"The Death of the Moth" by Virginia Woolf

21Jan05

Death is the antagonist. Not a particularly novel concept, but such is the case in this essay:

But, as I stretched out a pencil, meaning to help him to right himself, it came over me that the failure and awkwardness were the approach of death. I laid the pencil down again.

The legs agitated themselves once more. I looked as if for the enemy against which he struggled. I looked out of doors. What had happened there? Presumably it was midday, and work in the fields had stopped. Stillness and quiet had replaced the previous animation. The birds had taken themselves off to feed in the brooks. The horses stood still. Yet the power was there all the same, massed outside indifferent, impersonal, not attending to anything in particular. Somehow it was opposed to the little hay-coloured moth. It was useless to try to do anything. 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.

Death is “the enemy,” it is “indifferent, impersonal…[and] Somehow it was opposed to the little hay-coloured moth.” But death opposes not only the little moth but everyone and everything, of which Woolf grudgingly admits acceptance at the end of the passage. And by the end of the essay, and the end of the little moth’s struggle, Woolf seems to admire the insect:

The moth having righted himself now lay most decently and uncomplainingly composed. O yes, he seemed to say, death is stronger than I am.

The moth “decently and uncomplainingly” seems to state its acceptance of its vulnerability to death’s power. Perhaps just as the moth struggles against death, so does Woolf struggle with her, indeed, all life’s vulnerability to death with this essay.

“Strange” seems to be an important word in this essay. Life is strange, death is strange, the moth is strange…. The peculiarities seem to fascinate Woolf.

Woolf’s writing in this case does not reflect her usual stream-of-consciousness style, but her use of what she refers to as “the woman’s sentence” in A Room of One’s Own is in full force.

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