‘The Moth’ is a short story by the British author H. G. Wells (1866-1946), published in his 1895 collection The Stolen Bacillus and Other Incidents. The tale might be regarded as a variation on the ‘ambiguous ghost story’ in that we as readers cannot be sure whether the moth in the story is the ghost of the protagonist’s old rival come back to haunt him, or a hallucination which exists only in his overworked brain.
The plot of ‘The Moth’ can be summarised easily enough. Hapley and Pawkins are two rival entomologists. Hapley is determined to crush his rival, publishing a scathing critique of Pawkins’ work and seeking to discredit him. When Pawkins falls ill with influenza and dies, having contracted pneumonia, Hapley finds that he has a void in his life, which had been dedicated to destroying Pawkins over many years.
He tries reading novels and even takes up chess in an effort to occupy his mind, but he finds himself distracted, and one of the chess-pieces starts to resemble his old rival. Then, one day while he is at work with his microscope, he notices a large moth in the room: a member of a new, previously unidentified species.
Hapley tries to catch this rare specimen so he can study and classify it, but it proves elusive. His attempts to capture it arouse the worry of his landlady, who takes to sleeping with the servant for fear of coming to harm at his hand. Hapley takes himself off to see the vicar, and the moth reappears, but the vicar cannot see it, leading Hapley to wonder if he is in the grip of some strange hallucination.
He returns home and goes to bed, and once again he sees the moth on his bed. Falling ill, he finds himself being tied to the bed, where the moth continues to crawl all over his face. The young doctor who treats him tells him that the moth is a mere hallucination, and so the moth continues to assail him at all hours.
He ends up remaining fastened to his bed, in a padded room, having been identified a mad. Although others tell him the moth is only a hallucination, Hapley maintains that the moth is the ghost of his old rival, Pawkins.
‘The Moth’ might be regarded as another variation on the ghost story or tale of haunting, along with Wells’s 1896 short story ‘The Red Room’. In that story, the narrator spends the night in the titular red room of a haunted castle, where all of the candles mysteriously go out, leading him to attempt to flee the room in terror. In the morning (spoiler alert), he realises that there was no ghost in the room, but only fear itself: his own unease had led him to behave irrationally and to desire to put out the candles so he would be spared any horrific sights. He’d rather live in ignorance than see a ghost.
Of course, the bitter professional rivalry between Hapley and Pawkins is at the heart of ‘The Moth’, leading us to conclude that either the moth really is the ghost of Pawkins, returned from the dead to taunt his rival and drive him mad, or that Hapley is already mad, his bitter and monomaniacal obsession with flattening the butterfly-collector’s reputation leading him to ‘create’ the moth as a manifestation of his mentally unsound state.
Of course, the ending of Wells’s story leaves it open to both interpretations. If the moth really is Pawkins’s ghost, then he could scarcely have adopted a more effective form for haunting – and taunting – his rival. But given the rational basis of many of Wells’s other stories which contain seemingly ‘supernatural’ details, and his own scientific training and outlook, I’m more inclined to see the moth as a representation of Hapley’s unhealthy preoccupation with the other man, whose death leaves Hapley with a void in his life (or perhaps exposes the void that was always there).
In this connection, it’s telling that several other things, notably that chess-piece, have already begun to resemble Pawkins before the moth comes on the scene. Hapley is looking for a way out of the intense boredom prompted by the demise of his rival, and so ‘invents’ the moth as a new obsession which will destroy him this time, rather than his perceived enemy.
‘Hapley’, of course, is ironically named: he is hapless, luckless, condemned to live out the rest of his days in his padded cell, unable to remove the moth from his face or his mind. ‘Poor’ Pawkins has had his revenge on his rival, one way or the other: the great entomologist has been consumed by his obsession. This is fundamentally a moral tale, whose ambiguity doesn’t change the moral at all: whether the moth is Pawkins’s ghost or the return of the repressed moral conscience of Hapley (or not even his conscience, but his monomaniacal fascination with his rival), the message is the same.