In “In The Penal Colony,” evil is characterized by two attitudes: a zealous faith in authority, and dependence on the machinery of bureaucracy to dispense justice. “In The Penal Colony” is the story of an explorer who visits a remote island in order to observe an execution. He meets an officer (who oversees the process), a soldier (who straps the victim into the machine and keeps him there), and the victim (who appears not only helpless but also confused). The explorer is appalled to learn the execution machine carries out excruciating torture prior to killing its victim.
“In The Penal Colony” can be read as an allegorical critique of the inhumane nature of the machine of bureaucracy. Kafka’s critique is that in a governmental bureaucracy, people become overly preoccupied with doing their jobs. They don’t care whether their jobs are part of a machine that’s carrying out justice or injustice. All that matters is efficiency. This creates social evils that no individual feels responsible for.
This dynamic is represented by the officer, a man whose highest moral imperative is doing his job (which is execution). When the explorer asks if the victim knows what’s about to happen to him, the officer replies: “No. There would be no point in telling him.” The officer doesn’t care about the human dignity of his victim.
The officer is so invested in doing his job of execution that when the alleged criminal escapes from the chair, he places himself in the chair – thus committing suicide – just so that his “job” of executing someone in the chair will be complete. With this absurdity, Kafka invites us to think about the irrational and immoral tendency to simply go along with institutional protocol. What is the cost of our participation in structures and bureaucracies whose ends are either unjust or unknown? The cost, according to Kafka, may be our very lives.