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The Ideas of Life in Henry Thoreau and Virginia Woolf’ Works

Philosophical ideas about the meaning of life, the role of death, and causes of war are discussed by many writers and thinkers in their works because of the importance of the mentioned issues. However, writers often use different effective approaches in order to attract the readers’ attention to the discussion of the problematic topic from a new perspective. Personification, allegory, allusions, and associations are among those literary devices which can make the writer’s work more colorful and meaningful. Thus, in his essay “The Battle of the Ants”, Henry David Thoreau focuses on discussing the war between red and black species of ants in the wood yard (Thoreau 453).

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The insect’s personal fight for life is also discussed in Virginia Woolf’s essay “The Death of the Moth” (Woolf 644). Although personification of insects is the main strategy which is used by both Thoreau and Woolf in order to present their ideas about the life, death, and war in the essays, the authors focus on different scales and perspectives to develop their philosophical views; thus, Thoreau concentrates on the role of great battles in the history of wars, and Woolf focuses on the little moth’s personal struggle for life.

Ants in Thoreau’s essay are presented as great warriors at the battlefield whose purpose of fighting is unknown for the author. Nevertheless, the battle is significant, and ants belonging to two different ‘races’ act as real heroes (Thoreau 453). In order to accentuate the importance and the large scale of the battle, Thoreau not only uses personification and compares ants with soldiers but also refers to the Greek heroes as prototypes of the observed brave red and black ants. Thus, Thoreau states in his essay, “The legions of these Myrmidons covered all the hills and vales in my woodyard, and the ground was already strewn with the dead and dying, both red and black” (Thoreau 453). Using these metaphorical words, the author accentuates that there are crowds of ants which fight in that dramatic war and die at the large battlefield.

If Thoreau chooses to demonstrate the great scale of the small ants’ war, Woolf concentrates on the life and death of a single daytime moth observed through the window of the rural house. The discussed moth is described as very small, and it is even presented in the essay as a ‘hybrid creature’, “neither gay like butterflies nor sombre like their own species” (Woolf 644). In contrast to the discussion of the ants’ possible victories and great courage presented in Thoreau’s essay, Woolf discusses the life of a little moth as the metaphor for the whole world’s energy and life.

Describing a moth, Woolf notes that “he was little or nothing but life” (Woolf 645). From this perspective, the imagery in Thoreau and Woolf’s essays serves the same function of discussing the idea of life and death in the world, but Thoreau chooses to personify hundreds of ants in order to accentuate the role of humans in wars, and Woolf concentrates on discussing a life of one small moth as an individual living and struggling in the large world.

Thoreau’s ants are soldiers who need to fight for their life in many wars, starting from the Greek period and lasting to the times close to the period of the author’s life. Thoreau starts from discussing the ants’ courage similar to the courage of the soldiers during the Trojan War. The allusion to the Greek works is effective to accentuate the character of the observed situation and to emphasize the author’s thoughts regarding the war.

Thoreau also perceives red ants as “republicans on the one hand” and black ants as “imperialists on the other”, and his discussion of the battle ends with comparing the observed fight with the Concord battle which is described as significant by the author (Thoreau 453). Thus, the personification, allusions, and allegory serve to accentuate the dramatic fight of ants presented first as mythical heroes and then as the heroes of revolutions.

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The fight of the moth in Woolf’s essay is also significant, but the writer does not focus on the historical significance and chooses to discuss the philosophical meaning of the moth’s last dance. If Thoreau’s ants act like soldiers or even “bulldogs”, Woolf’s moth acts like a person who tries to avoid death and then admits that fact (Thoreau 454; Woolf 645). Concentrating on the moth’s last movements, Woolf notes that the moth “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” (Woolf 645).

This moth tries to attract the attention to his dance, and the author tries to help the moth cope with the approach of death, but these attempts lead only to the failure. Having presented the metaphorical discussion of the people’s tries to avoid death in the form of discussing the moth’s last dance on the window’s glass, Woolf concludes in her essay, “death is stronger than I am” (Woolf 646). From this perspective, it is important to note that both the authors choose the images of insects in order to present their specific visions of the problem of life and death in the world.

Woolf ends her essay about the moth with the idea that a human often cannot be stronger than death. Similar ideas are presented in Thoreau’s essay about the ants’ battle. Being an omniscient observer of the dramatic war between red and black ants, the author can make his own conclusions about the role of the war, heroism, and patriotism.

That ant which is examined by the author with the help of a microscope is a survivor in the battle, but the author cannot state firmly the purpose of the war. Thus, Thoreau admits in his essay, “I never learned which party was victorious, nor the cause of the war” (Thoreau 456). This thought about the absence of winners in the war can be used not only to explain the purposelessness of the ants’ war but also the idea of the war in the human world.

Henry David Thoreau’s essay “The Battle of the Ants” and Virginia Woolf’s essay “The Death of the Moth” are good examples of using vivid imagery and personification in the literary works. In spite of the fact that the main characters in the essays are insects which act like humans, the authors use different approaches to discuss the important problems of the meaning of life, death, and war in their essays.

Thoreau’s use of images related to the Greek heroes and leaders of revolutions serves to discuss the role of the war, heroism, and death in the large context while referring to such small creatures as ants. Instead of discussing the idea of life and death from the large perspective, Woolf describes the last moments of the little moth’s life in the context of its significance for any individual because the energy of the moth’s life is associated with the life of all the humans in the world.

Works Cited

Thoreau, Henry David. “The Battle of the Ants”. Norton Reader: An Anthology of Nonfiction. Ed. Linda Peterson, John Brereton, Joseph Bizup, Anne Fernald, and Melissa Goldthwaite. New York, NY: The W.W. Norton & Company, 2011. 453-456. Print.

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Woolf, Virginia. “The Death of the Moth”. Norton Reader: An Anthology of Nonfiction. Ed. Linda Peterson, John Brereton, Joseph Bizup, Anne Fernald, and Melissa Goldthwaite. New York, NY: The W.W. Norton & Company, 2011. 644-647. Print.

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StudyCorgi. (2020, December 27). The Ideas of Life in Henry Thoreau and Virginia Woolf’ Works. Retrieved from https://studycorgi.com/the-ideas-of-life-in-henry-thoreau-and-virginia-woolf-works/

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"The Ideas of Life in Henry Thoreau and Virginia Woolf’ Works." StudyCorgi, 27 Dec. 2020, studycorgi.com/the-ideas-of-life-in-henry-thoreau-and-virginia-woolf-works/.

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StudyCorgi. "The Ideas of Life in Henry Thoreau and Virginia Woolf’ Works." December 27, 2020. https://studycorgi.com/the-ideas-of-life-in-henry-thoreau-and-virginia-woolf-works/.

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StudyCorgi. 2020. "The Ideas of Life in Henry Thoreau and Virginia Woolf’ Works." December 27, 2020. https://studycorgi.com/the-ideas-of-life-in-henry-thoreau-and-virginia-woolf-works/.

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StudyCorgi. (2020) 'The Ideas of Life in Henry Thoreau and Virginia Woolf’ Works'. 27 December.

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