Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1559
For most of his life as a writer Kafka was employed at a workers' accident insurance company. He wrote at night, on weekends, and on the holidays. It was a routine which made the writing of a novel an arduous business. He did not enjoy writing novels. Indeed, he never...
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For most of his life as a writer Kafka was employed at a workers' accident insurance company. He wrote at night, on weekends, and on the holidays. It was a routine which made the writing of a novel an arduous business. He did not enjoy writing novels. Indeed, he never succeeded in finishing one. But he did enjoy writing short stories. In 1912 he confided to his diary, having just completed a story called "The Judgment" in a single sitting, writing from ten o'clock at night to six o'clock in the morning: "with my novel-writing I am in the shameful lowlands of writing. Only in this way can writing be done, only with such coherence, with such a complete opening out of the body and the soul." It was a similar opening out of body and soul, two years later, that produced "In the Penal Colony," written quickly during a two-week holiday while he was in the middle of writing The Trial.
"In the Penal Colony" has the ghoulish intensity and enigmatic atmosphere of a dream. Immediately before Kafka wrote the passage quoted above in his diary, he stopped to consider the appearance of his undisturbed bed, "as though it had just been brought in." It is as if all the tossing and turning, all the normally secret brain activity of the night, has found an outlet onto the written page. By "coherence" he means a creative coherence, a flow of ideas, which he found it nearly impossible to achieve in the stop-start nature of novel-writing.
"In the Penal Colony" has been considered a difficult story. Some have argued that it is too difficult to teach, and that its underlying meanings are either too arcane or too incoherently presented to make them accessible to anyone but the most sophisticated reader. This may well be the case if one approaches the story in a stern endeavor to unravel its secret and establish the key to its allegorical meaning. Those who read Kafka in the original language have been more inclined to consider him a comic writer than those who read him in translation. Probably a degree of wit and wordplay is lost in translation, but there are surely sufficient comic touches, even in a story such as ''In the Penal Colony" to make us aware that we are not dealing with a dry, message-oriented allegorist.
First and foremost the story is a dream or a parable. A parable is always open to a number of interpretations, and a dream does not follow human logic. The beings which people dream about are sometimes recognizable as people they know, but they are rarely fully rounded characters, and they do not behave as if they inhabit the real world. Their motives are inexplicable, or barely explicable. In the final paragraph of this story the soldier and the condemned man, having been chatting away to some people that they each know at the teahouse, suddenly decide to run along to the harbor in pursuit of the explorer. ''Probably they wanted to force him at the last minute to take them with him." Kafka's use of the word "probably" in this sentence indicates a double meaning to the story. The sentence describes what is going through the explorer's mind as he sees them coming after him. "Now, what do those two want?" But the sentence can also be read to mean that Kafka, the author, is unsure why they are pursuing the explorer. He compounds this narrative uncertainty by writing: ''the two of them came headlong down the steps, in silence, for they did not dare to shout." Similarly, the explorer does not call out to them, but he lifts a ''heavy knotted rope from the floor boards, threatened them with it and so kept them from attempting the leap." There is something uncanny about this noiseless denouement. Something which makes the blood run cold more than any of the blood-thirsty machine descriptions which have filled the earlier part of the story. In just such a silent tableau do many dreams and nightmares end, on a note of narrow escape.
The atmosphere of dreams is evoked by a good number of short story writers. What makes ''In the Penal Colony" so unsettling is its air of menace—that quality which has become known as "Kafkaesque," having a nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical quality. Several years after the original draft of the story was finished, Kafka began to play around with the ending, particularly with the role of the explorer. Of several experimental paragraphs which he wrote into his 1917 diaries, the following pose certain questions for those who interpret the story as an allegory:
The explorer felt too tired to give commands or to do anything. He merely took a handkerchief from his pocket, gestured as if he were dipping it in the distant bucket, pressed it to his brow and lay down beside the pit. He was found in this position by the two men the Commandant had set out to fetch him. He jumped up when they spoke to him as if revived. With his hand on his heart he said, "I am a cur if I allow that to happen." But then he took his own words literally and began to run around on all fours. From time to time, however, he leaped erect, shook the fit off, so to speak, threw his arms around the neck of one of the men, and tearfully exclaimed, "Why does all this happen to me!" and then hurried to his post.
