Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1101
Colonel See Officer
Condemned man See Prisoner
Explorer The narrative of "In the Penal Colony" primarily recounts the explorer's experiences. Typical of Kafka's protagonists, the explorer is a somewhat tenuous character, with little will of his own. The explorer has accepted an invitation to view an execution. Initially, he is...
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The narrative of "In the Penal Colony" primarily recounts the explorer's experiences. Typical of Kafka's protagonists, the explorer is a somewhat tenuous character, with little will of his own. The explorer has accepted an invitation to view an execution. Initially, he is a disinterested bystander, but the means of execution and the officer's behavior lead the explorer to question the present Commandant's motives in issuing the invitation. He wonders if he is expected to play a decisive role in the execution process. The ambiguity of his role unsettles him.
The explorer is a foreigner, that is, he does not share the nationality of those who live in the penal colony. He may be French: French is the language in which he speaks to the officer. The explorer arrives at the penal colony with ''recommendations from high quarters" and is known there as "a famous Western investigator." With this reputation preceding him, it is startling to observe how ineffectual he is. Ultimately, the injustice and inhumanity of what he witnesses compel him to voice his disapproval. He is "fundamentally honorable and unafraid," but he does not intervene during the execution or when the officer takes his own life. After viewing the grave of the old Commandant, he leaves the colony without comment and without offering assistance to the prisoner and the soldier who run after him to the water's edge, apparently hoping to leave with him.
Though he does not appear in the story, the new Commandant's presence is felt because he has invited the explorer to the island and because the officer speaks of him to the explorer. The new Commandant has inherited the penal colony's organizational structure and execution machine from the former Commandant, who originated the system. The new Commandant, however, shows signs of wanting to institute reform and has allowed the machine to fall into a state of disrepair. Unlike the old Commandant, the new Commandant rarely attends the colony's executions and never explains the torture devices to visitors. According to the officer, the new Commandant has jeopardized the system of law and justice established by his predecessor. Critics who interpret the story as a religious allegory often surmise that the new Commandant represents religious reform or the New Testament.
The officer was the technical assistant of the penal colony's previous Commandant, who was responsible for designing the execution machine— a "remarkable apparatus." Serving under the new Commandant, the officer continues to oversee the machine, but he also acts as the colony's judge, taking as his guiding principle the belief that ''Guilt is never to be doubted.'' The officer tries to turn the presence of a foreign visitor to his own advantage, asking the explorer to make a public statement in defense of the execution machine. Much of the early part of the story is taken up with the officer's loving description of the machine's working parts. His devotion to this mechanical instrument of death is total.
After he fails to enlist the explorer's support in his desire to have the machine properly fixed and its continued use endorsed, the officer frees the prisoner, straps himself to the machine, and is killed quickly as the machine malfunctions. His self-chosen sentence, "BE JUST," is not properly inscribed on his body. Although he dies with a ''calm and convinced" expression on his face, there is no trace of the "promised redemption" that other victims of the machine's justice have purportedly experienced.
The old Commandant invented the execution machine as well as the organizational structure of the penal colony. During his time, he had many supporters and the colony seemed to thrive. The officer claims that the few remaining supporters of the old Commandant's ways are afraid to declare themselves, it is possible that the officer is the only one remaining. The old Commandant's gravestone lies under a table in a teahouse. The grave's unsigned inscription holds out the promise of his triumphant return. Critics who interpret the story as a religious allegory often surmise that the old Commandant represents orthodox religious tradition or the Old Testament.
The prisoner, or condemned man, is described in the story as being stupid and bewildered. He is entirely submissive and does not resist his impending execution. He cannot understand the explanation of the machine that the officer gives to the explorer in French, but is sufficiently curious to direct his gaze "wherever the officer pointed a finger.'' The prisoner has been arrested for disobeying and insulting an officer. After he fell asleep on duty, his captain lashed him across the face with a riding whip. When the prisoner fought back, the captain reported the incident to the officer. The machine has been programmed to engrave in his body the words: ''HONOR THY SUPERIORS'''
When the officer realizes that the explorer does not intend to commend the method of execution to the new Commandant, he releases the prisoner from the machine and grants his freedom. The prisoner subsequently engages in horseplay with the soldier who had been guarding him, demonstrating his own ridiculous appearance in the clothing that the soldier had earlier cut from his body with a knife to prepare him for execution. After taking the explorer to the tea room beneath which the old Commandant is buried, and chatting there with some friends, he and the soldier chase after the explorer, apparently wanting to leave the island on his boat, but they make only a half-hearted attempt to escape and are left behind as the explorer is ferried to his steamship.
The soldier's role is to guard the prisoner and strap him onto the machine. He appears, however, to be somewhat incompetent. At one point, half-asleep, he allows the prisoner to lean too close to the machine during the officer's explanation and gets a handful of dirt thrown at him. The dexterity with which he slashes the prisoner's shirt and trousers so that they instantly fall off suggests he has been the officer's assistant for some time. The soldier does not understand the French spoken by the officer and the explorer, nor does he speak the same language as the condemned man. Nevertheless, he and the prisoner share a moment of joviality when he retrieves the prisoner's torn clothing from the pit with the point of his bayonet. Their relationship is further established when they spend time together at the teahouse after the prisoner is released and then both run after the explorer as he is ferried to his ship.