The moth appears in chapter 4 of Rudy Wiebe’s novel about Canada’s Mennonite community during World War Two. Thom notices the moth near the end of the chapter. Without even thinking (“stupidly,” to use Wiebe’s word), Thom starts to observe a moth that’s wildly flying around the lit mantles. Wiebe describes the moth as “fiercely attracted by the light and fiercely replied by the heat.”
The distraught, conflicted moth is possibly a symbol for the fraught, contentious meeting that’s taking place. In chapter 4, Joseph, Thom’s teacher, is firmly censured for using English in a Mennonite service for young people. Joseph’s deviation from tradition and the clash that it causes is, arguably, reflected in the moth’s painful struggle with the light and the heat.
The moth might also be symbolic of Thom’s own inner turmoil. Like Joseph, Thom is drawn to a different way of carrying out and conveying Mennonite beliefs. As with Joseph, Thom is upset by how the Mennonites treat the Indigenous people. Thom sees all kinds of hypocrisies that he’d rather not perpetuate. Yet, in chapter 4, there doesn’t appear to be a thoughtful way to express these feelings. Like the moth, these feelings lack access to a feasible outlet.
The constrained, restricted environment is further reinforced by the fate of the moth. In the chapter’s penultimate paragraph, Thom returns to the moth. Now, it’s gone. Due to the “blue flame spurting from the mantle”, Thom deduces that the moth was burned and has turned into ashes.
In the context of chapter 4, the moth’s extinguishment likely symbolizes the leaders’ refusal to grapple with Joseph’s concerns. The disappearance of the moth also foreshadows Joseph’s impending departure, since he’s about to join the Medical Corps.