In the Penal Colony

by Franz Kafka

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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 criminal whose execution the explorer is invited to witness is a servant/sentry assigned to a captain. His duties are bizarrely twofold: to serve his master by day and to protect him by night. The previous night the captain had found him derelict in his obligation to rise every hour and salute his master’s door. Has he had a trial? No. Does he know his sentence? No: It is “HONOR THY SUPERIORS!” and “He’ll learn it on his body.” After all, says the officer, he is acting in the spirit of his former commandant’s plans for the colony, and his “guiding principle is this: Guilt is never to be doubted.”

Such monolithic simplicity in applying an ethic of unrelenting vindictiveness and cruelty appalls the explorer, whose temperament has been shaped by Western concepts of due process, tolerance, and humaneness. He therefore refuses the officer-judge’s plea that he intercede on behalf of the Old Order’s judicial system when appearing before the liberal new commandant. Because he is “fundamentally honorable and unafraid,” he tells the officer, “I do not approve of your procedure.” However, he adds, “your sincere conviction has touched me, even though it cannot influence my judgment.”

The officer’s response is cryptic: “Then the time has come.” He frees the condemned prisoner, adjusts the Harrow’s legend to read “BE JUST!” and submits his own body to the machine. However, instead of redeeming him, as the officer insisted that it would, the machine kills him and in the process disintegrates, ending the Old Order’s execution of “justice.”

Shaken by this strange martyrdom, the explorer decides to issue no report to the new commandant. Instead he seeks out the grave of the old commandant, reads the inscription on the tombstone, which prophesies his return, and then leaves the penal colony by boat, refusing to take with him the liberated former prisoner and a fellow soldier.

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