The Creative Section (Vol. 5, No. 1) is on its way and will be published by the end of May, 2024.

The Ideology of the Metamorphosis Motif


The Ideology of the Metamorphosis Motif


       Dr. Fedya Daas

ISLT University




        This paper explores the literary reworking of the mythic motif of ‘metamorphosis’. It first reveals the thematic move from Ovid’s The Metamorphoses to Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. Ovid’s aetiological myths trace the causes of existence of certain species in the ancient world in a series of explanatory metamorphoses whereas Kafka’s short story pictures the metamorphosis of its protagonist into an insect as the modernist ailment of the modern world. The paper, then, catalogues two different moments in the appropriation of the Irish Sovereignty myth by W.B Yeats in his play Cathleen ni Houlihan and James Joyce in his Ulysses. While Yeats’s revival of the myth remains faithful to the miraculous change of the old hag into a beautiful girl with, of course, some changes of structure and emphasis to suit his nationalistic project, James Joyce’s realistic framework leads to his radical revision of the collective myth incorporating a textual metamorphosis that aims at liberating the individual from tradition and emancipating the feminine. Briefly, the motif of metamorphosis proves to be ideologically-driven and hence promises future metamorphoses.



Ideology, Metamorphosis, Mythic, Realistic, Nationalistic




        This paper sets out some of the literary reworkings of the mythic motif of metamorphosis. In order to focus on the interactions between the idea of metamorphosis and other notions of myth, existentialism, and nation, this paper recasts the question of the pure fascination with the idea of metamorphosis as the question of the ideological appropriation of this motif in Ovid’s poem The Metamorphoses and Kafka’s short story The Metamorphosis, then in W.B Yeats’s  play Cathleen ni Houlihan and  James Joyce’s Ulysses (U).


        I see it fit before discussing all these works to have a look at the definition of ideology which is defined by The New Century Dictionary as “a particular system of ideas, the characteristic way of thinking of a people, group, or a person, as on social or political subjects” (789). While my article may not refer too often to the word ‘ideology’, it nonetheless maps the particular conceptions of the idea of ‘metamorphosis’ in relation to mythic, social and nationalistic discourses. My approach is essentially comparative which presents the metamorphosis motif as always in the process of being created through new ideological configurations.


Ovid’s The Metamorphoses:


    Ovid employs the concept of ‘metamorphosis’ or change in its broadest sense. Circumstances are not kept unaltered as powers in the mundane world may collapse after prosperity and may flourish after decline. For instance, Troy falls and Rome rises. The fates of the individuals are also subject to change. Humans are transformed into animals, birds, reptiles, insects, and all sorts of things.


    Although all the metamorphoses are represented by Ovid as “miracles [that] seem marvellous” (426), their frequency makes of them familiar events. In fact, these transformations are only miracles in the sense that they are not acted by humans but by supernatural means upon humans. Cassier sees that in the mythic world “nothing has a definite, invariable, static shape [and that] by a sudden metamorphosis everything may be turned into everything” and continues that “if there is any characteristic and outstanding feature of the mythical world, any law by which it is governed it is this law of metamorphosis” (81). Based on Cassier’s latter analysis, Natalia.R. Moehle, too, asserts that metamorphosis “is native to the mythic world” (xvi). The metamorphosis is the rule in mythology.

    The miracle of the metamorphosis implies two elements: the metamorphosed subject and the cause responsible for the metamorphosis. In the invocation, Ovid points that “events [...] take place on earth by will of Fate” (31), Gods “create”, “unlock”, “make”, “divide” and “will” all the manifestations in the universe. God is “the world’s master” (Ovid 32) and the power that continually controls Man’s doom. Indeed, God; represented in the group of deities; is the chief responsible for the metamorphoses. It is what Max Bense calls “the classical conception of being” where God is seen as the “first cause, the ground to which all beings are related” (51).