As though all this were making the explorer aware that what was still to follow was solely his and the dead man's affair, he dismissed the soldier and the condemned man with a gesture of his hand; they hesitated, he threw a stone at them, and when they still deliberated, he ran up to them and struck them with his fists.
"What?'' the explorer suddenly said. Had something been forgotten. A last word? A turn? An adjustment? Who can penetrate the confusion? Damned, miasmal tropical air, what are you doing to me? I don't know what is happening. My judgment has been left back at home in the north.
In the story as it was published the explorer is simply "greatly troubled" when the machine begins to go to pieces. "Almost against his will" he has to force himself to look into the face of the corpse, while putting the soldier and the prisoner into position, ready to lift the officer's dead body off the needles of the Harrow. It is clear from the above alternatives that Kafka thought the explorer's agitation needed greater emphasis. The story is much better for not being altered. The explorer's coolness is in keeping with his character in the earlier part of the story. Would a man who can say plainly, and without any high-handedness or sense of bluster, "I do not approve of your procedure,'' later run around on all fours, or even throw stones and punches?
The explorer is consistently humorless and colorless. Earlier in the story when the officer is in full flight about the glory days of the former commandant the reader is treated to a typical example of Kafka's ironic black humor. Speaking about the public executions, and the previous clamor for good viewing positions, the officer explains: ''The Commandate in his wisdom ordained that the children should have the preference, I, of course, because of my office had the privilege of always being at hand; often enough I would be squatting there with a small child in either arm." At the end of this effusion, creepily amusing in its "suffer the little children to come unto me" connotations, the officer "had embraced the explorer and laid his head on his shoulder." The explorer, embarrassed, does nothing but stare straight over the officer's head. Kafka's sense of humor as expressed in this passage has its roots in Jewish lore.
Kafka's fiction examines the fate of individual characters subjected to humiliating, embarrassing, bewildering, or sinister situations. The explorer is the quintessentially Kafkaesque character in "In the Penal Colony." Hence, the author's later alterations. It is the explorer who is discomforted, who is made to feel he has lost his senses. It is the explorer who takes flight.
Many of the essential ingredients of this story are lifted from horror tales of the nineteenth century, but stripped of Gothic trappings and placed in a sun-scorched dreamscape, they are reinvented by Kafka and injected with a sense of anxiety and alienation. "In the Penal Colony" has few trappings which tie it to a particular historical period, and those that there are—the steamer, for example—can be used to date it at least half a century earlier than 1914. Yet it is clearly a twentieth-century story, one which asks questions that have not been resolved in the last decades of the century.
Who stands in judgment over us? If it is to be neither God nor machine, are we to judge one another? If left to judge ourselves, might not the verdict, as it was in Kafka's own case, be mercilessly harsh?
Source: Michael Thorn, "Overview of 'In the Penal Colony'," in Short Stories for Students, Gale, 1998.
Thorn is the author of Tennyson (1993), a biography of the English poet, and a reviewer for the Times Educational Supplement.
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Kafka failed in Amerika for lack of a suitable narrative mode, the subjective mode of the dream story. In the short novel "In the Penal Colony," which he wrote in the fall of 1914, about the same time he began The Trial, again he seems to me to fail to master his material. Now, however, the failure is not due to artistic immaturity—now it is the failure of the mature artist to stick with sure instinct to the formal requirements of his own vision. Failure however is too strong a word here. One cannot call such a powerful story a failure. But neither is it a success.
