“The essay is a notoriously flexible and adaptable form. It possesses the freedom to move anywhere, in all directions” says Lopate in the introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay. Virginia Woolf in her personal essay “The Death of the Moth” uses exceptional description and detail to the point where the reader can put themselves in her shoes and see what she is seeing.
Although this essay may at first appear to be just a mere narrative detailed description of Woolf’s observation of an insignificant moth that is trapped in the room she is in, through further reflection, a deeper meaning can be seen. Woolf challenges and pushes the thin line between showing not telling throughout her essay. Woolf’s ability to balance the showing and telling of the moth is what makes the essay absorb the reader’s attention. As Lopate says, “All good essayists make use at times of storytelling devices: descriptions of character and place, incident, dialogue, conflict.
They needn’t narrate some actual event to produce a narrative”, can be seen in Woolf’s work. Woolf starts out by describing the setting with great detail and intrigues the reader to not only continue reading but to really stop and imagine themself in a room looking out of the window seeing the farm lands such as when she says, “The plough was already scoring the field opposite the window, and where the share had been, the earth was pressed flat and gleamed with moisture.
Such vigor came rolling in from the fields and the down beyond that it was difficult to keep the eyes strictly turned upon the book. ” As the essay continues, the focus on the moth begins to increase to the point where every one of the moth’s movements is being narrated by the author which can be seen through the quote, “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 windowpane; and when he tried to fly across it he failed.
” This aspect of showing and intertwining these two types of showing in Woolf’s essay is what makes the essay seem as if starts out in a seemingly directionless and open manner only to hop onto a narrative possibility and let the momentum of storytelling lead the way to a more complex meaning. The style of the essay and the way it is written is very intriguing.
Woolf is able to surround the essay around a moth, while making the real story something greater, the struggle against death. As Lopate says in the introduction to “The Art of the Personal Essay”, “the essayist happily violates the number one rule of short story workshops, ‘show don’t tell’; the glory of the essayist is to tell, once and for all, everything that he or she thinks, knows and understands”, and it apparent that Woolf follows this ideal from the beginning of the essay.
Two of the best quotes from her essay that depict Woolf telling us what she is thinking about the situation is, “Yet, because he was so small, and so simple a form of the energy that 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 marvelous as well as pathetic about him,” as well as, “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 kind of pity.
” The underlying message of death becomes of greater emphasis due to this. Surrounding the story around the details of the struggle of the moth and the telling of a problematic irritation in a well written and traditional style is what enhances Woolf’s essay into a fluid a combination of both literature and philosophy. Woolf’s blend of showing, comprised of a detailed storytelling style, and telling, including a philosophical account of the situation, is what leads to a successful essay.
Unarguable is Woolf’s philosophical attempt at tackling the topic of death by telling the audience what she thinks, knows and understands through lines such as, “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”. Woolf’s storytelling opens the door to this philosophical style of writing, by complementing it with a very open, although descriptive introduction into the topic of the moth’s struggle with death.