In "The Death of the Moth", what fresh and vivid imagery does Woolf use to bring life to her abstract ideas, and how does this imagery further the development of ideas? 

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Virginia Woolf was primarily concerned with the "shift" that was intrinsic to Modernism.  In describing the Modernist sense of consciousness, Woolf once wrote that "All human relations shifted...and when human relations change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics, and literature.” For Woolf, the exploration of this shift and how it impacted all facets of being in the world is not only at the heart of her analysis of Modernism.  It also lies in how she views life and consciousness in the world.  It is very abstract because it seeks to explain the forces that underscore the very essence of life, and Woolf uses a practical example to highlight this abstract shift in "The Death of a Moth" in her employment of vivid imagery.

Woolf displays the shift of energy, the very life force that animates her, the world around her, and the moth, through vivid and fresh imagery.  This cradling spirit of such energy is illuminated with the fresh imagery of the day, itself:

It was a pleasant morning, mid-September, mild, benignant, yet with a keener breath than that of the summer months. The plough was already scoring the field opposite the window, and where the share had been, the earth was pressed flat and gleamed with moisture. Such vigor came rolling in from the fields and the down beyond that it was difficult to keep the eyes strictly turned upon the book.

The imagery of the morning that Woolf employs is fresh with its "keener breath" and the Earth that "gleamed with moisture."  There is "vigor" in this imagery as well as a vitality that makes the introspective Woolf want to step out of this realm and partake in what is there.  This world of teeming energy is also mirrored in the initial imagery of 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....He flew vigorously to one corner
of his compartment, and, after waiting there a second, flew across to the other. What remained for him but to fly to a third corner and then to a fourth? That was all he could do, in spite of the size of the downs, the width of the sky, the far-off smoke of houses, and the romantic voice, now and then, of a steamer out at sea. What he could do he did.

In illustrating the energy of life that was within the world and appropriated by the moth's actions, Woolf employs fresh and vivid imagery which enables the reader to experience "the moment" of life's essence.  This is confirmed in the spirit of life's energy that Woolf feels the moth embodies, as a "tiny bead of pure life and decking it as lightly as possible with down and feathers, had set it dancing and zigzagging to show us the true nature of life."  This moment of life is evoked through the imagery of life.

In trying to illustrate "the moment," Woolf embraces an abstraction.  This abstraction of what the essence of life is sets the stage for the shift that she sees intrinsic to a Modernist consciousness.  The shift from life to death is a stark one, and the imagery that Woolf employs is equally stark and vivid:

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. But, as I stretched out a pencil, meaning to help him to right himself, it came over me that the failure and awkwardness were the approach of death. I laid the pencil down again.

The abstraction of death becomes real, with definable features as a result of the vivid imagery that Woolf uses.  The "helplessness" that the moth possesses in the face of death, and how Woolf lays the pencil down again, almost as a confirmation that what is being encountered is a shift from the encompassing creative energy into one that absorbs and destroys.  When Woolf illuminates the overall power of death, a force that once embraced the condition of life, it is clear that the only way this becomes clear is through vivid and awe- inspiring imagery:

The legs agitated themselves once more. I looked as if for the enemy against which he struggled. I looked out of doors. What had happened there? Presumably it was midday, and work in the fields had stopped. Stillness and quiet had replaced the previous animation. The birds had taken themselves off to feed in the brooks. The horses stood still. Yet the power was there all the same, massed outside, indifferent, impersonal, not attending to anything in particular. Somehow it was opposed to the little hay-colored moth.

Woolf has to employ vividly forlorn imagery to demonstrate the shift that has taken place.  From a communal experience of energy that was established in the exposition, the image of the moth struggling alone, while the other animals leave is stark and fresh.  Woolf looks to see something as an adversary and while she cannot physically see it, she recognizes that the shift has taken place.  From what it was, it has now become "indifferent, impersonal" and "opposed to the little hay- colored moth."  This imagery highlights the abstract shift that Woolf feels lies at the heart of Modernist consciousness.  It has been brought out in the experiences of the moth.  As "the insignificant little creature knew death" and concedes at the end that it is "stronger than I am," it is clear that Woolf has illuminates the very essence of this shift in the moth's life and death.  The "change" that Woolf feels is at the heart of Modernism is one where life and death are constantly at play, where one searches for the garden only to find the desert.  The moth does, and in the moth's struggle, lies our own.

The moth's narrative helps to make clear this abstraction.  What existed as philosophical inquiry becomes grounded in daily life.  Woolf is able to bring this out through vivid imagery of life and death, and the constant balance of both in our world and our place in it.  The inescapable and "mean adversary" that the moth fights against is poised against all life, as well.  It is a condition that has caused all life to change, and underscores the essence of her beliefs about the Modernist consciousness that embraces all forms of life. 

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