“The Death of the Moth” Themes

The main themes in “The Death of the Moth” are the will to live, the strangeness of life and death, and the limitations of an individual life.

  • The will to live: Woolf admires the moth for his vitality and his heroic struggle to live in the face of the overwhelming inevitability of death.
  • The strangeness of life and death: Witnessing something so fiercely alive die and become inanimate leads Woolf to reflect on the mysterious nature of existence.
  • The limitations of an individual life: With his brief, limited life, the moth represents all individuals, their limitations, and their mortality.

Themes

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Last Updated on April 13, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 861

The Will to Live

Virginia Woolf battled throughout her life with mental illness, and her own will to live was often far from strong. However, while the limitations of a moth’s life excite only the pity of a greater, more complex creature for a lesser life-form, the moth’s struggle with death arouses the sympathy and respect of an equal. Woolf even expresses admiration bordering on envy for the purity of the moth’s life force, describing his final, futile stand against death as “superb.”

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The struggle between life and death is depicted as a fight that could not be more extreme in its inequality. Woolf writes:

One’s sympathies, of course, were all on the side of life.

This is partly because the struggle is one the author knows she, like every other living thing, will fight and lose one day. However, the conflict also has a symbolic significance simply because it is such an unequal fight. A dying horse or dog, for instance, would have had no better chance of survival than the dying moth, but the battle with death would not have had the same David-and-Goliath quality that Woolf uses to arouse the reader’s sympathy here. The less evenly matched the antagonists, the greater the sympathy for the one at a disadvantage, and the more impressive his will to survive.

Woolf’s admiration for the moth is first aroused by his energy and vitality. He may be a tiny fragment of life, but that fragment is pure life, and this purity is displayed by the moth’s fierce determination to live, which leads him briefly to defy the entire natural order of the universe in resisting death.

The Strangeness of Life and Death

Woolf’s essay describes the moth’s swift transition from a creature mainly remarkable for his vitality to an inanimate object, no more alive than the windowsill on which he lies. This is a journey undertaken by every living creature, and it is not known whether many of the creatures that will experience this change have the capacity to foresee it or to think about it. However, human beings, the only creatures known to have this capacity, do not exercise it very often, which is why life and death remain strange.

When Woolf is impressed by the vitality and energy of the moth, she remarks that she “could not get over the strangeness” of seeing something so completely and purely alive. She continues:

One is apt to forget all about life, seeing it humped and bossed and garnished and cumbered so that it has to move with the greatest circumspection and dignity.

Since people are alive all the time, and have never experienced any other state of being, most seldom think about what it means to be alive. The simple fact of being alive is lost in the midst of so many other competing and concealing facts. Seeing a creature so completely alive first struggle to retain its consciousness, then lose that consciousness and become nothing but an object, makes Woolf think how little anyone understands or even tries to understand life or death, despite living constantly in the former and with the inevitable prospect of the latter.

The Limitations of an Individual Life

Moths typically live from a few days to a few weeks. The ones which live longer spend most of their lives in hibernation. Although Virginia Woolf does not explicitly mention this brevity of life, she does portray it in the way she depicts the moth going from the peak of vigor and vitality to its death throes within a couple of pages and a space of time which cannot be more than a few hours. When first explaining her pity for the moth, Woolf writes:

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 meager opportunities to the full, pathetic.

As she does throughout the essay, Woolf anthropomorphizes the moth here. Presumably the moth does not know what he is missing. However, the main function of this device is to allow the moth to stand as a symbol for all living creatures. Unlike the moth, every person is at some time aware of being unable to take advantage of more than a tiny fraction of the possibilities which life affords. The author, who has more appreciation of these possibilities than most, is projecting her own thoughts and feelings onto the moth.

Although her life is far less limited in both space and time than the moth’s, it is notable that the author does nothing but observe throughout the course of the essay. The moth is prevented from flying out into the landscape by the windowpane, but the author does not go outside either. She thinks of trying to help the moth in its death throes but remains passive. In fact, she never shows as much vitality as the moth, and her admiration for the way the moth battles with its limitations emphasizes her passive acceptance of her own.

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