In her essay “The Death of a Moth,” Virginia Woolf uses syntax (the arrangement of chosen words or diction in a text) as well as varying sentence structure and punctuation to emphasize her viewpoints on the short life of a moth. Over the course of a single day, she observes a moth from its energetic beginning and vibrant existence to its fading, feeble movements and death.
The essay opens with a complex-compound sentence that has two independent clauses joined by semicolon:
Moths that fly by day are not properly to be called moths; they do not excite that pleasant sense of dark autumn nights and ivy-blossom which the commonest yellow-underwing asleep in the shadow of the curtain never fails to rouse in us.
Immediately, Woolf uses this sentence to sets up an opposition between night and day moths. This division of moths into two types foreshadows the duality of her observations (living versus dying) of a single day moth. The double negative of second independent clause—which has a dependent clause—emphasizes how plain the day moth is; unlike the yellow underwing moth, it does not evoke emotions.
As an introduction, the first paragraph provides background information and sets the scene through straightforward syntax. Woolf uses long complex sentences, active voice, and personification to emphasize the setting’s vitality and imbue objects with life: “The plough was already scoring the field” and “vigor came rolling in from the fields.”
The following sentence is constructed of one independent clause and two dependent clauses:
The rooks too were keeping one of their annual festivities; soaring round the tree tops until it looked as if a vast net with thousands of black knots in it had been cast up into the air; which, after a few moments sank slowly down upon the trees until every twig seemed to have a knot at the end of it.
All clauses here are joined by semicolons to create one long flowing sentence that emphasizes the unending, cyclical movement of the birds.
The lengthy sentences and active diction flow into the second paragraph, further illustrating Woolf’s view of the moth still full of vigor. Grammatically, the sentences are simple but contain adjectives, phrases, and prepositions to include descriptions. For example, she writes,
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.
The diction and commas attaching details upon details emphasize life, energy, and potential. However, Woolf inserts shorter sentences that stop the energy short and evoke a bit of melancholy, like “One could not help watching him. One, was, indeed, conscious of a queer feeling of pity for him.” She then asks, “What remained for him but to fly to a third corner and then to a fourth?” The question mark is a surprise and pause; up until this point, all the sentences are declarative and end with periods. The question itself reveals a bit a despair by pointing out that the moth is trapped in the windowpane with nowhere else to go. He cannot fly out into the sky, to houses, or even far away to the sea. Instead, “What he could do he did.” This sentence's inverted syntax makes the reader stop and think to understand Woolf's meaning. The second paragraph ends with the short sentence, “He was little or nothing but life.”
By the third paragraph, the moth is burning off its energy. Woolf begins it with “yet” in order to show a shift in her view of the moth as it begins to expend its vitality. Although the rest of the third paragraph is composed of long sentences—the first sentence is complex and the second sentence is compound—it ends with Woolf viewing the moth “with a kind of pity.”
By the fourth paragraph, the moth is dying. Interestingly, now Woolf refers to herself as “I” and not as the removed observer “one.” She is more connected and sympathetic to the moth with statements like “the helplessness of his attitude roused me. It flashed upon me that he was in difficulties,” “I stretched out a pencil, meaning to help him,” and “I laid the pencil down again.” She realizes the futility of her efforts to help the moth stave off inevitable death.
In the fifth and final paragraph, Woolf uses shorter sentences and words to emphasize a lack of flow and energy. The life described in first paragraph ceases:
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.
Woolf uses short, simple sentences to describe the moth’s death: “The body relaxed, and instantly grew stiff. The struggle was over. The insignificant little creature now knew death.” Although she briefly refers to the anonymous, impersonal “one” observing the inexorable arrival of death, she switches back to “I” to emphasize her connection to the moth as a person being spoken to: “O yes, he seemed to say, death is stronger than I am.”