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In the Penal Colony

Kafka’s short story "In the Penal Colony" was written in October of 1914 while Kafka was residing in France, and published 5 years later in 1919. This is considered one of Kafka's best stories with a few different "themes" and ideas running through it that are found in some of his other work. Despite this, one main idea does emerge at the ending. It goes almost without mention that this story, like many of Kafka’s works has many interpretations, but I believe this one has fewer than most and I am presenting here my thoughts on the story as well as the general opinion of it because although there are differing interpretations, most of them agree on the most important areas of the story.

I want to very briefly describe what happens, but you will want to have read it first, forming your own conceptions about it. The plot of the story is simple and the story itself is fairly short. An explorer visits a small, remote community to observe an execution of a soldier. The execution will be carried out by a torture machine that carves an inscription into the mans back with vibrating needles over the course of twelve hours. The words carved into the mans skin depends on the crime. The man does not know his crime, and the officer carrying out the execution sees no reason that the man should know it or have a trial of any sort. The explorer soon learns that the reason he was brought to see this execution was that the officer wants him to tell the new governor that he approves of this form of execution so it will not be abolished. This machine was designed by the old governor and the new one does not approve of it but wants the opinion of an outsider. Although the officer pleads with him, the explorer tells the officer that he cannot approve of this torture. At this point the officer allows the condemned man to go free and he himself lays in the torture machine which kills him almost immediately and falls apart in the process. After this the explorer sees the old governors tomb and without speaking to the new governor he leaves the island. I will repeat again that if you have not read the story you should do so before reading about the symbolism here.

At the end of the first paragraph there is a brief reference to something that I believe can be observed in some of Kafka’s other work:

Anyway, the condemned man had a look of such dog-like devotion that you might picture him being allowed to run around at liberty on the slopes and returning at the beginning of the execution if you just whistled for him.

I believe Kafka is talking about mindless devotion to tasks, the ability to even die for something without a real thought as to its worth, but only out of devotion and tradition. Here of course it is not used in a positive sense but a negative one.

Further down in the fourth paragraph the officer says the following regarding the old governor:

We his friends already knew at the time of his death that his plan for the colony was so perfectly worked out that that his successor, even if he had a thousand new schemes in mind, wouldn’t be able to change the old arrangements for many years, at least.

This has a lot of symbolism for me personally and makes me think very much of the difficulty man has had to endure and the amount of time it takes him to throw off old ways of thinking after they have a firm foundation in a culture. You could use any example, religion is a good example. Racism is another example of this. Although the governor is dead, although science (and much "modern thinking") and religion are in almost total conflict, although we know racism has no positive end, for some reason we cling to these things as simply common sense.

In paragraph three there is a similar statement by the officer, this time it regards the torture machine itself:

Up to this point some hand operations were still necessary; from this point on, however, the machine does all the work by itself.

I have read some opinions that Kafka is making a statement here about technology being dangerous, but I do not believe that is the intent here at all. This statement from the officer seems to me to be in connection with the previous that I mentioned. Set a culture in its ways and it will carry onward in them without change for a long time, much as a boat in water once set on a course.

Later we learn that the condemned soldier does not know his sentence, he did not have a trial, and if that is not enough, he does not even know what he has been condemned of:

Many questions were troubling the explorer, but at the sight of the prisoner he asked only: "Does he know his sentence?" "No," said the officer, eager to go on with his exposition, but the explorer interrupted him: "He doesn't know the sentence that has been passed on him?" "No," said the officer again, pausing a moment as if to let the explorer elaborate his question, and then said: "There would be no point in telling him. He'll learn it on his body."

The soldier has no participation or control at all in his own fate, a theme that runs throughout much of Kafka’s work. Also we learn that the punishment is inscribed into the skin of the condemned, as will be described more later. The officer does not even understand why this is an issue because in the penal colony things are not run that way, here he is the sole judge of guilt and innocence:

Guilt is always beyond doubt. Other courts can’t adhere to this principle, because they consist of several judges and have even higher courts above them. This I believe is an important statement. I believe this is where the religious themes of this story become more apparent.

Also, earlier in a previous paragraph we see that the explorer and the officer are speaking in French, and that the condemned man does not understand a word they are saying the whole time they are discussing the torture machine. I believe this is more that Kafka is saying about the nature of law and justice itself in particular divine justice that only a few understand while the condemned is a mere observer. The condemned person is totally separate from those determining what justice will be and he unable to determine his own fate. However the real point in this statement is that we are confronted with two opposing views. One is the nature of divine justice where "all are guilty" and where the officer has an almost god-like status as judge. The other is justice of the modern world where there is a constant sense of relativism, where nothing seems quite certain, but everything is mere (often opposing) opinions.

