The idea of viewing the reality from the perspective of an insect is not new; whether it is an attempt to accept nature as the superior and mysterious force, or the recognition of the insignificance of the human race, an attempt to envision the society as, say, an anthill is quite common a tendency in literature. However, of all specimens of this kind of fiction, Thoreau’s “The Battle of the Ants” and Woolf’s “The Death of the Moth” stand out the most.
Despite a seemingly obvious difference in the subject matter and very distinct writing styles, both Thoreau and Woolf render practically the same theme of comparing human life to that of an insect; however, while Thoreau, with his ant related metaphor, focuses on society and vivacity, Woolf reveals the depth of introspection and renders a heavy issue of death.
Making a witty commentary on the life in a standard society, Thoreau does his best at stressing the mediocrity of an average human being with a careful choice of colors for the scenery. However, apart from colors, Thoreau also uses the contrast of the huge world of the narrator and a tiny universe of the ants, thus, stressing the insignificance of the civilization compared to the grandeur and mystery of the Universe.
For example, at some point, the narrator mentions that he takes the ants into his house; thus, the world, in which the ants live, shrinks considerably, yet the tiny creatures never notice it, busy with their battle and choirs. The cluttered space, in which the ants appear after transportation, as well as the amount of household elements surrounding them, makes the metaphor for the human society even more obvious.
Unlike Thoreau, who prefers depicting lively scenery, Woolf creates a world that is much darker and pessimistic. Thus, the theme of death, which the entire novel is shot through, is conveyed. The entire atmosphere is mean and greedy, the colors were mostly muted and dark.
The novel opens with the mentioning of the “shadow of the curtain” (Woolf 1), which, as the author explains, is where moths dwell. Thus, the author sets the atmosphere of a mediocre life with little to no excitement or variety in it.
Finally, such elements of imagery in the novels as the main characters themselves should be touched upon. A closer look at both characters will reveal that each of them serves the purpose of making the key argument of its author stronger and more powerful.
For instance, the Moth, which is in the focus of Woolf’s story, is traditionally known for its lack of distinction and being completely unremarkable among more colorful insects. Woolf, in her turn, enhances the impression of blandness, even more, pushing the idea of mediocrity to the greatest degree: “Nevertheless the present specimen, with his narrow hay-colored wings, fringed with a tassel of the same color, seemed to be content with life” (Woolf 1).
Therefore, it can be considered that color – or, to be more exact, the lack thereof – is the key tool for Woolf to get the message across. Whether she mentions the blandness of the Moth’s life, or the ark, shadowy aspect of it, she would return to using colors as the most distinctive feature of the environment, in which the Moth lives.
It is quite remarkable that Thoreau, unlike Woolf, does not resort to using solely the color as the means of expressing his ideas in the novel. Instead of choosing a single tool for creating metaphors for the concept of society and the conflict between the later and an individual, Thoreau creates a variety of ways to compare the life of an ant to that of a human being.
For example, Thoreau includes the narrator into the cast of key characters, thus, breaking the fourth wall and at the same time viewing the world of ants as small and barely significant. Therefore, in addition to color, the author uses a contrast of the small and the large. In a way, the idea of including a man into the main characters can be seen as an attempt to “play God”: “I took the chip on which the three I have practically described were struggling” (Thoreau 2).
However, Thoreau shifts quickly to the world of ants, creating a range of other images and, thus, switching to social problems. The battle, which the narrator witnesses, sums up the cruelty and the pointlessness of most conflicts that have ever taken place in the history of the human race.
Despite an admittedly similar theme of their works and a basically the same metaphor for the human life, Woolf and Thoreau discuss the themes that are practically the exact opposite of each other, i.e., the issue of surviving as a part of a community driven by a single goal (Thoreau) and the concept of death as an end of the journey of an individual (Woolf).
Nevertheless, the two short novels share a range of common ideas and similar stylistic choices, not to mention a number of metaphors that can be considered practically the same.
Thoreau, Henry David. “The Battle of the Ants.” The Norton Reader: An Anthology of Nonfiction. 12th ed. Ed. Linda Peterson and John Brereton. New York City, NY: W. W. Norton & Company. 2008. Print.
Woolf, Virginia. “The Death of the Moth.” The Norton Reader: An Anthology of Nonfiction. 12th ed. Ed. Linda Peterson and John Brereton. New York City, NY: W. W. Norton & Company. 2008. Print.