Ideas obtrude in the story with unusual distinctness and in the end the reader is confronted with an intellectual dilemma rather than a living mystery—but not for want of a unitary image through which to tell the story. The image is there, and a very powerful one it is, in the shape of the penal island with its dreadful execution machine squatting in the middle of it—the image of a world under the judgment of the law. Nevertheless, as Austin Warren observes, "this story [is] pretty persistently and consistently allegorical''; that is, it refers one directly to ideas. If we examine what the allegory consists in and how it is presented, I think we shall find that the power of the story to disturb is not only due to its artistic power.
The world discovered in the story is in a state of schism, a world divided between the Old and the New. That is the essential allegory. On one side stands the traditional machine of judgment under the law, invented and built by the patriarchal old Commandant, now dead. By an ingenious mechanism of vibrating needles it writes a condemned man's sentence deeper and deeper into his flesh till at the sixth hour ''enlightenment comes even to the most dull-witted"; at the twelfth hour he dies. The priest of this cruel rite is the officer-judge, a disciple of the old Commandant; he describes the workings of the machine with enthusiastic pedantry to the visiting explorer. On the other side stands the new Commandant, "always looking for an excuse to attack [the] old way of doing things"; his "new, mild doctrine" prefers humane judicial methods, but he hesitates to affront a venerable institution directly and therefore tries to subvert it by harassment and deliberate neglect.
The old law judged according to the principle that "guilt is never to be doubted"—the guilt of mankind was never to be doubted. Therefore no trial needed to take place. "Other courts cannot follow that principle, for they consist of various opinions and on top of that have higher courts over them." The old court then was absolute—the highest court. In the new, liberal order there is no highest court, only "various opinions."
The old law aimed at being eternal law: ''We who were [the old Commandant's] friends," says the officer, "knew even before he died that the organization of the colony was so perfect that his successor, even with a thousand new schemes in his head, would find it impossible to alter anything, at least for many years to come." But the new Commandant cares nothing about eternity; what he cares about, as a man of progress and the times, is "harbor works, nothing but harbor works!" A womanizer, he swims in the atmosphere of a crowd of admiring females; through the "women who influence him" the world is womanized. The old Commandant had "his ladies" too, but there was no petticoat government.
The condemned man vomits when he is strapped down in the machine and takes the felt gag in his mouth, because "the [new] Commandant's ladies stuff the man with sugar candy before he's led off. He has lived on stinking fish his whole life long and now he has to eat sugar candy!" The "new, mild doctrine" is effeminate and, by causing the condemned man to vomit over himself, degrading. But the condemned man vomits too because the felt gag has been chewed by hundreds rather than being changed for every execution as it used to be. So the new regime is callous as well as sentimental.
"How different an execution was in the old days!" exclaimed the officer-judge. Then the whole island gathered together in the true ceremony of belief and the Commandant himself laid the condemned man under the Harrow.
No discordant noise spoilt the working of the machine. Many did not care to watch it but lay with closed eyes in the sand, they all knew. Now Justice is being done. In the silence one heard nothing but the condemned man's sighs, half muffled by the felt gag. Nowadays the machine can no longer wring from anyone a sigh louder than the felt gag can stifle; but in those days the writing needles let drop an acid fluid, which we're no longer permitted to use. Well, and then came the sixth hour! It was impossible to grant all the requests to be allowed to watch it from near by. The Commandant in his wisdom ordained that the children should have the preference often enough I would be squatting there with a small child in either arm. How we all absorbed the look of transfiguration on the face of the sufferer, how we bathed our cheeks in the radiance of that justice, achieved at last and fading so quickly! What tones there were, my comrade.
Under the old law, Justice was done. All shared ritually in the redemption which the condemned man found under the law in death. All stood under the same law and could look forward to the same redemption. Death redeemed. Of course, all this is according to the officer's point of view. But the point is that his is the point of view that excludes "points of view"—he lives the conviction of absolute justice.
