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Metamorphosis

by Natalie Babbitt

It has been my lifelong wish that there was no such thing as change — outward change, anyway. I like things familiar and predictable. Yet, from the very beginning, my life has been made up of repeated outward changes. I have moved twenty-two times. The humblest dandelion has more tangible roots than I do. But moving is the American way. Nearly all of us had to move from somewhere just to get to America in the first place. So change is not only an inescapable ingredient of life; it’s a characteristic ingredient of American life.

I wonder sometimes, however, how much we really change inwardly as we go along. I wonder how many of us, in the course of an average life, become something really different from what we were in the beginning. At my high school graduation the headmistress said to us, “Remember, girls, no matter where you go, you take yourselves with you.” That was a shocking thing to hear at the time, when we all wanted to become silk purses and swans — symbols of at least one kind of metamorphosis. But our steely-voiced headmistress was absolutely right. We learn things as we go along; we go through experiences that head us sometimes in unexpected directions, but we are still burdened down with ourselves and respond to all experience in ways that anyone who truly knows us could probably describe as predictable.

I suppose the whole thing comes down to what is meant by the term metamorphosis. I went back for a reunion a few years ago to the school with the steely-voiced headmistress — she herself, of course, long gone. My classmates and I all looked hard at each other. Most of us, in spite of the thirty years that had elapsed, looked pretty much the same — that is to say, perfectly recognizable. No problem knowing each other on the street. But the fattest girl was now thin, while the thinnest was now fat. I wouldn’t have known either of them on the street — unless I stopped and talked to them. Then I would have recognized them easily.

Outward changes only. There are plenty of those. I always look with great interest at the make-over stories in the women’s magazines whenever I come across one. Mrs. G.K. from Kansas as she looked before — before the hairdresser, the make-up artist, and the clothes person had their way with her. Before, she was lank-haired, pale, frumpy, and embarrassed. Then — presto! Mrs. G.K. from Kansas: puff-haired, rosy, stylish, and — embarrassed. I think Mrs. G.K. probably went home to Kansas after this experience, washed out the hair spray, wiped off the make-up, put her old denim skirt back on, and said to Mr. G.K., “It was fun, I suppose, but I just didn’t feel like me!” And Mr. G.K. probably gave her a hug and said, “I like you just the way you are.”

Outward change. It can be unsettling to the people around us. My daughter, Lucy, once gave me, for a joke, a curly, short-cropped black wig for my birthday — a sort of Elizabeth Taylor style. We passed it around, and everybody tried it on — even my husband and my two sons. Aside from being funny, which it certainly was, it also had an eerie, alienating effect. “Take it off,” my son Tom said to me quite seriously. “You don’t look like my mom any more.”

The wig did represent a kind of momentary metamorphosis, but not a metamorphosis greatly to be desired after all. We grow used to ourselves, the people around us grow used to us, as we grow older. How we look is c1osely tied to who we are. We come at last, perhaps, to some understanding of our individual essence.

My good friend and collaborator, the poet Valerie Worth, is much concerned with essence. She writes about it often. In one of her collections of poetry, Still More Small Poems (Farrar), she says about a rose bush: “In summer it / Blooms out fat / And sweet as milk; / In winter it / Thins to a bitter / tangle of bones; / And who can say / Which is the / True rosebush?” A question well worth pondering. But no doubt the rosebush itself knows the answer, just as we know at last our own essence.

I don’t suppose there’s anyone, and I emphatically include myself, who doesn’t wish to be different in some way from what he or she is. But I doubt if any of us would really be willing to undergo a true metamorphosis now, a metamorphosis that alters our inward essence: to become some new and wonderful other kind of person at the touch of a godmother’s wand and then go back to our unchanged lives, the lives that we have shaped, or tried to shape, to fit the person we were before. No, if we underwent a metamorphosis, everything else would have to change as well or else we would be forced to live as new square pegs in old round holes — uncomfortable, alien, the proverbial odd man out.

But in spite of this, at some level the longing is there — the longing to be different. We say to ourselves that we are the way we are because of things that happened long before we had anything to say about it. That is probably true, though some of what we are is certainly due to the experiences that life, in its random way, has exposed us to: nature and nurture, as the psychologists have it. We say we didn’t have much choice, and we also say that we wish we were different — very different, or maybe only a little different, but different. Younger, perhaps. Or thinner. Richer. Smarter. Even, perhaps, gentler. Or more confident. Or wittier. But most of us know by now that we are unlikely ever to be much different. We are, finally, what and who we are, and that’s that. Still, the longing to be different is there, and perhaps that longing is at the bottom of many of the stories we have produced for our children. Unlike adults, children seem to go through changes constantly — outward changes, anyway. They may not be much aware of it, but we, as parents and teachers, certainly are.

