“The Moths” by Helena Maria Viramontes is rife with imagery and symbolism, and the moths bring all these symbols together into one thematic element. Apart from a passing reference in the body of the story, we do not encounter the moths until the very end, when Abuelita has died and her granddaughter is bathing her in the bathtub. As the narrator eases her grandmother into the water, a horde of moths escape from the dead woman’s body: “Small, gray ones that came from her soul and out through her mouth fluttering to light, circling the single dull light bulb of the bathroom.” The moths symbolize not only the passage of life, but the struggles we must face within life.
The narrator wants nothing more than to be with her grandmother in death, to have her Abuelita tell her “about the moths that lay within the soul and slowly eat the spirit up.” The story is about these moths – all these things that consume the human spirit, these sadnesses that weigh on us from day to day. We see these things circling about the narrator as the moths circle about the bathroom light: her distaste for Mass and the ridicule of her family because of this; her abusive father; her sobbing mother; her own androgyny, symbolized by her clumsy man-hands; the feeling of being nothing and no one, not especially skilled or comfortable in her skin – all the little pinpricks of life that riddle and are magnified by the narrator’s adolescence. And as the moths fly out of her grandmother’s mouth, the narrator is hit with the weight of all these things, and she sobs for “the misery of being half-born.” We could interpret this as the misery of adolescence, of having not yet come fully into herself.