That is how things were in the old days. Now, however, the sea of faith has ebbed. When the officer is unable to persuade the explorer, who remains convinced "that the injustice of the procedure and the inhumanity of the execution were undeniable," to side with him against the new Commandant, he lies down with devout determination in the judgment machine to execute himself. But execution according to the old law is no longer possible, a new dispensation has succeeded; the machine can no longer "do Justice." Negated, it spits out its parts and goes to pieces, murdering the officer indecently instead of executing him: "... [T]his was no [ceremonial] torture such as the officer desired, this was plain murder." Death no longer redeems:
[The face of the corpse] was as it had been in life, no sign was visible of the promised redemption; what the others had found in the machine the officer had not found; the lips were firmly pressed together, the eyes were open, with the same expression as in life, the look was calm and convinced, through the forehead went the point of the great iron spike.
As Professor Emrich comments, "The age of redemption is no more. The dead man remains stuck in life. He no longer can cross the boundary into the liberating Beyond. Man is consigned entirely to the earth."
Lawless sentimentality takes the place of implacable judgment, turning with satisfaction how the officer takes his place in the machine.
So this was revenge. Although he himself had not suffered to the end, he was to be revenged to the end. A broad, silent gun now appeared on his face and stayed there all the rest of the time.
Justice no longer holds sway, but revenge—an internecine warfare of each against each, in a never-ending pursuit of the upper hand.
In the cavernous, blackened interior of the teahouse, which makes on the explorer "the impression of some historical memory or other," so that he feels "the power of past times," the old Commandant lies buried. All that remains of the old order is a prophecy, written on his gravestone, that he "will rise again and lead his adherents from this house to recover the colony. Have faith and wait!"
"In the Penal Colony'' takes place in historical time—the colony is a more or less recognizable possession of a European power of the late-nineteenth or early-twentieth century—rather than in the timeless subjective dimension into which the protagonists of Kafka's dream narratives awaken out of historical time. Its subject matter is the religious history of the world, which it recapitulates in terms of the old times and the new times of a penal colony. Like most of Kafka's stories, it is concerned with spiritual need, but it treats this subject in historical terms rather than through an individual who experiences the despair of spiritual darkness in the timelessness of his soul. It is an historical allegory.
It would be a mistake, however, to read too-specific references into the allegory. The old regime of the old Commandant does not, for example, pointedly refer to Old Testament days, it only embraces them in its meaning, along with all the other old regimes that based their authority on a transcendent religious absolute. As an ancient idol which is at the same time a piece of modern machinery, the execution machine reaches from the present all the way back to the most barbarous times of Dagon and the other stocks and stories in whose name our worshiping fathers did absolute justice. The old ends and the new begins at the point at which justice based on supreme authority yields to justice based on "various opinions."
So far I have said little about the explorer, yet as the one through whose eyes the story is narrated and the embodiment of its moral point of view, his role is crucial for the way in which the allegory is presented. A dispassionate observer of the ''peculiarities of many peoples," an enlightened modern relativist and naturalist, from first to last he condemns the injustice and the inhumanity of the old law—so much so indeed that he is moved to abandon his attitude of scientific neutrality for once and intervene against the execution. Mixed, however, with his disapproval of the old judicial procedure is a growing admiration for the officer, even though he cannot but deplore his narrow-mindedness. Touched in the end by the officer's ''sincere conviction," the explorer decides to do nothing to hinder the operation of the old law, although, by refusing the officer's plea to join forces with him against the new Commandant, he will do nothing to help it either. When the officer lies down under the Harrow to execute himself, he can only approve his decision: "the officer was doing the right thing; in his place the explorer would not have acted otherwise.''
