The Death of the Moth – Virginia Woolf

When constructing the form and structure of a short story, a writer wants to be as methodical and pragmatic as possible. Within the matter of a few paragraphs, a story should be told with a keen sense of momentum while establishing a concise thesis. One such example that comes to mind is Virginia Woolf’s The Death of the Moth. In the story, Woolf positions herself as the narrator, watching a little moth fly around in a large world. As the title suggests, the moth dies at the very end of the story, but its death is not insignificant. Unlike the quality of life we tend to attribute towards insects, Woolf imbues the moth with a life-power similar to her own, realizing that they are hardly that different.

In analyzing The Death of the Moth, I want to recognize how Woolf intelligently structures her narrative, strengthening the story through:

  • Thesis
  • Personal Narrative
  • Power/Importance of Object

Let’s explore.

(Paragraph One)
Moths that fly by day are not properly to be called moths; they do not excite that pleasant sense of dark autumn nights and ivy-blossom which the commonest yellow-underwing asleep in the shadow of the curtain never fails to rouse in us. They are hybrid creatures, neither gay like butterflies nor sombre like their own species. Nevertheless the present specimen, with his narrow hay-coloured wings, fringed with a tassel of the same colour, seemed to be content with life. It was a pleasant morning, mid-September, mild, benignant, yet with a keener breath than that of the summer months. The plough was already scoring the field opposite the window, and where the share had been, the earth was pressed flat and gleamed with moisture.

…Woolf begins the story with three sentences of description. She introduces us to the moth in its boring, midday nature, something that is not exciting nor beautiful. However, the fourth sentence interjects from detailed descriptions of the moth to a personal narrative. This narrative still presents a description of his color and physical attributes, but she finishes the thought off with “seemed to be content with life.” She doesn’t know this, but she is projecting this mindset onto the moth. This creates further foreshadowing in regards to the title of the story, since we know that the moth’s death is coming, no matter if it might be content with life.

(Paragraph One)
Such vigour came rolling in from the fields and the down beyond that it was difficult to keep the eyes strictly turned upon the book. The rooks too were keeping one of their annual festivities; soaring round the tree tops until it looked as if a vast net with thousands of black knots in it had been cast up into the air; which, after a few moments sank slowly down upon the trees until every twig seemed to have a knot at the end of it. Then, suddenly, the net would be thrown into the air again in a wider circle this time, with the utmost clamour and vociferation, as though to be thrown into the air and settle slowly down upon the tree tops were a tremendously exciting experience.

…Woolf is supporting her thesis by the way she compares the outside world to the moth flying around indoors. Whereas the moth is small, fragile creature, the world outside is large and full of “vigour.” Comparing the two to one another, she is creating a power dynamic in which nature has an immense upper-hand over the moth, something that might prove fatal in the time to come. Thus, in the first paragraph we have been introduced to a fragile, odd-looking moth that seems to be “content with life” and the realm of nature which has supreme power in comparison to the moth.

(Paragraph Two)
The same energy which inspired the rooks, the ploughmen, the horses, and even, it seemed, the lean bare-backed downs, sent the moth fluttering from side to side of his square of the window-pane. One could not help watching him. One was, indeed, conscious of a queer feeling of pity for him.

…This energy is that which is contained in the moth, men, and all of nature. Woolf is asserting that all of these beings have the same terms of life – birth, living, and death. When reflecting on this notion, the sentence of her personal narrative, she realizes that her attention is fixated on the moth, not for the beauty of the insect, but knowing that it’s death is imminent when put up against nature. In short, the moth doesn’t stand a chance in its environment.

(Paragraph Two)
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 meagre opportunities to the full, pathetic. He flew vigorously to one corner of his compartment, and, after waiting there a second, flew across to the other. What remained for him but to fly to a third corner and then to a fourth? That was all he could do, in spite of the size of the downs, the width of the sky, the far-off smoke of houses, and the romantic voice, now and then, of a steamer out at sea. What he could do he did. Watching him, it seemed as if a fibre, very thin but pure, of the enormous energy of the world had been thrust into his frail and diminutive body. As often as he crossed the pane, I could fancy that a thread of vital light became visible. He was little or nothing but life.

…Woolf begins fortifying her thesis through the use of description here, reporting the dichotomy between the size and scope of the moth’s life in comparison to the life of a human or nature at large. While Woolf has an endless amount of possibilities for pleasure and exploration on this fine morning, the moth is confined to a “full, pathetic” life of flying from one corner of the room to the other. The moth’s choices were finite. Compared to the sights and sounds of the world, especially the width and enormity of the sky, the moth simply lives as it only can.

However, there is a shift in the perspective of the moth. While it may be “frail and diminutive,” the life of this moth is not as tragic as we originally imagined. Instead, the moth is as full of life as any other being in the world. While it may be physically smaller and weaker, it is still alive and experiencing life. Through Woolf’s personal narrative, she realizes that he is nothing but a living creature; moreover, the two of them are both living creatures.

(Paragraph Three)
Yet, because he was so small, and so simple a form of the energy that was rolling in at the open window and driving its way through so many narrow and intricate corridors in my own brain and in those of other human beings, there was something marvellous as well as pathetic about him. It was as if someone had taken a tiny bead of pure life and decking it as lightly as possible with down and feathers, had set it dancing and zig-zagging to show us the true nature of life. Thus displayed one could not get over the strangeness of it. 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. Again, the thought of all that life might have been had he been born in any other shape caused one to view his simple activities with a kind of pity.

