At one level, Elizabeth Bishop’s poem is simply a strange and wonderful story, a fairy-tale fantasy about a character caught between two worlds like the Beast in “Beauty and the Beast” or some other transformation tale. There is no Beauty, however, to save the Man-Moth, who is the epitome of alienation in a modern, urban setting.
Like a moth, the Man-Moth spends his life in two opposite states, one as an obsessed creature pursuing the moon as a moth flies toward a street lamp, and the other as the subterranean larval being who lives in the earth-tunnels of the subway. Like a human, the Man-Moth strives for something better than what he knows, but all too often he falls back into fear and confusion and lives a life of unfulfillment.
The meaning of the moon is ambiguous, but clearly it is something lofty and impossible to reach. Typically, the moon is an emblem of madness and obsession, but it is also a romantic image of lovers and artists—a feminine power—reflective, cool, attractive, mysterious. Visually, the moon can look like a hole in the sky. Probably the young Bishop projected her own efforts to deal with the artist’s life in the city into the poem. If the poem depicts the loneliness and frustration of the artist’s struggle to create, however, it also has broader meaning: It seems to present the human struggle to escape earthly trials into some higher state of enlightenment. Some readers see the Man-Moth’s struggle as a religious quest, but others are more likely to see it as an existential drama in which it is impossible to answer the universal “why?”
In any case, the quest is a lonely one. Although the poem is set in a city landscape, that landscape is almost empty of life. Even when the Man-Moth rides the subway, there is no feeling of crowdedness. The trains are “silent” and start moving at “full, terrible speed” as if no one were at the controls. When the Man-Moth thinks of the dangerous “third rail” of the train, it is his own impulse to touch it that he fears, not some outside threat.
Finally, the poet tells the reader, if the Man-Moth is forced to surrender his tear, like the bee losing its stinger, he will die. The tear, representing emotion, is “his only possession.” Read literally, the poem tells the reader that it is death to give up feeling, however uncomfortable feeling can be. In strange and beautiful images, the poem depicts mysteries of human life.