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Henry David Thoreau and Virginia Woolf’s Essay Comparison


Henry David Thoreau, an essay writer, social critic and editor, has been considered as the father of the American nature literature. In his book ‘Walden’, Thoreau, a naturalist, provides several short stories that relate to the natural aspects surrounding him. In particular, he uses natural things such as animals and plants to symbolize humans and human life.Thoreau’s reference of nature is comparable with some of Virginia Wolf’s short stories like ‘The death of the Moth’, which illustrates the author’s perception of the similarity between the life of a moth and the power of death over life in humans. While the two authors use imagery to represent human and human life using animals, some differences in their uses of imagery are evident.

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Arguably, Thoreau depicts a large-scale between two species of ants to symbolize the two fighting forces during the American civil war whereas Woolf’s narrative provides a detailed account of the short life of humans using the moth as an example. Notably, the differences between the two authors’ use of imagery is not within their styles or vocabulary. Instead, the differences in the use of imagery are based on the authors’ focus on certain aspects of the behavior of insects, which portrays the different perspectives about human nature.

Imagery in Virginia Woolf’s ‘The Death of the Moth’

In this story, the author narrates her observation of the life of a moth in her house. She attempts to use the moth to develop a perception of creation, life and death. According to the narrative, the moth is flying from one side of a windowpane to the other (Woolf 6). The small creature does this several times without thinking about anything else. It devotes its life and energy to move from one side of the pane to another several times until it is exhausted, falls down on the windowsill and lays down (Woolf 8).

The author then witnesses the same moth attempt to regain strength. However, its energy is exhausted because it moves sluggishly and in an awkward manner. It attempts to fly again but descends, falling on its back (Woolf 8). It uses its remaining energy to turn itself and succeeds after sometime. However, its energy has been exhausted and the creature dies unexpectedly (Woolf 9).

In this story, the life of the moth is comparable with human nature. Notably, Woolf uses imagery to depict life and death. The energetic moth is an image used to represent the energy that humans apply to continue living, but there is always an opposing force- death. The moth’s behavior is an image representing the battle between life and death, which all people experience. Upon a closer inspection of the moth’s behavior, life and death are pathetic and dignified. They are pathetic because death strikes life and destroy it, despite a person’s efforts to live longer. They are dignified because death strikes at the right time in the same way the moth dies nobly while on its feet rather than when in an upside down position.

An important aspect of the use of imagery in the narrative is the author’s frequent use of natural objects. In many occasions, the author refers to the large number of treetops, twigs and seas around the moth. A closer investigation reveals that these aspects of nature represent the freedom that the small creature hopes to achieve. This image parallels the type of freedom that humans long to achieve.

The author invokes her audience’s sympathy, where the reader is made to feel sorry for the moth. This image represents the sad nature of human life. Despite the fact that humans, especially males (during Woolf’ time, discrimination of females was rampant), every individual attempts to have more freedom by applying his or her energy, but death strikes just as the person is about to succeed (in the same way the moth died after regaining its posture).

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On the other hand, Thoreau applies imagery on a large-scale, depicting the worthless and illogic behavior of humans who are fighting each other just because one part of the society hates the other. In this essay, Thoreau is walking in his garden when he comes across a woodpile where a battle between the red ants and the black ants is taking place (Thoreau 28). The author describes the overall scenery of the wooden log cabin where the ants are fighting. He compares the scenery with Mt. Olympus (Thoreau 28). In addition, he compares the fighting ants with soldiers during battles in human history. He refers to Achilles and other heroes in human history, comparing them with the agile red and black ants.

While Woolf uses the moth image to describe the idea of life and death in humans, Thoreau uses red and white ants to show that battles and wars, though meaningless, are part of the life of animals and human. In this case, he refers to the American Revolution.

A closer analysis of the story reveals that the red ants represent the colonialists while the black ants represent the imperialists during the American Revolution. The two sides are using massive energy to fight each other. In his story, the red ant bites its opponent so hard that it tears its flesh, but also suffers greatly that it can no longer walk (Thoreau 31). The author thinks that the dedication that the red ant has is based on its mother’s advice that it must fight to win or die (Thoreau 31).

The ants and their fight are an image used to represent the nature of humans, especially the colonialists and the imperialists during the American Revolution. Despite the energy, ego and strength applied to end the imperialist rule in America, Thoreau thinks that the war was useless and pointless from the beginning (Thoreau 28). The soldiers, just like the ants, died in large numbers, hoping to have a better tomorrow and control the country. The author attempts to describe the insignificant nature of the war and revolution to the soldiers involved. Like the dying ants, the soldiers involved in the two sides of the American Revolution war did not achieve what they wanted because at the end, they died or spent their entire lives in hospitals (Thoreau 34).

Towards the end of the narrative, Thoreau argues that both animal and spiritual nature exist in humans and animals. However, humans experience a conflict between the two while animals do not. This imagery was used to show that human wars result from the deeply rooted conflict between our spiritual and animal natures. Although humans are developed spiritually, the animal nature in them leads them hatred and to battles. At the end, wars are useless and pointless because they involve men killing others because of simple things like taxation, which caused the American Revolution war.


While Thoreau uses the image of the entire population of animals to represent the overall human behavior, Woolf uses a single animal and dissects its behavior to represent the overall nature of humans- the fight between and death.

Works Cited

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Library, 2008. Print.

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Woolf, Virginia. The Death of the Moth and other essays. New York: Numitor Comun Publishers, 2004. Print.

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