Franz Kafka's In The Penal Colony Review of Kafka's In The Penal Colony


keywords: Franz Kakfa, existentialism, short story, Joseph K, cruelty, commandant


Kafka turns the world we know upside down and inside out with this strange tale of reversed fortunes. He plunges deep into unsettling psycho-philosophic issues on the nature of society, its members, and technology.


In this story we are introduced to four principal characters: the officer, the explorer, the condemned man, and the soldier. These characters emerge like chess pieces in this drama to become stronger or weaker as the story unfolds.


From the beginning of the story, we are given a context that is understood to precede its commencement: the explorer has traveled to an island for convicted men at the invitation of its resident Commandant. As is his method, Kafka shocks his readers with a casual depiction (via the officer character) of a world where, tortuous execution is the preferred mode of discipline. The explorer is to witness the execution of a prisoner that has disobeyed one of the stipulations of the Colony. A condemned man has been strapped to an unusual machine for performing executions. A soldier is attending to the condemned man, making sure he's strapped down properly, and keeping him quiet by stuffing a felt rag in his mouth during a 12-hour ordeal of execution.


The task of carrying out this execution has fallen to a zealous disciple of the method whom served under the previous Commandant. He not only wants to do the job, he wants to make the explorer understand the depth of his devout belief in the Colony's code of governance and most of all the machine that enforces it. The reason for the cruel act-to-be is appalling. The prisoner has failed to salute the Commandant's door hourly as he was ordered to do. What is even more astounding is the Officer's almost religious passion for the device that will execute the condemned man. He fawns over it and marvels at its technological achievement in tortuous murder.He is a man that believes in excruciating detail. Like any precisian, he shows the explorer the mechanical drawing from which the machine was constructed with pride. He tells him that the prisoner neither knows he has been convicted of a violation, or that he is condemned to die. This unnerves the explorer and begins a rift that will in short order lead to an odd reversal of fortune for the officer.


The machine is a three-part device consisting of two rectangular layers, one called the Bed, where the victim is laid and the other called the Designer keeps him in place. A large steel needle called the Harrow moves back and forth between the other two components through the use of a controlling steel ribbon (the word Harrow is used in the archaic English sense of cutting or tearing). This horrible instrument can write in the flesh of its victim any phrase the operator desires.


The explorer and officer are speaking French, which is not spoken in the Colony. So, the soldier and condemned man watch uncomprehending, as the officer explains to the explorer the enormous killing power the machine possesses.This machine engraves on the body of the convict, the reason for his execution. While the explorer and officer grow more apart, the soldier and prisoner become more acquainted. Once the explorer understands what the officer intends to do and why, he is repulsed. The officer senses this revulsion, and tries to convince the explorer through his slavish devotion to the machine and the cruel culture of the Colony, what he will do to the prisoner is somehow right. He realizes this form of social retribution is dying out. The new Commandant doesn't support it. In fact, we learn the officer believes that is why the explorer was invited to the island. He wants the explorer to help him revive this cruel form of punishment. He believes the explorer; a prestigious foreigner with the respect of the Commandant can convince this man to restore the fame and glory of the machine. He wants the device maintained and improved. He longs to see public executions returned to their former status as grand spectacles.When the explorer rebuffs him, the officer is driven to extreme despair. The condemned man and soldier are so chummy at this point, they are eating rice together. The officer cannot endure what the explorer's refusal to help him implies. He makes the decision to release the condemned man and replace him on the device. He has himself strapped down and the machine begins of its own accord, but malfunctions and instead of an inscription written on the officer's flesh, he is impaled. He is murdered not tortured. Now, the condemned man has become a free soul witnessing his former tormentor's death, and seeming to replace him, as the soldier begins to defer to him.


This story is remarkably similar to Kafka's other famous work about an evil social system with devoted, though mindless operatives, The Trial. In the Penal Colony is much more positive in some senses. It is implied that the officer is out of touch with a world, which has outgrown barbarity, by the new Commandant and the explorer's attitude toward this execution. We are given a sense that this may be the last time this torture device is used. The convict is at the story's end virtually emancipated, and the explorer leaves a place that may be passing the gateway to a more humane society.


What is disquieting in this work is the officer. The officer is symbolic of the individual who is willing to destroy himself to keep his way of life. We see Kafka is not far-fetched in depicting this idea in fiction.You just have to think of the millions of drug addicts in our real world, doing exactly what this tale tells us; wanting with all their minds, hearts and blood to preserve their compulsions. Or consider the armed conflicts raging worldwide now, to maintain one nation's power over another. Worst than this, the officer shows an Hegelian subversion of himself to that of the device and its operation. It was more important that the machine be allowed to continue exquisitely killing, than preserving his life. That the officer sacrifices himself because he refuses to accept a changing world is disturbing.

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