Virginia Woolf is a British writer born in 1882 and she died a horrific death in 1941. She jumped unto River Ouse wearing an overcoat filled with rocks. She committed suicide as she was depressed and has a pessimistic feeling towards life due to a mental illness she has been cursed with. She wrote ‘The Death of the Moth’ in 1942. This essay contains a wide variety of rhetorical devices that makes it intriguing. Although the essay is short, she wrote a detailed story with an underlying metaphor. In this non-fictional essay, she effectively conveys her ideas through the use of figurative language.
She uses an extended metaphor in which the moth symbolizes humans in the way it lives its life. The essay entraps the reader into the outgoing struggle of our own mortality. Throughout the essay, the reader becomes aware of the tragedy that all life has to offer and that is the inevitable death. The theme is not lucid in the beginning. But in the latter part of the essay, one can deduce that the moth actually symbolizes humans and life. In the essay, she illustrates the struggle between life and death.
Her purpose in writing this passage is to depict how pathetic life is in the face of death, and to garner respect for the awesome power that death has over life. Throughout the essay, death is described from many different angles. The purpose of this is to remind us of the power that death has over life. She shows us the death is certain and unavoidable. She does not convey this message with logic, but with instead with emotions, feelings, and implicit ideas. She makes us feel the death of the moth to impart us a more complete understanding of the eternal power of death.
She uses several different types of figurative and literary language. As mentioned earlier, the essay is an extended metaphor. She used simile several times. For example, “… until it looked as if a vast net with thousands of black knots in it had been cast up into the air. ” In this simile, she describes a gathering of crows in the trees outside her window. In addition, she uses parallelism, which occurs when she writes: “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.
” A good example of hyperbole is present when the author describes: “One could only watch the extraordinary effort 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… ” By using such a simple creature’s struggle against death as a metaphor, Woolf creates a beautiful essay on the fragility of life. Her simplicity and detail keeps her essay from becoming overcomplicated, overly dramatic, or depressing. It was a surprisingly light and meaningful essay on an event that most people would probably overlook.
Years ago I worked in a large modern building with dark grey glass doors and windows. One morning when I was out smoking, I noticed a bright spot on the wall next to the door — a white moth, with soft, furry body and silvery antennae. It was the most beautiful creature I had ever seen—delicate and fragile, highlighted by the darkness of the glass and granite building. It was held there against the wall by a grip frozen in death.
I was reminded of this moth when I read W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz with his references to moths; subtle symbols of the lead character’s search for the truth of who he is, like the moth’s obsessive desire for illumination, regardless of the cost. And in the book, memories are tipped out into words forming stories as fragile as the wings of a moth preserved in a jar:
None of the containers was more than two or three inches high, and when I opened them one by one and held them in the light of the lamp, each proved to contain the mortal remains of one of the moths which — as Austerlitz had told me — had met its end here in this house. I tipped one of them, a weightless ivory-colored creature with folded wings that might have been woven of some immaterial fabric, out of its Bakelite box onto the palm of my right hand. Its legs, which it had drawn up under its silver-scaled body as if just clearing some final obstacle, were so delicate taht I could scarely make them out, while the antannae curving high above the whole body also trembled on the edge of visibility.
In college I was introduced to another story featuring a moth, Virginia Woolf’s essay, Death of a Moth. In it, Woolf writes about a moth flying about a window pane, its world constrained by the boundaries of the wood holding the glass. The moth flew from one side to the other, and then back again, as the rest of life continued ignorant of its movements. At first indifferent, Woolf was eventually moved to pity of the moth:
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.
The moth settles on the window sill and Woolf forgets it until she notices it trying to move again, but this time its movements are slow and awkward. It attempts to fly but fails, and falls back down to the sill—landing on its back, tiny feet clawing at the air as it tries to right itself. The author reaches out to help when she realizes that it is dying and draws back, reluctant to interfere with this natural process. Somehow in the brightness of the day, the power of death was seeking this moth and there was nothing anyone could do to stop it.
Still, she watched the moth as it fought against the inevitable:
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. One’s sympathies, of course, were all on the side of life.
However, after the moth had righted itself, in the instant of its victory, death descended:
The moth having righted himself now lay most decently and uncomplainingly composed. O yes, he seemed to say, death is stronger than I am.
In Woolf’s essay, the battle between life and death is somehow seen as both pathetic and noble. Pathetic because death will always win regardless the desire for life; but noble in how one faces death — on our back, defeated, or on our feet and in dignity.
Another essay also called Death of a Moth by Annie Dillard is often compared to Woolf’s essay, most likely because of the similar titles and subjects. Unlike Woolf’s moth, Dillard’s meets its end much more dramatically—caught within a candle’s flame, it’s body on fire, which Dillard details in unsentimental detail:
Her moving wings ignited like tissue paper, like angels’ wings, enlarging the circle of the darkness the sudden blue sleeves of my sweater, the green leaves of jewelweed by my side, the ragged red trunk of a pine; at once the light contracted again and the moth’s wings vanished in a fine, foul smoke. At the same time, her six legs clawed, curled, blackened, and ceased, disappearing utterly. And her head jerked in spasms, making a spattering noise; her antennae crisped and burnt away and her heaving mouthparts cracked like pistol fire. When it was all over, her head was, so far as I could determine, gone, gone the long way of her wings and legs.
Compared to Woolf’s moth, with its quiet dignity and brave fight against death, Dillard’s moth was caught in a torment of fire and died violently, one could almost say grotesquely. Death isn’t veiled in the struggle; isn’t seen through the same type of grey silken glasses worn by one of Sebald’s characters to mute the landscape when he paints. Death is stripped bare, exposed in all of its hideous indifference.
Yet where Woolf’s moth leads one to accept death, to embrace the nobility of death, Dillard’s moth flares out at death, defiant, and unaccepting. Its death says to me, “I do not go willingly, I do not give up on life easily. You must rip it from me and I’ll fight to hold it.” In the end, rather than form a noble and dignified corpse, Dillard’s moth becomes a second wick, causing the candle to burn that much brighter:
She burned for two hours without changing, without swaying or kneeling-only glowing within, like a boiling fire glimpsed through silhouetted walls, like a hollow saint, like a flame-faced virgin gone to God, while I read by her light, kindled while Rimbaud in Paris burnt out his brain in a thousand poems, while night pooled wetly at my feet.
I was more moved by Woolf’s moth, but Dillard’s moth is the one most vivid in my mind and in my memory.