Analysis

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Last Updated on August 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 579

In the short story "The Moths," the author makes many points about coming of age, religion, death, and family.

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The characterization of the narrator, known only by her sisters' nickname "Bull Hands," is seen at the beginning of the story through her actions as a rebellious, mischievous child. She is berated by her sisters and her family for her resistant attitude towards attending Mass, and she is even admittedly disrespectful to her grandmother by doubting her healing remedies. Charged with taking care of Abuelita in her dying days, the narrator begins to change. One of her biggest changes is her realization on the nature of death. This realization is foreshadowed by her thoughts as she watches the sun set. She personifies the sun when she says that it understands it is "finally defeated" and "sinks into the realization that it cannot, with all its power to heal or burn, exist forever." Her epiphany on the sun mirrors her eventual understanding of Abuelita's death. She begins to understand that nothing in life is permanent and that sometimes things end so that new growth can take place. The reader is allowed a glimpse of how Abuelita's death may affect the narrator in a positive way when she calls for her mother as she carries Abuelita's body into the bathroom to bathe it. Soon after, she admits that she needs her mother in her time of grief. This signals a possible rebirth of a more positive connection with her mother, an emotional connection that had previously been satisfied by her relationship with Abuelita.

The author's optimistic outlook on the nature of death can also be seen in the imagery she presents of Abuelita. As she washes her grandmother's body, the narrator views the scars on Abuelita's back, hinting that, in addition to the pain of cancer, Abuelita has suffered much in life. Death has finally ended her suffering, and she is free from life's pain. This victory over the struggles of life is symbolized by the author's description of the way her grandmother's hair resembles an eagle's wings as it spreads out in the bath water. The moths that also come out of Abuelita's mouth work to symbolize her grandmother's freedom from pain and her journey to God. Moths in the story are described as "fluttering to light" as they make their way upwards to the light in the bathroom. In this case, the moths symbolize Abuelita, and the light symbolizes her journey towards God.

Finally, the author sends the message that organized religion is not the only way to find God. Though the narrator is resistant to her family's religious rituals and is at times openly impious, she finds spirituality through her relationship with Abuelita. The author uses much religious terminology to explain this point. The narrator says that the way her grandmother looked at her made her feel loved and secure, "like God was supposed to make you feel." Later on in the story, she makes preparations to wash Abuelita's body and does so "with the sacredness of a priest preparing his vestments." The narrator's immersion into the bathtub at the end of the story can almost be seen as a baptism of sorts. The author seems to say that our love for people can allow us indirectly to view God's love for us.

This story uses imagery, characterization, and symbolism to create a beautiful commentary on family, God, and the tragic forces that can sometimes promote healing and regeneration.

Style and Technique

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 523

Told in the first person, “The Moths” revolves around rites of passage and religious imagery. The twoness of adolescence is captured in the girl’s androgynous body and actions, in the transfiguring sunset uniting earth and sun that signals the old woman’s death, and in the girl’s own impression of being half-born.

Viramontes uses symbolic imagery in creating the specifics of the granddaughter and grandmother’s closeness and the grandmother’s powers to heal. Hands are both metaphors and physical means of connection. The defiant sun is like the grandmother’s own life. The chili peppers that the girl prepares are like her own hot, tempestuous temperament. The tears evoked in roasting and crushing them brings a kind of spiritual remedy or release that is a spiritual substitute for churchgoing. In contrast to the cool and indifferent marble of the church, the grandmother’s house is a true sanctuary for the abused girl. There her emotional turbulence is transformed from a state of agitation to the calmness of a rose petal floating softly in the breeze and coming to rest beside the finished bowl of chile on the table. The girl is also like the seedlings that the grandmother protects in a can and then transplants so that they can pursue their mature growth. As the plants mature, their roots burst from the bottom of the rusted coffee cans in search of a place to connect, in search of water. So does the protagonist at the end of the story burst through her contained emotions and connect with her dead grandmother, surrounded and nurtured by womblike water.

Viramontes uses techniques of Magical Realism in her references to the moths that give the story its title: They personify the grandmother’s soul as they emerge from within her body and fill the room in the surrealism of the final scene. Earlier in the story the grandmother rubs dried moth wings, the stuff of transcendence, into her granddaughter’s hands in order to cure their awkward heaviness, reversing the sensation the girl has of her hands being pulled down to earth.

The story’s final scene is deeply imbued with religious meaning. The soul of the grandmother who in the last hours of life looked at a Bird of Paradise flowering outside her window metamorphoses into many moths fluttering toward heaven. The two naked women, one old and one young, are connected in a kind of osmosis, and as they float together in the water each generation of women is collapsed together in the girl’s mind. The water breaks over the side of the tub signaling the process of birth/rebirth, and the old woman is converted to a babe rocked in her young granddaughter’s arms. The water serves as a kind of balm and baptism. At the same time the girl whose positive emotions have been so repressed is able to express her terrible loneliness; she, too, is like a baby in need of her mother’s rocking and nurturing arms, and her sobs convey the desperation she feels at being abandoned by her only protector through Abuelita’s death.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 153

Carbonell, Ana Maria. “From Llorona to Gritona: Coatlicue in Feminist Tales by Viramontes and Cisneros.” MELUS 24, no. 2 (Summer, 1999): 53-74.

Lawless, Cecilia. “Helena María Viramontes’ Homing Devices in Under the Feet of Jesus.” In Homemaking: Women Writers and the Politics and Poetics of Home, edited by Catherine Wiley and Fiona R. Barnes. New York: Garland, 1996.

Rodriguez, Ana Patricia. “Refugees of the South: Central Americans in the U.S. Latino Imaginary.” American Literature 73, no. 2 (June, 2001): 387-412.

Saldivar-Hull, Sonia. Feminism on the Border: Chicana Gender Politics and Literature. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

Saldivar-Hull, Sonia. “Helena María Viramontes.” In Chicano Writers, Second Series. Vol. 122 in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit: Gale, 1992.

Viramontes, Helena Maria, and Maria Herrera-Sobek, eds. Chicana Creativity and Criticism: New Frontiers in American Literature. Rev. ed. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996.

Viramontes, Helena Maria, and Maria Herrera-Sobek, eds. Chicana (W)rites: On Word and Film. Berkeley, Calif.: Third Woman Press, 1996.

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