Virginia Woolf’s famous essay entitled “Death of the Moth” is a fascinating look into the nature of mortality and the inevitability of death. This purchased essay explores the topic of death in human society. Like most representations of death in poetry and literature, this work details the metaphors of human mortality.
Death of a Moth: Understanding death and mortality
Virginia Woolf’s essay “Death of the Moth” describes her encounter with a moth as it fights furiously to escape her windowpane before it is claimed by death. The speaker’s first instinct as they intently watch the moth’s struggle is to help it, but as the speaker goes to do so, they realize that the moth is engaged in the same inescapable struggle faced by all living creatures as they try to prevent death from robbing them of life. By witnessing the moth’s death, the speaker is compelled to ponder the philosophical implications that incur within the circular pattern of life and death. The speaker is conscious of death’s omnipotent inevitability but concludes that the ever-present possibility of death serves as a primary motivational force necessary for life to have value and meaning. Since death cannot be overpowered, the way an individual struggles to survive and preserve life even in its final moments is more valuable than the mundane, meaningless activities pursued with apathy.
Metaphor for life
As the speaker continues to observe the moth, she begins to see the creature as a metaphor for life itself. The speaker describes him as he flies from one corner of the room to another as if:
“a fiber, very thing but pure, of the enormous energy of the world had been thrust into his frail and diminutive body” (1-2). From the speaker’s perspective, he was “nothing but life” (2).
Yet, his existence is composed of simple activities, which means that he represents life in its most primal form to the speaker. Yet even in this primal form, she still perceives him as:
“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” (2).
The mention of energy serves to connect the moth to the speaker by acknowledging that they are composed of the same vibrant energies that give them both life.
Additionally, the speaker also shows great appreciation for life itself by the way they describe the beauty and energy surrounding them as well as “the possibilities of pleasure seemed that morning so enormous and so various” (1). This appreciation causes the speaker to pity the moth, which embodies life, but is too small and insignificant in the world to truly make a difference or matter to others. Additionally, the moth’s simple existence has left it unprepared for its’ battle with death. While humans are aware of death’s existence and inevitability, the moth believes that it struggles against a force it can overcome. The frantic nature of its “superb last protest” and the speaker’s unwillingness to help the moth in its fight display the vast difference in complexity between the lives of the two creatures.
Despite the moth’s perceived insignificance, the speaker describes his energetic zeal as he zips around the room with fascination “one could not help watching him” (1). However, the speaker also views his energy in his persistent flights from one location to another as pathetic but revealing of “the true nature of life” or individual meaning of life (2). The moth’s insignificant and seemingly pointless journeys around the room parallel the speaker’s initial description of the activity occurring outside the window, where she sees people working vigorously in the surrounding fields. Their hard work plowing and harvesting the fields is as meaningless as the moth’s continuous zigzagging flights.
Humans have filled their lives with mundane tasks and routines that cause them to feel comfortable and passive towards their lives. Even though death is always hovering in close proximity, people live in ignorance or in denial of its presence. They lack a sense of urgency for filling their lives with meaningful moments because they do not see the importance of cherishing each and every moment until the threat of death is obvious, eminent, and very near to them. By focusing on this concept, the speaker hints that they are deeply fearful of having lived an empty life thus far and suggests that they are uncertain as to how to fill the remainder of their lives with something of value.
Adding meaning to life
Additionally, the work that people fill their days with lacks a true valuable meaning for their lives. Their insignificant ‘accomplishments’ will disappear as soon as they are claimed by death. For instance, the work occurring outside the speaker’s windowsill will have no lasting impact if all the workers were to suddenly perish. In their absence, the fields and trees would again be free to grow wild without restriction, until they eventually reach a point where they no longer resemble the current fields the speaker is looking at. This means that all of the hard work by many people implored for creating and maintaining them lacks permanency, which would give it value. The speaker’s comparison between the moth and the people outside are evident by the way they mention the half of work at the same time the moth begins to die.
