An explorer arrives in a penal colony, at the invitation of its new commandant, to investigate its organization and report his findings to a commission created by the commandant. Franz Kafka calls the explorer Forschungsreisende, a “research traveler,” and in the story’s context he is clearly more than an amateur: He is an enlightened modern naturalist and relativist, trained to observe and analyze dispassionately the customs of diverse cultures—such comparative anthropologists as Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942) come to mind.
The explorer is introduced to the machine that is the central edifice of the colony’s structure by an officer zealously loyal to the former commandant’s administration of the colony. The machine is an instrument of torture and execution, the complex operation of which is described in devoted detail by the officer. “It’s a remarkable piece of apparatus,” he exclaims in the story’s opening words, and he proceeds to explain, with the rapture of a totally committed believer, the coldly glamorous intricacy of the coordination of its three main parts: the “Bed,” on which the condemned prisoner is strapped; the “Designer,” whose cogwheels control the machine; and the “Harrow,” which adjusts its needles to the dimensions of the condemned man’s body and then engraves his sentence on it. The prisoner is thus literally forced to feel the pain of his punishment, in a ritual that lasts twelve hours....
(The entire section is 554 words.)