Last Updated on April 13, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 869
“The Death of a Moth” was published in 1942, the year after Virginia Woolf committed suicide, and it is easy to see the author’s own struggles with life and death reflected in the essay. The moth’s vacillations as he zigzags across the windowpane parallel the author’s thoughts as she tries to determine what she thinks about him. It is important to note that the moth is always given the masculine pronoun—he is “he,” not “it”—as a sign of respect for his heroic approach to life and refusal to submit to death.
Woolf’s rhetorical zigzags over the first three paragraphs of the essay run as follows. First, she denies any interest in moths that fly during the day; then she makes an exception for this particular moth, which compels her attention. She admires the moth’s energy, then is suddenly overcome with pity for him. Recovering from this emotional response, she marvels once again at the vital power of this “tiny bead of pure life” showing her what it truly means to be alive. Then, once again, the moth excites her pity.
Woolf’s pity is not initially for the brevity of the moth’s life, or for the futility of his struggle against death, but for the limitations he has to endure. These are symbolized by the windowpane, which he can see through but not pass through. Even if the moth were able to fly outside, huge realms of life experience would necessarily remain closed to him. This is true of everyone, meaning that the moth’s limitations confirm his heroic status, since they represent the limitations of everyone and everything. Paradoxically, the more limited and fragile a creature is, the more universally relevant its experience in this regard.
The moth’s limitations, therefore, make him a tragic representative of all life as he struggles against them. This, of course, is an anthropomorphic conceit of the author’s, since there is no way to know that the moth is aware of these limitations. However, he is also heroic and representative of life in a more positive sense. If his experience of life is narrower than the author’s, he is also more intensely alive than she is. What his life lacks in variety and depth of experience is compensated by sheer intensity. The moth is “little or nothing but life.” It is this combination of qualities that sends Woolf veering between admiration and pity.
It is when the moth is obviously dying that the author’s admiration and pity become one. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that what was pity for the moth turns to sympathy for a fellow creature—sympathy, as Woolf herself puts it, “on the side of life.” As Woolf identifies more completely with the moth, she represents all of nature outside the window turning against it, in a masterly manipulation of the pathetic fallacy. At the beginning of the essay, the moth is allied with and represents the energy that “came rolling in from the fields.” He is a more intense and concentrated manifestation of the life force that also animates the horses and the birds. This impression continues when the moth drops down to the windowsill, exhausted. The author looks outside and sees only quiet and stillness. The horses are motionless, and the birds have departed. Suddenly, the author feels that all the power of nature, which the moth recently represented, is now massed against him, crushing him beneath its “indifferent, impersonal” weight.
The moth, like any tragic hero, is struggling against destiny. Even as the author reaches out to help him with the tip of her pencil, she recognizes the futility of doing so. The moth would not have been a representative of life if he were not compelled to give way to death. Woolf emphasizes the contrast between the might and power of death, which can crush anything, and the fragility of its adversary, which was never more than a tiny spark of life. She has used unequal comparisons to emphasize the moth’s fragility throughout the essay, and now she concludes with explicit parallelism and juxtaposition in the lesson learned from his demise:
Just as life had been strange a few minutes before, so death was now as strange.
Woolf was far more prone to consider the mysteries of life and death than the average reader, or even the average writer, but she still did not do so frequently enough for these subjects to lose their enigmatic quality. Moths are commonplace creatures and do not live long, but few people actually take the trouble to watch one die. Even fewer see the moth as symbolic of all life in its brief, fierce vitality and consider its struggle to live in the face of the inevitable. For Woolf, the moth represents a conflict that is both personal and universal but is generally sublimated, even in such an active intellect as her own. She presents this conflict for the reader to consider, as she does herself. The moth, being pure life, fights with all its strength against the power of death. The author’s own complexity, however, makes her more ambivalent in her attitude toward living.
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