New Year, new you? Let’s see how long this year’s resolutions last. As the festive cheer fades into oblivion and January rears its miserable head, so begins the annual inundation of well-meaning self-helpers who pledge that this really will be the year that they make those long-overdue changes to their lives. But how much can we really alter ourselves? And how often are these revisions ever more than purely superficial? It is no surprise that literature has, for millennia, attempted to document our human fascination with metamorphosis. We could say, of course, that all literature is about change – about characters growing, developing, learning – but the transformations in the following list are somewhat more emphatic. Changes of heart, changes of mind – from the skin-deep to the skin-crawling – here are 10 literary works which shed light on the varying mutations and renovations that we all may dread or dream of undergoing.
Metamorphoses, Ovid (c.8 AD)
“In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas / corpora”, opens Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and that is as good a summary of the fifteen-book epic as any. Cataloguing hundreds of myths, this is a monumental study of the human desire for mutability and adaptation. Incredibly, these tales continue to resonate – perhaps now more than ever. Before there was ghosting, it seems, there was metamorphosis. Daphne transforms into a laurel tree to avoid Apollo. Io becomes a cow to avoid jealous Juno. And Jove, with his unquenchable libido and slippery shape-shifting tricks for shirking responsibility, is a frightening warning of unchecked male power.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, William Shakespeare (c.1595)
Shakespeare gives new meaning to the term jackass when Puck the mischievous sprite transfigures silly Nick Bottom’s head into that of a donkey. Only in the chaotic topsy-turvy realm of comedy could the ass-faced fool then find himself romanced by Titania, queen of the fairies. Are we to treat any of this as real, or is it all simply part of a whimsical midsummer fantasy? Bottom’s epilogue suggests that it is we, the audience, who have been dreaming all along.
“Lamia”, John Keats (1819)
Lamia seeks Hermes’s help to be rid of her serpent form so that she may pursue the beautiful youth Lycius. The transformation is painful, but Lamia is prepared to endure the torturous “anguish drear” and “scarlet pain” in order to satisfy her lust. All seems to be going well until mood-killing philosopher Apollonius turns up and reveals Lamia’s true identity.
A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens (1843)
In Ebenezer Scrooge, Dickens created perhaps the most famous miser in all of literature. But he also gave new power to the festive season as a time for redemptive metamorphosis. A rebuttal to the 1834 Poor Law Amendment, which applied Malthusian theory to the poverty relief system in an attempt to deter all but the truly destitute from seeking workhouse support, Dickens’s portrait of a man’s transformation from misanthropist to philanthropist is a timeless reminder of how it is never too late to change.
Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson (1886)
“Man is not truly one, but two”, warns Stevenson in one of the most famous tales of transformations in literature. And yet, Henry Jekyll’s devolution into the atavistic rogue Edward Hyde isn’t really a transformation at all: it’s an unleashing of something that has always lurked within him. Through Hyde, Jekyll is able to indulge the Wildean double-life suspected of many Victorian gentlemen. Hyde may even be a coded reference to suppressed homosexuality, or indeed any secretive taboo frowned upon by Fin de Siècle English society. He is an outlet for the supposedly respectable Jekyll’s inner desire for depravity and debauchery – the “devil” he had “long caged”. In releasing Hyde, Jekyll is letting free the beast within us all.
The Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka (1915)
Imagine waking up one morning to find yourself transformed into a giant bug. When travelling salesman Gregor Samsa becomes an incapacitated insect, his family–tragically–are repulsed by him. Kafka’s surrealist nightmare continues to disturb and perplex, and Samsa’s struggle to prove his worth in spite of his hideous appearance remains as devastatingly moving as ever. Philip Roth’s The Breast (1972), in which a man is transfigured into a colossal human mammary gland, is a lighthearted and hilarious spin on the tale. Last year, Ian McEwan reversed Kafka’s concept in Brexit satire The Cockroach.
Orlando, Virginia Woolf (1928)
After a lengthy sleep, the Elizabethan nobleman Orlando awakens not as a bug, but as a woman. His mind is the same, but his body has morphed into that of a female. Orlando is also unable to age, and so we track the eponymous hero/heroine from the Renaissance all the way to the 1920s. A pioneering work of postmodern proportions, Woolf’s landmark biography-cum-novel is a sharply satirical treatise on the fluidity of gender, the constraints of literary form, and the historical sidelining of women.
The Changeling, Joy Williams (1978)
The masterful Joy Williams is never better than in her underrated sinister yarn about a woman who becomes convinced that her child has been replaced by another. But this is by no means the strangest conundrum at the heart of The Changeling, a novel brimming with metamorphic mysteries. Pearl, an alcoholic who longs to escape her menacing husband’s family (including a cacophony of dreadful and indistinguishable children), doesn’t know if she’s drunk or sober when she watches a little girl transform into a deer. By the end of the novel, at which point Williams takes to manic Beckettian prose, we’re not so sure either.
The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter (1979)
Like Stevenson, Angela Carter was fascinated by the bestial appetites that we are forced to suppress. This wonderfully witty collection of stories returned the bleakness and sex to fairytales that had long been diluted by the Disney machine. But in Carter’s searing hands, these fireplace legends also become parables of female empowerment. Take “The Tiger’s Bride”, for instance, based on “Beauty and the Beast”. In Carter’s story, the heroine does not seek to transform the Beast back into human form; instead, she allows him to turn her into a majestic furry beast of her own. Sometimes Beauty is the Beast.
Bridget Jones’s Diary, Helen Fielding (1996)
New Year’s resolutions became fashionable all over again with Bridget Jones. Helen Fielding’s clumsy but loveable foot-in-mouth heroine vows to make serious alterations to her life (career success, weight loss, giving up smoking – and, naturally, finding Mr. Right) as she hits thirty. Needless to say, the course of true love does not tend to run smoothly for this literary darling. A modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice, it takes the dashing but uppity Mark Darcy to convince Bridget that she need not change at all: he may just love her exactly the way she is.