Insects in literature

Source: Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
Thomas Muffett
's 1634 book The Theatre of Insects

Insects have appeared in literature from classical times to the present day, an aspect of their

role in culture
more generally. Insects represent both positive qualities like cooperation and hard work, and negative ones like greed.

Among the positive qualities, ants and bees represent industry and cooperation from the Book of Proverbs and Aesop's fables to tales by Beatrix Potter. Insects including the dragonfly have symbolised harmony with nature, while the butterfly has represented happiness in springtime in Japanese Haiku, as well as the soul of a person who has died.

Insects have equally been used for their strangeness and alien qualities, with giant

Shakespeare's King Lear and Antony and Cleopatra; the mosquito
has a similar reputation.


Insects play important roles in around one hundred novels and a hundred short stories in English literature. They are used to portray both positive and negative qualities, more usually negative, including entrapment, stinging, being rapacious, and swarming. They are common in fantasy and especially in science fiction, often as the earthly or alien villains. Detective novels sometimes use insects as unexpected murder weapons. A fly on the wall is used as a voyeur to tell erotic stories in R. Chopping's The Fly, and the anonymous Autobiography of a Flea. Franz Kafka made use of the strangeness of insect metamorphosis in his novella The Metamorphosis (German: Die Verwandlung), as have several authors since.[1]

Positive qualities

Industriousness and cooperation

Aesop's ants: picture by Milo Winter
, 1888–1956

Anthropomorphised ants have often been used in fables, children's stories, and religious texts to represent industriousness and cooperative effort.[2] In the Book of Proverbs, ants are held up as a good example for humans for their hard work and cooperation. Aesop did the same in his fable "The Ant and the Grasshopper".[3][4] Some modern authors have used ants to comment on the relationship between society and the individual, as with Robert Frost in his poem "Departmental" and T. H. White in his fantasy novel The Once and Future King.

The Tale of Mrs Tittlemouse
, 1910

The Tale of Mrs Tittlemouse features the busy bumblebee
Babbity Bumble and her brood.

Harmony with nature

The poet W. B. Yeats wrote The Lake Isle of Innisfree (1888) with the honey bee couplet "Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee, / And live alone in the bee loud glade", while he was living in Bedford Park, London.[5]

Lafcadio Hearn wrote in his 1901 book A Japanese Miscellany that Japanese poets had created dragonfly haiku "almost as numerous as are the dragonflies themselves in the early autumn."[6] The poet Matsuo Bashō (1644–1694) wrote haiku such as "Crimson pepper pod / add two pairs of wings, and look / darting dragonfly", relating the autumn season to the dragonfly.[7] Hori Bakusui (1718–1783) similarly wrote "Dyed he is with the / Colour of autumnal days, / O red dragonfly."[6]

The poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson described a dragonfly splitting its old skin and emerging shining metallic blue like "sapphire mail" in his 1842 poem "The Two Voices", with the lines "An inner impulse rent the veil / Of his old husk: from head to tail / Came out clear plates of sapphire mail."[8]

The novelist H. E. Bates described the rapid, agile flight of dragonflies in his 1937 nonfiction book[9] Down the River:[10]

I saw, once, an endless procession, just over an area of water-lilies, of small sapphire dragonflies, a continuous play of blue gauze over the snowy flowers above the sun-glassy water. It was all confined, in true dragonfly fashion, to one small space. It was a continuous turning and returning, an endless darting, poising, striking and hovering, so swift that it was often lost in sunlight.[11]

The spirit world

In the traditional

Navajo religion, Big Fly is an important spirit being.[12][13][14]

Lafcadio Hearn's essay Butterflies analyses the treatment of the butterfly in Japanese literature, both prose and poetry. He notes that these often allude to Chinese tales, such as of the young woman that the butterflies took to be a flower. Among the brief 17-syllable Japanese Haiku poems about butterflies, of which he translates 22, one by the Haiku master Matsuo Bashō is said to suggest happiness in springtime: "Wake up! Wake up!—I will make thee my comrade, thou sleeping butterfly." Another compares the butterfly's shape to a Japanese silk upper-dress, the haori, "being taken off". A third says they look to be girls of "about seventeen or eighteen years old." Hearn retells, too, the old story of a man who dies after 50 years alone, having mourned his sweetheart Akiko daily all that time. As he dies, "a very large white butterfly entered the room, and perched upon the sick man's pillow." The man smiles in death. "Then it must have been Akiko!", says an old woman who knew him.[15]

Negative qualities

Strange and alien beings

Alice in Wonderland
, c. 1865