    Except for magic which can be possessed by humans, to transform beings into other shapes is not within human reach. Gods “appear in human form but possess supernatural powers, superhuman strength and ageless beauty. Each God possess[es] and implement[s] [his] individual sense of justice. [Gods’] anger [is] harsh and Gods [are] often vengeful” (“Ancient Greek Religion-Greek Mythology God-Greek Oracles”). As a matter of fact, the metamorphosis of humans into animals are either pure fancies of the Gods or punishments of those who dare to confront them. Juno’s passions, frustrations and jealousy are behind a series of transformations. The Goddess Pallas changes the artistically gifted girl Archane into a spider because she achieves an amazing success over her in a weaving competition and Jove changes Lycaon the man with “a savage soul”, “drunken tyranny” and “hopeless hate” (Ovid 37) into a wolf.


Since; in his animal shape; Lycaon still “resemble[s] himself” (Ovid 37) and Archane; in her new form as a spider; still weaves, one is driven to adopt Hegel’s point of view that this punishment is “the imprisonment of the sinful human soul in the body of an animal” (176). 1


Indeed, metamorphosed subjects can be blamed for being bloody like Lycaon, defiant of the Gods like Archane, treacherous like the shepherd Battus, blasphemous like Cecrops’ daughters, inquisitive and talkative like Phocis and criminal like the Cercopians. The Gods implement their own sense of justice upon the world.


     As a punishment, the conversion of a human into an animal represents necessarily a retrogression to an inferior status. Hegel describes it as a “degradation” (177) and Pierre Brunel depicts the animal as “the tool of a fall” (138). Ovid describes Priam’s wife who becomes an animal as “the poor-she creature” (362), Hecuba the woman who is changed into a dog as “pitiful” (367) and the transformation of the daughters of Pierus into birds as a “sharp fall” (148).

   Through his reworking of these legends and tales in a literary work, Ovid transmits the idea that change is the cosmic law. However, unlike the Homeric or other elder reworkings of myths whose reverence for the Gods are unmistakable, Ovid’s text aims at ridiculing the Greek and Roman deities by reducing their actions of metamorphosing humans to mere fancies and desires. Ovid, in fact, metamorphoses the superior position of the Gods in the mythological era. He discloses their scandals, their chases of girls, their incessant sexual frenzies and their blind jealousies from each other and especially from humans.


Kafka’s The Metamorphosis:


    Heselhaus notes that Kafka’s Metamorphosis calls to mind The Metamorphoses of Ovid. The transformation into an insect figures in Ovid’s text. He says: “[A]rachne, the artful weaver and worker, is transformed into a spider by the angry Athene, as a punishment for her presumptuousness in having challenged the goddess to a contest of their skills” (363). Yet he alludes to the difference between Arachne’s story and Kafka’s Metamorphosis. While “Kafka depicts the life and destiny of being who is metamorphosed – Ovid and classical writers depict only the act of metamorphosis” (Heselhaus 363). As a matter of fact, Gregor’s metamorphosis, Edward Moore says, has a “dangerous penetration [in the] daily life”. Gregor lives the experience of metamorphosis within his family whose members are fully aware of his real essence.


    The event of Gregor Samsa’s metamorphosis is also familiarized as it is represented in a very ordinary way: “when Gregor Samsa wake]s[ up one morning from unsettling dreams, he find]s[ himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin” (Kafka 3). First, it is the commonness and realism of space (Gregor’s room is “regular human” lying “between […] four familiar walls”) and time (in the morning, the usual time to wake up). In fact, Edwin Honig remarks that Kafka’s Metamorphosis is conditioned differently [from other metamorphosis tales]; that is, by a realistic milieu instead of a mythicized fairyland” (64). The effect of total reality of the metamorphosis is also made accessible through the choice of a travelling salesman as Gregor’s career, a career characterized by instability.

