From "The Death of the Moth" by Virginia Woolf, identify one major metaphor at work and analyze its development over the course of the essay. Think about how the correlation between theme/thesis/subject and metaphor. How does the author use the metaphor to make her point? How does the development of the metaphor relate to the development of the essay’s general argument or idea? Does the author’s relationship to the metaphor change over the course of the essay? How does each half of the metaphor (tenor and vehicle) modify our understanding of the other? Finally, what greater significance does the metaphor have, be it in relation to the essay as a whole, or to some greater concept or idea with which the essay struggles?
In Woolf's essay, the primary metaphor is the moth. Woolf views the moth as the metaphor for being in the world. I think that in order to understand how the moth operates as a mean to communicate what Woolf sees as consciousness, it would be helpful to cite Woolf's belief about the modern setting: "All human relations shifted, and when human relations change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics, and literature.” Woolf believes that the essence of the modern setting is this "shift" which underscores being in the world. This "shift" is what the metaphor of the moth conveys in "The Death of the Moth."
Woolf depicts the moth's entrance into her world as one teeming with energy. There is a sense of vitality that Woolf associates with the moth: "The same energy which inspired the rooks, the ploughmen, the horses, and even, it seemed, the lean bare-backed downs, sent the moth fluttering from side to side of his square of the windowpane." Woolf suggests that within the moth's construction of being were the limitless "possibilities for pleasure." Over the course of the metaphor, Woolf sees the metaphorical connection between the struggle for life as something that human beings exhibit in their own conditions. Woolf does not miss the chance out how the moth's fight for life is applicable to more than the world of animals:
Being intent on other matters I watched these futile attempts for a time without thinking, unconsciously waiting for him to resume his flight, as one waits for a machine, that has stopped momentarily, to start again without considering the reason of its failure. After perhaps a seventh attempt he slipped from the wooden ledge and fell, fluttering his wings, on to his back on the windowsill. The helplessness of his attitude roused me. It flashed upon me that he was in difficulties; he could no longer raise himself; his legs struggled vainly.
The idea of the moth who "struggled vainly" is representative of how modern consciousness has "shifted" in terms of the struggle intrinsic to existence in the world. That is communicated in the metaphor of the moth:
The body relaxed, and instantly grew stiff. The struggle was over. The insignificant little creature now knew death. As I looked at the dead moth, this minute wayside triumph of so great a force over so mean an antagonist filled me with wonder. Just as life had been strange a few minutes before, so death was now as strange. The moth having righted himself now lay most decently and uncomplainingly composed. O yes, he seemed to say, death is stronger than I am.
When Woolf speaks of the "shift" in "conduct," she is suggesting that one of...
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