The Death of the Moth by Virginia Woolf Essay
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‘The Death of the Moth” by Virginia Woolf
Death is a difficult subject for anyone to speak of, although it is a part of everyday life. In Virginia Woolf’s “The Death of the Moth”, she writes about a moth flying about a windowpane, its world constrained by the boundaries of the wood holding the glass. The moth flew, first from one side, to the other, and then back as the rest of life continued ignorant of its movements. At first indifferent, Woolf was eventually moved to pity the moth. This story shows that life is as strange and familiar as death to us all. I believe this story was well written and will critique the symbolism, characters, and the setting.
Woolf uses symbolism in her essay when she speaks of the moth and…show more content…
This symbolism Woolf applies to everyday human life, making us understand that death will all happen to us one day, when it is our time. There is no escaping death when it comes for us.
The character of the moth and the way that Woolf’s story unfolds makes you, as a reader, feel as if you are there actually watching the moth die. Her descriptions of the moth’s flight and the struggle against death as he lived his life that day involves you in the mourning of someone or something you love dying. You feel every movement that Woolf saw in the moth’s life that day by reading this essay. As Woolf describes how the moth “flew vigorously to one corner of his compartment, and after waiting there a second, flew across to the other, “ you can feel the moth’s movements (1178).
In Woolf’s essay, the battle between life and death is somehow seen as both pathetic and noble. Pathetic because death will always win regardless the desire for life; but noble in how one faces death – on our back, defeated, or on our feet, and in dignity. Woolf states “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” and shows the moth’s courageous journey into death (1179). “As I looked at the dead moth, this minute wayside triumph of so great a force over so mean
September 27, 1942Virginia Woolf's "The Death of the Moth"
By HORACE GREGORY
THE DEATH OF THE MOTH
By Virginia Woolf
By E. M. Forster
n reading Virginia Woolf at her very best - which includes "Mrs. Dallaway," "To The Lighthouse," "The Waves" and certain of her essays in her two Common Readers as well as the present volume - it is necessary to dust off and repolish that tarnished, dented, much abused word that has become a piece of kitchenware in criticism, "genius." It is necessary, I repeat, to say that genius, for better or for worse, means that the writer whose gifts have earned the once-coveted and shining title is the spirit of a particular time and place, a tutelar deity whose radiance sheds an unflickering, beneficent light within temple walls. Mrs. Woolf's gifts, however else we may define them, were of that quality; their resistance was Bloomsbury in London and not too far from the dark and yet Alexandrian outlines of the British museum; the moment which they suffused with pallid and clear illumination on library walls or in guest bedrooms of a country house on holidays or at eight o'clock dinner parties in the city was of the period that we now recall as existing precariously between two major wars. It was that time and place through Mrs. Woolf's spirit moved and to which the spirit brought its singular endowments of sentimentality and grace.
Mrs. Woolf's American publishers have thoughtfully issues Mr. Forster's tributary lecture on Virginia Woolf to accompany the posthumous collection of her essays, "The Death of the Moth," a volume, by the way, which might well have been published as a third series of confidence to her Common Reader. Mr. Forster's tribute, delivered in the Senate House in Cambridge on May 28, 1941, is of a sort that only he could have spoken, for the author of "Abinger's Harvest" and "A Passage to India" is another branch of the same tree which Henry James had planted in London soil and whose roots were the source of nourishment for the gifts of Dorothy Richardson as well as his own and those of Virginia Woolf. His remarks are of more penetrating eloquence than her notations on his novels in the present collection of her essays, but he has, we reflect, the advantage of the last word. As she inquires, somewhat impatiently, of Mr. Forster's work, "What next?" he proceeds calmly to celebrate the pervading charms of her personality, its freedom within the limitations she imposed, its unexpected turns of laughter, its sudden responsiveness - despite its air of seeming guardedly aloof - before an audience of women, its virtues as a "lady" who lived upon her income of five hundred pounds a year, for she could not pretend that her mother turned a mangle, and she herself, unlike Mrs. Giles of Durham, "had never stood at the washtub." Those of us who have read Mrs. Woolf's "A Room of One's Own" would find it difficult, I think, not to recognize the personality that Mr. Forster breathes to life in an hour's lecture, and that same personality resumes its character in an essay on "Middlebrow" which Mrs. Woolf's husband saw fit to include in "The Death of the Moth"; nor does one quarrel with Mr. Forster's carefully, adroitly balanced peroration in which he says "she gave acute pleasure in new ways, she pushed the light of the English language a little farther against darkness."