What the explorer is confronted with on the penal island is a moral choice between the old law and the new—the story arranges itself as a kind of contest between the two regimes to win his concurrence. The old law is primitive and cruel, yet the explorer must admire the spiritual unity and conviction it begets in its adherents, a conviction which is able to attain ultimate spiritual knowledge in redemption through final judgment under the law. On the other hand, it is just precisely ultimateness that the new law lacks. He despises its effeminate sentimentality, laxity and shallow worldliness. Nevertheless, he must approve its superior humanity: ''The injustice of the [old] procedure and the inhumanity of the execution were undeniable." So actually it is not a moral choice that the explorer is faced with, since there is never any question of what his moral judgment is. The choice he faces is between morality and spirituality. The two have come apart. 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.
And yet the glimpse he gains is historical rather than religious. It is not insight into religious truth but into the religious past. The explorer does not and cannot believe in the truth of the old law; what he sees is the way it was when mankind was ruled by the idea of supreme truth. The execution machine is an historical demonstration to him of the primitive unity of absolute justice and human society, spirit and the world. But that unity explodes under his very eyes when the officer dies unredeemed ("murdered") in the disintegrating machine—redemption under the old law is an exploded (literally exploded!) religious idea. What the explorer feels toward the old law is a mixture of horror and nostalgia: horror at its cruelty, nostalgia for its spirituality. The story is painfully divided between the moral and the religious (or rather between the moral and the religious regarded nostalgically) and in the end the explorer must flee the dilemma the colony presents him with in dismayed haste.
"In the Penal Colony'' is not about the conflict between the moral and the religious; it falls victim to that conflict. The explorer's dilemma is only a dilemma because the question of the old law's truth has been left aside. Leaving aside the question of truth casts an obscurantist shadow over the whole story, introduces a moral and intellectual equivocation. When the question of truth is not left aside there can be only one choice: we can only choose to be modern and go on from there. There is no going back to the old law, even if only to the extent of choosing to be neutral toward it as the explorer does. One of the reasons why the story is disturbing is this negative one: because it is morally and intellectually equivocal. The allegory teeters on the edge of a familiar snobbery, which was so strong in Prague among the sons of the Jewish middle class at the beginning of the century—the snobbery, as Werfel puts it in a quotation already cited, of "those ... who run around as mystics and orthodox believers only because every tailor, schoolteacher and journalist is a believing atheist.'' But working against the impression of snobbish obscurantism is the mute, unpalliated horror of the execution machine. Never do we lose sight of the fact that "the injustice of the procedure and the inhumanity of the execution were undeniable." The positive power of the story to disturb is owing to the image of the execution machine; its finicky details testify incontrovertibly to injustice. The authentic power of the story lies in its image of a religiosity which is as wicked and destructive as it is spiritual.
In the more or less historical framework of the story, on its level of rational consciousness, the old Commandant's religion, as a relic of the past, can only move the explorer nostalgically, it cannot compel him at the center of his being. An outside observer, an onlooker rather than a participant, he is impressed by the old law's spiritual appearance— aesthetically. The explorer does not face a true dilemma in the penal colony, he is spectator at an allegorical confrontation.
The failure of the story is a failure to be subjective—and through subjectivity to reach the truth.
Source: Martin Greenberg,''The Failure to Be Subjective,'' in The Terror of Art: Kafka and Modern Literature, Basic Books, Inc., 1968, pp. 92-112.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 797
At the end of Franz Kafka's story "In the Penal Colony" the protagonist, variously called traveler, explorer, scientist, is in full flight, "When they [the soldier and the condemned man] arrived down below, the traveler was already in the boat, and the boatman was casting off from shore. They could still have leapt in the boat, but the traveler picked up a heavy, knotted rope from the bottom of the boat, threatened them with it and thus kept them from jumping." Explanations of the traveler's escape and indeed of his entire role have not been completely satisfying; e g., Satish Kumar identifies the traveler with Kafka himself and interprets his retreat to the boat as ''nothing else but the transition from dream life to reality." ("Franz Kafka: In der Strafkolonie," Deutschunterrichtfur-Auslander, XM (No. 5/6, 1963), 154; my translation.) An earlier explication by Austin Warren depicts the traveler as a convert to the machine and the religion it represents , "he excludes from his boat those who wish to escape from the penal colony." (See Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, Understanding Fiction, New York, 1943, p. 391.)
