Style and Technique

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Kafka’s allegory does not establish a strict, point-for-point parallelism between its literal and abstract levels of meaning, as do Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590, 1599) and John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678, 1684). The Old Order does not pointedly correspond to the Hebrews’ Old Testament era or the strictures...

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Kafka’s allegory does not establish a strict, point-for-point parallelism between its literal and abstract levels of meaning, as do Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590, 1599) and John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678, 1684). The Old Order does not pointedly correspond to the Hebrews’ Old Testament era or the strictures of John Calvin’s Christianity. The deadly purpose of the old regime’s machine violates the Sixth Commandment: “Thou shalt not kill.” Nor does the Old Order’s ethic confirm a reciprocal covenant between God and humankind, as the Judeo-Christian Scriptures do.

Still, the Old Order does symbolize all religions that base their authority on transcendent rites and absolute decrees. The machine’s Bed is an altar on which humans are sacrificed to appease the wrathful majesty of a Moloch-like Law. Its creator clearly corresponds to a Lord of Hosts, and the labyrinthine script that guides the machine’s operation stands, not necessarily for the Hebrew Torah recording Judaism’s laws and learning, but for Scripture in general. When the explorer, unable to read the script, describes it as sehr kunstroll—that is, “highly artistic”—he defines himself as a representative modern man who can admire the Bible as literature but refuses to accept it as dogma.

Kafka’s style is realistic in its Swiftian accumulation of plausible detail, stressing a sober sense of documentary verisimilitude. After all, the explorer is an empirically trained social scientist, conditioned to observe cultural patterns dispassionately and maintain an attitude of suspended judgment. As the onlooker through whose perspective Kafka chooses to filter the action, he validates what might otherwise be an incredible fantasy by convincing the reader that a fable that violates ordinary notions of probability is nevertheless credible: “I, an accredited anthropologist, saw and heard all this.”

Kafka was never wholly satisfied with the ending of this story. He wrote an acquaintance that “two or three pages shortly before the end of the story are contrived.” In these pages, the explorer kneels before the tombstone over the old commandant’s grave so that he can read the “very small letters” on it, which promise that the commandant “will rise again and lead his adherents . . . to recover the colony. Have faith and wait!” Does the explorer’s physical gesture of obeisance signify his subconscious respect for the Old Order? Does Kafka want the reader to accept the Old Order’s relentless religion of victimization and painful punishment as morally superior to a sentimental, mild materialism? His conclusion is inconclusive.

Historical Context

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World War I Gives Rise to Expressionism
The psychological discord evident in Kafka's writing was influenced in part by the chaos in Europe prior to World War I. Nowhere were the period's social, religious, and nationalistic conflicts greater than in his birthplace, Prague. By 1914 the Austro-Hungarian empire was coming to an end and World War I engulfed all of Europe. The war, which had been brewing for years, began when Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, members of the ruling Habsburg family of the Austro-Hungarian empire, were killed by a Serbian assassin protesting the Austro-Hungarian empire's claim over his country. The Austro-Hungarians declared war on Bosnia after they failed to comply with their demands for an investigation into the murders. This war's brutality was unlike anything the world had ever seen, and millions of casualties were caused by technical advances such as poison gas, guns mounted on airplanes, and trench warfare. Militarism, hedonism, and nationalism reflected the attitudes of Kafka's day. The cruelty and futility of these events fueled Expressionism in art and increased Kafka's own anxiety and dread.

The key characteristic of Expressionism—a literary movement which spanned approximately fifteen years (1910-1925), the same period as Kafka's productive life—is said to be the shriek, an ''expression'' of interior terror. Kafka is not, strictly speaking, an Expressionist writer, but his work shares many Expressionist themes: hatred of authority and the father-figure; a belief that the universe and natural world are hostile to mankind; the knowledge, made graphic by the outbreak of World War I, that an old order was passing. Max Brod's autobiographical novel, The Kingdom of Love, includes a portrayal of his friend Kafka as an Expressionist saint.

Prague, A Divided City
Kafka was a German-speaking Jew. For centuries, Jews had lived in a ghettoized area of Prague. As a result, the tight-knit community gave rise to its own legends, the most famous being that of the Golem, a man made of clay who comes to life to destroy the enemies of the city's Jewish citizens. Living in Prague, Kafka thus felt doubly different from the Czech-speaking, non-Jewish population. His diaries and letters reveal a personality that was deeply neurotic and self-analytical. His family and personal relationships were difficult. Internalizing much of his surroundings, Kafka began to write his own tales of horror in which the monsters were modernity, bureaucracy, and the alienation caused by an industrial, mechanized age. Martin Seymour-Smith wrote, "Kafka was above all a realist: the most precise realist of his century. Of course he is a symbolist. But those who cannot find their unhappily true selves in the not unaggressive bewilderments of his protagonists are insensitive indeed." Kafka's dying wish was that his work be destroyed. The image of the self-destructing and disintegrating execution machine in "In the Penal Colony" is therefore suggestive of both a toppling social order evident in the destruction caused by World War I and Kafka's own will to destroy his legacy.

Literary Style

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The island colony is supervised by uniformed soldiers of various ranks. Although their heavy, ornate uniforms are unsuitable for the tropical climate of the colony, they are worn as reminders of home. "We don't want to forget about home," the officer explains to the explorer. The geographical and the political setting are only hinted at by Kafka. Readers know that the valley in which the execution machine is located is a hot and sandy place, surrounded by "naked crags." Readers know that the colonial force is probably not European, but that the officer is able to communicate with the explorer in French. However, there is much that is unexplained. Strictly speaking, a penal colony would be an outpost used by a governing country for the expulsion of criminals. The luxury of exiling wrong-doers to a faraway place is only an option for a great power. This particular colony seems to have an indigenous population. The women who surround the new Commandant and the dock laborers who sit at the teahouse tables may also have been imported by the colonial power. But their presence makes the island much more than simply a storehouse for convicts. It is a mixed society requiring its own codes of social behavior and own system of law and order. There is no reference to the customs and way of life of the home country, other than that they are not European and the Commandant is not bound by them. Indeed, the old Commandant set up the penal colony according to his own plan. "The organization of the whole colony is his work," the official tells the explorer.