After this the officer explains the offense of the soldier, which was falling asleep and attacking his captain after his captain whipped with a bullwhip. More important to note here is what the officer says:

An hour ago the captain came to me, I wrote down his declaration and followed it up with the sentence. Then I had the man put in chains. All that was very simple. If I had first summoned the man and interrogated him, that would have only led to confusion.

Again we see "all are guilty", and there is one judge and one truth only. In a religious context it is as if there is no reason to confront the condemned or have a trial, he is already (and naturally) guilty.

Next the officer explains the torture machine in more detail to the explorer. The officer takes out of sheets of paper that show the designs that the machine is capable of writing into a person. And we see that just as the officer is speaking in a foreign language that the condemned man cannot understand, when the officer tries to show the explorer the designs, the explorer cannot interpret what it says but only sees lines and "crisscrosses." Again, here I believe we see something about divine justice, that it is only for a select, elite few to interpret. The explorer is a man of the modern world, therefore he cannot read these "holy designs."

As stated earlier though, even the condemned man eventually is able to read what is being written on his body. This realization is a sort of spiritual enlightenment:

In this electrically heated bowl at the head end we place hot boiled rice and milk, from which the man, if he feels like it, can take whatever he can get hold of with his tongue...Only around the sixth hour does he lose his pleasure in eating...The man seldom swallows the last mouthful, he just turns it around in his mouth and spits it out...But then, how quiet the man becomes around the sixth hour! Even the dumbest one starts to understand. It begins around his eyes. From there it spreads out...As you’ve seen, it isn’t easy to decipher the script with your eyes; but our man deciphers it with his wounds.

There is much focus here on the realization of the soldier and the change that takes place from his eyes (an indication that he "sees" and understands) then to the rest of his body, this will be discussed in more detail later. There is a connection here with The Metamorphosis. In The Metamorphosis, Gregor gradually grows worse as time goes on, he will take some food in his mouth, only to roll it around and spit it out later. The hunger is no longer for this food, but a kind of "spiritual food" which Gregor discovers when he hears his sister playing the violin, but which he has been travelling toward discovering since his transformation.

The soldiers clothes are cut off and he is put into the machine, again the explorer reflects that although he does not agree with the procedure, he will not interfere with it. The penal colony has its own rules and procedures. This shows the relevancy of his values, the relevancy of the values of the modern world. We see that with this sense of relativism the explorer is at a loss to really say anything in opposition to this practice, or perhaps any practice because the explorer is "not a citizen of the penal colony" and it is not his business to alter "other peoples legal codes."

After this reflection, the condemned man vomits on the bed in the machine. The officer blames the new governor for feeding the condemned man before the procedure was to take place. Some take this as a sort of embarrassment to the new governor as he is the one that fed him, but perhaps it is an embarrassment to the old ways, one cannot be sure if this has any symbolic or allegoric meaning.

Now we come to another important statement from the officer:

This procedure and this execution, which you now have the opportunity to admire, are no longer openly supported by any one in our colony at the present time. I am their only spokesman, and at the same time the only spokesman for the old governor’s legacy. I can no longer contemplate a further extension of this execution; I consume all my strength to retain what still exists.

After this the officer notes that many of the old governors followers still exist but have "gone underground" and none of them will admit their support. I believe these statements show the shame that many of those who follow the "old ways" suffer in the face of the modern world. To me, one example that immediately comes to mind is how Christians must feel in a society that is becoming ever more secular, or how anyone in the changing times will not immediately admit to their true beliefs. One could even go so far as to say any minority in the face of the majority will not reveal their true beliefs, but I believe what Kafka wants to say is that a group faced with a changing era that will automatically hide themselves in a sort of shame (although do remember that the people that support the governor do not sound as if they are in the majority). Also I think we see the power that tradition has again, that although many do not agree with it anymore (at least not outspokenly), it is part of the culture, it is ingrained into people and regardless of how insane it seems, it is allowed to go on in "dog-like devotion."

Now the officer begins to recall the "old days" when the entire colony would come to observe the punishment:

How different it all used to be! A full day before the execution the entire valley would be crammed with people, all there just to watch; early in the morning the commandant appeared with his ladies; fanfares roused the entire camp; I reported that everything was ready; the top people - and every high-ranking official had to be there...The machine sparkled; it was always freshly cleaned, and I used to take new parts for nearly every execution. Hundreds of pairs of eyes - there were spectators standing on tiptoe all the way to the rising ground over there - watched as the condemned man was laid beneath the harrow by the commandant himself...And then the execution began! No jarring note interfered with the work of the machine. Many people stopped watching altogether and lay down in the sand with their eyes closed; they all knew: Justice was being done...Ah, and then came the sixth hour! We couldn't possibly let everyone watch from close up that wanted to. The commandant in his wisdom gave orders that the children should be considered first; I was of course always allowed to be present by virtue of my job, and many were the times I squatted there with two small children in both arms, left and right. The way we all took in the look of enlightenment on the tortured face, the way we held our cheeks up to the glow of a justice accomplished at last and already beginning to fade! What times those were, my friend!

