February 4, 2003
Death of the Moth
As she examines the struggle of a moth trying to achieve something impossible by going through a windowpane to reach the outdoors, Virginia Woolf sees the moth in a new light, a light that identifies the moth not as insignificant and in demand of pity, but a small creature of the world, a pure being that was afforded the gift of being “nothing but life.”
The very fact that Woolf chooses a moth as the primary focus of her observation could be random; however, it would appear not to be. Moths are commonly thought of as dull, gray creatures, often despised, always thought of as “insignificant.” By pointing out the “beads of life” evident in the lowly moth, Woolf shows the value not of being a moth, but of being intent on a cause, being willing to “dance.” The gray moth is separated from the colorful world outside the window, but he does not know that he is simply a moth, that he doesn’t hold the right to pass through the window. The moth doesn’t see himself—there are no mirrors for him to peer into: the moth could just as easily know he is a butterfly, a beautiful creature who would be welcomed into the outside world. “He was nothing but life,” and life is not required to take a specific form; life does not give preference to outer beauty. Whether he knows he is a drab gray moth or thinks he is a butterfly vibrant with color, the moth chooses to live his life through a cause, and even though it may show itself to be futile in the end, he has had a cause for living, a passion, and this is ideal for Woolf.
Woolf tells of a “queer feeling of pity” for the moth, germinating from the “helplessness of his attitude”—she originally sees him as an “insignificant creature,” one whose struggles should not touch her. But the struggle of the moth in his valiant battle against “so mean an antagonist” (death) opens Woolf’s eyes, opens her to the beauty of the moth, and to the beauty of the struggle. The moth, through his dancing, doesn’t allow the pane of glass separating him from his ideal world to manipulate his life. He does not lie down and die; instead, he continues to struggle, continues to begin “futile attempts” to conquer the unseen “enemy” against which he fought. Woolf admires the sense of purpose in the moth, his simple focus on living in whichever way he can. When she lifts a pencil to help him, she withdraws it, allowing him to live his own struggle, for the beauty of his success would not be the success itself, but that he won his struggle toward success. By helping him revive himself with the tip of her pencil, Woolf would take away the most important part of the moth’s life.
Just as we all are like the moth, struggling to enter our paradises, the window too is symbolic of a broader meaning. Woolf depicts the window as the boundaries we all recognize, those we either place upon ourselves or those which we feel society has placed upon us. The moth, however, knows no society, knows no self-limitation; what is special about the moth to Woolf is that he does not necessarily see the boundaries of the window. He knows there is something blocking his entry into his paradise, but he knows not what. He is willing to fight this cause anyway, willing to keep pressing on towards his goal. The simplicity of his fight, the purity of his struggle—the very nature of the fact he is willing to dance in the face of what is inevitably his death—is what Woolf so admires in the moth. The moth knows he has no control over death (“O yes, he seemed to say, death is stronger than I am”), yet he never gives up his struggle. If he shall die anyway, why not die dancing?
In dancing upon the windowsill, dancing in the arms of death, the moth stands up against his formidable foe, and fills Woolf with wonder at his own ability to exert “so great a force.” The moth’s purpose is pure, and Woolf admires its simplicity. The moth does not fear death; he fears losing the struggle. This is worse than death for the moth, and the moth’s ability to overcome the living’s fear of death is what draws Woolf to him and causes her not to pity the “insignificant” moth, but to admire him in his simple existence and courage to dance upon the windowpane that brings his death.
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