Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

27 Jul 2012

(Short Story) In the Penal Colony by: Franz Kafka

(Reaction) In the World by: Antonio Conejos

View other reactions on works by Franz Kafka.

In the Penal Colony carries many of the hallmarks one expects from Kafka. There is the absurd situation involving laws of dubious moral or ethical worth. There is the suspension of disbelief, everyone in a Kafka story seems to walk around believing that this injustice is the normal state of the world and that they are powerless to change it. Consequently there is the absolute lack of hope in Kafka's works; no one ever escapes the bureaucrat, the absurd becomes banal.

We can go through each quickly, as seen in In the Penal Colony. Kafka's story features the condemnation of criminals without any due process (basically the right to be informed of what you are being accused of and the right to defend yourself against such). So summary is the justice in the penal colony that the accused does not even know why he is being punished, 'Does he know his sentence?' 'No,' said the Officer.... 'He doesn't know his own sentence?' 'No,' said the Officer once more.

Moreover, given the nature of the apparatus the condemned will never know his sentence. This is because of the purposeful design of the execution machine. The condemned is laid out on his stomach and then the sentence/punishment is essentially tattooed on his back. As this process has been designed to be extremely painful the condemned dies while lying on his stomach; he never sees what is slashed onto his back, ie. he never views what it is he is purportedly guilty of.

No one accustomed to the system questions its mechanisms. Not the subject of the system, the Condemned Man; nor the operatives of the system, the Officer and the Soldier, who are tasked to carry out the sentence. Indeed, even the Condemned Man who has the most to lose, and thus the most impetus to question his trial and sentencing, remains cowed and mute: The Condemned Man, incidentally, had an expression of such dog-like resignation that it looked as if one could set him free to roam around the slopes and would only have to whistle at the start of the execution for him to return.

While the immediate characters are resigned to the situation, greater political forces are afoot which may eventually halt executions via the apparatus. Apparently the new Commandant is not in favor of this mode of execution. As the Officer complains, For him everything serves only as a pretext to fight against the old arrangements.

This brewing dissent against the apparatus may seem at first to be a sign of hope. However it quickly becomes apparent that the new Commandant is not concerned about the apparatus per se. Rather, he merely sees it as a vestige of his predecessor's power and as such, in order to consolidate his own authority, the apparatus must be shunted aside, since the Commandant, as he had now had heard only too clearly, was no supporter of this process and maintained an almost hostile relationship with the Officer.

Thus, the apparatus is not challenged on moral or ethical grounds. Rather, it serves as merely a tool in the power play of bureaucrats. Ultimately this is the reality In the Penal Colony, human decency is subordinated to the whims of whoever is in charge, lives are won or lost not on what is right but on the capricious grindings of the established hierarchy.

So vile is the current authority (one can make the argument that all authority in Kafka is vile) that the Officer, the seeming villain of the story, takes on a redemptive aspect. For while the new Commandant is concerned only about consolidating his power, the Officer is genuinely convinced that his machine metes out the proper justice; the rightness of his cause is an article of faith.

In that sense, the Officer is a fanatic, one who is extremely devoted to the cause of the old Commandant and absolutely certain that his (the Officer's) sentence and his punishments are just. This is why he chooses to kill himself, with his own apparatus, at the end. The Officer is a true believer, and thus he metes justice out to himself as well, If the judicial process to which the Officer clung was really so close to the point of being cancelled - possibly as a result of the intervention of the Traveller, something to which he for his part felt duty-bound-then the Officer was now acting in a completely correct manner.

Further highlighting the mindlessness of the bureaucracy is the actions at this point of the Soldier and the Condemned Man. Rather than resist the Officer they actively collude in helping him execute himself via the apparatus. Clearly then they do not appreciate the absurdity of the device and the sentencing behind it. They are creatures of orders and not questions; they have been ordered by the Officer to place him in the machine and that is what they do.

Finally the Officer dies, stoic to the last but not transformed,He [the Traveller] could discover no sign of the promised transfiguration... His lips were pressed firmly together, his eyes were open and looked as they had when he was alive, his gaze was calm and convinced. However, even with the Officer dead and the apparatus most likely to be abolished, no hope can be found In the Penal Colony. This is seen in the Traveller's headlong urge to flee the accursed place.

That the Penal Colony is still a place of absurdity and thoughtlessness, is seen in how the Soldier and the Condemned Man act upon the death of the Officer. One would expect them to be joyful, that the reign of the accursed machine is at an end. Yet they know, these tools of bureaucracy, that nothing has changed, that the absurd system will perpetuate and continue. As such, they attempt, and fail, to escape the Penal Colony with the Traveller.


An English translation of In the Penal Colony can be found here.

I had an aunt who, upon learning that I was reading Kafka for school, opined that she thought only sullen individuals in dark trenchcoats read the author. She meant this not unkindly, more as a note of concern that I was reading such dark works.

The sentiment though is perhaps unfair to poor Kafka, and his readers. Yes, his tales are dark and brooding. Yes, the hopelessness is nigh on inescapable. Even the literary merits of the stories gain their strength more from the suffocating narratives rather than any pronounced use of motifs or imagery (excepted from this general observation is of course The Metamorphosis, among others).

There is no light at the end of the Kafkaesque tunnel. However, the lights of Kafka's stories shine best as cautionary tales. One need not be angsty and dress in black to experience the profound despair of his works; and then to vow that our world need not (and should not!) mirror his.

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