Viewpoint: “The Spider and the Fly” Temptation in a Modern World

  • 12 September 2014

The temptations we are apt to encounter in life, symbolized by the spider in Mary Howitt’s poem, are many and varied.

Article Highlights

  • Pornography, dishonesty in one’s dealings, poor judgment, and improper choices are just some forms of
  • Though we can be grateful for the power of the Atonement, repentance, and forgiveness, how much better is it not to fall for temptation in the first place?
  • Individuals should center their lives on the Savior, pray for strength, study the scriptures, and fill their lives with goodness to overcome temptation.

“Remain humble. As with the fly in Mary Howitt’s fable, temptation often plays upon the innate vanity and pride of the victim.” 

A 9-year-old who on occasion had heard her father use the phrase “said the spider to the fly” asked him what it meant.

Curious about its derivation, he looked it up on the Internet. He found that it comes from a poem, “The Spider and the Fly,” written by Mary Howitt and published in 1829.

The first stanza reads:

“Will you walk into my parlour?” said the Spider to the Fly,
“’Tis the prettiest little parlour that ever you did spy;
The way into my parlour is up a winding stair,
And I’ve a many curious things to shew 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.”

Subsequent verses in the poem recount the seductive flattery and charm with which the spider persists in enticing the fly to enter its lair.

The fly repeatedly resists the spider’s perfidy, but confident of ultimate success, the spider weaves a web in the corner of its den and then continues to beckon to the fly.

At length, its charming entreaties prove too much for the fly:

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 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 parlour—but she ne’er came out again!

After reading the poem to his daughter, the father commented, “Kind of creepy, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, and sad too,” the daughter responded.

There followed a brief discussion between father and daughter about ways in which the poem’s message can be applied to life—how it can be a reminder and warning to us to be aware of enticements and temptations to enter into situations or engage in behavior that can only lead to our harm and detriment.

Written as it is for the understanding of a child, the poem is simple, and its message is obvious and readily grasped.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the poem is the timelessness of its message.

“Since the Fall of Adam and Eve, people have had an inclination to follow earthly desires and to succumb to appetites and passions,” reads the “Temptation” entry in the Gospel Topics section of the Church’s website, LDS.org. “This life was given as a time in which God’s children could learn to use their agency to overcome temptation and to choose of their own free will to follow Jesus Christ.”

The temptations we are apt to encounter in life, symbolized by the spider in Mary Howitt’s poem, are many and varied.

In his address to his subjects, King Benjamin warned:

“And finally, I cannot tell you all the things whereby ye may commit sin; for there are divers ways and means, even so many that I cannot number them.

Unlike the hapless fly that entered the spider’s lair and could “ne’er come down again,” we can be grateful for the principle of repentance and the divine miracle of forgiveness.

“But this much I can tell you, that if ye do not watch yourselves, and your thoughts, and your words, and your deeds, and observe the commandments of God, and continue in the faith of what ye have heard concerning the coming of our Lord, even unto the end of your lives, ye must perish. And now, O man, remember, and perish not” (Mosiah 4:29–30).

One can easily find applications to the Howitt poem and King Benjamin’s warning among the pitfalls we encounter in life.

Pornography comes easily to mind. Otherwise good and decent people—including those who well understand conceptually its evil and danger—have been drawn into its wicked clutches, bringing spiritual and temporal devastation into their own lives and, in many cases, deeply wounding those around them, including their most cherished loved ones.

Succumbing to pornography is, of course, just one expression of sexual immorality, including fornication and adultery, a rampant plague in contemporary society.

Dishonesty in one’s dealings with others, in its many forms, is another example of falling into the spider’s web of temptation today.

Some forms of temptation are not so much matters of immorality as they are poor judgment and improper choices that can have deeply harmful consequences.

Often, such poor judgment starts with ignoring or disregarding prophetic counsel. Failure to curb our spending and thereby avoid getting enmeshed in debt would fall into this category. So would involving oneself in unwise investment schemes, thus letting personal greed and the ethereal promise of unrealistic returns overrule good sense.

Unlike the hapless fly that entered the spider’s lair and could “ne’er come down again,” we can be grateful for the principle of repentance and the divine miracle of forgiveness. But how much better it is not to succumb to the temptation in the first place, thus avoiding the pain, difficulty, and sorrow that come in consequence!

The Church-published reference guide True to the Faith, under the “Temptation” entry, offers the following counsel to help overcome temptation: center your life on the Savior, pray for strength, study the scriptures daily, fill your life with goodness, avoid tempting places and situations, strive to influence others for good, and never hesitate in your decisions to withstand temptation.

To this we would add: remain humble. As with the fly in Mary Howitt’s fable, temptation often plays upon the innate vanity and pride of the victim.

To young and old we echo the admonition with which she closes her poem:

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 counsellor, close heart and ear and eye,
And take a lesson from this tale, of the Spider and the Fly.