The Death of the Moth

by Virginia Woolf

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What are some rhetorical devices found in "The Death of the Moth" by Virginia Wolf?

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Woolf seems to desire to compel us to see ourselves in the moth. Thus, one of the first devices she uses is personification of the moth itself. Personification entails the attribution of human qualities to something that is not human. She says that, despite his hybrid nature and the fact that he is "neither gay like butterflies" nor somber like the moths one sees at night, he "seemed to be content with life." To suggest that the moth feels contentment is to personify it.

Next, she explicitly states that anyone watching the moth flit back and forth across the window would become "conscious of a queer feeling of pity for him" because of the evident "zest" he seems to feel in "enjoying his meagre opportunities." Here, Woolf employs pathos, raising our sympathy and compelling us to feel something for this small creature (to whom we might normally never give a second thought).

Having elicited our sympathy for the moth, she uses a simile, saying that "it seemed as if a fibre, very thin but pure, of the enormous energy of the world had been thrust into his frail and diminutive body." This comparison makes the moth seem somehow exceptionally alive, as if his little life force is especially bright and vital.

Woolf continues to use pathos when she describes "the thought of all that life might have been had he been born in any other shape caused one to view his simple activities with a kind of pity." She compels us to sympathize with this little moth who is so clearly full of life and vigor that he might have accomplished much had he been born as some other creature.

Likewise, as she watches the moth die, realizing it is the "oncoming doom" that affects us all, she cannot help but think of how none of us has "any chance against death." But then, when he succeeds in getting onto his feet one last time, "One's sympathies...were all on the side of life." Pathos seems to me to be, by far, the most frequently used rhetorical device in the essay.

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Writers use rhetorical devices to persuade readers to accept a certain point of view. In this essay, Woolf wishes the reader to identify with a simple moth and to show us that the tiny creature embodies life itself.

Woolf uses pathos, or emotional appeal, to encourage the reader to feel for the moth. At first she pities him his tiny scope of life:

The possibilities of pleasure seemed that morning so enormous and so various that to have only a moth's part in life, and a day moth's at that, appeared a hard fate, and his zest in enjoying his meagre opportunities to the full, pathetic.

Yet she does more than merely pity the moth; she also shows the quiet grandeur in the insignificant creature:

Watching him, it seemed as if a fibre, very thin but pure, of the enormous energy of the world had been thrust into...

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his frail and diminutive body.

Description is another rhetorical device. It engages our emotions and sympathies by placing us in a scene. Woolf provides minute description of the setting in which she and the moth are placed. She shows life teeming everywhere:

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.

Finally, Woolf universalizes the moth. His struggles against death are the struggles of all creatures everywhere, including human beings. His short life, she suggests, and his deep desire for survival, are no different from our own life forces, but distilled to a perfect purity:

Also, when there was nobody to care or to know, this gigantic effort on the part of an insignificant little moth, against a power of such magnitude, to retain what no one else valued or desired to keep, moved one strangely. Again, somehow, one saw life, a pure bead.

In Woolf's hands, an ordinary moth arrests our attention and causes us to dwell on both the insignificance and nobility of our own existence.

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Virginia Woolf's "The Death of the Moth" illustrates the impossible act of a moth trying to pass through a windowpane in order to escape the interior. The speaker feels sorry for the small creature, thinking of the impossible nature of the moth's circumstance. The beauty of the piece lies in the language choices made by Woolf. She includes rhetorical devices (or poetic/figurative devices/language) which elevates the text.

Rhetorical devices are included in a text where the author wishes to provide a different view, comparison, or stand upon a subject. Typical rhetorical devices are similes and metaphors (stylistic devices which provide a comparison). personification (which gives non-human/non-living things human characteristics), and hyperboles (an over exaggeration).  Virgina Woolf, in "The Death of the Moth," includes imagery, personification, and similes.

Imagery is where the author provides descriptions of things which appeal to the five senses of the reader (to allow the reader to create a deeper mental image of what is being described). "They do not excite that pleasant sense of dark autumn nights and ivy-blossom" appeals to the reader's sense of sight and smell. Engaged readers will picture the flowers and smells being described and engage on a deeper level with both the text and the "character" of the text.

Personification is found in the following fragment: "shadow of the curtain never fails to rouse in us." Here, Woolf personifies the shadow of a curtain by allowing it the ability to arouse the reader.

A simile is found in the following line: "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." here, Woolf compares the vision of the rooks (birds) circling the treetops to a net with many knots.

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