Shift in Tone and Style in “Death of the Moth”
In “Death of the Moth,” Virginia Woolf’s tone and style change from mellow and hopeful to melancholy and dreary. As the speaker first notices the moth’s struggle to escape the window pane, she becomes almost mesmerized by it and naturally thinks of helping it. After watching it fly to each corner multiple times, she slowly starts to reflect on the meaninglessness of life and the inevitability of death. Helping that moth in that moment would have merely prolonged the moth’s life and constant possibility of death at any moment. For this reason, the speaker decides to allow nature to fulfill its duty and kill the moth. The descriptions and tone of Woolf’s essay, along with the sentence structure and diction shift from the beginning to the end. The deviation from pleasant, descriptive sentences to gloomy, blunt sentences happens at the line, “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 again” (Woolf 574).
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At the beginning of the essay, the moth is described as energetic and full of life, even though the speaker seems hopeless. The speaker mentions the energy that “sent the moth fluttering from side to side” (573) and again describes the “enormous energy of the world that was thrust into his frail and diminutive body” (574). The constant portrayals of the lively moth, who is happy and hopeful for life create a lighthearted, pleasant mood. Woolf’s describing that the moth “seemed to be content with life” (573) suggests that even though he died seconds later, he did not lose his sense of vigor until that moment. Even though the speaker seemed pessimistic and repeatedly referred to the moth as pitiful, as established when she said “it was useless to try to do anything” (574), the moth appeared not to be affected by his coming death until he died. This hopeless feeling exhibited by the speaker is contrasted by her fascination with the moth, as demonstrated when she says “One could not help watching him” (573) and describes him as “marvelous” (574). However, as Woolf “laid the pencil down again” (574), the tone of the essay shifts and Woolf is no longer alone in her hopelessness.
The original descriptions of energy and vigor are replaced by descriptions of attempted but failed bursts of energy, which are a result of Woolf’s “laying the pencil down” (574). Just before the speaker decides not to help the moth, she describes “when he tried to fly across [the window pane] he failed” and that “he could no longer raise himself” (574). The change in the moth’s energy signifies the approach of the end of its life, establishing a clear shift in tone in the essay. When the moth dies, the speaker describes that “the body relaxed, and instantly grew stiff. The struggle was over. The insignificant little creature now knew death” (575). These phrases about the moth giving up and death taking over finally catch up with the speaker’s feelings of hopelessness for the moth. Not only does she clearly depict the moth’s giving up, she also counters her initial fascination by replacing them with feelings of indifference. The tone of indifference in the lineh “the horses stood still” (574) establishes a more grim and depressed mood. However, as the shift occurs, the mood and metaphors become stronger. Early on in the story, the audience might empathize with the hopeful tone, however, the subject may seem irrelevant until the pivotal moment when the subject gets more intense, which evokes more emotion, thus strengthening the mood by allowing the audience to sympathize with the moth and the fact that his death is inevitably near. The phrases “[the] work in the fields had stopped” and that “stillness and quiet replaced the previous animation” (574) are metaphors for the moth’s soon ending life because the recently lively outside world is now still, resembling that the moth’s vivacious efforts are now ending. Woolf’s regular commentary on how the moth struggles to find his way out of death, but then eventually surrenders to death mimics her struggle with depression and her eventual choice to kill herself. The metaphor between the struggling moth and humans attempting to escape death becomes more powerful in the closing paragraph, when the inevitability of death is confirmed.
Not only does the tone of the essay change, the style of the story and the structure of the sentences also change. In the start of the essay, the sentences are relatively complex and descriptive. For example, “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 have a knot at the end of it” (573). This sentence, complex and lengthy, is also overflowing with details, something that is lost by the end of the essay. The phrase “pleasant morning, mid–September, mild, benignant, yet with a keener breath than that of the summer month” (573) elicits beautiful scenes and appeals to the senses because of its vivid and expressive word choice. This lush style signifies the abundance of energy in the moth, which is soon taken away from him when Woolf gives up all hope and “lays the pencil down again” (574).
The complex, detailed sentences in the first half of the essay are replaced with blunt and short sentences in the final couple paragraphs. Woolf utilizes very direct phrases to portray events and background images such as “work in the fields had stopped” (574) and “the legs fluttered again” (574). These lacking descriptions, opposite of the full descriptions, clearly depict that the speaker’s mood has changed while watching the moth die. The moment that the moth dies is a moment that would usually contain some emotion, but the speaker merely describes that moment in her apathetic tone when she says, “O yes, he seemed to say, death is stronger than I am” (575). The emotion and empathy in the beginning generate interesting and involved sentences, whereas the lack of emotion and lack of empathy of the speaker seem to accelerate the abruptness of the moth’s death, which is represented in the indifference found in the speaker through her shift in sentence structure. This absence of detail and complexity resembles the moth’s life, which has a deficit of energy and hope in the latter half of the essay.
When she first sees the moth struggling, she is fascinated and thinks to relieve it, but then she notices how helpless it is and decides that she cannot persistently prevent death from taking the moth’s life. The tone and vivid imagery in the beginning, illustrative and full of optimism, as well as the linguistics of the beginning, complex and elaborate, change to a sorrowful and hopeless tone and a simple structure. This implication is portrayed in the pivotal lines, “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 again” (574). Before this moment, the sentences contain optimistic, illustrative sentences, which change to simple, bleak sentences. The moth’s life ended because of the speaker’s hopelessness in saving it, mirroring the life of Woolf, which ended because of her own hopelessness.