Friday, February 16, 2007
a narrative analysis of virginia woolf’s the death of the moth and n. scott momaday's the way to rainy mountain
In "The Death of the Moth," Virginia Woolf used the narration of one’s personal experience in order to develop the thematic process of creation. She tells of a moth flying from one side of a window pane to the other and back, until the moth lays down on the window sill in the long run. After sometime, she witnesses the moth attempt to move anew but then, it moves sluggishly and awkwardly. A trial at flight frustrates the moth, its descent causing it to fall on its back, until the moth struggles to turn itself right by clawing at the air. Just as the moth is dying, Woolf sees the moth succeed at righting itself and then, it ceases from moving as its death strikes inescapably.
Woolf’s narration which resembles a conversational speech attempts to present the battle between life and death which, upon closer inspection, is both pathetic and dignified—pathetic since death will always triumph despite the stubborn desire to live and dignified when death is stared at winkless, like the moth dying nobly on its feet. Sounding existentialist, Woolf tells of a symbol—the moth’s sacrifice—which is a necessity to the consummation of the creative process for artists like her. Her personal narration brings about the working of the imagination and everything this machination springs from: the human aches and happiness, deepest desires, terrors and anxieties, emotional attachments. As she comments on the moth that “lay most decently and uncomplainingly composed,” the creative process is completed, the moth being the work of art.
There is also pun intended for the use of the verb compose (to mean the end of the moth’s striving) which may likewise be defined as to create something musical, artistic or literary.
This cycle of moth’s life and death is of course symbolic of the creative process in that Woolf manages to provide survival out of a tragedy. Through her narration, there is suggestion of creativity vibrating into life, the movement of intense concepts arising from an artist’s consciousness, the abrupt awakening of a mind discovering areas of creation never before explored. Holistically, the moth represents the nonstop strivings of the human brain to inchoate something from confusion: in all likelihood an artist’s general plight. The moth image is potent enough to assist Woolf into narrating/opening a room on her artistic process.
Like "The Death of the Moth," N. Scott Momaday’s "The Way to Rainy Mountain" also involves narration of the personal experience of the author to show the process of creation, this time of Momaday’s individual identity inherently tied up to his Kiowa people’s philosophies, remembrances and experiences. The author begins by returning to Rainy Mountain, “[a] single knoll [that] rises out of the plain in Oklahoma, north and west of the Wichita Range” which belongs to the Kiowas and which “is where Creation was begun.” His journey back home has for a reason a homage to his late grandmother.
The author poetically explored his personal Kiowa world in the latter part of his essay, wherein he told his people’s summer reunions in his grandmother’s house, the gossips among women, the “frequent prayer meetings, and great nocturnal feasts.” He would also regal with stories of playing outside with cousins, of eating, the singing and laughter of people, of laying down with his grandmother as the wind stirred and frogs croaked downriver. In the end, the author heads for the Rainy Mountain to take vigil at his grandmother’s grave after a night of communing with the familiar place that is his home.
The narratives involved in the two essays use the idea of the talking voice to narrate both author’s personal legends. In the process, the theme of creation becomes evident: for Woolf, the process of creation for an artist while for Momaday, the creation of identity. It is noteworthy that while the two essays involved a discussion on death, the aforementioned theme of creation gives the death some sterling quality: the death of the moth fulfills the unsettling flowering of the imagination, while the death of the grandmother is an event that compels the author to return to his Kiowa community and embrace his Kiowa self.
Woolf solely used her conversational speech in developing the theme in The Death of the Moth. In contrast, Momaday also uses local storytelling and formal scholastic narration besides the personal narration to create a three-voiced narrative of his construction of Kiowa identity. The first part of The Way to Rainy Mountain has the author narrating the Kiowas’ mythic history using the colloquial storyteller’s voice. He told of the time his grandmother was born, when “the Kiowas were living the last great moment of their history.” The Kiowas lived undisturbed as a tribe until they were overthrown by a military trackdown. Their legend has it that “they entered the world through a hollow log,” and the mythical voice of Momaday’s Kiowa ancestors handed down their centuries-old oral tradition, translated and transcribed until such time the myth is spoken by the narrator. Their legend boasts of “kinsmen in the night sky” in the embodiment of seven sisters who would comprise the sever stars of the Big Dipper when a tree brought them there to escape their bear-metamorphosed brother.
