Virginia Woolf’s The Death of the Moth: An Essay About Life & Mental Pain

When I think about Virginia Woolf’s The Death of the Moth, it reminds me of the situation where, as a creative person, the things around you start giving you insight or ideas about things in your head. It’s that situation where something simple connects with something you have been trying to understand for a while. These are everyday things. On a normal day, you would have looked and continued your day, but this day, you choose to pay attention. 

In this post, we will try to look at this essay and how it relates to life and suicide. 

The Death of the Moth Summary 

The Death of the Moth is an essay. It is about a moth that falls onto Virginia Woolf’s window one morning. She describes what she sees the moth doing and uses that as an explanation about life. The story starts with the author telling us what she thought of moths… 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 yellow-underwing asleep in the shadow of the curtain never fails to rouse in us. She described the day to use —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 opposite the window —  then continued watching the creature on her window. 

This insect is small, but its life isn’t that different from that of the bigger humans. It has its struggles, for instance, and it can be related to struggling with mental illness. I read about Virginia Woolf’s suicide before I read this essay and quickly found a few lines that capture that fight to be calm, that trouble of standing and keep going with life. So, I already knew that the author filled her pocket with stones and walked into a river to drown. 

“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 windowpane.”

Is that what we do as humans? We occupy space and struggle within it till our death. How large is this space? It could be a small town or the earth as a whole. It’s a space, and we have to manage ourselves within it. As humans, we are constantly in a battle to stay alive, to choose between trying to fight again and letting go.


If you have ever been in a corner of the point in life where you start to question why you’re still alive, these few lines might make a lot of sense to you. They were written about moths, but they passed more messages.  

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 fiber, 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.

I could translate that to, “I tried to get out of the dark place, fought, and sometimes it was fun doing that, trying to get up. I looked for help. Sometimes I get it. Nothing worked.”

As you keep reading, Virginia Woolf continues to draw similarities between what the moth does and life. It was as if someone had taken a tiny bead of pure life and decking it as lightly as possible with down and feathers, had set it dancing and zigzagging to show us the true nature of life. Thus displayed one could not get over the strangeness of it

Then, there is the last fight, the moth trying to dance again. It had gotten tired of all of it, but the author didn’t realize it immediately. 

We will all fight, and at a point, we won’t have it in us to try again. 

He was trying to resume his dancing, but seemed either so stiff or so awkward that he could only flutter to the bottom of the window-pane; 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 to 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 on the window sill. 

These are other lines that summarize what it’s like to give up on everything. Although we can’t tell what the moth is going through mentally, as a reader, you can’t help it, especially if you have mental struggles yourself. These lines can make one take a break and remember thoughts like, why does one need to keep fighting? Why not just stop?

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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Why did Virginia Woolf write The Death of the Moth?  

There is no right answer. However, one can draw references from her life and her work. The first plausible answer was that she’d attempted suicide before and had been struggling with mental illness before the time she wrote the story in 1941. One guess is as a gifted writer, she’s using her craft to express her pains. Good writing, as we know it, is a pure and honest form of expression. The second answer is that she can’t let it go. Sometimes, you look at something you’re used to and see a new pattern. It forces you to observe intently. You’re seeing fresh ideas. Then, you start writing or drawing or singing.