This speech given by the officer is horrifying and reminiscent all at once. He recalls the scene with such love and yet it is truly a grotesque image. This passage is important because we see how the colony once operated and the passion with which the officer recalls this sort of "ritual". The governor wished for children to see, up close, the tortured mans expression when he finally discovers his offense and why he is being punished. This immediately makes me think of child indoctrination. The other important statement here is how the people were assured that "Justice was being done." Again we see that this is a sort of divine justice whom the condemned man himself comes to realize through a experience and not by being told with mere words.

Next the officer says the following:

Please don't think I wanted to play on your sympathy. I know how impossible it is to make anyone understand those times today. Anyway, the machine still works and speaks for itself, even standing by itself in this valley. And at the end is still that incredibly smooth flight of the corpse into the pit even when, unlike then, people are not swarming round the pit in their hundreds like flies. Then we had to have a stout railing running round the pit; it was pulled up long ago...Do you observe the disgrace?

The machine is something from another era and time. Like an abandoned philosophy in the world that no longer suits the changing times. People are no longer flocking around it, people have abandoned it, embarassed and disgraced by it. Much as I said before about the people that will not admit their support of the old governor, it was a disgrace to them in the face of the modern world.

Now we learn that the officer wishes for the explorer to convince the governor that the torture machine must be allowed to remain in place as the source of justice in the colony. The officer feels like this is why the governor invited the explorer, to get his opinion on the matter and that he can get the explorer to help him to keep the old governors legacy alive:

So now I appeal to you: please take my side against the commandant!'

The explorer let him go no further. 'How could I?' he exclaimed. 'It's out of the question. I can’t help you anymore than I can harm you.'

'You can,' said the officer.

The officer goes on to tell the explorer a plan by which he can convince the governor that the practice should remain in place, but the explorer cannot agree to it and is honest with the officer:

"I am an opponent of this procedure," the explorer now said; "even before you took me into your confidence – naturally, under no circumstances will I abuse that confidence – I had already considered whether I had any right to take steps against this procedure, and whether my intervention could have even a small chance of succeeding..."

The officer realizes he cannot win over the explorer and says "Then it is time", and sets the soldier free from the machine. Once again the officer takes out the sheets with designs on them which are used to operate the machine:

He went over to the explorer, pulled out the small leather wallet once more, leafed through it, eventually found the sheet he was looking for, and held it up for the explorer to look at. 'Read it,' he said. 'I can't,' said the explorer. 'I told you, I can't read those sheets.' Look carefully,' the officer said, moving round beside the explorer to read the sheet with him. When even this failed he stuck out his little finger and, holding it well away as if the sheet must not on any account be touched, ran it over the paper to make it easier for the explorer to read. The explorer really tried, hoping to be able to accommodate the officer then started spelling out what was written there and in the end read out the whole thing: '"Be just," it says. Now you can read it, surely?' The explorer bent so low over the paper that the officer, afraid he might touch it, moved it farther away; the explorer said nothing more, but it was obvious that he had still not been able to read it. '"Be just," it says,' the officer repeated.

The officer is going to kill himself, and "Be just" is what will be inscribed upon him. This is fitting because he is being devoted to his own procedure, it is the end of the old era. Even after telling the explorer what it says he still cannot see it, once again the explorer from the modern world does not see the logic behind the old.

The explorer realizes that he would do the same if he were in the officers place, and then reflects:

What had happened to him [the soldier] was now happening to the officer. Perhaps it would continue that way right up to the bitter end. Probably the foreign explorer had given the order for it. Thus it was revenge. Without having suffered all the way himself [the soldier], he was nevertheless avenged all the way.

This is an extremely important part of the story. Here the explorer thinks on how the officer had taken the place of the soldier, the coming of a new era in a sense has taken over the old, destroyed the old. The explorer is the messenger, the new way of thinking, the relativist, giving the order for it and the soldier is avenged, but only in the modern sense. There no longer is divine punishment from God, but only revenge from one human onto another for some misdeed.

