The Moths

by Helena María Viramontes

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 511

Abuelita had pulled me through the rages of scarlet fever . . . ; she had seen me through several whippings, an arm broken by a dare jump . . . puberty, and my first lie.

This quote builds the relationship of the narrator with her Abuelita and establishes that Abuelita has helped her through many difficulties in her life already. This is important as Abuelita nears the end of her life, and the narrator considers that it is her turn to repay some of the kindness she has been shown by caring for her sick grandmother.

I wasn't respectful, either.

The narrator never claims to be the perfect granddaughter or child. In fact, she lists her many faults, from being unable to navigate delicate embroideries to never showing her grandmother affection. She tells of her shortcomings in a very matter-of-fact way, without regret or pride. She is who she is and doesn't apologize.

Abuelita made a balm out of dried moth wings . . . .

Here we see a hint at the significance of the title. Living frugally and using home remedies to aid the injured, Abuelita uses the wings of a moth to calm the narrator in a particularly emotional moment. As she rubs the moth balm over her hands, the narrator has a feeling as of "bones melting" and "like sun shining through the darkness of your eyelids." Abuelita's loving massage helps bring the narrator back to a sense of peace and belonging, and their relationship transforms a bit at this point; her mother sends her to Abuelita's to help out more frequently.

There comes a time when the sun is defiant. Just about the time when moods change, inevitable seasons of a day, transitions from one color to another, that hour or minute or second when the sun is finally defeated, finally sinks into the realization that it cannot, with all its power to heal or burn, exist forever . . . endings are inevitable, they are necessary for rebirths.

Here we find the symbolism of the transition from life into death. Often sunsets are used to represent the dying process, but we see that transition as being one of "struggle." Not everyone slips peacefully and without struggle, and that is how the narrator views the illness of Abuelita thus far. However, this is the transition, when her efforts to live are "finally defeated" and she dies. This is merely a transition as the narrator hints at the "rebirth" necessary in the next phase.

Then the moths came. Small, gray ones that came from her soul and out through her mouth fluttering to light . . .

As the narrator sits with her grandmother in the bathtub after she dies, she reflects upon earlier stories Abuelita told her about how moths eat a soul up. She realizes that Abuelita's soul is now with her, escaping and filling the room through the symbolic moths. This feeling that Abuelita will always be with her—that there is something hopeful and good that remains of her grandmother after death—gives her hope as she finally cries for her grandmother and for all they have endured together.

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