    Indeed, it is not only the reader who is convinced by the reality of the metamorphosis; for Gregor, too, the metamorphosis is “no dream” (Kafka 3). Greenberg asserts that


          [O]f course, it is no dream-to the dreamer. The dreamer, while he is dreaming, 

          takes his dream as real; Gregor’s thought is therefore literally true to the

          circumstances in which he finds himself. However, it is also true ironically

          since his metamorphosis is indeed no dream (meaning something unreal) but a

          revelation of the truth (71).


Hence, as put by Pierre Brunel, “it happens that the extraordinary can be revealed too ordinarily” (8).2 In this enfeebling of the unusual into the usual and the common, Kafka and Ovid meet. That Gregor’s metamorphosis is represented by Kafka as real goes back in fact to the existentialist conception of reality. This conception, according to Max Bense, is radically different from its classical counterpart. He explains the differences as follows:


         In the theodicy before creation God thinks out many possible worlds, but

         realizes only one of them, and the result of this is that in the classical conception

         of being there exist at once the ontological problem of the modal distinction of

         the real world and the epistemological problem of objective reality

         (Realitatsgegebenheit). [...] The existential mode of analysis [...] remains

         basically indifferent to the classical distinction between possible and realized,

         real and unreal worlds, and accordingly does not know the explicit problem of

         objective reality. Summarized, this state of affairs can be expressed more or less

         in the following way: in the classical conception of being the fiction of a

         distinctive (ausgezeichnet) world which represents itself as a real world is

         constantly maintained and at best aesthetically and ethically varied between

         being and seeming, perfection and imperfection; in the non-classical conception

         of being, on the other hand, this fiction of the distinctive world is either given

         up from the start or successively destroyed (51-2).


Accordingly, the distinction between real and unreal has no ontological meaning in Kafka’s existentialist literature. The metamorphosis of Gregor into an insect is not unreal but surreal. The surreal literature has “a thoroughly rational structure of its own” using “the play of modes” as an essential technique and has nothing to do with imagination (Bense 53). Bense adds that “every neglect of reality favours the multiplicity of possibilities, and every deformation of the form or of the object, which the aesthetic sign lets emerge from the husk of trivial purposes, making it recognizable and communicable, already almost implies a change of mode. Kafka does not deform” (54). Gregor’s change into an insect is then not a deformation but an actuality viewed from a surreal angle.


    Gregor’s situation is, in fact far away from being magical or mythological, typically existentialist. Philosophy Professor Robert Solomon states that “the existential attitude begins with a disoriented individual facing a confused world he cannot accept” and continues that the individual eventually accepts and even embraces the absurdity of life” (“Existentialism”).3 Gregor is immersed in the “void” and the “mud” to borrow Sartre’s terms. He is obliged to have a job he dislikes and again obliged to deny his wills in a total obedience to his boss. He “leads a passive, supine, acquiescent existence in a “semi-conscious” state […] in which he is scarcely aware of himself” (“Existentialism”). Gregor’s acceptance of his situation brings about his metamorphosis into an insect which is a concrete representation of his submission to the muddy life he is leading.


    Kafka keeps the notion of degradation inherent in the transformation of a human into an animal. Gregor is described by his mother as “an unfortunate boy” (Kafka 30). Eric Santner remarks that “the story of Gregor Samsa is an initiation into a universe of abjection” (210) and Bachelard thinks that “Kafka connects metamorphosis to misery, fall and the slowing down of life” (16).


    In Kafka’s story, one changes and everything changes around him too. Gregor’s long-lasting metamorphosis is a revival of Ovid’s long lasting metamorphoses. In Kafka and Ovid’s worlds there is no salvation, no hope for the deliverance of humanity. And if in Ovid’s mythological world Gods are there only to punish individuals; in Kafka’s modern world there is no God at all. The excessive reliance on reason, order, and work brings about nothing but the destruction and the shattering of the hopes of the modern man. Kafka depicts “the Modernist ailment of the modern world and of contemporary consciousness = alienation, the levelling of the human personality and the existential loneliness of the individual” (Meletinsky 317). The capitalist society in its rush for profits and effectiveness kills mercy, love and intimate relationships characteristic of Man. For Kafka, its individuals must become insects forever which is a concrete representation of the deterioration they reached.


