Tom Turpin
Professor of
Purdue University







The Magic of Metamorphosis

Metamorphosis is a change of form, structure, or substance. In rocks, the change may be due to heat or pressure, and it may take ages to complete. In animals, such as frogs and insects, metamorphosis may occur in a few days or even hours. An insect larva, for instance, might change into a pupa in a few hours. The pupa might become an adult in several days.

Ancient people believed that the process of metamorphosis was associated with magic or witchcraft. This was the basis for the belief that alchemists could change base metals, such as lead, into gold.

The metamorphosis of insects certainly would have seemed to be magic to people who didn't understand the process. First there was an immature insect, like a caterpillar. Caterpillars completing that stage in life suddenly stop eating and no longer crawl around. Then the caterpillar appears to die; it turns brown and forms a pupa. From the “dead” pupa, a butterfly emerges. To ancient people, insect metamorphosis probably appeared to be a resurrection from the dead — a miracle in no uncertain terms.

The miraculous process of insect metamorphosis is given a bizarre twist in the 20th-century fictional classic by Franz Kafka appropriately called “The Metamorphosis.” In his essay, Kafka finds himself, as the character Gregor Samsa, transformed into an insect. The opening lines of the work set the stage: “When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin. He was lying on his back as hard as armor plate, and when he lifted his head a little, he saw his vaulted brown belly, .... His many legs, pitifully thin compared with the size of the rest of him, were waving helplessly before his eyes.”

It is not clear just what kind of an insect Kafka had become. Some literary critics say the monstrous vermin was a cockroach; others say he was a dung beetle. It has even been suggested that he was a blood-sucking bed bug or a louse. We do know the creature was despised by all who encountered him. Kafka used the concept of metamorphosis, in this case where a human had changed into the despicable form of an insect, to show how human beings can change — changes brought on by social pressures and interpersonal relationships.

The changes, as depicted by Kafka, outwardly appeared to have occurred overnight, but in reality were the results of a longer process — maybe even of a lifetime. In this respect, his choice of metamorphosis for the title of the work is appropriate, for in the insect world the obvious change — the emergence of a butterfly from the pupa — is the result of many unseen changes over time. In Kafka's work, metamorphosis resulted in a negative, a losing effort. In insect biology, metamorphosis is a thing of beauty, a key to survival of many insects. So sometimes classic literature doesn't really emulate nature!


Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Andrea McCann