No, we're not describing a candy bar (though it sounds delicious); we're talking tone. In "The Moths," the narrator's attitude is tough; she doesn't take guff from anybody and generally acts like nothing bugs her. Check it out:
The chiles made my eyes water. Am I crying? No, Mama Luna, I'm sure not crying. (9)
This passage comes on the heels of domestic violence, but the narrator insists the tears in her eyes are only due to some hot chiles. The tough exterior she shows her family is oftentimes what we as readers get to see, too—she's a tough nut to crack, our narrator is. However, she's actually a softy underneath that exterior. This comes out in her descriptions of her grandmother's care:
[I]t was the strangest feeling. Like bones melting. Like sun shining through the darkness of your eyelids. (3)
Those similes let us know that the narrator does have feelings after all, much as she'd like to punch us in the face for even thinking so. Otherwise the her grandmother's healing touch wouldn't feel "like sun shining through the darkness."
Oftentimes characters in the coming-of-age genre go from childhood to adulthood in terms of years. This story's so short that this isn't the case for our narrator, but that doesn't mean she doesn't change a good bit and do some serious growing up. In fact, she goes from raging wildcard to single-handedly taking care of her grandmother's death with clarity and grace. So though the narrator doesn't acquire a whole lot of years over the course of "The Moths," she definitely does some serious coming into her own.
The narrator is caught up in all kinds of family issues when the story takes place. Between her father's violence—"[H]e would pound his hands on the table […] and scream" (8)—her sisters' teasing—"my sisters laughed and called me bull hands" (2)—and her grandmother's death, the proverbial poop is hitting the fan all over this family unit. When family relationships and history form a story's core, it's a family drama for sure.
Magical realism is a genre strongly associated with 20th century Latin American literature. Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende are famous writers who like to mix some magic into real life. The idea is that life is actually magical, so in an otherwise realist work—you know, where everything seems pretty normal and, um, real—the author will just throw in a ghost as though it's totally ordinary, too.
"The Moths" joins this genre when the moths fly from Abuelita's mouth when she dies:
"Small, gray ones that came from her soul and out through her mouth fluttering to light." (16)
We've never seen anything like this happen in real life before, but the narrator recounts the event as though it's no big deal, treating the magical as though it's totally real and in doing so, setting foot in the genre of magical realism.
"The Moths" refer to the little flying insects that come out of Abuelita's mouth after she dies at the end of the story. While still living, Abuelita told the narrator that the moths live in the soul and eat up the spirit, a process that perhaps results in death, though this is never made explicit. Either way, the moths are a part of us that keeps living after we're gone. The title, then, can be seen as a shout-out to not just Abuelita, but to the ways in which her legacy lives on after she dies. Deep stuff for a short story.
The story closes out with the narrator crying in the tub with her dead grandmother's body:
There, there, I said to Abuelita, rocking us gently, there, there. (16)
Of course, Abuelita has already passed away and doesn't really need much comforting. What the narrator is really doing is comforting herself by rocking herself and her grandmother.
The narrator has, up to this point, been a rebellious child—she won't go to church, for instance, and beats up her sisters. When she's sent to help her dying grandmother, though, she's forced to grow up, to become the one doing the comforting instead of the one being comforted. In the end, she finally finds a way to take care of herself and others rather than needing others only for support. Her own consoling words, "There, there," tell her that everything will be all right.
"The Moths" takes place in East Los Angeles, in the neighborhood where the author grew up. First Street really does run alongside the Evergreen Cemetery between Lorena and Evergreen, the route the narrator describes in the story (9). It's a Latino neighborhood, which makes sense since the narrator herself comes from a Latino family. So even though Viramontes writes in English, she reminds the readers of the setting by speckling the story with Spanish words words like Amá and Abuelita.
While East LA is the wider context, the real heart and soul of the story is Abuelita's house. Whereas the wide world is a bit hostile, full of screaming fathers and teasing sisters, for the narrator her grandmother's home is a safe haven:
I liked her porch because it was shielded by the vines of the chayotes and I could get a good look at the people and car traffic on Evergreen without them knowing. (9)
The chayote vines provide a sort of shield, connecting the setting to Abuelita's protective character. It is clear that no matter what else happens, at Abuelita's house the narrator is safe.
