Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 748

Although Kafka wrote "In the Penal Colony" in 1914, and it was published in German in 1919, there was no English translation until 1948. Accordingly, little criticism in English appeared before the 1950s. Austin Warren, in "An Exegetical Note on 'In the Penal Colony'," published in the Southern Review was...

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Although Kafka wrote "In the Penal Colony" in 1914, and it was published in German in 1919, there was no English translation until 1948. Accordingly, little criticism in English appeared before the 1950s. Austin Warren, in "An Exegetical Note on 'In the Penal Colony'," published in the Southern Review was one of the first critics to identify the allegory in the story as dealing with religion in the modern world. He theorized that the penal colony represents the whole earth where all people await judgment. In times past there was a systematic theology which meant that everyone knew his place. There was no question or argument about the fact that men and women were sinners and in due course they would be judged. The machine in the story stands for the religious framework that once held sway. The official is still faithful to this system, and he represents an orthodox theologian. The explorer represents secular humanitarianism. "In its tone," Warren wrote, "the story is a matter-of-fact description of an elaborate method of punishment, no longer believed in by the 'enlightened'." His reading of the story sees Kafka as sympathetic towards the machine, wanting to support the place of religion in the modern world. The machine is cruel, costly, and difficult to maintain, but these are prices which have to be paid if the religion is to survive.

In his 1962 book Franz Kafka, Parable and Paradox, Heinz Politzer agreed that the story is supposed to represent a universal view of life. ''The lunar landscape surrounding [the machine] and the sea cutting off the island from the civilized world fortify this impression.'' Politzer was more inclined than Warren to see social and political resonances as well as religious ones in the story. "The machine ... is Kafka's prime symbol during these years. If his purpose was to concentrate in one universally valid image the process of dehumanization characteristic of the time of the First World War, then he found it here in this symbol of man's self-destructive ingenuity." Politzer's reading differs from Warren's especially in its application of the religious allegory. For Politzer the machine does not represent some highly developed religious structure but: "In its primitiveness the torture machine points to an archaic stage of religious development ... The Bed of the torture machine is an altar, on which a man is slaughtered in honor of the monstrous idol. In spite of its mechanical sophistication the apparatus seems to be a relic from the times of primordial savagery."

Kurt J. Fickert, in a 1965 essay on this short story, took issue with Warren's tightly allegorical interpretation. For Fickert ''In the Penal Colony'' is an existential story following the same pattern of presentation of a crisis and dilemma followed by a decision, which is to be found in Kafka's other work. "The machine's function in the story is to precipitate a crisis, to lure the mind into a trap, a decision." An existential reading focuses attention on the explorer and his predicament and provides a commentary for the characters' speedy departure from the island. "The traveller flees, like all mankind, with the instinct of serf-preservation," in response to a fear-and-flight syndrome brought on by a perceived hostility in the environment.

Wilhelm Emrich, in his critical study of Kafka's writings published in translation in 1968, gives a reading which is more in tune with Warren's tightly allegorical interpretation. He believes the story is about the "total guilt of existence," not about a crucial moment when a decision is called for. Like Warren he sees the story as being critical of the new order. "The new law is the law of the Devil. The old order, for the sake of redemption, sacrificed man; the new order, for the sake of man, has sacrificed redemption."

In The Terror of Art, Kafka and Modern Literature, Martin Greenberg argued that the story is essentially about the conflict between morality and spirituality. The story is disturbing because of the central character's flight from the conflict. "Before this conflict between the moral and the spiritual, the explorer retreats into a neutrality which has nothing to do with his old scientific detachment. His neutrality now expresses the troubled state of mind of someone who has had a glimpse into hitherto undiscerned depths."

Kafka was dissatisfied with the ending of the story, and his papers contained variant endings which have been taken into account by some critics. These critics have written about how such variant endings might affect the basic allegorical meaning of the story.

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