‘The Spider and the Fly’ by Mary Howitt was published in 1828 with the subtitle, “A Cute Version of a Scary Story.” It was first seen by the public in The New Year’s Gift and Juvenile Souvenir. Since its publication the opening line of the poem, ‘Will you walk into my parlor?’ said the spider to the fly” has become very well known. It has appeared within a number of other publications and the full poem was adapted at least three times for cinema. The text has also been used by composers and musicians, including The Rolling Stones.
The poem is contained within seven stanzas that follow a consistent pattern of aabbcc, alternating as the poet saw fit from stanza to stanza. This rhyme scheme is particularly effective because it forms couplets, or sets of two lines. The separation into smaller sections allows a reader to move quickly through the pairs.
Another important technique used by Howitt is repetition. There are a few moments such as in line 30, with the words “hither, hither.” The spider is luring the fly closer and the repetition makes the phrase more menacing. A reader should also take note of the instances of consonance. This is the repetition of consonant sounds in a single phrase. A perfect example is in the second line with an emphasis placed on the ’t’ sound: “’Tis the prettiest little parlor that…”
Summary of The Spider and the Fly
The poem begins with the speaker describing the first efforts of a spider to lure a fly into his dark and evil home. On his first attempt, the spider tells the fly that his “parlor” is lovely. It is a place anyone would want to be and it is open for the fly to visit. She declines and then declines three more times as the spider tries other tactics to lure her in.
The final speech the spider gives flatters the fly’s vanity. This does the trick and eventually, she comes back and is eaten by the spider. The poem concludes with the speaker reminding the children reading the text not to pay attention to false words and evil counselors.
Analysis of The Spider and the Fly by Mary Howitt
“Will you walk into my parlor?” said the spider to the fly;
“‘Tis the prettiest little parlor that ever you may spy.
The way into my parlor is up a winding stair,
And I have many curious things to show 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.”
The syntax of this piece is pretty straightforward. This is due in part to Howitt’s intention that this piece is read to or by children. Also, the majority of the lines are made up of dialogue. The two speakers are a spider whose ultimate goal is to attract a fly to its “parlor” and the fly who does her best to resist. In the first line, the spider begins by asking the fly, very nicely, if she will come to the “parlor.”
He adds on the enticing detail that it is the “prettiest little parlor.” The spider is trying to play down the fear the fly should feel about his lair. It is “little” and pretty—not at all foreboding. From the first line, it is easy to tell that the spider has ulterior motives. A reader will be very aware that nothing good will happen to the fly if she agrees. In order to reach the spider’s home, one must go up a “winding stair.” Once there, there are curious things to be seen. These two lines make the lair seem somewhat magical, and much more tempting.
Without even pausing to consider the offer the fly says, “no, no.” There is no reason, the fly states, to even ask. It knows that those who go up the “winding stair” do not “come down again.”
“I’m sure you must be weary, dear, with soaring up so high.
Well 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 a while, I’ll snugly tuck you in!”
“Oh 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 is not deterred. He immediately tries another tactic, telling the fly the “parlor” can be a place for her to rest. There is a “little bed” and “pretty curtains” in the room. If she goes there, the spider will be happy to “tuck” her in. In one context these lines are caring and congenial, in another, they are foreboding and malicious. The bed represents certain death for the fly and she knows it.
The fly repeats what it said in the first stanza. She tells the spider there is no way she is going up to his “parlor.” The fly knows that those who go to “sleep upon [his] bed” never wake up again.
Said the cunning spider to the fly: “Dear friend, what can 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?”
“Oh 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!”
In the third stanza, the spider is starting to show his exasperation. He asks the fly, whom he calls “Dear friend,” what he can do for her. He says he has always felt a “warm affection” for her and that all he wants is to share the “good store” of his pantry. Again, there are two different ways these phrases could be taken. The fly might be interested in the offer of the pantry or see through the deception.
Lucky for the fly she is smart enough to know there is nothing good in the pantry. There are things, likely the remains of other insects, that she does “not wish to see!”
“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’d step in one moment, dear, you shall behold yourself.”
“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.”
The spider is still not giving up. He turns to compliment the fly on her “gauzy” or fine and transparent wings. He also calls the fly’s eyes “brilliant,” trying to get the best of her vanity. The spider offers the use of his “looking glass” or mirror. There, the fly would be able to admire herself more clearly. If she agrees she will be pleased with what she sees.
The fly declines the offer once more, telling the spider thank you for the offer, and the compliments, but they are ineffective. There is a difference in these lines though. It seems as if perhaps the spider’s endearments are getting to the fly. She states that she will “call another day,” or come back later. While this is still a “no,” the refrain of “Oh, no, no” is not present in these lines.
The spider turned him round about, and went into his den,
For well he knew the silly fly would soon come back again:
So he wove a subtle web in a little corner sly,
And set his table ready to dine upon the fly;
Then came out to his door again and merrily did sing:
“Come hither, hither, pretty fly, with 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 as lead!”
The spider takes the fly at her word and goes back into “his den.” It is here that he begins to weave his trap. There will be a web subtly hidden in the corner and the table will be set, ready to dine on the visitor. The spider is very confident that all his attempts at luring the fly have finally been successful.
In order to solidify his future meal he goes out and calls once more to the fly. He refers to her as “pretty fly, with pearl and silver wing.” She is coloured “green and purple” with diamond eyes. He compares these features to his own “dull” lead-like eyes. She has a beauty he does not.
Alas, alas! how very soon this silly little fly,
Hearing his wily, flattering words, came slowly flitting by;
With buzzing wings she hung aloft, then near and nearer grew,
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 the dismal den –
Within his little parlor – but she ne’er came out again!
The speaker expresses her opinion on what happens next with the opening words, “Alas, alas!” Unfortunately, the fly does come back. She is “silly” and “little” and easily taken in by flattering words. The fly comes by “slowly” until she was finally near enough for the spider to jump up and grab her. She was distracted, thinking about her own beauty and all the compliments paid to her. This was her downfall.
The fly is held “fast” by the spider and taken up to what was once described as a pretty parlor. Now though, though then use of alliteration, it is referred to as a “dismal den.” Just like she expected, and repeated three times in her refrain, she did not “come out again.”
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.
The last four lines of the poem wrap up the moral message present in the text. The speaker addresses the “dear little children” who are reading or hearing the poem and tell them to pay no “heed” to flattering words. They are a powerful falsity used by “evil counselor[s].” One should instead learn from the “tale of the spider and the fly” and keep bad people far from one’s “heart and ear and eye.”