W.B Yeats Cathleen ni Houlihan:

     W.B Yeats also reworks the mythic motif of the metamorphosis in his nationalistic play Cathleen ni Houlihan. I will first give a brief summary of the play before tackling the theme of metamorphosis. It is also useful to know that Cathleen ni Houlihan is the symbol of Ireland. Michael Gillane is to marry the beautiful Delia Cahel the next day. A stranger; an old woman appears and is invited in. She wanders from one place to another because her four beautiful green fields were taken away from her. She praises the men who loved her and died for her sake and promises immortality to those who are yet to die. She sings:


They shall be remembered forever

They shall be alive forever

They shall be speaking forever

The people shall hear them forever (Yeats, Plays 26-7)

After her departure, Michael, as if spell bound, follows her despite the pleads of his mother and his bride. The old woman turns into a young girl with a walk of a queen.


It is worth noting that Yeats’s Cathleen is a reworking of Celtic mythology and specifically of the Sovereignty Myth. Yeats’s revival of ancient mythology was part of the Irish Literary Revival movement that aims at awakening the Irish to their heritage that legitimates the construction of a distinctive national identity. This movement was gathering pace in the late 19th and early 20th century Ireland both as an antidote to the cruel reality of colonization and a precursor of a political movement for independence. As such, myths become the site of national resistance.


     The Sovereignty, Maria Tymoczko writes, “is the most distinctive Irish goddess, whose union with the rightful king was signaled by her metamorphosis from hag to beautiful young girl” (97). Yeats’s remolding of the above-mentioned subtext remains faithful to the magic metamorphosis of the old woman into a young one, yet this metamorphosis is the outcome of the union of the Irish young men with the old woman, representative of colonized Ireland. Only then can the woman become a young queen. Here the metamorphosis is highly symbolic. The old woman is not a real woman, it is Ireland under colonization suffering from “trouble” because her “land”, her “four beautiful green fields” were “taken from [her]” by “strangers” (Yeats, Plays 23). The young woman with “the walk of a queen” is not an earthly woman as well. It is the symbol of a free, sovereign and independent Ireland.


      Like Ovid, Yeats does not detail the aftermath of the metamorphosis event because for him as well as for the Irish people, the metamorphosis with its symbolic connotations is a goal in itself. Metamorphosis here, unlike the Ovidian and Kafesque metaphors of degradation, becomes synonymous with salvation and regeneration that can be obtained only through the sacrifice of the individual for the sake of the nation. The metamorphosed subject is elevated to a higher status. Yet, metamorphosis is neither achieved easily as the will of Fate nor does it represent a surreal point of view to an existentialist situation, it is the outcome of a collaboration, a unity and a belief in the value of sacrifice.


     The Irish people should labor to make “the hope of getting [their] beautiful fields back again; the hope of putting the strangers out of [their] house” (Yeats, Plays 25) come true. Unlike the already-realized metamorphoses of Ovid and Kafka, Yeats’s notion of metamorphosis is still longed for, still a project. Ireland’s independence has not been achieved yet and the idea of a nation is the hardest to implement in such absence of a sovereign country. Yeats explains his ideological use of the figure of Cathleen:


         There is a sinking away of national feeling which is very simple in its origin.

         You cannot keep the idea of a nation alive where there are no national

          institutions to reverence, no national success to admire, without a model of it in

         the mind of the people. You can call it “Kathleen ni Houlihan” or the “Shan Van

         Vocht” in a mood of simple feeling, and love that image. (qtd. in Keane 1).


Cathleen with its straightforward symbolism appeals to all men and hence becomes the fittest emblem of national pride; a fact that Yeats exploits to send “[c]ertain men the English shot” (Yeats, Poems 392).


