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The Death of the Moth, published in 1942, compares a moth's life to that of a human. Woolf's intellect, sense of humor, and ability to distinguish between what is significant and what is not in both literature and life would inspire every reader. She understands what it's like to have a human soul and can explain it in her own special way. The story The Death of the Moth is one of the author's many captivating essays. The aim of this extract is to highlight the symbolic significance of a moth's struggles. The essay begins by describing the symbolic insect as the kind that soars during the day, fly out at night, and have a characteristic dull color. This specimen, however, was a day-flyer. It is apparent that she pities the moth, whose zest to enjoy the pleasures of his opportunities painfully pathetic. “After perhaps a seventh attempt he slipped from the wooden ledge and fell, fluttering his wings, on to his back on the windowsill. The helplessness of his attitude roused me”(Woolf 2). It is ironic how the author is roused by the moth’s suffering, while she suffers a mental illness as well. Perhaps, the moth’s suffering was symbolic of her own.
The symbolism is evident when Woolf’s claims that matters on life are about as comprehensible as the lifespan of this day-soaring insect. We see the moth spending so much time winging about in its small body as though it were trying to compensate for its short existence. This is symbolic of human life. We do so much even though we are likely to die from doing it.
In yet another part, Woolf is amazed at how pathetic and fascinating the moth gets when he tries to maintain his dignity in spite of the confined space. When he is let free, he soars and settles on a window ledge where the sun’s rays hit his body. He apparently attempts to resume his fluttering and dancing but its minute limbs are naturally stiff. Several attempts, and failures, later, he is exhausted and helpless. He cannot get across the windowsill. The symbolism in this extract is that we are continuously trying to make something of our pitiful lives.
Irrespective of the many times that the moth falls, the author looks at him with fascination, half-expecting him to get up and resume his movements and when she tries to help, she realizes that it is in the throes of demise. “Again, somehow, one saw life, a pure bead. I lifted the pencil again, useless though I knew it to be” (Woolf 2) The author describes the life of the moth as a symbolism of how, in her perception, life is short and an unnecessary struggle.
It is also symbolic that for the better part of the moth’s life, it flutters around bright light until the light kills it. Its death results from flying too close to the light or from added heat. There is a lateral meaning to this life that is never explored, especially the struggle towards becoming a moth. It has to feed itself enough to last it the entire Chrysalis duration. Unlike the butterfly, the moth is not attractive, meaning that it is more likely to be treated worse than its dainty and colorful counterpart. Passing away itself is a mystery, which makes the moth’s demise a mystery. This symbolism represents how some of us will struggle to achieve happiness in life, but they die trying.
It is interesting to note how the description given to the lifeless body of the insect is symbolic of a person’s life. In death, it seems at peace and its limbs are still for the first time. This shows that the very essence of life is energy, which is manifested in various ways. He flutters about across the window ledge, much more like the other creatures go about in their endeavors to sustain themselves. The elements of life involve a struggle that is unavoidable and a demise which is inevitable (Woolf 3).
It is evident how the author’s description comes from a personal problem. It is a realization that the only way out of a life of misery is to take her life. The moth has had a short life which ends on a windowsill one afternoon. It tried severally to fly out of the window but was held in by the glass; it could see outside but exhausted itself trying to be free. The glass window symbolizes individual space in which all are trapped by different things. Our attempts to escape this glass are only satisfied when we are offered assistance.
Although she tries to help the moth get up on its feet, in the end, it is clear that it is late as the insect’s body stiffens in a final act of rebellion. What makes this essay resonate even after all this while is its ability to draw the reader into its symbolism. Life is misunderstood, and the end of it is death. It is inevitable, but all have to go through it. Further, it shows the effects of closing oneself in and trying to control our circumstances. It is possible to live and enjoy life, even in its brevity. It will not always be summer, but every moment is worth living. As she looked at the moth, she realizes just how minute it was against the force that just claimed its life. Somehow, she pondered, he probably knew that death is stronger than he is.
Sánchez Cuervo, Margarita Esther. "Book Review: Virginia Woolf: Essays on the Self." Journal of International Women's Studies vol. 18, no. 2, 2017, 280-283.
Woolf, Virginia. The Death of the Moth and Other Essays. Virginia Woolf, 2015.
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