Posted: March 24th, 2023

Analyzing the Theme “Fragility of Life”

The essay provides an analysis of the theme fragility of life as common in Primo Levi’s “Carbon,” Doctorow’s City of God, and Woolf’s The Death of the Moth. Analysis of the three texts using Levi’s work as the lens clearly shows how the three authors have provided evidence in arguing that life is not permanent and that a force controls it, though not visible to the human eyes.

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The theme of the fragility of life is common in the work of Primo Levi. In his work, The Periodic Table (1975), Levi uses the element carbon to prove the argument that life is fragile and requires some source of energy to sustain it. According to Levi, carbon is a singular element, the only one capable of binding itself in stable chains without using much energy. Just like carbon, life on Earth requires energy to form the long chains that are stable. Therefore, carbon is a fundamental element in the living substance, but the reality of how it enters the world involves a challenging process that must come in a requisite and a complicated path, which has been hard to clarify ultimately (Levi 227). The existence of carbon has been a complicated phenomenon, just like the existence of human life.

 In the same perspective, Doctorow presents an argument relating to the fragility of life on earth. The story is a canvas within which the author successfully paints an image of the frail nature of humans. The story is based on the reality of the Holocaust and the death surrounding humanity, proving that life on earth is fragile and can end without notice. While God is involved in the lives of the people, Doctorow still confirms that life is not permanent as it is marred by various kinds of suffering, including starvation, the horrors of war, disease, and death (Doctorow 105). With these realities, and as experienced during the World War II, the author brings to the fore the claims that life is not permanent, especially if lived without faith in its sustainer. Just like Levi argues, and as supported by Doctorow, Woolf uses the metaphor, which is the death of the moth, to prove the fragility of life.

Woolf supports the argument that death cannot be escaped as long as one is alive. Therefore, death is a part of life that cannot be avoided. The argument, as can be viewed from the lens, suggests that life on earth is fragile and can end anytime. Indeed, the story shows the struggle between life and death, which is depicted as a battle that has no end and cannot be won since it has never been conquered (Woolf 2). The rhetorical devices of fragmentation, tone, and metaphors are used by the author, just like the other two, in revealing the reality of the fragile life on Earth. With the shifting tone, the author uses stylistic choices and metaphors in strengthening and driving home the argument that death is a reality of life as well as the battle that is impossible to win.

Levi presents the argument that life on Earth cannot be possible without a source of energy, just like the elements. Evidently, there is always the need for a life-sustaining energy to make life possible. The story of the carbon element is presented as a poetic fantasy, which indicates the narrator’s real life. The molecular world is a reality to a chemist such as Levi. On the other hand, various invisible events take place within this world. There are proceedings that are always powering this planet, just as it happens in the world he lives in. While humans might not see the source of the power, the aspect does not evade their notice. Levi argues about life as “an inserting itself, a parasitizing of the downward course of energy, a drawing off to its advantage from its decent solar form to the degraded one of low-temperature heat. On this descending course, which leads to equilibrium and thus death, life draws a bend and nests in it” (Levi 230). In essence, the quote clearly indicates the argument of the force that sustains life on Earth.

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As Levi argues, Doctorow presents the possibility of human life to be redeemed by a force that is more powerful than humanity. The story is about the power of God to redeem humanity and protect humans from the evils of the world that lead to death. Just like Levi investigates the relationship between life and the energy that sustains it, so does Doctorow, who scrutinizes the relationship between man and God, the Sustainer of his life (Doctorow 2). The story is a clear message to humanity that life is impossible without God’s sustaining energy. He believes in the involvement of God in the lives of the people He created. In this aspect, the idea of the God of The Universe is useful in proving the thesis presented by Doctorow in that there is a sustainer of the fragile life here on Earth. Indeed, just like from the lens and in the argument presented by Doctorow, Woolf claims that life does not just exist without some form of sustaining force.

To back this argument, Woolf uses the depiction of the way a moth enters into the world. The arrival of the moth into the creation is one that is full of energy. The author associates the life of the moth with a high level of vitality: “The same energy which inspired the rooks, the ploughmen, the horses, and even, it seemed, the lean bare-backed downs, sent the moth fluttering from side to side of his square of the windowpane” (Woolf 3). The argument confirms the claims of Levi that life does not just happen. Hence, the life is full of a struggle to come to be and to continue here on Earth. Without the sustaining energy, it would be impossible for the life to be and continue being. As used in the moth, the struggle for life is the same one humans have while living here on the earth. Human beings face a condition where every day is a struggle for survival, a struggle that they cannot win without any energy source.