Similarly, the speaker also marvels at life but does not truly place any value on it until she witnesses death conquer the moth, as death does with all living beings. She acknowledges that while people are capable of living, they are unable to properly grasp the concept of death. Subsequently, this means that they are also unable to truly learn and cherish the value of life due to the fact that its value is typically interdependent on death. The only way an individual can value something is when there is a threat for it to be lost or be taken away. Furthermore, all living beings are constantly threatened by deadly situations on a daily basis, yet people usually fail to recognize these situations as dangerous.
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For instance, every time an individual drives or rides in a car, there is always the possibility that they will be involved in a fatal accident. However, most people never consider this as they get into a car. Additionally, many people do not even bother to wear seatbelts or will engage in other kinds of reckless life-threatening behavior while they are behind the wheel. The lack of regard for safety in this example reveals the loss or lack of meaning that the speaker feels have contaminated the value of life. Just as the moth keeps flying without the fear that each flight may be his last, people live without the consideration that each moment may be their final moment. They do not achieve their full potential in life because they always assume that they will have more time to achieve or experience the things they value. However, death will always come despite whether its arrival is expected or catches one off guard.
Compelled to help
As the speaker watches the moth struggle to regain control of its movements on her windowsill, she is initially compelled to help the poor creature. However, as the speaker reaches out with a pencil to help flip the moth back over, she is overcome by the combination of both its exorbitant efforts to survive coinciding with its awkward aura of feeble helplessness. The speaker’s description of the moth’s epic battle paints life and death as equal opposing forces. Life will always create the burning determination for an individual to keep surviving when it is threatened by death, but death fights equally as hard in its efforts to put an end to life. The speaker realizes the moth’s struggle is his own struggle, and that she has no way of fending off the force of death.
The duality of these forces is evident by the way the speaker describes the moth’s last moments, before death comes, as both valiant and useless:
“one could only watch the extraordinary efforts made by those tiny legs against an oncoming doom” (2).
The act of witnessing the moth die causes the speaker to despair over such a pure lifeform being suddenly overcome by weakness. They realize at the end that “death is stronger than I am” (3). The speaker then concludes that the battle they have just witnessed is more important than whether an individual lives or dies. As long as one gives life as much meaning as they can and then dies with dignity after putting up a noble fight, their life will have value. The only way for humans to learn the value of life is to fight as hard as the moth did in overcoming whatever obstacles they might face. Although the speaker originally feels that “his zest in enjoying his meager opportunities to the full” is pathetic, she later is envious of the strength and determination the moth presents while trying to escape its death.
Though the speaker feels superior to the moth, it is clear that this creature is much more suited for wholeheartedly enjoying the simple pleasures in life while she is faced with a far more complex and difficult search for her own happiness. Furthermore, the transition between the moth’s spritely dance in the air to its powerless frozen pose of death is meant to show how quickly life passes, which also emphasizes the underlying message that people need to appreciate every moment of life as if it is their last. Since life is precious and fleeting, all moments should be spent wisely in order to enjoy life to the fullest.
“Death of a Moth:” Connecting life and death
Therefore, Virginia Woolf’s essay “The Death of the Moth” makes comparisons about the life and struggles of a delicate insignificant moth to the similar struggles faced by all human life. Although the moth is a very simple. primal form of life, only concerned with breathing and eating, Woolf still relates to its struggle to survive to the same struggle all people face in leading meaningful lives and overcoming obstacles with as much strength as she had just witnessed in the moth’s battle with death. When confronting death, humans are just as weak and frail as the moth and are powerless to escape their fates. Yet, unlike the moth, humans struggle to find as much enjoyment as the moth did with his aimless flights in the mundane tasks filling almost every moment of their lives. All living creatures are mortals fighting for time and forgetting to make the most of the time they still have left.
Woolf, Virginia, and Leonard Woolf. The death of the moth: and other essays. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1942. Print.