“The Death of the Moth” appears, at first glance, to be nothing more than an exercise in writing virtuosity — Woolf manages to do the seemingly impossible by endowing the death of a moth on a windowsill with emotional weight and impact, but there appears to be little that one can learn from the text. There appears, in other words, to be no message. However, this is not the case. In “The Death of the Moth,” Virginia Woolf uses emotional appeals to effectively overcome her audience’s resistance to thinking impartially about their own mortality.
The first evidence that Woolf intends to use the moth as an analogue for the mortal human is her examination of what we would generally consider very human considerations like the enjoyment available in life: “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” (Woolf 1). This may not, in fact, actually create an identification of the audience with the moth, but it certainly predisposes the reader to align his own emotions with those of the moth — after all, who has not at some point had the feeling that the greatness of life is wasted in work and toil?
Woolf goes on to engross the audience in her description of the moth’s desperate vitality, cementing their understanding of the moth as something that is tremendously — absurdly — alive. The moth participates in elaborate dances and seemingly purposeless actions that have meaning only to him, simultaneously suggesting the possibility of viewing the moth as an agent in his own right and inviting comparison to the actions of men — our struggles and strivings certainly make sense to us, but Woolf’s writing invites the audience to draw a parallel: would not a god, looking on, find the struggles of humans to be similarly meaningless and undirected?
The death of the moth, though, almost explicitly invites the comparison to another entity whose mortality we manage to forget by means of a deliberately-hectic distraction: man himself. By creating emotional investment on the part of the audience, she causes the audience to react to the death of this moth almost as they would to the death of a person — with sadness, grief, and respect. This bizarre state of treating the moth as a person invites the previous thoughts that Woolf has explored about the futility and absurdity of the moth’s existence to hit home for the human audience — if the moth is not unlike a human, are not these critiques of the moth’s life valid for humans, as well? This comparison is strengthened with an ironic comparison between the strength of death and the strength of the moth: “O yes, he seemed to say, death is stronger than I am” (Woolf 3). This comparison is ironically humorous because it is self-evident that death is stronger than any creature that can die — that is what it is to be mortal. But this underscores for the audience that from the perspective of death there is no meaningful difference between the moth and the human.
This is the ultimate rhetorical effect achieved by the use of emotional appeals to cause the audience to identify with the moth. The audience becomes capable of considering their own mortality, having their preconceptions and suppositions about their own significance and the importance of their lives challenged by the parallel between their absurd struggle and that of the moth. A tentative parallel between moth and man is first established by the use of sympathetic description of the moth’s life. This parallel is then extended to the mortality of the moth both by the pathos of the moth’s death and by the ironic comparisons of the moth’s strength to that of death, which invite similar comparisons to the strength of man. This represents a highly effective use of pathos of the part of Virginia Woolf.
- Woolf, Virginia. The Death of the Moth. Hogarth Press, 1942. Print.