Life is a constant struggle against the ever present chill of death. Fear, betrayal, and cowardice all stems from life’s distaste of death. Human beings naturally rebuke the unknown, so it is only logical that people fight the inevitability of death. However, most people are ignorant of the reality of one day dying, prompting writer Virginia Woolf to write the essay, “The Death of the Moth”, in order to convey the frailty of life whilst also showing the awesome might of death.
In the essay, her main purpose is to show that the moth embodies the human race, and that death is an inevitable fact of life no matter how much the human race struggles to stay alive. Woolf is able to get her purpose across by utilizing her unique style of writing. This is achieved by sympathizing with the moth throughout the essay, switching the narration between her internal personal struggles and external struggles of the moth, and changing the entire tone of the essay when the different themes of life and death are explored.
Using her distinct writing style, Woolf delves into the wonders of life, and the ever present battle against death. One of the techniques Woolf uses in her writing style is employing empathy within the readers. She strives to create an emotional connection between the reader and the subject of the essay. In this case, Woolf directs her use of empathy with the main character of the story, which is the moth. Even before delving into the life of the moth, Woolf begins to refer to the moth as “he” instead of “it”, suggesting that the reader relates to the moth on a more personal level, rather than viewing him as just another insignificant bug.
This creates a personal bond between the reader and the moth, resembling that of a companionship. Instantly, Woolf has been able to get the audience interested and emotionally invested in her essay by simply referring to the moth as a “he”. Furthermore, she proceeds to observe this moth closely, refusing to divert her attention to the happenings around her. As the moth lives his carefree life by vibrantly flying around, Woolf cannot help but pity the insignificance he has in the grand scale of things. ‘“One could not help watching him. One, was, indeed, conscious of a queer feeling of pity for him.
The possibilities of pleasure seemed that morning so enormous and so various that to have only a moth’s part in life, and a day moth’s at that, appeared a hard fate, and his zest in enjoying his meager opportunities to the full, pathetic’” (Woolf 1). She continually pities the fact that the moth continues to make the most of his desperate and futile situation. No matter his frailty and impending doom, the moth continues to carelessly dance around the windowpane, either because he is unaware that he will soon die, or because he chooses not to care about his demise.
However, Woolf begins to realize that the moth’s strength is failing him, and she comes to the cold conclusion that he is at death’s door. Not soon after that, the moth senses that his strength is failing him, but even upon knowing his inevitable death, the moth continues to fight. Woolf’s heart goes out to the insect. ‘“It was superb this last protest, and so frantic that he succeeded at last in righting himself. One’s sympathies, of course, were all on the side of life (Woolf 2)’”. She resolves to root for the moth, and applaud his final protest against death.
By the use of her writing style, Woolf has caused the audience to root for the moth’s final efforts along with her. By getting so emotionally invested in this moth, the audience realizes that no matter what happens, death will win, which saddens the readers. Their fellow comrade will fall, and it alerts everybody of the harshness of the situation. In reality people fight to live, but everyone will die just like that moth, and by creating an emotional attachment between the readers and the moth, people begin to understand the frailty of existence through this insignificant moth.
In addition to creating empathy, Woolf uses a beautifully poetic method in getting her purpose across, which is exploring the external struggles of the moth while employing those struggles to her own personal demons. She is able to switch the narratives between external and internal conflict without the audience even realizing it. Through the use of her vivid imagery and lucid writing style, Woolf achieves this double narrative story without the readers even consciously aware of it.
This use of story-telling gives the readers multiple sides of the story, and is able to relate the tragic happenings of the moth to the even more tragic workings of Woolf’s mind. At first she explores the failing strength of the moth, which is the entire basis of the essay. ‘“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). However, she begins to directly correlate these outside and physical experiences to the internal conflict and drama she’s been feeling.
‘“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’” (Woolf 2). Upon trying to help the moth, she soon sees how her actions would only prove to be futile, causing her to give up trying to help. This leads internal conflict within her, because she questions the use of fighting to stay alive when death will happen anyways. This causes her to pity the moth, who continually attempts to live, even though there’s no use. The internal trauma Woolf feels comes to a climax when the moth succumbs to death.
‘“Just as life had been strange a few minutes before, so death was now as strange. The moth having righted himself now lay most decently and uncomplainingly composed. O yes, he seemed to say, death is stronger than I am’” (Woolf 3). Woolf is amazed at how quickly and easily death came, and how death was an endless wave of mystery. In the end, she comes to terms with the fact that death will always triumph life, no matter how much people fight to live. By using both internal and external conflict to express this ongoing battle, the reader completely grasps the theme of inevitability of death by seeing multiple examples presented to them.
The last technique used by Woolf in her particular style is the use of tone and the words she chooses to employ throughout the entirety of her essay. In the beginning of the essay, the tone is light, having a congenial feel to it. The words used by Woolf flow very smoothly, and through the use of the happy and flowing words, she conveys the joys of life. She is basically celebrating the life and energy of the moth. ‘“Nevertheless the present specimen, with his narrow hay-colored wings, fringed with a tassel of the same color, seemed to be content with life.
It was a pleasant morning, mid-September, mild, benignant, yet with a keener breath than that of the summer months’” (Woolf 1). Woolf was renowned for her colorful language and the constant flow of the text. However, once the idea of death is introduced, the essay begins to take a morbid turn. A sense of foreboding is introduced into the mix, and the style of the writing changes. Instead of the flowing writing style and beautiful imagery, Woolf switches to longer sentences that contain different literary devices and the use of words is choppier rather than flowing.
‘“When there was nobody to care or to know, this gigantic effort on the part of an insignificant little moth, against a power of such magnitude, to retain what no one else valued or desired to keep, moved one strangely. Again, somehow, one saw life, a pure bead’” (Woolf 2). Woolf doesn’t utilize just words, but emotions in helping us to understand the full impact of death. Upon the introduction of the death of the moth, the demise of Woolf’s usual flowing writing occurs as well. By using different writing styles within the same essay, Woolf is able to achieve her purpose by creating a sense of dread within the reader.
The theme of the inevitability of death is portrayed so skillfully by Woolf’s use of imagery and tone. Woolf’s skillful writing style is used to convey the absoluteness of death in a way that no other author is able to accomplish. By using empathy through the moth, conveying internal and external conflict, and using different tones and writing styles within the essay, Woolf was able to accomplish her purpose of showing the frailty of life, and how death will always triumph, no matter the struggle against it. People usually ignore this harsh fact, but Woolf was able to convey it through emotions rather than words, so people easily understood.
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