Order# DP4088; The Death of the Moth, Virginia Woolf

The Death of the Moth
Virginia Woolf
Moths that fly by day are not properly to be called moths; they do not excite that
pleasant sense of dark autumn nights
and ivy
blossom which the commonest
underwing asleep in the shadow of the curtain never fails to rouse in us.
They are hybrid creatures, neither gay like butterflies nor sombre like their own
species. Nevertheless the present specimen, with his narr
ow hay
coloured wings,
fringed with a tassel of the same colour, seemed to be content with life. It was a
pleasant morning, mid
September, mild, benignant, yet with a keener breath than
that of the summer months. The plough was already scoring the field op
posite the
window, and where the share had been, the earth was pressed flat and gleamed with
moisture. Such vigour came rolling in from the fields and the down beyond that it
was difficult to keep the eyes strictly turned upon the book. The rooks too were
keeping one of their annual festivities; soaring round the tree tops until it looked as
if a vast net with thousands of black knots in it had been cast up into the air; which,
after a few moments sank slowly down upon the trees until every twig seemed to
ave a knot at the end of it. Then, suddenly, the net would be thrown into the air
again in a wider circle this time, with the utmost clamour and vociferation, as
though to be thrown into the air and settle slowly down upon the tree tops were a
exciting experience.
The same energy which inspired the rooks, the ploughmen, the horses, and even, it
seemed, the lean bare
backed downs, sent the moth fluttering from side to side of
his square of the window
pane. One could not help watching him. One wa
s, indeed,
conscious of a queer feeling of pity for him. 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, and his zest in enjoying his meag
opportunities to the full, pathetic. He flew vigorously to one corner of his
compartment, and, after waiting there a second, flew across to the other. What
remained for him but to fly to a third corner and then to a fourth? That was all he
could do, in
spite of the size of the downs, the width of the sky, the far
off smoke of
houses, and the romantic voice, now and then, of a steamer out at sea. What he could
do he did. Watching him, it seemed as if a fibre, very thin but pure, of the enormous
energy of
the world had been thrust into his frail and diminutive body. As often as
he crossed the pane, I could fancy that a thread of vital light became visible. He was
little or nothing but life.
Yet, because he was so small, and so simple a form of the energy th
at was rolling in
at the open window and driving its way through so many narrow and intricate
corridors in my own brain and in those of other human beings, there was something
marvellous as well as pathetic about him. It was as if someone had taken a tiny
of pure life and decking it as lightly as possible with down and feathers, had set it
dancing and zig
zagging to show us the true nature of life. Thus displayed one could
not get over the strangeness of it. One is apt to forget all about life, seeing
it humped
and bossed and garnished and cumbered so that it has to move with the greatest
circumspection and dignity. Again, the thought of all that life might have been had
he been born in any other shape caused one to view his simple activities with a kin
of pity.
After a time, tired by his dancing apparently, he settled on the window ledge in the
sun, and, the queer spectacle being at an end, I forgot about him. Then, looking up,
my eye was caught by him. He was trying to resume his dancing, but seemed e
so stiff or so awkward that he could only flutter to the bottom of the window
and when he tried to fly across it he failed. Being intent on other matters I watched
these futile attempts for a time without thinking, unconsciously waiting for him
resume his flight, as one waits for a machine, that has stopped momentarily, to start
again without considering the reason of its failure. After perhaps a seventh attempt
he slipped from the wooden ledge and fell, fluttering his wings, on to his back o
n the
window sill. The helplessness of his attitude roused me. It flashed upon me that he
was in difficulties; he could no longer raise himself; his legs struggled vainly. But, as
I stretched out a pencil, meaning to help him to right himself, it came over
me that
the failure and awkwardness were the approach of death. I laid the pencil down
The legs agitated themselves once more. I looked as if for the enemy against which
he struggled. I looked out of doors. What had happened there? Presumably it wa
midday, and work in the fields had stopped. Stillness and quiet had replaced the
previous animation. The birds had taken themselves off to feed in the brooks. The
horses stood still. Yet the power was there all the same, massed outside indifferent,
sonal, not attending to anything in particular. Somehow it was opposed to the
little hay
coloured moth. It was useless to try to do anything. One could only watch
the extraordinary efforts made by those tiny legs against an oncoming doom which
could, had i
t chosen, have submerged an entire city, not merely a city, but masses of
human beings; nothing, I knew, had any chance against death. Nevertheless after a
pause of exhaustion the legs fluttered again. It was superb this last protest, and so
frantic that h
e succeeded at last in righting himself. One’s sympathies, of course,
were all on the side of life. Also, when there was nobody to care or to know, this
gigantic effort on the part of an insignificant little moth, against a power of such
magnitude, to reta
in what no one else valued or desired to keep, moved one
strangely. Again, somehow, one saw life, a pure bead. I lifted the pencil again, useless
though I knew it to be. But even as I did so, the unmistakable tokens of death
showed themselves. The body rel
axed, and instantly grew stiff. The struggle was
over. The insignificant little creature now knew death. As I looked at the dead moth,
this minute wayside triumph of so great a force over so mean an antagonist filled me
with wonder. Just as life had been s
trange a few minutes before, so death was now
as strange. The moth having righted himself now lay most decently and
uncomplainingly composed. O yes, he seemed to say, death is stronger than I am.

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