Virginia Woolf, the author focuses her attention on a number of scenes to bring home a central idea to her reader. Through her considerations of people, insects, and a variety of other elements Ms. Woolf considers the deeper meanings of life and the various meanings it might have for individuals and the collective of humanity. By a variety of essays that range from the death of a simple moth at a window to the complex writings of Horace Walpole, Virginia Woolf appears to contemplate the many ways in which life might make itself meaningful via death, perpetual pain, and creativity.
Virginia Woolf's interpretation of death as life's ultimate purpose in its simplest form is provided in "The Death of the Moth." The author describes a moth that flies "by day," which is caught at a window. She also describes night moths as somewhat pleasantly exciting a sense of darkness, which day-flying moths cannot. On the other hand, they are also not bright and cheerful like the butterflies more commonly found in day time. Hence, the moth caught at the window finds itself between two physical and mental worlds.
In the physical world, the moth is caught between the concrete window and the world outside. Its struggle to transfer from the one to the other proves exhausting. It leads to its ultimate death.
The tragedy of the moth, for the author, lies in the fact that it is unable to take part in the activities of life beyond the window, where the ploughs and birds, butterflies and trees all form a unity of the "clamor" that is life. Tragically, the moth is destined to exhaust its struggle to reach the outside and die.
At the end of the moth's life, the reader is left with the feeling that the creature is somewhat satisfied by being finally overpowered by death. The author implies a sense of justice and rightness in the death. After the moth's struggles, it is finally at peace.
With the simple image of the moth, the author provides the reader with an interpretive quality that relates to life itself. All life ends. In this cycle, satisfaction is to be found.
Another image of life, death and the satisfaction or lack thereof that might be find in these is "Old Mrs. Grey," where the author describes an old woman in perpetual pain. The image of the old, solitary woman is juxtaposed with images of life outside her doorway. Both her access and her barrier to any kind of happiness or indeed normalcy in life is controlled by the measurements of her front door, through which she can say the life going on outside.
The sorrow of Old Mrs. Grey's life is not only her physical pain, but also the removal of companionship. Her family, including her daughter, have all succumbed to death. Only her own body betrays her and clings to life despite the bafflement of medical professionals and despite the pain that racks her on a daily basis.
Through the image of Old Mrs. Grey, the author provides a symbol of life in its most unpleasant form. There is not even the reprieve of death. At the end of the essay, the author makes the interesting observation about how the observation of life as sacred, no matter how much pain is involved. Human beings are, in fact, almost obsessed with prolonging life. Hence, there is not reprieve for those like Mrs. Grey, who suffer perpetually like a living being pinned to a board. Despite the clear unfairness of this, there is nothing that she can do except wait for death while she suffers.
As symbolic of life and death, the author also mentions day and night, or light and darkness. For Mrs. Grey, for example, these distinctions of time feature in an endless perpetuation, where she constantly wishes for night when it is day and day when it is night. It is a constant wish for a future in which death may finally release her from pain.
In "Evening Over Sussex," on the other hand, the peace of darkness can be compared to the rest the living might find in death. The author compares this time of day to a grateful rest for Sussex as a dimmed lamp brings comfort to an old woman. The evening brings not only rest, but also hides the suffering and labor that are evident during the day. The author mentions examples like the "parades," "lodging houses," "bead shops," and "invalids," all representing the energy, suffering, and labor required to perpetuate life. Under the cover of darkness, life slows down and all that is evident is the perpetually peaceful landscape.
Whereas Woolf mentions the mastery of death in her first essay about the moth, the essay about Sussex and the one about Old Mrs. Grey are more focused on the mastery that life has over human beings. In Sussex, for example, the author notes how there is no true rest for the living soul. Some form of irritation always inserts itself onto the psyche that attempts to enjoy the peace brought about by darkness. Whereas the moth has peace in death, for example, Old Mrs. Grey and living individual during the evening have no such peace. There is always the perpetuity of life that requires some sort of thought, energy, or suffering.
Hence, the author finds herself "mastered" by life even as the moth is mastered by death. As such, each individual is either mastered by death or life, causing peace and death on the one hand and suffering and life on the other.
There is a parallel dichotomy in the essay "Three Pictures, in which the author begins by describing a peaceful scene in a painting she encounters. The painting is one of peace and of life, with nothing disturbing the returning fisherman and his family. In the second sketch, however, the peace is destroyed by darkness and a cry from an unknown source that is heard during the darkness. During the third sketch, the picture returns to its serenity, with peaceful images such as butterflies and puppies playing in the sunshine, while everything returns to the "wholesome" satisfaction of the previous day. However, the cry and the unknown nature of this cry that was covered by the previous night brings a new sense of foreboding, even to the day, where there are light and butterflies and puppies.
In this essay, the light and darkness take on a greater meaning than simply life and death. In the case of the three pictures, there is a progression from innocence to experience to knowledge. The first picture is one of innocence; those in the painting are not aware of any foreboding or any darkness.
The speaker, on the other hand, is alive in more dimensions than those in the picture. Even while she fantasizes about what those in the picture might be doing, she envies them their innocence. During the second picture, darkness sets in and experience destroys the innocence that was encountered in the first picture. Significantly, the first picture is static, while the second and third pictures are of real experienced life, where the author longs for the innocence experienced in the first picture.
This essay therefore considers life in terms of experience and the frequent ruination that such experiences can cause. Hence, the darkness and light sequences represent the passage of time and the experience that is gained with time.
After her consideration of relatively simple images of life, death, and the experiences inbetween, Virginia Woolf considers more complex subject matter, one of which is the letter writer Mme De Sevigne. In this brief character sketch, the author uses a specific individual to consider various aspects of life and experience that might be intellectually important to an individual person.
The letter writer described in this essay provides the reader with the intellectual landscape of her life and being. In this way, the author provides a sense of life to herself even after the body has demised. As such, the Mme de Sevigne's words shed light on a life that has long been engulfed by the darkness of time and death. As such, the reader can access this landscape by simply opening the volume of the lady's letters. It is not only a personal landscape to the letter writer's soul, but also a more general landscape of how things were done and how things worked during her time of life.
As the author mentions, the letter writer seems almost alive by providing the reader with a glimpse into her specific psyche. She weeps, for example, for a daughter she believes does not love her. She considers life and death, and the lack of meaning in both of these as long as she believes in her daughter's lack of love, supposedly indicated by her lack of letters. Then, as soon as she realizes that she has become absurd and even boring, she regains her lust for life and her letters change their…