Whatever Mr. Forster says in his brief talk reflects the sensibility of an elder inhabitant of Virginia Woolf's world as well as one who traveled beyond its sphere, so far we may be assured of his wisdom and his poise, and he has said more within the hour and some thirty-seven small, wide-margined pages than many other solemn-eyed essayist could say in a hundred large sheets of fine, closely printed type. But for my part, I find myself thinking less of Virginia Woolf as a "lady" and as a "woman," than as a daughter of Sir Leslie Stephen, the singular person who in her youth was surrounded by gentlemen of late Victorian celebrity; one thinks of Meredith, of Ruskin, of the American Ambassador, James Russell Lowell, of Robert Louis Stevenson, and, of course, Sir Edmund Gosse; one thinks of books lining the walls of a capacious library, and with them the names of writers who reappear in the pages of Mrs. Woolf's novels and essays: Sir Walter Scott, Keats, Shelley, Coleridge, Shakespeare, Horace Walpole, Edward Gibbon - but the list would grow tedious and seem inexhaustible. One begins to wonder if, after all, after writing "A Room of One's Own" and "To the Lighthouse," she had made an escape from Sir Leslie's house and the gentlemen who came for tea? She believed she did, and there is written evidence of an exit left behind her, but a door remains open, and still one wonders, if she did escape, how far?
Far enough, one says at first, to discover a singular melody for her own prose, and Mr. Leonard Woolf, in editing this latest of her posthumous volumes, remarks upon her care in rewriting and revising the merest reviews sent off to the London Times Literary Supplement and The New Statesman. That melody, one may trust, was her great concern, and it sounded as she rehearsed and played it with the noise and chiming of many little bells.
Sometimes the bells rang sharply and clearly, striking their notes of nearly absolute finality in the newly published pieces on Horace Walpole, Sara Coleridge and "Street Haunting," but on occasion - and it is usually an occasion when the subject of the piece happens to be a romantic poet, Coleridge, or Shelley, or a Shakespearean play - the little bells ring so persistently that they seem to cover something left unsaid. Are these the moments when the escape from Sir Leslie's threshold was incomplete? When the open door behind her made it imperative that she remember Coleridge and Shelley? And because she must remember, therefore the bells chimes insistently, over and over with not too much to say?
Whether or not these questions can be answered with the directness that one might desire, it is plain enough that with a few exceptions Mrs. Woolf is at her happiest as she recaptures a moment of the eighteenth century viewed always in the light of her own day. As one reads her interpretations of Walpole and Cole, of "The Historian and 'The Gibbon,'" her escape seems certain; and in "Street Haunting: A London Adventure" her spirit resumes its character of genius. We are certain also that she in the generation between wars revived the so-called "familiar essay" which began its life in the formal prose of Addison, reappeared, or rather culminated one period of its existence in Charles Lamb's "Elia" and then breathed fitfully until Max Beerbohm arrived in London. It is that heritage which one rediscovers in "The Death of the Moth," and it seems natural, even in a literary sense, for Mrs. Woolf to have selected the eighteenth century as one point of origin, a birthplace, perhaps, of her identity. The sensibility which she expressed to the admiration of her contemporaries had its likeness in the Age of Sensibility itself.
In her essays she was a mistress of what often has been called an "outmoded" form, and if one admits that the familiar essay was among the vehicles of her genius, one need not concern one's self too deeply over the question of her ability in literary criticism. She was not, I believe, vastly disturbed by problems of the intellect, and because she was not one may find one of the several reasons for her lack of ease in the presence of Coleridge. She exerted an influence in literary matters because her artistry embraced the arts of persuasion and of charm. It is only when her criticism appears to be incidental to the portrait of a literary figure that it becomes convincing to the eye, and when the portrait is lacking, and when the criticism takes the form of a set argument, the illumination fades, the walls of the library are blank and we hear only the ringing of her small bells.
It may seem strange that her essays on Henry James, George Moore and E. M. Forster are less good than the others, and that her "Letter to a Young Poet" offers no more than what Polonius would say. The question of her escape from what was once Sir Leslie Stephen's threshold and the distance between it and her room in Bloomsbury returns in a slightly different guise. She seems to be reminded, half-unwillingly, of her duties to the many books piled high against the wall, of her obligation to the names of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Tennyson, Keats, Byron, of upholding among her contemporaries, both young and old, judgment that weights the page with lists of names. The names, we admit, are familiars of discourse on literary subjects, but as she uses them to stress the failures of contemporary literature, they remain mere counters of discussion. In these papers one feels that she is not the fortunate genius who writes with such brilliancy of Coleridge's daughter, Sara - and the question is: Has her genius found itself again because it was spoken in the voices of two daughters of famous men, one the daughter of a poet and philosopher, the other the daughter of a knighted literary critic?
In closing this third volume of Virginia Woolf's addresses to her Common Reader one is impelled to say that no reading of her best work can be called complete without a knowledge of it, without the delight of hearing her genius speak again. And in her essay that recreates the magic of walking city streets at evening, "street haunting" as she calls it, written in 1930, one finds a premonition of her own death, and her true epitaph:
"The sights we see and the sounds we hear now how none of the quality of the past; nor have we any share in the serenity of the person who, six months ago, stood precisely where we stand now. His is the happiness of death; ours is the insecurity of life. He has no future; the future is even now invading our peace. It is only when we look at the past and take from it the element of uncertainty that we can enjoy perfect peace."
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