     Yeats’s use of the magical metamorphosis gives hope to the Irish in times of troubles and colonization when salvation is thought to be impossible. Independence is at reach and the magic of the metamorphosis could be real through blood sacrifice. The death of the individuals/sons metamorphoses into the life of the mother/mother land. By sacrificing the individual dreams and the romance of the family for the sake of the collective dreams and the romance of the nation, the fantastic would be real.


James Joyce Ulysses:

    Joyce has a “deep-seated revulsion from violent Nationalism and from Ireland herself as a devouring female” (Keane 4). In more than one occasion, he embeds parodically different echoings of and from Yeats’s Cathleen ni Houlihan. In “A Mother” one short story from his Dubliners (D), Kathleen is the name of a young girl who has a talent of singing and whose mother “[w]hen the Irish Revival began to be appreciable ... determined to take advantage of her daughter’s name” (Joyce, D 100). Mr Holohan is an “assistant secretary of the Eire Abu Society” (Joyce, D 99) who refuses to pay Kathleen for her singing in concerts arranged by the Society. The short story “A Mother” ironically reduces the national symbol of Cathleen ni Houlihan to material transactions.


      In “The Dead”, Gretta Conroy answers her husband’s question about an old lover of hers: “And what did he die of so young, Gretta? Consumption, was it?” as follows: “I think he died for me” (Joyce, D 158). Joyce continues: “A vague terror seized Gabriel at this answer” (D 158). The author clearly refers to Cathleen’s answer to Michael’s question about a man “that was hanged in Galway” (Yeats, Plays 24). Michael asks: “What was it brought him to his death?” The old woman replies: “He died for love of me: many a man has died for love of me” (Yeats, Plays 24). For Joyce, Ireland as such has always been the devourer, the ugly and stinky devourer indeed.


     Tymoczko alludes to Joyce's use of Irish mythology and his radical transformation of the Sovereignty myth reworked in Yeats's Cathleen. Instead of the shapeshifting of the old hag into a young woman, he starts his book Ulysses with an old milkwoman, representing rural Ireland and the peasant figure endorsed by the revivalists, to end with Molly, another woman not only fairly young and beautiful, but also modern. Described as a “witch on her toadstool” (Joyce, U 13) with “old shrunken paps” and “wrinkled fingers” pouring “rich white milk, not hers” (Joyce, U 13), the old woman is not fit to embody the Irish modern identity Joyce would like to trace. She is a “poor old woman, [a name] given her in old times” (Joyce, U 13), and she is even ironized as “a wandering crone, lowly form of an immortal serving her conqueror and her gay betrayer” (Joyce, U 13). Nothing can transform the old hag into a young queen which enables Joyce to point out to the futility of “sacrifice” as a value upheld by the revivalists.


     Joyce instead ends with Molly in comfort, beautiful and sexually open with her “full breasts”, an incarnation not of an ideal Irish identity but a modern and urban one that accepts the female body. In Joyce's treatment of the Sovereignty theme, there is a peculiar type of metamorphosis which is not magical and which constitutes Joyce's profoundest critique of the mythology of the revival. Maria Tymoczko explains that it is a textual metamorphosis that takes place in Ulysses and summarizes:


          The two women, the two images of the Sovereignty of Ireland, the old

          milkwoman and Molly, bracket the action of the book. Representing morning

          and night, they sum up the progress of the day. Though the land and weather

          become transformed, Joyce cannot use the motif of the physical metamorphosis

          of the Sovereignty within his realistic framework. Rather than metamorphosis

          of the female figure, there is replacement of character, transformation of the

          text. The old woman gives way to the young, the text turns from the old

          woman to Molly. The Sovereignty figure is a composite, the result of an

          iconographic palimpsest; and it is literary metamorphosis rather than physical

          shapeshifting that Joyce uses (132).


