond, whereas my eyes are dull like lead.’
‘Alas, alas ! ………… came out again !’
It was sad that the stupid, little Fly, on hearing his cunning, flattering words, came slowly flying near the web. With fluttering wings she hung herself at the upward web. Then she came closer and closer to the web, thinking only of her shining eyes, her green and purple colours and her crest on her head. She was really a fool. At last, the Spider jumped up and caught her. He dragged her up his winding stair to his dark den within his drawing room, from where she never came out again.
‘And now, ………………… the Fly.’
And now, dear children (who may read this story), I request you never pay heed to useless, foolish, flattering words. You should never see or hear a wicked counsellor; nor should you have any soft feelings for such a person. Take a lesson from this story of the Spider and the Fly.
‘The Spider and the Fly’ brings home the idea that we need to be wary of flattering words. The cunning and evil-minded persons resort to flattery to have their way. They use sweet words to lure the innocent and gullible people, knowing fully well that they will succeed in their aims.
In the tragic tale, the fly knows it well that it is dangerous to enter the spider’s home (web). She spurns the spider’s invitation and tempting offers at first. She is only taken in by his flattering remarks about her wings and eyes and she returns to have a glance at her beauty in the so-called mirror in the spider’s web. The spider’s words are too enticing for her to ignore :
“Come hither, hither, pretty Fly, with the pearl and
Your robes are green and purple; there’s a crest upon
Your eyes are like the diamond bright, but mine are
dull as lead.”
It is interesting to note that the spider is cocksure of the effect of his words. He is not worried when the fly goes away. He knows that the little fly is silly enough to take his words seriously and is sure to return to confirm what he has said in her praise. The narrator calls him ‘wily’ and the fly ‘silly’. Thus, she makes her message clear to the readers.
The last stanza of the poem points to the dangers of flattering words. The narrator, after telling the story, addresses the readers (children) to be wary of those who use pleasing words to get something they desire:
And now, dear little children, who may this story read,
To idle, silly, flattering words, I pray you, ne’er give
Unto an evil counsellor close heart, and ear, and eye,
And take a lesson from this tale of the Spider and the Fly.
The tale makes us conscious that the wicked men use sweet words to snare the innocent for their evil design. They employ a variety of tricks to lure their victim. They invite for lunch or dinner; they offer comfort and luxury; they promise to give many precious things; they praise and admire even the ugly and the repulsive. No wonder, the innocent gets trapped. Women, especially, become the victims of manipulating flatterers.
Literary Devices used in the poem
Personification : In personification , human qualities are given to a non-living creature or thing. In the poem,
- The Spider and the Fly are treated as humans. They talk and behave like human beings. So they are presented with the capitals, ‘S’ or ‘F’ as Spider and Fly. The pronouns used for the Spider are ‘he, him, his’, whereas for the Fly, ‘she and her’.
Simile : It is a comparison between two persons or objects, introduced by ‘as …..as’ or ‘like’; as,
- Your eyes are like the diamond bright, but mine are dull as lead!
The comparison is quite telling and it does work. The fly is enticed successfully with this pleasing comparison and contrast.
Metaphor : In a metaphor, two things are completely identified. It is also a sort of comparison.
- parlour, a metaphor for web
- web, a metaphor for the trap
Alliteration : It is the repetition of consonant sounds in a sequence of nearby words; as,
- How handsome are your gauzy wings. (‘h’ and ‘g’ sounds)
- So he wove a subtle web, in a little corner sly. (‘w’ and ‘l’ sounds)
Tragic Tale : The poem ‘The Spider and the Fly’ tells a tragic tale involving two creatures, a spider and a fly. Both the creatures have been personified. The tale is simple but told in a way that a tale should be told. The situation is suggested; the proper atmosphere is built up; and the suspense is maintained till the end. The spider, being cunning and wise, knows that the foolish fly, whom he wants to eat, will be easily taken in by flattering words. When the fly refuses to step into his web, he uses the last trick that he knows will not go in vain. He utters flattering words to entice the fly:
- How handsome are you gauzy wings, how brilliant
are your eyes !
- 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 diamond bright, but mine are dull
No wonder, the fly gives up all cautions and surrenders herself to the pleasing words. The spider shows no mercy, catches her firmly and drags her to his den to dine upon her.
Message : Like any other fable, this fable too, conveys a moral towards the end. We should pay no heed to flattering words of the wicked counsellors. The moral is directed to the little children. Why can’t it be extended to everyone , especially women who become easy prey to their flatters? Perhaps the poet had adult men and women in mind when she personified the spider and the fly as male and female.
Fable in Form : In the form of the poem is like a fable in which animals talk and behave like humans. It is simple, straightforward and chronological. As it is meant for the children, its language is easy to understand. It is divided into seven stanzas of varying length using the couplet form aabb. The rhyming words – Fly, spy; stair, there; vain, again; high, fly; thin, in – are mostly linked to the main idea in the story and help in building the proper atmosphere and advancing the tale further . The rhythm varies to conveys the change in the mood. As such there is variation in line lengths.
Language : It is noteworthy that the spider uses the words ‘shew’ in place of ‘show’ and ‘hither’ in place of ‘here’. The fly does not use such dated words. Her dialect, a particular form of language, as such, is different from that of the spider. The repetition of some words for emphasis is also necessary to convey some character traits. The fly is overcautious and determined to resist all temptations, so these words – “oh no, no” – are purposely repeated.
The narrative intrusion was quite common at the time when the story was written. It is essential in the story as it is meant for the little children who, the narrator feels, need clear-cut direction as to what the story aims at.