“The Death of a Moth” is an essay by Virginia Woolf that was published in 1942 in The Death of a Moth and Other Essays. Virginia Woolf died in 1941 and it was her husband Leonard Woolf who helped get this book published. In the Editor’s Note for The Death of a Moth and Other Essays, Leonard Woolf explains that it was Virginia’s plan to publish another book in the spring of 1942 and she had been gathering newspaper articles, short stories and other writings for that book. Although Leonard doesn’t say this directly, it seems like publishing this book was his way of closing the final chapter on Virginia’s life.
In “The Death of a Moth”, Woolf observes a moth as it moves about her window. As she ponders the moth’s movements, she begins to draw parallels between this moth’s life and the human experience. My intention with sharing this essay today is not to do a deep analyses the form and function of this essay, it is instead to highlight a few lines of this essay that stood out to me and share why. It is my hope that you will also find something in this essay that makes you stop and think.
Excerpts from “The Death of a Moth”
Woolf begins this essay by immediately bringing the reader’s attention to this moth.
Moths that fly by day are not properly to be called moths; they do not excite that pleasant sense of dark autumn nights and ivy-blossom which the commonest yellow-underwing asleep in the shadow of the curtain never fails to rouse in us. They are hybrid creatures, neither gay like butterflies nor sombre like their own species.
Although this moth may be mundane, it still sparks curiosity in Woolf. Its sporadic movements provide a catalyst for Woolf to begin to explore the linkage between this moth and the human experience.
The same energy which inspired the rooks, the ploughmen, the horses, and even, it seemed, the lean bare-backed downs, sent the moth fluttering from side to side of his square of the window-pane.
Continuing this subtle link between human energy and the moth, Woolf begins to explore what seems like the futile movements of the moth.
He flew vigorously to one corner of his compartment, and, after waiting there a second, flew across to the other. What remained for him but to fly to a third corner and then to a fourth? That was all he could do, in spite of the size of the downs, the width of the sky, the far-off smoke of houses, and the romantic voice, now and then, of a steamer out at sea. What he could do he did. Watching him, it seemed as if a fibre, very thin but pure, of the enormous energy of the world had been thrust into his frail and diminutive body. As often as he crossed the pane, I could fancy that a thread of vital light became visible. He was little or nothing but life.
As I read this section, I feel empathy growing between Woolf and the moth. This moth seems to be trapped in its little corner of the window when there is so much more out there to explore. There are far away houses and steamer ships, yet the moth stays busy by the window. Is he limited by his size or by his nature?
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, there was something marvellous as well as pathetic about him. It was as if someone had taken a tiny bead of pure life and decking it as lightly as possible with down and feathers, had set it dancing and zig-zagging to show us the true nature of life.
With these sentences, Woolf brings the symbolism of this moth to the forefront. This little moth, who is the embodiment of life, can “show us the true nature of life”. At this point we are contemplating life, but over the next few sections we move towards contemplating death.
After perhaps a seventh attempt he slipped from the wooden ledge and fell, fluttering his wings, on to his back on the window sill. The helplessness of his attitude roused me. It flashed upon me that he was in difficulties; he could no longer raise himself; his legs struggled vainly. 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. , , ,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.
Woolf then ends with these sentences.
the unmistakable tokens of death showed themselves. The body relaxed, and instantly grew stiff. The struggle was over. The insignificant little creature now knew death. As I looked at the dead moth, this minute wayside triumph of so great a force over so mean an antagonist filled me with wonder. 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.
As this essay ends, I am struck by Woolf’s reflection he strangeness of death. During the final moments of the moth’s life, once the moth recognizes that death was upon him, he composed himself and transitioned to the next stage. When the moth says, “Death is stronger than I am.” is it from peaceful acceptance of the transition or from exhausted defeat? This is perhaps a question that is unable to be answered until we experience this process ourselves.
But perhaps what stands out for me the most in this essay, is how Woolf shows us how much we can learn about ourselves when we connect with the other than human world. Woolf explores the meaning of life while watching a moth. I wonder what else we can we learn about ourselves when we sit quietly and watch the natural world unfold?
You can read the full essay, and all the other essays in The Death of a Moth and Other Essays at Project Gutenberg Australia website.
What are your thoughts about this essay? Share any thoughts in the comments below.
Thank you for posting the excerpts from Woolf’s essay… these are such interesting observations that she reached. From the moth’s vigorous energy of work to its zig-zagging dance as “the true nature of life.” I love that part, as a celebration of the moth’s seeming joy at being alive. Truly, a celebration of the gift of having a body capable of movement. I thought that a stronger connection than the one Woolf made of observing the moth’s death. To me, the part of death was a longer leap, and possibly Woolf placing her own thoughts on to the moth’s actions/posture.
Hi Dave, Thanks for sharing your ideas here. I am not an expert on Woolf’s life, but I believe this essay was written close to the time that she died by suicide. Knowing that part of her experience also made me wonder about those final statements. Thanks again for your comments!
I’m no expert on VW either but this is surely her contemplating her own life and death. Like the moth, we humans are really just as fragile! I love that reference to compartments, I have a picture in my mind where the moth might think it lands on a shrub when in fact it is only a reflection of the real world outside! There are people in this world who think just like that! Wonderful post. Thank you!
I remember having to read this essay in English class. It stuck with me all this time. I believe you captured the essence of it. Thanks for reminding me about how deeply the essay influenced me.
I must have read this years ago too. But I didn’t remember it. I am glad you enjoyed reading it again. Thanks for visiting.
The visual she presents, the part where she offers up the pencil to help the moth…it breaks my heart.
Hi Cavelle, I hear you! The symbolism is everywhere in this essay.
I love her observations. So insightful always
Yes! She does write with such insight. Thanks for the comment!
I’ll read this today, Mark . . . looking forward to reading it, but apprehensive. I think it will be sad.
Hi Lesley, I’ll be interested to hear what you think after you read it! Thanks for the continued support.
Will do, Mark. 😀 You are welcome!
She has an excellent observations.
Hi Priti, I thought the same thing. So much going on here.
Yes it is.
Hi Mark. I’ve never read anything by Virginia Woolf before. She writes beautifully about nature. I love the comparison of the rooks to ‘a net with lots of knots’ and how she describes the earth being scored by the plough – it does look like that from a distance.
It was heart breaking to be made aware of all the activity going on outside in the big open space and then for our attention to be drawn to the moth struggling against the window in captivity. I wish she had scooped it up and let it out of the window. 😦 However, it is a good lesson on how we struggle against death for most of our lives, mainly by refusing to face up to the reality of it, and then observing that acceptance brings peace and dignity. I’d like to read more of her essays.
Wow these are beautiful quotes that you’ve selected! I’ve been reading some of her essays on the self, have you read them, too?
Hi orioninspire, I haven’t dived that deep into her work. But it is on the “to-do” list. If you have a favorite piece, feel free to share.