The butterfly is a symbol of change and beauty in nature and within the world of literature. Butterflies appear throughout the entirety of Oryx and Crake, generally appearing briefly as small details of a scene. The imagery of these insects goes through a gradual progression – a metamorphosis – that can parallel Oryx and Crake’s evolution as figureheads and the changing world of Atwood’s novel to create a warning for the reader.
The butterflies found in Oryx and Crake morph gradually throughout the novel as the characters and the world ages. The first mention of butterfly imagery is when Snowman spots a caterpillar “letting itself down on a thread” in the second chapter of the novel (pg. 41). The next mention that I found of butterflies was later in the novel, in chapter 8, when Jimmy is visiting Crake at college as he sees several butterflies with “wings the size of pancakes and were shocking pink” (pg. 200). In chapter 12, Oryx is described as “wearing some sort of kimono covered with red and orange butterflies,” the same robe that Snowman sees the decaying corpse of Oryx still covered in at the beginning of chapter 14 (pg. 318).
Just as the caterpillar changes dramatically over the duration of the novel, so too do the characters go through a metamorphosis. On many levels, Oryx, Crake, and Snowman do not change during the novel, this being particularly true for Oryx and Snowman. The caterpillar stage of Crake are his days where he was still called Glenn. As time goes on and Glenn takes the moniker Crake, he becomes more of a star student as he makes it into the most prestigious schools and Compounds – attention is drawn to Crake just as Jimmy is drawn to the pink butterflies. By the time Crake dies, he lives on as just a picture/representation in the minds of Snowman and the Crakers and becomes a mythic symbol, the pictorial representation of the butterfly being seen on Oryx’s kimono. Oryx shares in this legendary image, and her various stages can also be seen by the reader although only in short glimpses through two different narrators including herself. The world also goes through these stages as there is the reader’s present (the novel’s far past) which serves as the caterpillar stage, the attention grabbing phase being the era of Compound dominance and miracle drugs during Jimmy’s life, and the faded image of a world that is now gone lives on in Snowman’s stories.
These various changes are to show how people change, that it is simultaneously natural, artificial, beautiful, and potentially dangerous. This parallel metamorphosis turns the typical symbol of changing beauty into a warning about the dangers of pushing the artificial aspects of changes too far. Just as the butterflies, Oryx and Crake, and the world of the novel all become representations, Atwood turns the magnifying class to the reader as sign to examine the changes that the world is making to ensure that our world does not turn into the world of Oryx and Crake.
As an aside, I distinctly remember there being another mention of butterflies at another early point in the novel, but I could not find where it was. While I can’t interpret the symbolism behind that particular scene, it does (for me) reinforce the idea that butterflies are an important symbol.