The difficulty with these surmises lies in the fact that they fit too readily into the overall pattern, the allegory, which the interpreters insist upon finding in "In the Penal Colony." Of the several kinds of unity in Kafka's stories, however—method, purpose, style—a consistency in the use of symbols seems most conspicuously lacking. The heavy, knotted rope, for example, will not necessarily recur elsewhere. On the other hand, the theme of "In the Penal Colony'' is not appreciably different from that in most of Kafka's stories and novels: man in a dilemma, called upon to solve the insoluble. For the protagonist here has no name but a philosophical label: scientist, explorer, traveler. He is called upon to make a decision in the matter of the execution machine; he must be either for it or against it. But the machine, described with a plethora of realistic detail, remains insubstantial and can actually be seen only as a number of philosophic tenets, the horns of the protagonist's dilemma. The machine's function in the story is to precipitate a crisis, to lure the mind into a trap, a decision.
With this framework, "In the Penal Colony" follows the pattern of the existentialist literary work, deftly traced by Helmut Kuhn in Begegnung mit dem Nichts (Munchen, 1950): "The word crisis is derived from a Greek verb which means to separate (as with a sieve), to choose, to test, or to judge. Through the crisis man is tested. Testing, however, requires a standard—no crisis without a criterion. The only philosophically valid cnsis is the crisis of criteria. Philosophy is this crisis. But this crisis itself demands a criterion, and if we omit it, we dissolve the crisis itself. Existentialism, which claims to be a philosophy of crisis, destroys the crisis" (p 173; my translation). Thus the execution machine faces the protagonist with the problem of injustice (also a religious problem, of course), but since the problem occurs in an existentialist framework, it predicates insolubility. The nature of the machine is such that no basis exists on which it may be judged, and Kafka abandons the problem; the traveler flees. Helmut Kuhn analyzes this kind of retreat as the usurpation of the role of conscience by primitive fright (p. 156).
Fear in the face of the inexplicable and resultant flight appear again and again in Kafka; e.g., Karl Rossmann in Amerika finds refuge in an illogical Utopia and never grows up; in "Die Verwandlung" the escape is the entire story. Although the flight of the protagonist may have been an obvious device, since Kafka assumed that man's dilemma had no solution, he nevertheless exposed a deep root in man's emotional network in an act of psychological probing which makes his work compelling in spite of its self-defeating argumentativeness. Constant fear and incipient flight have been described in an article by Heini Hediger ("Die Angst des Tieres," Universitas, XTV, No. 9, September, 1959) as the primary motive force in animal life (before hunger and sex); "quick and purposive flight of the individual is the first duty toward preservation of the species" (p. 929; my translation). The dissolution of the existentialist's philosophic pretensions in panic flight becomes a key to an understanding of man's true nature: his fear of an ever-present though concealed hostility in his environment and his one weapon against the dark unknown—flight. When the traveler escapes at the end of "In the Penal Colony" he reveals his (and Kafka's and anybody else's) inability to deal with the paradoxes of truth; but, more importantly, the traveler flees, like all mankind, with the instinct of self-preservation.
Source: Kurt J. Fickert, "Kafka's 'In the Penal Colony'," in The Exphcator, Vol. XXIV, No. 1, September, 1965, item#H.
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One realizes that this story is not intended to be a realistic account of events which are to be judged by ordinary notions of probability. It is a fantasy. The strangeness of the situation, the unusual behavior of the condemned man and the soldier, the mysterious nature of the machine, all indicate that we are dealing with fantasy, just as we are in ''The Lottery.''