The story is pretty straightforward and easy to understand—no fancy twists and turns or million dollar words here. And while we're definitely not saying that all short stories are easy reads, the length of "The Moths" only helps it go down smoother. If you aren't familiar with basic Spanish, there might be a few names that you stumble over, but other than this, you should be golden from start to finish.
"The Moths" is written in stream of consciousness, where the reader gets to find out what the narrator is thinking as she thinks it. Sometimes stream of consciousness can make texts a little chaotic to follow—think about how much leaping around your own brain does—but in this case, the result is pretty chill.
For instance, the narrator will tack a sentence fragment onto the end of another sentence to clarify a point, just like you would in an unedited chat with a friend:
"I was only fourteen years old when Abuelita requested my help. And it seemed only fair." (1)
As readers, it gives us the feeling of hearing the story more than reading it, of peeking in on someone's unedited thoughts instead of pouring over their polished version of events.
That informality carries over into the way the narrator says things. She talks like a kid, not like a snobby professor or a beauty pageant contestant:
"Not that I was her favorite granddaughter or anything special." (2)
Fragments like this one give the whole story a very intimate feeling; if it were told in formal prose it would seem distant and edited, and since it isn't, we feel like we're getting the real deal as the story unfolds.
You might think moths are just boring versions of butterflies, but they're way more than that in this story. No surprise there, though, since they're included in the freaking title—things in titles are usually pretty important. So let's take closer look at these fluttery creatures.
Moths first make an appearance as dried-up wings added to a salve for the narrator's bull hands:
Abuelita made a balm out of dried moth wings and Vicks and rubbed my hands, shaped them back to size and it was the strangest feeling. (3)
Right away, then, moths are associated with healing. And interestingly, their healing capacity is immediately connected to death—or so we're assuming, since the wings are dried-up and we can't really imagine anyone plucking wings from a living moth. Or a moth living long once its wings are plucked off. Life and death are brought close together here as the moth wings are used to help soothe the (very much alive) narrator's hands. And since Abuelita is involved, her impending death—and the transformation it inspires in the narrator—is subtly foreshadowed, too.
The most vivid appearance moths make in the story, though, is when they come pouring from Abuelita's mouth after she dies. Check it out:
Then the moths came. Small, gray ones that came from her soul and out through her mouth fluttering to light, circling the single dull light bulb of the bathroom. Dying is lonely and I wanted to go where the moths were […]; I wanted to rest my head on her chest with her stroking my hair, telling me about the moths that lay within the soul and slowly eat the spirit up. (16)
You know how the moths are used at the beginning of the story to heal what is broken? Well, now they show up as the narrator is cleaning her dead grandmother's body. We might think of Abuelita's body as permanently broken now, as beyond repair—and the moths' departure from within her as carrying her spirit away to safety. After all, the moths immediately go to the light and light often represents something good.
As an aside, we want to mention that the presence of the moths at the end takes this short story out of the realm of the ordinary, rocketing it into the land of magical realism.
What color are your eyes? No matter how you answer, chances are really good you can answer that question in one word. This is because most of us have eyes that are the same color—but not Abuelita, though. Instead she has one gray eye and one brown eye. We have no clue whether she was born this way or her gray eye is something that developed over the course of her lifetime, but one thing we're confident about is that the gray eye matters.
This gray eye of Abuelita's is a sort of synecdoche; it's a part that stands in for the whole. The gray eye does what Abuelita does, but in a more focused way, letting us zoom in on her as a character.
For example, the first time we see the eye is when Abuelita defends herself against the narrator's doubts: "her pasty gray eye beaming at me and burning holes in my suspicions" (3). The eye has the ability to see the narrator, which most of her family doesn't seem to be able or interested in doing, and it also holds the truth ("burning holes in my suspicions"). Abuelita sees the narrator for who she is, unlike her other family members, and because of this she is trustworthy. The eye makes this all quite clear, doing on a small and specific scale what Abuelita does in general.
