Few stories affect a political discussion quite like In The Penal Colony. To state the story cemented my views on punishment might be an overstatement, as I think Hugo's essays on punishment had a greater influence upon me, but this tale did offer important reinforcement of my views. Somehow those inflicting a punishment manage to convince themselves, at least momentarily, that there is some greater good in punishment. Suffering is expected to enlighten the violator, resulting in a mystical state of euphoria and understanding. Personally, when punished I have only come to believe more strongly in the correctness of my actions or have come to resent the one delivering the punishment.
The story opens with a traveler being given a tour of a penal colony by its governor, or "the officer," as Kafka's narrator refers to him. This chief officer of punishments is quite pleased to have a visitor and enjoys the opportunity to showcase his colony and its methods. Upon encountering a complex machine, the traveler is told he is about to witness the execution of a guard. This guard, representing order and justice, has been condemned by the governor for "disobeying and insulting a superior." It seems the guard had the misfortune of falling asleep while on duty.
As in many Kafka tales, the governor of the colony imposes justice in a very precise manner: guilt is never in doubt. The governor is judge, jury, and executioner; he is the authority within the colony. The guard to be executed received no trail, not even an explanation of the charges against him. He should know what he has done, the governor indicates.
The condemned man looked like such a submissive little dog that he might have been left to wander the surrounding hills and only whistled for at the moment of execution.
Kafka has the governor describe the machine and its function in detail. In one Kafka's best-written dialogues, the governor revels in describing the machine. The governor's absolute pleasure contributes to the tales horrific nature.
The harrow is then lowered on to the man's body so that its needles just barely touch the skin.
The harrow is made of glass so you can watch its progress....
There are two kinds of needles. The long needles write on the skin and the short ones spray water to wash away the blood so that the inscription is clear. The harrow keeps on writing deeper and deeper for twelve hours. Usually, after six hours, the condemned can decipher the message through his wounds.
Finally, when the harrow has pierced through his entire body, after turning him around, it casts him automatically into the grave.
After describing the machine and the process by which it is to execute the guard, the governor of the colony seeks the approval of the traveler. However, the traveler does not approve of the device and refuses, albeit politely, to speak on behalf of the machine upon his return to their native country. Desperate for approval, the colony's governor orders the condemned guard released. For a moment, the traveler wonders if the governor might reevaluate the use of such a cruel device. Of course, Kafka would not be Kafka without adding a twist to the tale.
As with many early "programmable" devices, the execution machine's inscription can be changed via a template. The governor shows the traveler a leather guide reading "Be Just" -- though the traveler cannot make out the phrase -- and inserts the guide into the device. Without warning, the governor disrobes and climbs unto the bed of the machine. Guards, including the formerly condemned man, then strap the governor to the table. It seems the governor only wishes to show how the machine works, but the traveler anticipates much more is about to occur.
In grand Kafka style, the machine malfunctions, disintegrating as it tortures the colony's governor. Instead of gently carving the "Be Just" phrase into the man's back, the machine plunges needles deep into his flesh.
Instead of writing, the harrow was only jabbing, and the bed, not turning the body over, simply raising it up, quivering, against the needles.
The traveler knows instantly that the governor is being killed by his own machine. All that is left to do is wait for the machine to discard the body into a grave.
...and now the last thing went wrong as well: the body failed to come loose from the long needles but hung suspended above the pit without falling.
His face remained as in life. What the others had found in the machine the officer had not found. His lips were pressed together, the eyes open, calm and full of conviction, through the forehead came the point of the big iron spike.
On a historical note, it is useful to know "writing automatons" were popular amusements before World War I. These figures would hold a pen and write words or phrases using a template and a spring-based mechanism. Kafka would have certainly seen such devices. One common figure was that of a monk or saint writing biblical quotations. Kafka was surely aware of these machines; he had a great deal of interest in machines. Why might Kafka have a programmable machine kill? Why did it kill its owner? Was Kafka afraid of technology or the uses people might find for technology? It has been said it is easier to have a machine execute a person. Is the death penalty made easier if no human contact is involved?