But children are people born each with his or her own essence, an essence that is largely unalterable in spite of continual outward changes. Parents sometimes take a long time to accept their children’s essences. If the children don’t turn out to be heroes, parents sometimes feel let down. Here those children were, beginning new, and they perversely turned out to be just like us. If we could do it over again, we wouldn’t turn out just like us. Yet Frank Stockton, in his The Bee-man of Orn (Harper), reminds us that a reversion to childhood, a new beginning as an infant, doesn’t at all mean that we will grow up to be a different kind of adult. The Bee-man, after his metamorphosis, becomes a Bee-man all over again. But this is not the message of many children’s stories. Many stories say, “The power to be whatever you want to be is there for you. You can and will be different.” Probably we mean “different from the way we turned out.” And sometimes they are different. But the things that make the difference are very seldom in life what they are in stories. In stories the things that make the difference are mostly magic, or obedience to a set of rules, or are due to events carefully orchestrated by the author to produce the desired result — to produce, in other words, a hero.

In The Secret Garden, which I loved when I was a child, Mary and Colin are weak, self-centered, rude, and manipulative in the beginning. By the time the story is over, they have become wise, sweet, and powerful. In the setting provided for them and with events carefully arranged, this metamorphosis seems reasonable. I doubt if, given their early experience, so dramatic a change would happen in real life. But who cares? It’s a story; and a story, after all, is an acting-out of our best-loved dreams and desires. Mary and Colin rebel against authority, take charge of their own lives, and thereby prosper. The concept is irresistible to a child. In a way it’s funny that we, as adults jealous of our control, should give such a story to a child, for who among us wants to encourage rebellion? But of course we don’t give our children The Secret Garden to read because we think they will learn from it. We give it to them because we still remember the magic it worked on us when we were children. That is a good thing, too, for otherwise children would miss out on a great deal. But an adult reading of The Secret Garden considerably damages its magic.

There are other beloved stories whose magic is equally fragile. The Ugly Duckling is one of these; so is The Little Engine That Could. Too many of us look, as adults, exactly as we might have been expected to look, given our childhood features; beginning as ducklings, we have turned only into ducks. And too many of us have grown up to be little engines that couldn’t, in spite of the greatest efforts. But I don’t want you to misunderstand me. I am not saying we are all unhappy and discouraged. I’m saying most of us have comfortably accepted the facts of our selves. I’m talking about Mrs. G.K. from Kansas who realized she didn’t really want to be Cinderella after all. We’ve seen by now too many Cinderellas grown petulant and foolish as their beauty faded with aging. Regardless of our political views, certainly most of us would agree that Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North was a little engine that could — who will probably end up either forgotten or sent ignominiously to the roundhouse.

But I am not saying that the encouragement of children’s hopes for glory through the great metamorphosis of growing up is a bad thing, as long as we define glory carefully. Perhaps the best glory of all comes in the form of a sense of the ridiculous, a satisfying kind of daily work to do, and tolerance.

My favorite two books when I was a child were Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-glass. These books are full of transformations. I loved the pig baby and the Cheshire cat and the Caterpillar. Remember this exchange between Alice and the Caterpillar?

“Being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing.”
“It isn’t,” said the Caterpillar.
“Well, perhaps you haven’t found it so yet,” said Alice; “but when you have to turn into a chrysalis—you will some day, you know — and then after that into a butterfly, I should think you’ll feel it a little queer, won’t you?”
“Not a bit,” said the Caterpillar.
“Well, perhaps your feelings may be different,” said Alice; “all I know is, it would feel very queer to me.”

That seemed like a reasonable reaction to me when I was a child. It seems reasonable now. All of Alice seemed and seems reasonable, for Alice wasn’t changed at all by her Wonderland  experiences. Alice stayed her own true self throughout. Lewis Carroll didn’t want Alice to change. He only wanted to point out, I think, the endless absurdities of the adult world. Maybe that’s why I liked the books so much. They seemed to be saying, from Alice’s viewpoint, “The world is utterly crazy, but I’m all right.” I think that’s the way I felt when I was a child. It’s not a bad way to feel. Perhaps it encouraged tolerance and a sense of the ridiculous.

One of the things that worries me about modern American life is that we are rather short on tolerance. I am not talking about the great political struggles for racial and gender tolerance. I’m talking about the small but precious kind of tolerance that comes from self-acceptance — not self-satisfaction but self-acceptance. We all seem to think we ought to be like someone else, look like someone else, live like someone else. Instead of trying to be as good a version of ourselves as we can, we seem to think we ought to be someone else entirely. Everything around us encourages this attitude, and this attitude breeds discontent, self-denigration, and guilt. Take television for instance. The members of the Huxtable family on “The Cosby Show” are impossible role models. The Keatons of “Family Ties” are impossible, too. Where is the school that can train us to be another Vanna White? What could the curriculum possibly include? Everywhere on television people are beautiful or wise or witty and sometimes all three at once. Or, if they’re comical, they’re comical in a lovable way. Movies are a little better, but not much. We know a lot about the real lives of the actors and actresses who play these roles. We know a lot about the lives of our flesh-and-blood heroes, too. Maybe our own lives are less dramatic; maybe we won’t get into the history books. But it seems to me it’s time we realized that most of us are just as worthy. Maybe we are even more honorable, more unselfish, more loving than many of the celebrities who glitter above our heads. So why do we wish to be changed into one of their number? In order to be famous? I doubt it. In order to be happy? Probably we don’t really believe celebrities are happier than anyone else. In order to be rich? That may be part of it. To be rich means to be safe, doesn’t it? To be rich means to be respectable. At least, if we were rich, we’d be safe and respectable.