    The textual metamorphosis of Molly is a radical transformation of the nationalistic myth and it is a blatant refusal of violence aiming at deconstructing the mythology that fosters blood sacrifice. It is this mythologizing of nationalism that Joyce sets to decode, hence his rejection of the magical and mythological use of the trope of metamorphosis.


    As has been shown in the above analysis, metamorphosis as a trope serves to challenge the superior status of the Gods with Ovid, to concretize an existentialist situation with Kafka, to mythologize a blood nationalism with Yeats and to demythologize the national myths with Joyce. Therefore, the motif of the metamorphosis proves to be ideologically-driven and hence promises future metamorphoses.

End Notes

1 My translation. The quotation is “[...] elles sont devenues des prisons ou les dieux enferment les âmes des coupables.” Hegel. Esthétique. Trans. S. Jankélvitch and Aubier-Montaingne. Ed. Claude Khodoss. 1993. All subsequent quotations by Hegel are taken from this edition.


2 My translation: “Il peut arriver que l’extraordinaire se révèle fort ordinaire”.


3 All the information about existentialism are taken from J.A. Cuddon’s Dictionary of Literary Terms & Literary Theory. 4th ed. England: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 1998.



Works Cited


Bachelard, Gatson. Lautreamont. Paris: Librairie José Corti, 1998.


Bense, Max. “Kafka’s Conception of Being”. Trans. Stanley Corngold. In Die Theorie  

         Kafkas. Cologne and Berlin : Kiepenheur und Witsch, 1999.


Brunel, Pierre. Le Mythe de la Métamorphose. Paris : José Corti, 2004.


Cassier, Ernst. An Essay on Man. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.


Cuddon, J. A. The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms & Literary Theory. 4th ed.   

         Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 1998.


Greenberg, Martin. “Gregor Samsa and Modern Spirituality”. The Terror of Art:

          Kafka and Modern Literature. New York: Basic Books, 2002.


Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Esthétique. Trans. S. Jankelvitch and Aubier

         Montaigne. 1995.


Heselhaus, Clemens. “Kafkas Erzahlformen” in Deutsche Vierteljahrs Zeitschift fur

         literature Wissenschaft und Geitesgeschichte, III. 1997.


Honig, Edwin. Dark Conceit. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.


Joyce, James. Dubliners. UK: Wordsworth Classics, 1993.


 ... . Ulysses. UK: Wordsworth Classics, 2010.


Kafka, Franz. The Metamorphosis. Trans. Stanley Corngold. New York: Bantam

         Classics, 2004.


Keane, Patrick J. Terrible Beauty: Yeats, Joyce, Ireland, and the Myth of the  

          Devouring Female. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1988.


Landsberg, Paul-Louis. “The Metamorphosis”. The Kafka Problem. Trans. Carolyn

          Muehlenberg. New York: New directions, 1998.


Meletinsky, Eleazar M. The Poetics of Myth. Trans. Guy Lanoue and Alexandre

         Sadetsky. New York and London: Routledge, 1998.


Moehle, Natalia. R. From Myth to Philosophy: Philosophical Implications of the

          Mythic Understanding of transtemporal Identity. Boston: University Press of

          America, 2004.


Plato. Les Lois. Belles Lettres. Vol. 2.1997.


Santner, Eric. Kafka’s Metamorphosis and the Writing of Abjection. Norton Critical

         Edition, 1996.


Tymoczko, Maria. The Irish Ulysses. Berkeley: University of California, 1994.


Yeats, W.B. Selected Plays. England: Penguin Books, 1997.


... The Poems, Ed. Daniel Albright. London: Everyman’s Library, 1992.


Online Publications:


 Moore, Edward. Neoplatonism. The Internet Encyclopedia of  Philosophy. 2006.    

         3 Jan, 2008. <>


Ancient Greek Religion-Greek Mythology God-Greek Oracles. Clear Lead Inc  

         Directory. 20 Sep, 2007. <