At this point the officer is strapped into the machine and it is started. Almost immediately however the machine comes apart literally:

The explorer wanted to intervene and possibly bring the whole thing to a standstill; this was no torture such as the officer wished to achieve, this was outright murder.

I think it is important to notice here that it is called "murder", as if the explorer would not call it murder if it was carried out as usual over the course of twelve hours. The machine has become a killing machine of the modern world, not a redeemer. Indeed this was not the torture the officer wanted, the old era has ended however and the world has come into a new where there is no spiritual enlightenment waiting for the officer:

...he saw the face of the corpse, almost against his will. It was as it had been in life; no sign of the promised redemption could be discovered; what all the others had found in the machine, the officer did not find; his lips were tightly compressed, his eyes were open and had a living expression; his gaze was one of calm conviction...

This is perhaps the most important line in the story, or at least the end of the story. The officer has no spiritual enlightenment, no redemption, he has just been murdered and there has been only a revenge, not divine justice. There has been no eternal redemption, only murder. This is how the modern world is compared to the older world. The officers face is the same because death is no longer anything special, it no longer gives one eternal forgiveness and redemption.

After this the explorer leaves the machine and is accompanied by the two soldiers to a tea house that makes the explorer feel "the impact of earlier times". Here he sees the grave of the old governor who was not allowed to be buried as everyone else, but in a tomb inscribed with:

"Here lies the old governor. His followers who may not now reveal their names, dug this grave for him and erected this stone. There exists a prophecy that after a certain number of years the governor will rise again and will lead his followers out of this house and reconquer the colony. Believe and wait!"

Some take this in a religious way that now one must have faith and wait for the return, or resurrection. Some others that interpret this story takes it to be that all that remains of the old ways is a prophecy, a reminder of what once was. To lead them "out of this house" is to lead them out of the shame that the modern world puts upon them. Death and suffering is not everything and not the end to everything, there is something more, at least this was offered in the old world. The people around him are almost embarrassed by it, as if they themselves do not believe its prophecy. A fading faith in something from another time that cannot survive in the modern world.

At this point the explorer leaves the colony, not speaking to the governor. I believe the explorer does not know what to tell the governor, he is at a loss to take on the responsibility of the decision, but I believe he also knows the decision has been made and the machine was destroyed. The new has overtaken the old and, "Perhaps it would continue that way right up until the bitter end."

The explorer is impressed by the officers devout devotion to the machine, to the "old ways" and I believe he realizes that he is not making a choice about the torture machine itself or punishment, but about something that the modern world has lost that the old world had (or at least devoutly believed that had). A quote from Emrich says, "For the sake of redemption the old order sacrificed the human person, for the sake of the human person, the new order sacrifices redemption." Spirituality is lost in the modern world, that is the choice that the explorer must make, and he cannot take it upon himself to do it. To me another thing is lost, this is certainty itself. In the old world the officer recalls that everyone knew "Justice was being done", death had a redeeming value, it gave forgiveness, but now it is only murder and revenge and there is no spiritual value about it. Certainty was once an eternal thing, now we see in the modern world only opposing opinions on matters.

So we have a choice here between the religious, eternal, spiritual and yet harsh and brutish, or the enlightened view where we do not have brutal punishment, but we only have opinions, where that certainty is lost. No longer is there an eternal truth or redemption or justice, only revenge. Perhaps in our modern enlightened view, away from the brutality, perhaps it loses something valuable, something we cannot revisit. A certain type of unity, in spirit, in justice and in certainty itself is what the old world offered.

It is easy to draw a similarity between this story and The Judgement. The father here is the old governor, the son is the officer who is confronted with the modern world, represented by the new governor and personified by the explorer. In The Judgement the son kills himself voluntarily by the fathers command, here we see this in combination with execution. This "forgiveness in death" is seen all throughout Kafka’s work, in The Judgement and The Metamorphosis for example where death is the only thing that can redeem the hero.

If we are a product of our envoirnment and even moreso, of our times, whether the people of the old world were living in a fantasy or not it does not matter, they believed it to be true. They believed that "Justice was being done" and in a indesputable "eternal law" and I can agree that we have lost this today, not that I would prefer the dark mysterious ages over our modern age. The explorer however cannot make the choice. It should be remembered that the penal colony here is not supposed to represent a specific place in the world or the entire world, but any place that is coming to terms with modern life or a new era.

It is the explorer who out of the relevancy of his values, that although he cannot agree with this procedure, he will not stop it from being carried out. But it is the officer out of devotion to his principles, perhaps an eternal principle, that he is able to act and takes the condemned mans place. He is able to act where the explorer cannot, whether he acts out of blind devotion or believing in something real is for the reader to decide.