The metaphorical links between the moth and Shakespeare’s sister in Woolf’s “The Death of the Moth”

Virginia Woolf is a famous English writer and essayist, most known for her influence in feminist literature through her famous novels and essays, such as: Mrs. Dalloway, Three Guineas, Orlando: A Biography and A Room of One’s Own. Her narrative style often coincides with the lives of marginalized individual groups, and their oppression under certain fixed norms and roles, in a fictional philosophical manner. After reading both of her most famous essays A Room of One’s Own and The Death of the Moth, we can point out a pattern of parallel elements between its central figures.

In her essay The Death of the Moth, we are presented with the concept of moths, which are introduced to us as “hybrid creatures, neither gay like butterflies nor somber like their own species”. Due to their short lifespan, when compared to the butterflies, they never gained favour among the population, and were mostly looked at with pity. Thus, “One could not help watching him. One was, indeed, conscious of a queer feeling a pity for him”. This motif can be linked with the character of Judith Shakespeare, from the chapter “Shakespeare’s Sister”. In it, she represents the women’s obedient position in the Elizabethan patriarchal society, being unequal to men, as similar to a moth having gray wings, unlike a butterfly with pretty, colourful ones. Consequently, her appearance invokes pity among the actor-manager Nick Greene.

Throughout the essay, the moth’s hardships and struggles during its daily tasks in life are presented to the readers. “What remained for him but to fly to a third corner and then to a fourth? That was all he could do”. His numerous and futile attempts to do a simple task, such as climbing on the bottom of a window-pane, is a prime example of his life’s meaningless and monotonous nature. With this statement there is a connection with Judith’s past history and achievements which went primarily unseen, due to her being a woman and had led to her to invest in the only life that had been imagined for her gender, at that time, and that was a housewife, which had consisted of rigorous and tedious daily tasks, unlike her ambitions sharing which had primarily been similar to her brother’s.

Near the end, Woolf tries to help the flailing moth, “stretching her pencil, meaning to help him to right himself” and this attempt is interpreted by literary theorists as a way of immortalizing the moth’s legacy, before its final breaths. The pencil signifies the power of written word, i.e. literature, which was a tool used by Woolf after having had encountered this orthodox, cyclical experience. A similar deed of philanthropy can be seen in “Shakespeare’s Sister”, in which she urges the people to leave aside the old and traditional ways of contemplating, and write with true feelings and free thoughts, “then the opportunity will come and the dead poet who was Shakespeare’s sister will put on the body which has so often laid down”. In both excerpts of these essays, Woolf’s attempt to immortalize their characters can be seen, despite their short and tragic lives.

To conclude, the strong symbolism of “the moth” represents a little, fragile creature that is destined to live a life much different than the rest of the insects, similar to Judith in the 17th century patriarchal society. Having this in mind, the moth and Shakespeare’s sister both represent the feminist writer’s models for showcasing the harsh lives of the oppressed individuals, in a society which frowns upon them with loathe and pity.


Борис Симоновски