There is a line somewhere in the blur between fact and fantasy that is extremely hard to pinpoint. One side of that line encourages children to look hard at themselves and the real world around them, to define the genuinely achievable, and to try as hard as they can to do their very best to fashion for themselves a life that is honest, fulfilling, tolerant, and as comfortable as possible. The other side of that line encourages them to believe that the world somehow owes them wealth and power and happiness without their having to work for it; that the means to wealth and power and happiness are always just around the corner, will come all in a rush, and at a single stroke metamorphose them into the glittering heroes they see in many of their books and movies and television shows. It is this same side of the line that emphasizes the moment of glory, the moment when the world bows and acknowledges one as a hero. Very seldom does this side of the line recognize that there is a lot of life left after the moment of glory has passed.

Our beloved democracy treads right along that line that is so hard to pinpoint. Yes, it is absolutely true that America is the land of opportunity. But we’d better be sure our children know that opportunity means a chance to achieve one’s ambitions if one is willing to work hard. And, yes, it is absolutely true that in America anyone can grow up to be president, but the word is can, not will. We’d better be sure our children know that while luck is always a factor in how things turn out, there will be no magic, no fairy godmother, no hag on the road with her basket of charms. We’d better be sure they understand that in real life a metamorphosis is usually so gradual as to be almost imperceptible.

I am watching my own children establish themselves in their own lives, defining for themselves their own essences, unraveling for themselves the contradictions created by the facts and  fantasies that surrounded them when they were genuinely children. They’re doing all right, but it’s not as easy as they thought it would be. Why do our children think it will be easy? Is it because it looked so easy in the storybooks and on the television screen? Is it because we, as parents, somehow failed to inform them? Or do children automatically think it will be easy? I can’t remember whether I thought it would be easy or hard. I simply took it for granted that I would grow up to do what I wanted to do. I am doing what I wanted to do, but it has certainly not been easy.

I loved fairy tales when I was a child, and I love them now. The concept of metamorphosis is wonderfully compelling: to be different, to solve all problems at the stroke of a wand, to grow up in an instant, to be rich and beautiful and powerful and happy simply by giving the right answer to a riddle. I am the last person in the world to knock fantasy, because the best fantasy is actually a tool for understanding reality. The only idea I want to leave you with is the idea that we need to be careful to make a balance.

The very nature of childhood is metamorphic. But the physical, intellectual, and moral changes are not so much alterations, it seems to me, as developments. Given the proper conditions, a morning glory bud will grow into a blossom, but a morning glory blossom, not a daffodil. Both are beautiful, but the essence of one is quite different from the essence of the other. I would like to imagine that a morning glory bud would hope and dream about becoming the best morning glory blossom there ever was and not be discontent, when the moment arrives, that it is not, instead, a daffodil.

On a recent school visit a fifth-grader asked me if the magic spring water in Tuck Everlasting (Farrar) was real. “No,” I said, “it isn’t real.” “But,” said the fifth-grader, “didn’t you ever think that when you described it so well, as if it was real, we might believe you?” I have lain awake over this question. Are we somehow implying in our books that the unreal, the impossible, is more greatly to be desired than the real and the possible? Are we maybe whispering that there are instant metamorphoses to be had somewhere, that everyone can and should be a hero?

I am only trying to say that we had better tread carefully. There is a scene in Alice where Alice visits the Duchess. The Duchess is singing a violent lullaby to a baby as she tosses it up and down, and all the while the cook is shaking pepper into a large pot of soup. An argument erupts, and the cook begins throwing things at the Duchess and the baby — pots, pans, dishes. Alice, as Lewis Carroll puts it, is in an “agony of terror” for the baby’s life, and when at last the Duchess flings the baby to her, Alice carries it out into the open air. The baby, over the next few minutes, goes through a metamorphosis. It changes, in fact, into a pig.

So she set the little creature down, and felt quite relieved to see it trot away quietly into the wood. “If it had grown up,” she said to herself, “it would have made a dreadfully ugly child: but it makes rather a handsome pig, I think.”

I have always thought that the baby was in its true essence a pig and was only changing back to what it was intended to be. At any rate, I agree with Alice: better, symbolically, a handsome pig than a dreadfully ugly child. As a baby, the creature shrieked and struggled. As a pig, it trotted “away quietly” back to its natural environment.

We were not all intended to be heroes — or swans. If there is any character to emulate in fantasy literature, it is perhaps the Bee-man. He is entirely content to have grown up once again into a Bee-man. And contentment may well be the richest of all rewards.

From the September/October 1988 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. For more, click the tag Natalie Babbitt.

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