Thoughts on Woolf’s “The Death of the Moth”

By BESSIE LIU | May 4, 2017

This weekend, my roommate and I trapped a fly in between the window pane and the screen shield after struggling to usher it out civilly through the door of our room. Since we couldn’t actually open the screen to let it out from the window, we had to resort to the next best solution, which was keeping it trapped there so we wouldn’t have to hear its buzzing all day and night.

Watching the fly search for a way outside, I was reminded of a short story by Virginia Woolf that I had read a long time ago, called “The Death of the Moth” (not a fly, but the same themes apply). In Woolf’s story, the narrator describes watching the world outside from behind her window and being fascinated by the energy that came “rolling in from the fields and the down beyond” and flowed between the trees, the birds and the horses.

She describes this same type of energy as what compels a moth to try to escape through the window. As the narrator watches the moth, however, she notices that it appears to be struggling against death and becomes somber as the moth finally succumbs.

I love the way that Woolf connects her observations of the moth with her observations of the natural world outside. She describes the scene outside with sweeping grandeur, using images such as “the earth was pressed flat and gleamed with moisture” and “the rooks... soaring round the tree tops until it looked as if a vast net... had been cast up into the air” to capture the energy and life that abounds in the environment.

She contrasts this vastness with the moth’s small and seemingly mundane act of trying to escape a window it cannot open. According to Woolf, it is pathetically ironic that the moth devotes himself wholeheartedly to this minor struggle (from our perspective). “In spite of the... width of the sky, the far-off smoke of houses, and the romantic voice, now and then, of a steamer out at sea.”

Woolf’s descriptions of the moth as “a tiny bead of pure life... dancing and zig-zagging to show us the true nature of life” shape the insect into a character that readers begin to become interested in.

Thus, when she reveals that the moth is dying, readers might even feel sorry for it. In watching the moth die, Woolf comments on the strangeness of switching between life and death, remarking that for some reason the power and energy that represents life was “indifferent, impersonal... somehow it was opposed to the little hay-coloured moth.” In other words, for some reason, a force as looming and foreboding as death still cared to approach the small moth.

I personally admire how Woolf is able to change the tone so markedly from the first half of the piece. The changes in activities of the moth, going from dancing to dying, reflect the dying down of the tone itself. Of the moth, the narrator thinks of “all that life might have been had he been born in any other shape,” which vaguely raises the interesting question of whether or not the moth resents being a moth.

But Woolf doesn’t delve into philosophical excursions, she merely brings them up and moves on, mimicking the energy she describes throughout the text. What I like about this piece is the great array of themes and images packed into such a short story. There is also a deep consideration of the impermanence of life that transcends the simple realization of this truth.

The fact that the narrator takes the time to observe the moth at all reveals something about her character, a certain kind of thoughtfulness and consideration for other forms of life.

I interpreted the fact that the narrator chooses to mourn the death of this moth that isn’t even properly a moth as it flies around in daylight (as Woolf points out in the first sentence of her story) and celebrates his small victory for trying to fight the inevitable as a remark on the necessity of empathy.

But regardless, her vivid descriptions and flowing language launch the piece to grander heights than you might first expect.

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