Analysis of Helena Maria Viramontes’s The Moths

First published as the opening story in “The Moths” and Other Stories, “The Moths” tells the story of three generations of women, divided by their aims in life and their perspectives about the future. The protagonist, a girl of 14 and the narrator of the story, must deal with the death of her grandmother, Mama Luna, the only person who has discovered the girl’s true talent. Upon the imminent death of the grandmother, this girl, who has been healed by the old woman’s wisdom before, is requested to take care of her during her last days of existence. The rite of passage from childhood to adulthood for this girl becomes a quest to conciliate opposites, to come to terms with the feminine heritage of her grandmother and the patriarchal impositions of her father. In between the girl and the grandmother, the mother tries to tame the girl and transform her into a marriageable woman following the commandments of the Catholic Church. Her sisters laugh at her because she fails to perform typical feminine tasks, such as sewing or embroidering, without realizing that they are puppets, parrots, just reproducing the roles and identities they are supposed to adopt at a male-ruled house.

Abuelita, the grandmother, teaches the protagonist to make use of her hands, to take care of the garden, to find a true joy in every task she undergoes. The girl’s big hands treated with lotion made out of moths’ wings become the most skilled ones in tasks where she does not have to perform a submissive role. Beside her grandmother, she would start a quest for meaning and identity that is tragically interrupted when Abuelita dies. Contrary to her mother, who has lost all connection with tradition and the earth, the girl takes the grandmother’s wisdom that she has consciously transmitted to her so that her memory is preserved. The girl seems to reprimand her mother for having left her own mother alone, for having rejected for so long the true feminine space that Abuelita’s house represents. Am has accepted her role of submissive wife but has failed to provide an alternative life for her daughters. At the same time, in the final moments, the mother appears to regret having forgotten her ancestry and tries to recuperate the time she spent apart from her mother.

Helena Maria Viramontes/CLA California State University

The narrator’s father, however, forces her to assume an identity she rejects completely, a role of submission to male superiority; she confronts him by refusing to go to church. He imposes his authority with violence, raising his voice while the women’s voices become mostly silent. The girl is the only dissenting voice in her house, the only one who challenges her father’s violence and dares to contradict his laws based on impositions.

Water takes outmost importance, as it appears in two crucial moments, first, when the girl helps Mama Luna to water the garden and she feels comforted but confused because she had been taught that God made you feel that way. Finally, in the powerful very last scene, water and death are united through a Pietà image, a mourning Virgin Mary that collides with the girls’ resistance to reproduce feminine roles that descend from the model of the Virgin Mary. The 14- year-old holds her grandma in the bathtub, purifying the relationship between them and making it sacred: “I wanted to return to the waters of the womb with her so that we would never be alone again” (32). This sacred dimension is enhanced by the similarities of the cleansing ceremony with both the sacrament of baptism and the administration of the last rites. The protagonist acts as the celebrant, thus reversing gender roles and, once more, defying the teachings of the Catholic Church.

But it is a scene of rebirth: New life emerges from Abuelita’s body: Her soul undergoes a transformation and leaves her mouth transformed into moths. This empowering moment for the adolescent, who has suddenly become the top of the hierarchical pyramid as a priest, signifies the only instance of physical contact and expression of affection that exists in the narrative, mostly devoid of any touch between the protagonists. The moths unite both women, maintaining that unbreakable link between grandmother and granddaughter at the same time that they provide a magical dimension. In fact, this last intense final moment has been frequently analyzed as an example of magical realism used by women of color as an empowering device.

The traditional destructive power of moths is clearly subverted in the narrative; out of their wings, Abuelita makes a healing lotion, and, when these insects appear again, at the end of the story, they have undergone a drastic transformation: They stand for the soul of the old woman flying free detached from the body, highlighting her condition of free spirit.

Viramontes talks about the naked, sick, and old body of the Abuelita without prudery, describing minutely every single detail of her skin and body parts, thus confronting Catholic taboos and “taking what other people may think is ugly or useless and mak[ing] something beautiful” (Dulfano 659). The girl finally cries for her grandmother’s death, for herself, losing childhood and entering adulthood; even for her mother, who has proven unable to defend her from her father’s abuses and constant whippings. Viramontes envisions hope and leaves the door open for reconciliation: The girl finally realizes why Am has deprived her daughters of affection, wanting to make them stronger and ready to survive in a hostile, maledominated environment.

Dulfano, Isabel. “Some Thoughts Shared with Helena Maria Viramontes.” Women Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 30, no. 5 (2001).
Rotger-Oliver, Maria Antonia. Battlegrounds and Crossroads: Social and Imaginary Space in Writings by Chicanas. Amsterdam, N.Y.: Rodopi, 2003.
Stockton, Sharon. “Rereading the Maternal Body: Viramontes’ ‘The Moths’ and the Construction of the New Chicana.” Americas Review: A Review of Hispanic Literature and Art of the US 22, nos. 1–2 (1994): 212–229.
Viramontes, Helena M. “The Moths” and Other Stories. Houston: Arte Publico Press, 1995.

Categories: Literature, Short Story

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