In the Penal Colony Essays and Criticism
by Franz Kafka

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Overview of "In the Penal Colony"

(Short Stories for Students)

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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...

(The entire section is 6,783 words.)