“The Death of the Moth” Summary

The Death of the Moth” is an essay by Virginia Woolf, published posthumously in the 1942 collection The Death of the Moth and Other Essays.

  • Woolf observes a moth fluttering against her windowpane one morning, both admiring him for his life force and pitying him for his limited existence.
  • The moth eventually loses energy and, by midday, is near dying. The author extends her pencil to try to help the moth but recognizes her action's futility.
  • After a final struggle, the moth dies, and Woolf is amazed by the battle between life and death she has just witnessed.

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Last Updated on April 13, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 739

The author begins by saying that moths which come out in daylight “are not properly to be called moths.” They do not create the same somber feelings as moths that fly at night and are an unsatisfactory hybrid between moth and butterfly. However, when she considers a particular small hay-colored moth which she sees one morning in mid-September, fluttering against a windowpane, she is impressed that he seems to be full of the vigor which suffuses everything around them that morning. The simple country scene outside, with freshly plowed fields and rooks soaring about the treetops, is reflected in the moth’s energetic flight from one side of the window to the other. The author is distracted from her book and feels compelled to look at him. At the same time as she admires his energy, she pities the moth. She reflects that there are so many ways of enjoying life for living creatures on that fine morning that it can only be a misfortune to have nothing but the limited opportunities for pleasure open to a moth. All he can do is to fly from one corner of the window to another, unable to make his way outside, where so much is happening.

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The moth seems as though he contains a single fiber “of the enormous energy of the world.” Although he is, in himself, such a tiny part of life, he is nothing else but life and gives out a glow of sheer vitality. This means that there is something wonderful about him, as well as something pitiable. What he lacks in size and range of experience, he makes up in pure life force. He reminds the author what this life force is, unadulterated by all the artificial encumbrances that it usually has to bear, and she is struck by the strange intensity of this vision. Again, she returns to a feeling of pity for the moth when she thinks of all the other forms this vitality might have taken.

Eventually, the moth appears to be tired by all his strenuous activity and rests quietly on the window ledge. When he is still, the author forgets about him and returns to her book, but her eye is later caught when he begins to move again. This time, however, the moth has lost his vigor and is only able to flutter to the bottom of the windowpane, which he fails to fly across. The author waits for him to start flying, but after several attempts, the moth falls on his back, with his legs struggling feebly. The author stretches out a pencil to help him turn over but suddenly realizes that there is no point in doing so, as the moth is about to die, and there is no way for anyone to prevent this.

When the author looks out of the window, she sees that the moth’s lack of energy and animation is reflected in the scene outside. It must be midday by now, she thinks, for the plowing in the fields has stopped, the birds are nowhere to be seen, and the horses are standing still. However, there is a sense of latent power in all this inactivity, and it seems as though all the power of nature is now massed against the struggling moth. The moth’s legs continue to move, but nothing could ever fight strongly enough to overcome death, which has the power to submerge whole cities full of people.

Against all the odds, however, the moth succeeds in struggling to his feet for a moment. This great effort moves the author, partly because of its futility. The moth seems like a symbol of vitality once more in its determination to hang on to life as long as it can. She lifts the pencil again to help the moth, even though she knows that nothing she does will have any significant effect. At this point, however, she sees “the unmistakable tokens of death.” The moth stops struggling, becomes stiff, and immediately succumbs to death.

As she looks at the dead moth, the author is filled with amazement at this trivial triumph of a mighty force over such an insignificant antagonist. Death is strange now, just as life was strange when she first observed it in the moth. In death, the moth has a certain dignity and composure, and seems as though he is tacitly acknowledging that death is stronger than he is.

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