That trustworthiness spreads into full-blown goodness when the narrator describes gardening with her grandmother. Here comes the eye again: "[…] I always felt her gray eye on me. It made me feel, in a strange sort of way, safe and guarded and not alone. Like God was supposed to make you feel" (4). This all-seeing eye (like an omniscient god) isn't just a spy; it is a caring, protective organ—a part of a caring and protective person.
Importantly, though, the eye isn't just about who Abuelita is for other people—it's also reflective of her life force. When the doctor checks on Abuelita he looks "into her gray eye, then into her brown one" before declaring that "it was just a matter of days" (6) before she will die. Considered together, Abuelita's eyes are like a meter; the doctor can tell how much of her life has been used up and how much is left just by peering into her peepers.
On her deathbed, Abuelita's eye holds her whole history, everything the narrator would probably like to know:
"Up close, you could see her gray eye beaming out the window, staring hard as if to remember everything." (6)
Here's where the synecdoche really kicks in. The eye can't remember anything—it's just an eye—so when it tries to "remember everything," we understand that Abuelita is taking one last metaphoric look at her life.
Hold up… Bulls don't even have hands; they have hooves. So what's up with this image in our story? The narrator is a girl, but she's not like her girly sisters who can do fine needlework with their dainty little fingers. Instead our main girl has big hands which are too big for crocheting and embroidery work. When in the company of her sisters, the narrator is kind of like a bull in a china shop—and her delightful sisters decide to call her "bull hands" to tease her for this difference. Her response is to beat them senseless, but her Abuelita's response is to cure her:
My hands began to fan out, grow like a liar's nose until they hung by my side like low weights. Abuelita made a balm out of dried moth wings and Vicks and rubbed my hands, shaped them back to size and it was the strangest feeling. Like bones melting. Like sun shining through the darkness of your eyelids. (3)
Abuelita changes the narrator from a bull back into a girl, almost by magic. The comparison to bones melting sounds kind of scary, but then the simile turns sweet as sunshine is invoked. You know what else is kind of scary? The narrator's rage against her sister's—which melts away in its own right as she soaks up Abuelita's love.
We never do get the narrator's name, though her evil sisters call her "bull hands." We'd never do that, though, unless we wanted a serious beating in return. Despite being nameless, the narrator is the person we follow through the story as she's directly involved in the action of everything that unfolds.
The narrator is the only one in the house when Abuelita dies, and her description of cleaning Abuelita's body is intimate and firsthand:
"I removed a few strands of hair from Abuelita's face and held her small light head within the hollow of my neck." (16)
This is a stark and vulnerable moment, one in which our often brusque leading lady shows incredible tenderness. By having her narrate the story, we are privy to these complexities of hers—complexities few others seem aware of.
The narrator makes it clear that she's the outsider in her family. She's always hitting her sisters, and they make fun of her because her "bull hands" are too big to do anything girly like crochet. Our narrator does have a good bond with her grandmother, Abuelita, though. When her mother asks her to go help out Abuelita, the stage is set for what's to come.
The narrator is happy to help her grandmother, but it's not the regular gardening chores. No, this time "Abuelita was dying" (6). Oh man—that's a complication if ever we've seen one. Hold on tight; it looks like we're in for a sob story. Abuelita's sickness and impending death kicks the story into high gear. We're officially in out-of-the-ordinary territory since, you know, it's not every day that a girl tends to her dying grandma.
While the narrator prepares some soup for her grandmother, Abuelita dies. Death is the ultimate turning point; there's no going back from there (unless you believe in ghosts and zombies… or reincarnation… or the afterlife… but we digress). The difference between life and death divides this story in two.
The narrator cleans her grandmother's body, undressing her and carrying her to the bathtub. It's almost a ritual, even though the narrator probably has never done anything like this before. Now that the crisis has occurred, we see our main character begin dealing with its aftermath.
In the tub with her dead grandmother, the narrator sees a bunch of moths fly out of Abuelita's mouth and fill up the bathroom. It's kind of surreal, but also a reference to Abuelita's homemade medicine, which often involved ground-up moths. Symbolically, it's almost like her death isn't final, like her spirit is coming out of her body and into the world to be with the narrator. Abuelita might be dead, but her soul soars on.