But are we to take the story to be merely fantastic? Do we not, rather, expect that the unrealistic and fantastic elements in such a piece of fiction as "In the Penal Colony" shall have some bearing, finally, on real human experience? The violation of our ordinary notions of probability, which is characteristic of fantasy, seems to promise an imaginative escape from ordinary experience, but in the end we discover that the intention of the creator of the fantasy is not to provide us with an escape from our ordinary experience but to provide us with an interpretation of our experience. In other words, fantasy as a type of fiction differs from other types of fiction merely in method and not in its basic intention.
The specific method employed by "In the Penal Colony" is allegorical. In an allegory, one finds a surface narrative the items of which— characters, objects, and events—stand for ideas and relations among ideas. That is, in so far as the allegory is strictly maintained, there is a point-to-point equating of the surface narrative with the background meaning. This method of communicating meaning is essentially different from that of ordinary realistic fiction. For instance, in "The Lament" the persons do not stand for ideas, and events do not indicate relationships among ideas. The old man does not stand for grief, for example, but is simply himself, an old man who is suffering from grief and loneliness. The meaning of the story, then, does not come from our grasp of particular concepts and relations as exemplified, item by item, in the narrative, but as a result of the total story: in so far as the character and situation of the old man work on our imagination, we become aware of the unthinking callousness of the world, and our comprehension of, and our sympathy for, the lonely and outcast are awakened. That is, we arrive at the meaning of a realistic story much as we arrive at the meaning of an event in real life.
This leads to a second distinction between allegory and realistic fiction. In realistic fiction, we are convinced by the logic of character and event, by our notion of probability. But in allegory the principle of organization does not finally depend upon the logic in the surface narrative, but upon the logic of the relationships among the ideas represented. Though the surface narrative may be more or less realistic, and in so far as it is realistic possess an independent logic, the emphasis is always upon the logic of the background.
"In the Penal Colony" as interpreted by one critic, Austin Warren, is an allegory concerning the state of religion in the modern world. We know that the characteristic beliefs of the modern world are primarily founded on science. Science is concerned with the realm of the natural and not with the realm of the supernatural. Its assumption is that the events of the world are in accord with natural laws, and that by the use of his reason man may become acquainted with natural law and can, in so far as his knowledge of that law is perfect, predict the course of nature. It pictures a completely rational world, in which there is no place for the irrational, the miraculous, the supernatural. It assumes that miraculous and supernatural manifestations would, if man's scientific knowledge were adequate, be seen to be merely natural phenomena. Associated with this belief in science is the belief in progress: as man learns more his control of nature increases and he can improve his world. That is, perfect knowledge, in the scientific sense, would bring perfect control of nature, including human nature. And associated with this purely natural or secular view of the world we find the belief in humanitarianism. Pain is the great evil, according to such a belief, and the conquest of pain becomes the greatest good. Furthermore, the idea of natural law as applied in human affairs leads to an emphasis on the idea of determinism—people are good or bad as a result of heredity and environment and not as a matter of responsible moral choice. Over against these beliefs which are characteristic of modernism as it is popularly understood are the traditional religious beliefs: that there is a supernatural realm, that God's will is finally inscrutable and that man must have faith, that the salvation of the soul is the greatest good, and that men are free moral agents. According to Austin Warren's interpretation, "In the Penal Colony " is an allegory of the conflict between these two sets of beliefs:
"The earth is a penal colony, and we are all under sentence of judgment for sin. There was once a very elaborate machine, of scholastic theology, for the pronouncement of sentence, and an elaborate ecclesiastic system for its administration. Now it is in the process of disappearance the Old Commander (God) has died, though there is a legend, which you can believe or not, that He will come again Meanwhile the 'machine' seems antiquated and inhuman to ladies, who are sentimental about criminals, and to the new governor, who is a humanitarian.
