The Death of the Moth

Image: Solange Arouca Rodrigues Guimarães


Commentary on the book by Virginia Woolf

This is one of Virginia's essays written late in her life, in the midst of World War II, and published posthumously. She makes no direct reference to the war and does not even mention that the house where she lived, in Rodmell, is located six kilometers away from where the German army was moored (MESQUITA, 2016), however; we understand that the author, through the open window of The Death of the Moth, seeks a language capable of representing the consciousness of its characters, penetrating their interiority and diving below the surface of words in an attempt to seek the message, the interpretation, the transfiguration of ghosts, the suffering and the social struggle of the human being squeezed between human and non-human assemblages. (WOOLF, 2021).

In this way, it seems to us that The Death of the Moth when dealing with the end of an insect's life, apparently insignificant, it translates the efforts of resistance, the horizons of becoming and the tireless struggle to sustain life. Following the path of Giuseppe Ungaretti, the text is located on the tightrope of the need to establish a balance between artistic expression and social activity, understanding: “it is necessary to miraculously resolve the contrast of being singular, unique, anonymous and universal (...) and bring revolution to the world”.

The scene described is that of the interior of a house, near an open window through which one glimpses “a pleasant mid-September morning, mild and benign, but with a sharper breeze than that of the summer months (…) the plow was already furrowing the field (...) the earth was flattened, shining and humid. A vigor came in waves from the fields and the hill (…). The crows were fluttering (…) flying over the tops of the trees in circles, as if a vast net of thousands of black knots were thrown through the air (…) with extreme clamor and vociferations (…) and then settled little by little on the tops of the trees. trees” (p.11-12).

Virginia cannot keep her eyes fixed on the book she is reading, as she is captured by the same energy that inspires “the crows, the farmers, the horses, the bare backs of the hills” and, suddenly, a moth appears that “flutters from side to side the other on the square of the open window pane” (p. 13).

She cannot take her eyes off this “hybrid creature that flies by day, neither happy like a butterfly nor somber like those of its kind that arouse a pleasant sensation when they fly in the dark nights of autumn” (p. 11). The moth with hay-colored wings awakens, in Virginia, a feeling of pity because “the possibilities of pleasure that morning seemed so gigantic and so diverse compared to the share of life that belonged to a daytime moth” (p. 14). Thus, he describes in detail the moth's attempts to fly, from one corner of the glass compartment to the other, its fatigue, its diminished opportunities to reach “the breadth of the sky, the size of the hills, the smoke of the houses and the steam of the sea ”. He observes “the enormous fiber of energy in the world, very fine, pure, in that fragile and diminutive body that crossed the window behind a visible thread of light” and imagines: “it was nothing, or almost nothing, besides life” (p. 14).

Woolf pursues the nature of this drive and says: “it is such a simple form of energy that it wavered through the open window and infiltrated the narrow and intricate corridors of my brain and other human beings (…) it is both wonderful and pathetic (… ) a tiny drop of pure life adorned, very light and sent to dance and zigzag, in order to show the true nature of life” (p. 15).

After a while, and one, two, three, four, five, six and seven attempts to fly over until the benign morning, the moth, tired of its dance, settles down on the windowsill in the sun, rigid, clumsy and unsuccessful . Meanwhile, Virginia tries to help her pull herself together by handing her a pencil that she could grab onto, lean on and fly again. He looks out the window and notices that it is noon and work in the fields has already stopped, the birds are gone, the horses are resting, immobility and silence have replaced the animation of the early morning and he asserts: “the power is still there , accumulated outside, indifferent, impersonal with nothing in particular (…) opposing the little moth (…) useless to try anything. One could only watch the extraordinary efforts of tiny little legs against an approaching doom that could, if it chose, submerge a whole city, and not just a city, but masses of human beings: nothing, I knew, had the slightest chance against it. death” (p. 19).

According to David Carter (1993), a moth researcher, there are about 170.000 diurnal and nocturnal species that exhibit a variety of sizes, shapes and colors geographically distributed across all continents, with the exception of Antarctica. They are fragile creatures, objects of great beauty and that survive in a hostile world without weapons of attack to defend themselves. Yet they have developed evolutionary successes in different habitats across the planet covering glaciers, mountains, deserts, temperate zones and tropical jungles. They experience four different life cycles: eggs, caterpillar, chrysalis and moth and have a life expectancy of about four months, from egg to adult, depending on weather conditions and their predators.

The text relates that after a pause of exhaustion, the moth's legs shake once more as a last splendid and frantic protest that promoted a sympathy between the observer and the moth, since both were on the side of life. However, “there was no one to care or to witness that immense effort by an insignificant little moth to conserve something that no one else valued or wanted to keep, against the force of such magnitude, was strangely moving. Again, what you saw was life: a pure drop.”

The text suggests that this so immense force called death represents a cruel antagonism that causes us astonishment and that it, like life, causes strangeness in us and ends by saying: “the moth, now upright, lay serene with great decency and without complaining . Ah yes, it seemed to say, death is stronger than I am.” (p. 21)

Perhaps this text by Virginia has achieved the feat announced by Ungaretti when he suggests that the writer's job is to contrast singular and anonymous situations with universal and collective feelings and, in the tense balance between artistic expression and social resistance, bring the revolution to the world.

In this pandemic moment, it may seem revolutionary to think that the moth's efforts, as well as those of humans, to sustain life zigzag through pathetic and pitiful, but also splendid movements and that they “submerge an entire city, and not just a city, but masses of human beings” (p. 6). Thus, the smallest things can keep something splendid in themselves and contrast the tenderness of our apparently insignificant existences.

* Deborah Mazza is a professor at the Department of Social Sciences at the Faculty of Education at Unicamp.

Photos: Solange Arouca Rodrigues Guimaraes. VC on TG [].



WOOLF, Virginia. The Death of the Moth. Translation Ana Carolina Mesquita. Bilingual edition: Portuguese and English. São Paulo: Editora Nós, 2021, 48 pages.



CARTER, David. Diurnal and nocturnal moth identification manual. Barcelona: Ediciones Omega, SA, 1993.

MESQUITA, Ana Carolina de Carvalho. The Tavistock Journal: Virginia Woolf and the Quest for Literature. Doctoral thesis. Department of Literary Theory and Comparative Literature. (DTLC). Faculty of Philosophy, Letters and Human Sciences (FFLCH), University of São Paulo (USP), 2018.

UNGARETTI, Giuseppe. Interview Alberto Moravia and Giuseppe Ungaretti. In BRAGA, Rubem. parisian portraits. Rio de Janeiro: José Olympio, 2013, p. 145-149.

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