…Woolf begins to foreshadow the fate of the moth, continuing to set up the notion that this moth is as much a part of the life-cycle as any other natural object, but that it’s small physical stature means it will have a less than fortunate destiny. She again interjects with her own thoughts, seeing that his brain activities are likely no different than hers. Yet its life is still a pitiful one, in that if the moth’s actions were performed by human or dog, walking back and forth from one corner to another, we would view their life as pathetic. Now we must ask, since she is comparing herself to the moth, the two of them containing the same life-force and similar mind capabilities, is it legitimate for someone to view her life with pity the same way she views the moth’s?

(Paragraph Four)
After a time, tired by his dancing apparently, he settled on the window ledge in the sun, and, the queer spectacle being at an end, I forgot about him. Then, looking up, my eye was caught by him. 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 window-pane; and when he tried to fly across it he failed. Being intent on other matters I watched these futile attempts for a time without thinking, unconsciously waiting for him to resume his flight, as one waits for a machine, that has stopped momentarily, to start again without considering the reason of its failure. After perhaps a seventh attempt he slipped from the wooden ledge and fell, fluttering his wings, on to his back on the window sill. The helplessness of his attitude roused me. It flashed upon me that he was in difficulties; he could no longer raise himself; his legs struggled vainly. But, as I stretched out a pencil, meaning to help him to right himself, it came over me that the failure and awkwardness were the approach of death. I laid the pencil down again.

…Upon answering that previous question for herself, realizing that the two of their live’s were not that different, she takes to subjectively forgetting about him. To view her life as similar to the moth is one that produces pity and depression for the ego. However, her attention is captured again when she sees that the moth is suddenly struggling. She considers helping him, but comes to terms that it is not worth it. Woolf realizes that even if she were to help this creature, uprighting him with her pencil, the moth would face this struggle sometime later, a time when she wouldn’t be there to help him. At this point in the story, the thesis begins to dramatically shift. Woolf realizes that this insect, something she has taken such pity for, something she has viewed as so weak and minuscule, is still fighting to live.

(Paragraph Five)
The legs agitated themselves once more. I looked as if for the enemy against which he struggled. I looked out of doors. What had happened there? Presumably it was midday, and work in the fields had stopped. Stillness and quiet had replaced the previous animation. The birds had taken themselves off to feed in the brooks. The horses stood still. Yet the power was there all the same, massed outside indifferent, impersonal, not attending to anything in particular. Somehow it was opposed to the little hay-coloured moth. It was useless to try to do anything. One could only watch the extraordinary efforts made by those tiny legs against an oncoming doom which could, had it chosen, have submerged an entire city, not merely a city, but masses of human beings; nothing, I knew, had any chance against death. Nevertheless after a pause of exhaustion the legs fluttered again. It was superb this last protest, and so frantic that he succeeded at last in righting himself.

…Through this use of personal narrative, Woolf is presenting the enormity of perspective in comparison to the moth. The surroundings that she is describing, and the way that she is describing them, is much different from her presentation of the world in the opening paragraph. This furthers the shift from the story being about the fragility of the moth, to the energy contained by all beings, and now onto the situation of life and death for all of these beings, as well as the struggle against death. The power and energy contained in the outside world runs through every animal, man, and insect. Yet each object is separate from the other, they are indifferent of the death of others.

As Woolf’s thesis statement illuminates, they are indifferent because death is inevitable. As she sits there, watching the moth struggle for its life, she realizes that there is no use in her attempting to save this moth. It’s death was imminent. Furthermore her, the horses, and the men outside were all going to die some day. They could protect the other from natural forces in an attempt to evade death, but there will come a time when you can no longer save someone from the grips of death.

Coming to this realization, Woolf has a great deal of respect for the moth, watching him struggle to right himself all up unto his final moments. I’m sure she is asking herself whether she will do the same when her time comes.

(Paragraph Five)
One’s sympathies, of course, were all on the side of life. Also, when there was nobody to care or to know, this gigantic effort on the part of an insignificant little moth, against a power of such magnitude, to retain what no one else valued or desired to keep, moved one strangely. Again, somehow, one saw life, a pure bead. I lifted the pencil again, useless though I knew it to be. But even as I did so, the unmistakable tokens of death showed themselves. The body relaxed, and instantly grew stiff. The struggle was over. The insignificant little creature now knew death.

…Watching him painfully fight against death, she realizes that the sympathy we feel for other humans and creatures stems from the attempt to live. When the quality of life is threatened, we become sympathetic, since we know that that could very well be us. Awash with the pain of watching the moth’s struggle, Woolf decides to finally offer a helping hand, wishing to save it from death for the time being. However, it was too late then. As she witnessed, the struggle had ended for the moth. This “insignificant little creature” faced death like any other animal or human.

(Paragraph Five)
As I looked at the dead moth, this minute wayside triumph of so great a force over so mean an antagonist filled me with wonder. Just as life had been strange a few minutes before, so death was now as strange. The moth having righted himself now lay most decently and uncomplainingly composed. O yes, he seemed to say, death is stronger than I am.

…Woolf believes that the moth had come to terms with it death in the end, accepting that it was “stronger” than it. Yet, I’d say that this is less the thought of the moth and more a personal narrative statement of Woolf’s. After watching the moth’s pitiful life of flying from one corner of the room to another, its insignificance to the surrounding world, its crash, the subsequent struggle to upright itself, and its final, imminent death, Woolf is transitioned from viewing the moth’s life as one of misfortune to realizing that its life was no different than hers, and that their deaths will likely be quite similar. Thus, Woolf not only accepts the death of the moth, but she accepts that one day she will also die.

With the struggle for life, one must wonder whether this revelation provided her with comfort or despair. From her outcome, it seems that this plagued Woolf, that she decided to meet her end upon her own terms and mental illness, rather than succumbing to the oppressive forces that consumed the moth’s energy.


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