Levi uses the imagery that the world is always busy past what humans are able to see, hence, working hard to ensure that the fragile life continues. The argument, in this case, could be translated to suggest that life cannot be sustained without the busy activities beneath what humans can see. Just like there is a source of energy that provides substances with their taste, color, smell, shape, and abilities to change, so there is the source of life that sustains humanity here on Earth (Levi 233). The metaphors used by Levi indicate a descending reaction progress curve with the evidence of kinetics, which clearly shows that life is always moving in some direction using particular source of energy. As such, things do not just move without some kind of force that compels them to change. In the same way, life on Earth does not just occur and continue without some force that moves and sustains it.

As it is possible to see through the lens, Doctorow presents the claim of the existence of a force that humans cannot see, although they are aware that it is there. At the end of the story, Pemberton concludes that humanity has to be remade, and for that to happen, there must be the remaking of God. The conclusion, in this case, is that God is in existence as the controller of life, and He is a force that exists in the vast reaches of the earth (Doctorow 2). Therefore, it means that even though human beings cannot see God, they are aware of his existence and the role He plays in making life on Earth possible. In the simple elemental existence, God is a force that can be accessed through the soul of every person. Hence, the aspect reveals that life cannot continue without the existence that is provided through the soul of every human being. From the moral perspective of humanity, God exists and dwells at the core of their soul. The moral sense of the existence of God is the component of every person, which is still related to the very beginning of humanity. The argument, in this case, is that at the beginning of time, there was still the force that sustained life, the same as the force doing so today.

Woolf holds the same belief as Doctorow that the force that drives life is strong, and though it cannot be seen, it can be perceived. Woolf suggests the realization of a force beyond humanity, which is the source of the energy that allows them to live even though death is inevitable. When she is talking about the “shift” in “conduct”, the author is speaking about the reality of modernity that has made life even more fragile (Woolf 3). She states about the relationship that man has with his mortality. The shift is suggested from the awareness of man of the force that is more powerful than man. Just like the way the moth concedes, humans are alive but being fully aware of a force that controls life and without which that death is inevitable. She also presents the force from the perspective of the death, which is stronger than humans and which they cannot win against. Like the moth, humans are creatures who are aware of the force that controls their lives and the knowledge that it is just a matter of time and death comes.

From the lens “Carbon,” and as supported by the two primary sources, Doctorow’s City of God and Woolf’s The Death of the Moth, there are common threats that connect the three texts. In essence, the obvious point of intersection is the fragility and volatility of life and the existence of a force beyond humanity that sustains it. Hence, a force is part of the natural world that has caused humanity to be and that continues to sustain it. The three authors have used rhetorical devices, mostly metaphor, to appeal to the consciousness of human beings by letting them know that life on Earth is not permanent and can end any time without notice. However, the three texts also suggest the possibility of redemption by the power that is stronger than humanity, an authority that exists in the universe, which can be perceived but cannot be seen. The power is the only source of life-sustaining energy, just like the atom (Levi), humans (Doctorow), and the moth (Woolf). Generally, the three texts appeal to humanity to realize that life is not permanent and death is inevitable; hence, one must live a moral life.


The three texts conclude the discussion that it is possible to establish a conversation and agreement between different texts as long as they share a common theme(s). Careful analysis of the texts allows establishing common threats that can be followed to initiate the conversation. In fact, the three comes to the conclusion that the moral sense should be a component of every person as he/she is connected to the sustainer of life. As such, the power beyond humanity should be the guiding principle in how humans live and wait for that time when the energy depletes, and they finally die. In essence, life and death are the reality presented by the authors.


Works Cited

Doctorow, Edgar Lawrence. City of God: A Novel. Random House, 2001.

Levi, Primo. The Periodic Table (1975). Trans. R. Rosenthal. Schocken Books (1984).

Woolf, Virginia. The Death of the Moth and Other Essays. Vol. 294. Harcourt on Demand, 1974.


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