Monday, March 14, 2011

Metamorphosis Equation Project

A few weeks ago I did a project in English on the novella The Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka. The assignment was to create a mathematical equation that speaks to the deeper meaning of the novella. I feel like I did a great job on this project, so I decided to share it here.

W = (Sk + E) * A
W = (Sk + 100) * 0 = 0
F = L + Em
F = 0 + 0 = 0
Sc ⊢ (W + F) * S
Sc ⊢ (0 + 0) * S = 0
H = G + ((F – G) * L) + M
H = G – 0 + (-1)
I = Sc/H
I = 0/(G-1)
I = 0
0I → death

W = work
Sk = skill
E = effort
A = accomplishment
F = family
L = love
Em = empathy
Sc = social construction
S = self
H = human contact
G = Grete
M = the maid
I = identity
⊢ = derived from
→ = leads to

     The Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka is a discussion of identity. Throughout the novella, Gregor progressively loses his personal identity until, when he can no longer perceive who he is himself, he has no choice but to give up.
     To begin with, at work, Gregor has no individuality, but instead is merely part of a larger mechanism. As such, he can be easily replaced. He is simply a number assigned a value based on how much cloth he can sell. The part of the equation defining work states: work = (skill + effort) * accomplishment. In other words, the value of Gregor’s work must be measured by how skillful he is, how hard he works, and, perhaps most importantly, the product of his tireless labor. Kafka never says exactly how good Gregor is at his job, but one may assume he must be competent since he recently received a promotion and that his skill is a positive variable. In addition, Kafka describes how Gregor puts in 100% effort, getting up every morning and working tirelessly without any days off, so in the equation, his effort may be assigned a value of 100. Gregor realizes how hard he works: “‘My God,’ he thought, ‘what a strenuous profession I’ve chosen… If I didn’t hold myself back because of my parents, I would have quit long ago’” (Kafka 11-12). Ultimately, however, Gregor achieves nothing for himself through his work. He works at this thankless job in order to pay off his family’s debt, which means, at the end of the day, he personally is no better off. Additionally, his work has no larger significance; no one’s life would be affected except his own and his family’s, and even they are affected only in a monetary sense. Even his boss could easily replace him with someone else. Therefore, accomplishment = 0. Anything multiplied by 0 = 0, so when simplified, work = 0. Plugging these numbers into the equation, even though his skill and effort are positive, when these values are multiplied by the lack of any meaningful accomplishment from his work, the value of his work is 0.
     Similarly, Gregor’s family life provides no value to him either. According to the equation, the value of familial relations is the sum of love and empathy. Gregor finds neither in his family. Gregor’s family treats him as a tool, nothing but a source of income. When he becomes a cockroach, his family does not share his confusion and grief. Nor does his family seem to like him, let alone love him. After Gregor’s death, rather than becoming upset, Gregor’s father calls, “‘Oh, come on over. Let bygones be bygones now’” (52) . Not only does Gregor’s family keep from him the love he needs and deserves, once he becomes a cockroach, Gregor’s family shuts him away and casts him out of the family: “Scarcely was he inside his room when the door was hastily closed, barred and locked…she called ‘At last!’ to her parents as she turned the key in the lock” (48-49). Because he receives neither love nor empathy from his family, the value of his family to him is zero.
     The next part of the equation deals with the social construction of Gregor’s identity A social construction is a group understanding and agreement of a concept or quality. In this case the people around Gregor seem to understand and agree that Gregor is worthless. The equation states that social construction is derived from (work + family) * self. That is, the components of Gregor’s life, multiplied by his perception of his self, creates society’s perception of him. Because the value of his work and his family are zero, the social construction will always equal zero regardless of Gregor’s perception of himself. Although Gregor’s self-perception changes along with his transformation into a cockroach, the value of his social perception remains zero.
    Gregor’s identity is also defined by his contact with other humans. However, this contact is only useful in terms of keeping his humanity if the person contacting him does not treat him like a cockroach, but as himself, Gregor. The equation states that human contact = Grete + ((family – Grete) * love) + the maid. Grete stays as a variable because her attitude toward Gregor changes over time. When Gregor first turns into a cockroach, she tries to help him and does her best to make him comfortable. At this point, her human contact value is positive. But as the months pass, she neglects him more and more, finally stating, “We have to try to get rid of it” (47). In this quote, Grete refers to Gregor as “it,” an object rather than a person. This one word shows Gregor that Grete no longer wishes to have human contact with him. The equation isolates Grete as a separate variable because her contact with Gregor is different than the rest of the family, which treats him as an object throughout. Even when his mother cleans out his room, she does so not to make Gregor more comfortable, but because the family has been using his room as a storage space even as he has been living in it. The rest of the family’s human contact is limited and lacks love; as a consequence, it is assigned a value of zero. The maid treats Gregor like a cockroach rather than a human: “She even called him over with words she probably though were friendly, such as ‘come over here, old dung beetle’ or ‘Just look at the old dung beetle!’” (42). The maid causes Gregor to perceive himself as less than human, and her human contact value therefore is negative. Simplified, human contact = Grete – 1.
     Finally, we get to the deepest part of the meaning – Identity. The equation states that identity is a function of social construction divided by human contact. In other words, identity results from and reflects a social group’s perception of an individual. If the individual lacks human contact, however, there is no society to form that opinion. In that case, the person is left to turn inward and form his own opinion of identity. Being a cockroach is a manifestation of Gregor’s loss of identity and a reflection of his opinion of himself. Without a societal validation of his identity—as a worker, family member, or person in another setting involving human contact—Gregor is left to view himself as vermin.
     In my visual representation, I made several artistic choices that relate metaphorically to the novella.
The top portion of the visual representation shows mathematical symbols and variables spread randomly in a clump. This relates to the novella in that Kafka gives you all the pieces, but you as the reader must put them together yourself.
     The bottom portion shows the same symbols and variables, but in an organized fashion that has actual meaning in terms of the story. However, just as in the novella, the pieces of the equation, even when fitted together, are slightly disjointed and each part is separate from the others. The text was written on a typewriter, which parallels Gregor at work as being part of a machine where each piece alone is worthless. In a typewriter, this is true as well. The typewriter only works if all the pieces work together, but each individual piece cannot do anything alone. Additionally, the use of double-stick tape allows one to take the individual pieces of the equations off and rearrange them. This reflects that many ways one can form meaning from this story.
     Through Gregor’s metamorphosis, Kafka causes us to question what we take for granted as the value of our identity. We must doubt whether our relationships with others are actually meaningful. Or perhaps when we strip away the façade we find that they actually aren’t and that others are treating us as instruments to reach some other goal. In that way, Kafka shows that we are all fated to become cockroaches.

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