Critical Analysis of ‘The Death of the Moth’ by Virginia Woolf
July 29 2021 · 5 min read
Death of a Moth by Virginia Woolf has been published in 1942. Through the fight for the life of a moth before its death, Virginia expresses the reality that death is inevitable and all-powerful over life: and all our efforts to escape it are acts of vanity. She wants us to agree with her when she says “nothing, I knew had any chance against death…” (Woolf, 1942, p.2) and she, explicitly using personification, reminds us of the futility of our struggle to live when she states “O yes, he seemed to say, death is stronger than I am” (Woolf, 1942, p.3). By using personal narrative Virginia makes a direct link with her readers.
And the readers build trust upon her view of situations. She uses emotional appeal and also gives the moth a human pronoun. It gives the image that she wants her audience to stand in the position of moth and realize that we are also fighting for our survival besides knowing that all men are immortal. And also because Woolf desires that we sympathize with the moth. Through these rhetorical devices, she conveys her main argument about the unavoidability of death. And no matter how powerful creatures we are any efforts to survive are not of considerable value and effort.
Writing a literary piece in the first person with pathos brings the audience into the affinity of the author and creates a common emotional understanding between both individuals.
Virginia Woolf uses personal narrative in the first person and positions herself as narrator to tell a story about her personal experience. “I forgot about him…” (Woolf, 1942, p.2). “I watched these futile attempts…” (Woolf, 1942, p.2) frequent use of the pronoun ‘I’ builds up credibility and trust. In addition, she evokes a sympathetic response from her readers using emotional impact on them “conscious of a queer feeling of pity for him…” (Woolf, 1942, p.1). Virginia is the writer and has written the story with the maturity and understanding of a mature adult who has experienced both beauty and ugliness of survival. While the audience is reading the story they are looking through the mature eye of the author and they are automatically coerced to reflect upon life and death. In addition, first-person narration helped readers to experience the emotions that she has experienced and the sensitive pathos used has created a hopeless tone that makes the reader feel pity for the moth.
The diction of the author is descriptive, including specific references to imagery and sensory perceptions she has symbolized death and has let the reader picture the story. The visual language like “…pleasant sense of dark autumn nights and ivy-blossom…” (Woolf, 1942, p.1) is giving more depth to the story portraying the plot and scene of the story in words. “It came over me that failure and awkwardness were the approach of death” (Woolf, 1942, p.2). Here Woolf is symbolizing death with failure and awkwardness. Then her tone changes “stillness and quiet had replaced the previous animation” (Woolf, 1942, p.2). Virginia has sketched the environment while the Moth was fighting the last fight against death with a bit upsetting choice of words. Whereas the use of words was charming in the beginning and calming which later transformed. All these rhetorical devices have added to the suspense of the reader about Moth’s life: whether it survives or not. And it has allowed the readers to draw the scene she is describing with vivid details.
A moth’s life consists of repetitive meaningless flights, yet it was fighting to resume them this represents human wrestle to make a living. “There was something marvelous as well as pathetic about him” (Woolf, 1942, p.2). She is giving human characters to the moth. “Watching him, it seemed as if a fiber, a very thin but pure…” (Woolf, 1942, p.1). Virginia has personified moth by giving it the human pronoun him. This makes her purpose of representing human life clearly. Through the use of simile and personification together she made it easier for the readers to get linked with the moth and make its fight relatable to their own. Although the efforts to win over death are worthless, any creature, small or large, tries to fight it. The writer has succeeded to get the emotional support of her audience. The personification has boosted the sensitivity of readers towards the situation where life is trying to live a little more and telling death not today.
Through the shifting tone of the story, Virginia gives us a question to think about: death puts an end to everything we desire for so what do all our aspirations mean? “This gigantic effort on the part of insignificant little moth, against a power of such magnitude…” (Woolf, 1942, p.2) I reflected over the meaninglessness and brevity of human life in the face of perpetual immortality and wondered why human beings strive to live the way they can get maximum comfort for themselves, even knowing the inevitability of death. The plowmen working in their fields are going to die just like the moth, yet they wear out themselves working in fields each year to make a living. But the way Woolf gives an ending to Moth’s life convinced me that one should never give up on living. And death is what gives meaning to life. “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” (Woolf, 1942, p.2). Before the Moth dies it corrects its position and dies decently. The concept of death makes people reflect over lives and motivates them to live decently.
Woolf, Virginia. The Death of the Moth. London: Hogarth Press. https://www.sanjuan.edu/cms/lib8/CA01902727/Centricity/Domain/3981/Death%20of%20A%20Moth-Virginia%20Woolf%20copy.pdf