The Robot and the Moth

The Robot and the Moth is a short story that was a result of culmination of science-fiction, hyperbole, and philosophy that was written by Vyataute Zilinskaite in 1978, Lithuania. During the Soviet era (1940s), most of Lithuania was controlled by the Red Army, but post-war Vilnius (1953-1988) experienced more Lithuanization than Russianization. The country’s industrialization and urbanization corresponded with its relative liberalization. There was no place for large-scale labor immigration from outside the republic if the intended local socio-economic reform was to take place. Consequently, during the 1970s and early 80s, the ideological reaction resulted in the creation of a strong national consciousness, and in comparison to other Soviet Union territories, Lithuania’s economy performed well.

The Robot and the Moth follows the story, as indicated by the title, of a huge, cubic-headed Robot named Thrum who has one distinct yellow eye, and a nocturnal moth called Underwing who is attracted to that flame-like eye. Thrum is a popular, technological marvel at an exhibition who can slightly move his arms, turn his head, and answer a particular set of questions in its pre-determined order. Day in and day out, Thrum would continue to answer the same questions, and receive praise from all. He felt superior to every other machine inside the exhibition. But for the first time ever, someone like Underwing, a teeny-tiny moth born on a chestnut tree, spoke to Thrum without any barriers; he wanted to answer all her curious questions as well as ask her more questions, but all he could do was provide her with his programmed answers. Still, since Underwing did not know about his disposition, his behavior never stopped her from continuing their conversations. One day, the always-perfect robot glitches for the first time ever because of his pre-occupied thoughts of Underwing, but recovers quickly whilst waiting for her to show up during the night. Thrum is overwhelmed by his feelings even though he is unable to express them, and he cherishes their companionship. But one night, the moth hurries towards Thrum in order to hide from a bat that wants to eat her. She clings to Thrum expecting him to protect her with his huge arms and the yellow eye, and he wants to do so too, but all he is able to do is recite his programmed answers. Underwing gets hurt and falls to the ground; she dies at Thrums feet while expressing her disappointment in him. The next day, all Thrum says out loud is “chest…nut…” He is then declared ‘out-of-order’ and gets covered with a dust-sheet that is compared to a coffin. Every night after that, as the wind brings the smell of chestnut trees, someone is learning to speak behind that sheet, and keeps repeating “Un-der-wing…chest-nut…it-hurts..”

Between Stalin’s death in 1953 and Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms in the mid-1980s, Lithuania remained a Soviet society, complete with all of its repressions and idiosyncrasies. Agriculture remained collectivized, property was nationalized, and criticizing the Soviet system was penalized. Because of travel restrictions, the country remained largely isolated from the rest of the world, the Catholic Church was persecuted, and the allegedly egalitarian society was heavily tainted by the practice of connections and advantages for those who supported the regime. What would children’s literature look like in these times, especially science-fiction?

Thrum directly represents the Soviet republic in all its glory and ill repute. Underwing depicts the citizens of that republic. And the visitors are the people that are least affected by Thrum and the moth. Modernization and national consciousness has given birth to the robot, who is an embodiment of science, future, and monstrosity; it proves the regime’s potency. The new world is still unknown to the moth who holds the robot dearly, and expects many things from him even on its deathbed. The robot, is unable to do anything until the end. The ending where Thrum wants to learn to speak after being discarded is, I believe, what the author wanted from the actual reality. She wanted things to get better whilst still putting her trust in the ideology. It tell us that, at the time, people felt more relatable to the optimistic yet helpless moth than the visitors who were actual people that came to see Thrum’s performance. The moth gets drawn to the robot’s flame and ends up burning. The robot gets declared dead. But the exhibition must go on, there’s no shortage of pre-programmed robots.


Book: p.85