Anthropomorphism is a literary device where the author assigns human qualities to nonhuman beings like animals, objects, and gods. In her essay “The Death of the Moth,” Virginia Woolf describes a moth by giving it human characteristics, portraying the insect as if it were a person. She refers to the moth throughout the essay as “he,” “him,” and “his” instead of “it” or “its.”
Woolf initially introduces the moth as it were a happy and fashionably dressed person:
The present specimen, with his narrow hay-colored wings, fringed with a tassel of the same color, seemed to be content with life.
Woolf imbues it with emotion and a sense of style. Unfortunately, it is encased in a square window pane and slowly dies over the course of a bright September morning. Nonetheless, it seems blissfully ignorant of its entrapment and fate, or adjusts to its circumstances like a person who can roll with the punches. Woolf admires the moth’s “zest in enjoying his meager opportunities.” Flying from corner to corner, it exudes vitality
as if a fiber, very thin but pure, of the enormous energy of the world had been thrust into his frail and diminutive body.
The last part of this description conjures up images of a feeble and shrinking elderly person. Moreover, the moth—like an old person consigned to a room in a nursing home—will become frustrated, trapped, and bored. For now, though, it continues to celebrate and play, oblivious of or despite its entrapment. The moth flies around as it were
dancing and zigzagging to show us the true nature of life.
Obviously, the moth is not literally dancing or consciously showing off; nonetheless, Woolf’s word choice conveys the moth’s carefree joy as if it were zigzagging out on a dance floor for an audience. Eventually, this tiny dancer retires from the dance floor:
After a time, tired by his dancing apparently, he settled on the window ledge in the sun.
Like a person taking a break from cutting a rug, the moth rests and then tries to resume. Like an old person, however, it appears stiff, awkward, and spent. It can only
flutter to the bottom of the windowpane; and when he tried to fly across it he failed.
Despite several attempts to fly, the moth falls
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.
Woolf’s comment about the “helplessness of his attitude” implies that the moth is intentionally not trying hard enough, like someone with a bad attitude. The poor moth seems like a helpless old person who has fallen and cannot get up. Woolf believes that
extraordinary efforts made by those tiny legs against an oncoming doom which could, had it chosen, have submerged an entire city, not merely a city, but masses of human beings.
She suggests that the moth chooses not to use its tiny yet powerful legs to any effect. Suddenly, though, the moth seems to have a change of heart and is stubborn enough for its last hurrah of resistance:
Nevertheless, after a pause of exhaustion the legs fluttered again. It was superb this last protest, and so frantic that he succeeded at last in righting himself.
She cheers for the moth but know that death is inevitable. After putting up a valiant fight, the moth dies in a dignified manner, like a mortally wounded soldier or duelist who expires with honor.
The body relaxed, and instantly grew stiff. The struggle was over. The insignificant little creature now knew death…The moth having righted himself now lay most decently and uncomplainingly composed. O yes, he seemed to say, death is stronger than I am.