The Death of the Moth
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In her short essay “The Death of the Moth,” English novelist and essaying Virginia Woolf transforms a prosaic experience into a deep philosophical meditation. Looking out the window of her rural home one day while reading, Woolf notices the exertions of a moth flitting inside the window. As she watches, the moth seems to lose its vital motivation, and eventually dies as the author watches. The sight motivated Woolf to write about how the moth’s struggle against death affected her and led her to a deeper consideration of the nature of life and death (Woolf). In doing so, Woolf purposefully leads the reader into his or her own consideration of existence, using strong emotional appeals communicated through her language to create a sense of sympathy and identification for her reader.
Woolf assumes her audience is probably, like herself, thoughtful, philosophical, and sensitive, therefore able to be moved by the description of the moth’s struggle against death. Woolf embodied these traits – perhaps too much, as these factors perhaps contributed to the depression that resulted in her eventual suicide. She sees the moth, again perhaps like herself and many of her readers, as something of an oddball: “Moths that fly by day are not properly to be called moths…They are hybrid creatures, neither gay like butterflies nor somber like their own species” (Woolf 1107). Woolf’s initial assertion that the moths are “not proper,” and “hybrid creatures” implies that they fit in nowhere, already establishing a sense of sympathy in the sensitive reader, who, like the author, may feel out of place in the world.
The author’s appeals to emotion intensify from there; as the moth begins its final moments, she personifies its actions: “He was trying to resume his dancing, but seemed either so stiff or so awkward that he could only flutter to the bottom of the windowpane; and when he tried to fly across it he failed” (Woolf 1108). This personification of the moth as “dancing” furthers the reader’s identification and sympathy for the moth. Woolf’s frequent inclusions of short, impactful sentences throughout the essay, counterbalanced with longer, more complex sentences, help to emphasize moments of increasing emotional power, such as at the moment of the moth’s death: “Stillness and quiet had replaced the previous animation. The birds had taken themselves off to feed in the brooks. The horses stood still,” as if nature itself acknowledges the passing of this tiny moth (Woolf 1108).
The emotional appeal that Woolf uses goes beyond evoking sympathy; it also exhorts the reader to feel admiration for the moth and the dignity of its struggle against death. She states that “there was something marvelous as well as pathetic about him,” and, later, when she states “It was superb this last protest, and so frantic that he succeeded at last in righting himself,” the reader is moved almost to cheer for this small victory (Woolf 1108). Woolf’s attitude toward the moth is complex, as is reflected in the tone of the essay. While at first she seems to see it as something to be ignored and then pitied, in the course of the essay, she begins to associate the small life of the moth with the life-force of the universe itself: “it seemed as if a fiber, very thin but pure, of the enormous energy of the world had been thrust into in frail and diminutive body” (Woolf 1107).
The connection of the “frail and diminutive body” of the moth with the power of life eventually makes Woolf perhaps consider her own mortality, and she is somewhat awe-struck: “this minute way-side triumph of so great a force over so mean an antagonist filled me with wonder” (Woolf 1108). The essay ends not on a note of pity or sadness, but of “wonder” at the “strange” phenomenon of death. The admission at the end of the essay, attributed to the moth, but also shared by Woolf and directed at the reader as well, that “death is stronger than I am,” brings the author and reader together with the experience of the death of the moth.
By creating sympathy for the moth, Woolf is able to achieve her purpose, which is to get the reader to contemplate the marvel of life and death for themselves. Powerful emotional appeals communicated through her language highlight what is actually a brief anecdote in the author’s life, but which obviously had a significant impact on her. From the perspective of the reader, this brief essay might also have a significant impact if we see ourselves, like the moth, as “a thread of vital light” that exists for a short while until we face the wonder and strangeness of death.
Woolf, Virginia. “The Death of the Moth.” The Norton Reader. Ed. Linda H. Petersen. New York: Norton, 2012. pp. 1107-1008. Print.