Point of View
Kafka employs a detached, neutral narrative technique in which each character acts without comment from the narrator. The point of view, though third-person, tends to be closely aligned with the explorer's experience. The story opens in the valley because that is where the explorer is. Readers accompany him to the teahouse at the end of the story, and it ends as he departs the island for his steamship. Because of this relationship between the point of view and the explorer, readers identify with his intellectual and emotional predicament. Does he, as a guest of the colony, speak his mind about the execution process? Should he make a report to the new Commandant, or should he say nothing? The officer has the most to say, and spends much time trying to read the new Commandant's intentions. Until the very end of the story readers know about the old and the new Commandants from what the officer has said, and he cannot be considered a wholly reliable source of information. He claims to be "the sole advocate of the old Commandant's tradition." Others, called "adherents," he despises for their mealy-mouthed ambiguities and unwillingness to be open about their loyalties. Nevertheless, this ''objective'' point of view does not clarify the author's intentions. Kafka detaches himself from his characters in order to prevent being too obvious in his message.

Symbols and Symbolism
It is generally agreed that "In the Penal Colony" is a parable with meanings beyond the literal episodes described. Kafka was Jewish, and there is strong consensus among critics for interpreting the story as a commentary on orthodox versus reformed Judaism. The officer represents the traditional orthodox wing of Judaism. The former Commandant's guiding plans—"my most precious possessions"—consist of "a labyrinth of lines crossing and recrossing each other'' and symbolize the script in which the Commandments were written. The officer does not speak of laws being broken. He speaks of Commandments disobeyed. The number of biblical images that crop up throughout the story makes it impossible to determine a precise allegorical reading. Although the method is very different, the setting and the duration of the execution process certainly invite the reader to think about the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. This comparison is made more compelling by the imagery used—the blood and water being washed into the pit and the rice pap fed to the dying man. Finally, the officer sacrifices himself to the machine, and in doing so causes it to fall apart. By dying he destroys the very symbol of law and order he had purported to conserve.

Compare and Contrast

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1914: World War I begins in eastern Europe with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife, members of the ruling family of the Austro-Hunganan empire. Following the assassination by a Serb, Austro-Hungarians declare war on Bosnia

1990s: Bosnia is torn by war between Muslims, Croats, and Serbs. Turmoil continues following the 1992-95 war in Bosnia, with the country divided between Serbian and Muslim-Croat zones.

1900s: A penal colony is essentially a prison. In the early 1900s, prison rates in the United States range from a rate of 121.2 per 100,000 people in 1910 to 99.7 people per 100,000 people in 1923.

1990s: In the United States, the prison rate is 311 per 100,000 people in 1990 and 429 per 100,000 people in 1995. Rates vary among European nations. For example, in Austria in 1990, 68,092 adults and 3,630 are convicted. In 1997, the prison rate for the Russian Federation, 700 per 100,00 people, is considered to be the highest in the world.

1919: The gulag, the Soviet system of forced labor camps, is established in Siberia. Prisoners include common criminals, thieves, murders, as well as political and religious dissidents. Death rates are high, due to the prisoners' lack of clothing, food, warmth, and shelter.

1998: Following glasnost, Mikhail Gorbachev's new policy of openness, the gulag system is dismantled. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, all remaining prisoners are freed and the camps are destroyed.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Bloom, Harold, editor Gershom Scholem, Chelsea House, 1987, p. 240.

Brod, Max, editor, The Diaries of Franz Kafka 1910-23, Schocken Books, 1948-49.

Emnch, Wilhelm, ''The Construction of the Objective World and the Binding Law," in Franz Kafka: A Critical Study of His Writings, translated by Sheema Zeben Buehne, Fredenck Ungar, 1968, pp. 268-75.

Politzer, Heinz, "Parable and Paradox: 'A Country Doctor' and 'In the Penal Colony'," in Franz Kafka Parable and Paradox, Cornell University Press, 1962, pp. 83-115.

Seymour-Smith, Martin, The Macmillan Guide To Modern World Literature, 3rd edition, Macmillan, 1985,p. 1396.

Warren, Austin, "An Exegetical Note on 'In The Penal Colony'," in The Southern Review Vol. VIL, No. 2, 1941, pp. 363-369.

Further Reading
Brod, Max, trans, by G. Humphreys Roberts and Richard Winston, Franz Kafka: A Biography, Schocken Books, 1960, p. 267.
An important work by Kafka's personal friend Brod preserved and edited Kafka's manuscripts after his death.

Hayman, Ronald, Kafka: A Biography, Oxford University Press, 1982, p. 349.
A experienced biographer provides insights into Kafka's personal and family relationships.

Kafka, Franz, ed. by Max Brod, The Diaries of Franz Kafka, 1910-23, Schocken, 1948-49.
Kafka kept extensive diaries throughout his life. The entries for the period during which he wrote "In the Penal Colony" focus on his difficulties in writing his novels.

Neumeyer, Peter, "Do Not Teach Kafka's 'In The Penal Colony'" College Literature, Vol. VI, No. 2, Spring, 1979, pp. 103-112.
Neumeyer makes several forceful criticisms of the John Muir translation of Kafka's works.

Tauber, Herbert, Franz Kafka: An Interpretation of His Works, Haskell House Publishers, 1968, p. 252.
This book provides accessible readings of all Kafka's major texts.

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