It is often said that death is an inescapable inevitability in life. In Virginia Woolf’s narration “The Death of the Moth,” the struggle between life and death is depicted exactly as such—a battle that is not, in the end, ever won. Woolf utilizes rhetorical devices such as tone, fragmentation within the narration, and metaphors to convey this message and invoke the feeling of pity in her reader. As the tone shifts throughout the piece, Woolf’s metaphors and stylistic choices strengthen and drive home the idea that death is the one fight that can’t be won.

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A desperate and hopeless underlying tone is maintained throughout the piece, and is skillfully developed in relation to the surface tone of idle indifference and fascination from the speaker. When used in tangent with one another, the underlying tones are strengthened enough so the reader develops and maintains a feeling of pity for the moth. Due to the tone, the reader feels emotionally connected to the moth so that, during the momentary tone shift in the fourth paragraph, he or she has a hopeful disposition that the moth may yet live—only to have this notion crushed when it finally does die. Abstract diction is used to establish not only the moth’s character as “pathetic” and “frail,” but to set the ominous tone as a means of foreshadowing the impending doom that is the moth’s unfortunate fate. When the moth fights the good fight against its death, the tone dictates the hopeful yet intuitive senses in the reader through the speaker’s eventual dismissal of the moth and the way in which it fights against its death until the bitter end. Word choices such as “superb,” “succeeded,” and “gigantic effort” illustrate the incredible effort the moth exhibits despite its “helplessness” and “awkwardness” in death’s approach, and help to create that sense of dread and hope for it. Woolf paints the picture of the moth’s struggle as “marvellous as well as pathetic” and in doing so effectively uses the tone she develops to convey the idea that, regardless of how hard one fights, death is imminent and overpowering of all creatures.Woolf’s choice to use a narration style for this piece is effective as it makes it more personal. The appeal to pathos is strong and maintained throughout the piece as the reader can almost sit in the speaker’s place and visualize the moth’s activities for themselves, which works in correspondence with the tone in creating a feeling of pity. In retrospect, it helps to illustrate the indifference of the outside world to the individual, as seen through not only the scene depicted from out the window in the first paragraph, but the speaker’s simple and mild curiosity towards the moth. The latter is the stronger of the two pieces of evidence, as it speaks through the personal connection developed through the narration. The speaker only ever watches the moth, providing no real intervention or attempt to save it—only once does she ever make even a minuscule attempt to help, which is quickly abandoned as she recognizes “the approach of death” and “ the pencil down” to continue watching. She utilizes the word “looked” in the fifth paragraph after doing so, making her curiosity sound passive and mild—as if she no longer cares much whether or not the moth lives or passes on. For the reader, such a choice of wording only strengthens the feeling of pity maintained towards the moth. The speakers actions, though, foreshadow the acceptance conveyed in the end to the reader through the moth’s death and the final line “o yes, he seemed to say, death is stronger than I am.” Within the narration, Woolf utilizes fragmentation to intensify certain points in the piece. In the beginning, she illustrates the insignificance but fascination the moth holds in the world through sentences such as “one could not help but watch him,” “what he could do he did,” and “he was little or nothing but life.” Such fragments set the tone of the piece and gives meaning to the moth’s character. As the piece progresses, the fragmentation used is more intense and purposely takes away from the pathos appeal. She depicts her indifference through such intense phrases as “I laid the pencil down,” “I looked out of doors,” “the horses stood still,” and “the struggle was over.” These latter examples link in with the narration’s effect of the world’s indifference and simple acceptance of the individual’s personal battles. The pathos appeal is maintained for the reader through such devices by strengthening their sympathy and pity towards the moth—care and concern that is not provided to the character from any other source.

Historically speaking, moths have generally been associated with death as metaphorical symbols. In this case, it is almost ironic that the character struggling against death is a moth. The first word Woolf uses is “moths”—not a singular form, but a plural collective form. These two facts when put together can speak to the general public—saying that the general individual is never safe from death. In the piece, the character of the moth itself is a metaphorical reference to more than just this, though. It is a tangible representation of Woolf’s mental illnesses (she battled bipolar disorder and manic depression). In this way, the moth’s battle with death can represent the constant struggle Woolf had with her illnesses, with its physical ups and downs parallel to her highs and lows in her own personal battles. The eventual resignation and acceptance of death acts almost as a justification for Woolf’s suicide, saying that after many successes and failures against such demons the individual can’t always keep fighting. A common theme maintained throughout the piece is the indifference of the outside world. In the first paragraph, Woolf describes the scene outside of the room involving ploughing fields, rooks, and horses going about their daily lives as the moth struggles and fights its fate. This situation is parallel to Woolf’s life in which she had little outside help with her own struggles. The moral, it would seem, is that regardless of what happens to the individual, life goes on and the world does not stop turning.

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Woolf sums up her point in her piece in two sentences, both in the last paragraph: “…nothing, I knew had any chance against death,” and “o yes, he seemed to say, death is stronger than I am.” Death is reality and it is something that every creature will have to face. Woolf utilizes her appeal to pathos and tones of pity and hopelessness through her writing style and vivid metaphorical references to invoke empathy and acceptance in the reader for not only others, but themselves as well.