In the middle part of Momaday’s essay, the narrative voice shift to that of a local historian’s, when the narrator tells of the extinct rituals the Kiowas performed when his grandmother was still very young. The Kiowa Sun Dance involved decapitating a buffalo upon the medicine tree in the Washita River atop Rainy Mountain Creek. It was a dying tradition because buffalo were nowhere to be found, and the demise of which was accelerated by the dispersing tactic of Fort Sill soldiers. The Kiowas would remember July 20, 1890 as the day their faith was killed at the enormous bend of the Washita River.
While Woolf has one dominant existential voice narrating in her essay, Momaday remarkably recreated a journey in a triple narrative style: the colloquial, the formal and the poetic. The interoral narrative by Momaday develops his intensifying Kiowa identity consciousness because of the mythic and historical bind that connects his present-day narration of memories and self-construction. The idea of traveling in his essay manifests the important narrative flow of his personal legend.
Woolf’s existential narration reveals her deeper self recognized more in her essays such as "In Search of a Room of One’s Own." She seems to tell that the moth has the fervent desire to live, only to meet the ultimatum of death. She saw it flying helplessly until its inevitable life sacrifice. This, Woolf seems, is a perception of life as futile and void, as only a reprieve of something inescapable to everything with life. Even the images of the world outside the window—the plowed field, the black net-like birds gliding midair—spawn an uneasy feeling of gloom. The moth is seen as a creature pointlessly attempting to gain freedom it will never approximate, and decides that the moth is pathetic.
More than the existentialism that Woolf seems to regard her life with as the doom of being secluded by life and her impending decline as a writer would overrun her, the narrative in The Death of the Moth seems to comment on the masculine oppression prevailing in her time and even before which renders the struggles of women—the “moths,” so to speak—stunted. The symbol of the moth batling against death is likened to the feminist movement wherein Woolf is one of the earliest icons. The women attempt to protest the formidable glasswall set by masculine authority. Even as they are victimized by patriarchy through slim opportunities at proving their intellectual capacities, the women try to fly to liberate themselves. There are setbacks as may be symbolized by the failure to spread their wings (their might), by the slow, awkward movement brought about by macho bondage, by the seemingly senseless clawing in the air to be able to right themselves from landing on their spine, but all these become nothing when one realizes the heightened degree of determination to strive, even to face death in full dignity.
Meanwhile, the multigeneric narrative voice in The Way to Rainy Mountain sounds just as pure and determined in its creation of the identity. It may be that the Kiowas’ golden time has faded away with the assault of a repressive state apparatus that is the military, but the Kiowas’ preservation of their sanctuary has hardly contaminated the lives of its descendants that include the author. Momaday’s ability to sustain the Kiowa in him and the construction of his Kiowa identity by virtue of his evocation of personal myth, history and experience may also qualify as a people’s struggle to keep its culture. Outside forces may be too cruel to infiltrate the Kiowas with modernity, marginality and other forms of colonization, but their postcolonial tradition lets them survive with nobility. To the present days, Momaday continues the journey of his people’s striving to remain a legendary Kiowa by being a Kiowa himself.
Both The Death of the Moth and The Way to Rainy Mountain were able to show parallelisms of cycle of life and death and evidence of constant struggles but, most importantly, both present the thematic process of creation. The moth’s death is to the artist’s crystallized imagination what his grandmother’s demise is to Momaday’s journey to identity-construction.Through Momaday’s, Woolf’s essay has shown how an idea comes alive in an ironic twist of life sacrifice.
 In Critical Essays on Virginia Woolf, p. 209
 In http://weblog.burningbird.net/archives/2003/03/28/death-of-a-moth/
 In The Cambridge Companion to Virginia Woolf, p. 91
 In Notes on Contemporary Literature, p. 6
 In Oral Narrative Traditions, p. 272
 In http://www.h2os.org/writing/living_to_die_or_dying_to_live