"Important is the setting of the machine's draughtsman. The first victim suffers under 'Honor your Superior,' the moral law which he has broken this is a law appropriate to his caste of servant. For his own use, the old officer adjusts the sentence to 'Be just'. Has he violated this injunction. Not consciously, but a judge of his fellow men should be 'just' and no mortal man can be, 'none is Good save God': the old officer can be sure that, whatever his intentions, he has been unjust in the sight of Justice.
"At the end of the story, the explorer has become converted to the doctrine of the machine he excludes from his boat those who wish to escape from the penal-island. 'Converted' is too strong if really converted, he would stay on the island—at least if the machine still operated. But at least he makes no report to the new commander, and he takes the Prophecy of Return seriously. When the men about him ridicule the inscription, he does not join in their laughter, the Prophecy may be true. Like Pilate, he refuses to judge; he finds no fault in the just manipulators of the machine.
"In its tone, the story is a matter-of-fact description of an elaborate method of punishment, no longer believed in by the 'enlightened,' kept going a little longer by the devotion of an old man who doesn't understand it very well and can't repair it. Narration is from the point of view of, through the eyes of, the explorer, who is shocked by what he sees and yet who, unlike the present management of the penal colony, can understand the possible use of the machine in what is, after all, a penal colony, and who becomes increasingly sympathetic as he sees that the operator of the machine believes in it for himself as well as for others. But it is essential to Kafka's purpose that there shall be no suppression of the difficulties in accepting the gospel of the machine, it is cruel, it makes errors; it is costly to keep up, people have ceased to believe in it; its inventor has died, and it is generally thought ridiculous to credit the pious legend that he will come again. 'My ways are not your ways, neither my thoughts as your thoughts,' saith the Lord Kafka, fearful of softening religion, wants to present it in all its rigor, its repellence to the flesh—in its irrationality and inscrutability and uncertainty, too. We must put up with the professional pride and the pedantry of the old officer: religionists are always forgetting ends in absorption with means, taking human (and impious) pride in the details of their theological and ecclesiastical systems. Nothing is simple, nothing unmixed. We never get reality straight, but always through a veil of illusion If we are determined to be scrupulously positivistic and 'accept no illusion,' then we shall have to content ourselves with no more than statistics, we shan't find reality."
If Mr. Warren's interpretation of "In the Penal Colony" is acceptable, then one sees that the allegory of the story is strict rather than loose—that most of the details of the surface narrative have specific parallels at the level of ideas. One sees also that here we have a contrast between the fantastic surface—which cannot be judged in terms of the logic of actual experience—and the represented argument—which can be judged in terms of actual experience. That is, the argument in the background is a possible view of the subject under discussion, and is held by many intelligent people. There is an ironical contrast between the fantastic way of representing the ideas and the ideas themselves, which are not fantastic, which are one way of interpreting an actual situation; in other words, the fantasy may, ironically, be logical after all.
A similar irony is indicated in the contrast between the fantastic events and the style in which they are narrated. The style is a rather bare, factual style—the style of a person who is trying to be scrupulously accurate and does not wish to color the truth by indulging in any literary and rhetorical devices. It implies that the narrator is willing to let the case rest on the facts alone. It does not try, we might say, to provoke the reader to horror or sympathy.
This contrast between the fantastic events and setting and the particular style is commented on by Mr. Warren: "Its [the story's] powerful effect is indeed produced by its complete absence of fantasy in detail: The story offers, by its method, the sense of a fact which you can interpret as you like, of which you can make what you will: I'm telling you, as a sober scientist, what I saw." The style, then, has a dramatic function, in connection with the total story, just as it does in "The Killers'' or "I Want to Know Why" or any other successful piece of fiction. It here indicates a fusion, an interpenetration, of the fantastic and realistic elements of experience, an idea which is to be associated with the basic meaning of the story.
Source: Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, "Franz Kafka," in Understanding Fiction, second edition, edited by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1959, pp 368-93.
Brooks and Warren were central figures in the New Criticism movement in America in the 1930s and 1940s.